John Dryden (16311700). The Poems of John Dryden. 1913.
Religio Laici; Or a Laymans Faith
A POEM with so bold a Title, and a Name prefixd from which the handling of so serious a Subject woud not be expected, may reasonably oblige the Author to say somewhat in defence both of himself, and of his undertaking. In the first place, if it be objected to me that, being a Layman, I ought not to have concernd myself with Speculations which belong to the Profession of Divinity, I coud answer that perhaps Laymen, with equal advantages of Parts and Knowledge, are not the most incompetent Judges of Sacred things; But in the due sense of my own weakness and want of Learning, I plead not this: I pretend not to make myself a Judge of Faith in others, but onely to make a Confession of my own; I lay no unhallowd hand upon the Ark, but wait on it with the Reverence that becomes me at a distance: In the next place I will ingenuously confess, that the helps I have usd in this small Treatise, were many of them taken from the works of our own Reverend Divines of the Church of England; so that the Weapons with which I Combat Irreligion are already Consecrated, though I suppose they may be taken down as lawfully as the Sword of Goliah was by David, when they are to be employed for the common Cause, against the Enemies of Piety. I intend not by this to intitle them to any of my errours, which yet I hope are only those of Charity to Mankind; and such as my own Charity has causd me to commit, that of others may more easily excuse. Being naturally inclind to Scepticism in Philosophy, I have no reason to impose my Opinions, in a Subject which is above it: but whatever they are, I submit them with all reverence to my Mother Church, accounting them no further mine, than as they are Authorizd, or at least, uncondemnd by her. And, indeed, to secure my self on this side, I have usd the necessary Precaution of showing this Paper, before it was Publishd, to a judicious and learned Friend, a Man indefatigably zealous in the service of the Church and State: and whose Writings, have highly deservd of both. He was pleasd to approve the body of the Discourse, and I hope he is more my Friend than to do it out of Complaisance; Tis true he had too good a tast to like it all; and amongst some other faults recommended to my second view, which I have written perhaps too boldly on St. Athanasius, which he advisd me wholy to omit. I am sensible enough that I had done more prudently to have followed his opinion; But then I could not have satisfied myself that I had done honestly not to have written what was my own. It has always been my thought, that Heathens who never did, nor without Miracle coud, hear of the name of Christ, were yet in a possibility of Salvation. Neither will it enter easily into my belief, that before the coming of our Saviour, the whole World, excepting only the Jewish Nation, shoud lye under the inevitable necessity of everlasting Punishment, for want of that Revelation, which was confind to so small a spot of ground as that of Palestine. Among the Sons of Noah we read of one onely who was accursd; and if a blessing in the ripeness of time was reservd for Japhet (of whose Progeny we are,) it seems unaccountable to me, why so many Generations of the same Offspring as preceeded our Saviour in the Flesh should be all involvd in one common condemnation, and yet that their Posterity should be Intitled to the hopes of Salvation: as if a Bill of Exclusion had passed only on the Fathers, which debard not the Sons from their Succession. Or that so many Ages had been deliverd over to Hell, and so many reservd for Heaven, and that the Devil had the first choice, and God the next. Truly I am apt to think, that the revealed Religion which was taught by Noah to all his Sons, might continue for some Ages in the whole Posterity. That afterwards it was included wholly in the Family of Sem is manifest: but when the Progenies of Cham and Japhet swarmd into Colonies, and those Colonies were subdivided into many others, in process of time their Decendants lost by little and little the Primitive and Purer Rites of Divine Worship, retaining onely the notion of one Deity; to which succeeding Generations added others: (for Men took their Degrees in those Ages from Conquerours to Gods.) Revelation being thus Eclipsd to almost all Mankind, the Light of Nature as the next in Dignity was substituted; and that is it which St. Paul concludes to be the Rule of the Heathens; and by which they are hereafter to be judgd. If my supposition be true, then the consequence which I have assumd in my Poem may be also true; namely, that Deism, or the Principles of Natural Worship, are onely the faint remnants or dying flames of reveald Religion in the Posterity of Noah: and that our Modern Philosophers, nay and some of our Philosophising Divines have too much exalted the faculties of our Souls, when they have maintaind that by their force, mankind has been able to find out that there is one Supream Agent or Intellectual Being which we call God: that Praise and Prayer are his due Worship; and the rest of those deducements, which I am confident are the remote effects of Revelation, and unatainable by our Discourse, I mean as simply considered, and without the benefit of Divine Illumination. So that we have not lifted up our selves to God by the weak Pinions of our Reason, but he has been pleasd to descend to us: and what Socrates said of him, what Plato writ, and the rest of the Heathen Philosophers of several Nations, is all no more than the Twilight of Revelation, after the Sun of it was set in the Race of Noah. That there is some thing above us, some Principle of motion, our Reason can apprehend, though it cannot discover what it is by its own Vertue. And indeed, tis very improbable, that we, who by the strength of our faculties cannot enter into the knowledg of any Beeing, not so much as of our own, should be able to find out by them that Supream Nature, which we cannot otherwise define than by saying it is Infinite; as if Infinite were definable, or Infinity a Subject for our narrow understanding. They who woud prove Religion by Reason, do but weaken the cause which they endeavour to support: tis to take away the Pillars from our Faith, and to prop it only with a twig: tis to design a Tower like that of Babel, which, if it were possible (as it is not) to reach heaven, would come to nothing by the confusion of the Workmen. For every man is Building a several way; impotently conceipted of his own Model, and his own Materials: Reason is always striving, and always at a loss; and of necessity it must so come to pass, while tis exercisd about that which is not its proper object. Let us be content at last, to know God, by his own methods; at least, so much of him, as he is pleasd to reveal to us in the sacred Scriptures; to apprehend them to be the word of God, is all our Reason has to do; for all beyond it is the work of Faith, which is the Seal of Heaven impressd upon our humane understanding. And now for what concerns the Holy Bishop Athanasius, the Preface of whose Creed seems inconsistent with my opinion; which is, That Heathens may possibly be savd; in the first place, I desire it may be considerd that it is the Preface onely, not the Creed it self, which, (till I am better informed) is of too hard a digestion for my Charity. Tis not that I am ignorant how many several Texts of Scripture seemingly support that Cause; but neither am I ignorant how all those Texts may receive a kinder, and more mollified Interpretation. Every man who is read in Church History, knows that Belief was drawn up after a long contestation with Arrius concerning the Divinity of our Blessed Saviour, and his being one Substance with the Father; and that, thus compild, it was sent abroad among the Christian Churches, as a kind of Test, which whosoever took, was lookd on as an Orthodox Believer. Tis manifest from hence, that the Heathen part of the Empire was not concerned in it: for its business was not to distinguish betwixt Pagans and Christians, but betwixt Hereticks and true Believers. This, well considerd, takes off the heavy weight of Censure, which I woud willingly avoid from so venerable a Man; for if this Proportion, whosoever will be saved, be restraind onely to those to whom it was intended, and for whom it was composd, I mean the Christians, then the Anathema, reaches not the Heathens, who had never heard of Christ and were nothing interessed in that dispute. After all, I am far from blaming even that Prefatory addition to the Creed, and as far from cavilling at the continuation of it in the Liturgy of the Church, where on the days appointed, tis publickly read: for I suppose there is the same reason for it now, in opposition to the Socinians, as there was then against the Arrians; the one being a Heresy, which seems to have been refind out of the other; and with how much more plausibility of Reason it combats our Religion, with so much more caution to be avoided: and therefore the prudence of our Church is to be commended, which has interposed her Authority for the recommendation of this Creed. Yet to such as are grounded in the true belief, those explanatory Creeds, the Nicene and this of Athanasius, might perhaps be spard: for what is supernatural will always be a mystery in spight of Exposition: and for my own part the plain Apostles Creed, is most sutable to my weak understanding; as the simplest diet is the most easy of Digestion. I have dwelt longer on this Subject than I intended; and longer than perhaps I ought; for having laid down, as my Foundation, that the Scripture is a Rule; that in all things needfull to Salvation it is clear, sufficient, and ordaind by God Almighty for that purpose, I have left my self no right to interpret obscure places, such as concern the possibility of eternal happiness to Heathens: because whatsoever is obscure is concluded not necessary to be known. But, by asserting the Scripture to be the Canon of our Faith, I have unavoidably created to my self two sorts of Enemies: The Papists indeed, more directly, because they have kept the Scripture from us, what they coud; and have reserved to themselves a right of Interpreting what they have deliverd under the pretence of Infallibility: and the Fanaticks more collaterally, because they have assumd what amounts to an Infallibility in the private Spirit: and have detorted those Texts of Scripture, which are not necessary to Salvation, to the damnable uses of Sedition, disturbance and destruction of the Civil Government. To begin with the Papists, and to speak freely, I think them the less dangerous, (at least in appearance) to our present State; for not onely the Penal Laws are in force against them, and their number is contemptible; but also their Peerage and Commons are excluded from Parliaments, and consequently those Laws in no probability of being Repeald. A General and Uninterrupted Plot of their Clergy, ever since the Reformation, I suppose all Protestants believe; for tis not reasonable to think but that so many of their Orders, as were outed from their fat possessions, woud endeavour a reentrance against those whom they account Hereticks. As for the late design, Mr. Colemans Letters, for ought I know are the best Evidence; and what they discover, without wyre-drawing their Sense or malicious Glosses, all Men of reason conclude credible. If there be anything more than this requird of me, I must believe it as well as I am able, in spight of the Witnesses, and out of a decent conformity to the Votes of Parliament: for I suppose the Fanaticks will not allow the private Spirit in this Case: Here the Infallibility is at least in one part of the Government; and our understandings as well as our wills are represented. But to return to the Roman Catholicks, how can we be secure from the practice of Jesuited Papists in that Religion? For not two or three of that Order, as some of them would impose upon us, but almost the whole Body of them are of opinion, that their Infallible Master has a right over Kings, not onely in Spirituals but Temporals. Not to name Mariana, Bellarmine, Emanuel Sa, Molina, Santarel, Simancha, and at least twenty others of Foreign Countries; we can produce of our own Nation, Campian, and Doleman or Parsons, besides many are namd whom I have not read, who all of them attest this Doctrine, that the Pope can depose and give away the Right of any Sovereign Prince, si vel paulum deflexerit, if he shall never so little Warpe: but if he once comes to be Excommunicated, then the Bond of obedience is taken off from Subjects; and they may and ought to drive him like another Nebuchadnezzar, ex hominum Christianorum Dominatu, from exercising Dominion over Christians: and to this they are bound by virtue of Divine Precept, and by all the tyes of Conscience, under no less Penalty than Damnation. If they answer me (as a Learned Priest has lately written,) that this Doctrine of the Jesuits is not de fide, and that consequently they are not obligd by it, they must pardon me, if I think they have said nothing to the purpose; for tis a Maxim in their Church, where Points of Faith are not decided, and that Doctors are of contrary opinions, they may follow which part they please; but more safely the most receivd and most Authorizd. And their champion Bellarmine has told the World, in his Apology, that the King of England is a vassal to the Pope, ratione directi Domini, and that he holds in Villanage of his Roman Landlord. Which is no new claim put in for England. Our chronicles are his Authentique Witnesses, that King John was deposd by the same plea, and Philip Augustus admitted Tenant. And which makes the more for Bellarmine, the French King was again ejected when our King submitted to the Church, and the Crown receivd under the sordid Condition of a Vassalage. Tis not sufficient for the more moderate and well-meaning Papists (of which I doubt not there are many) to produce the Evidences of their Loyalty to the late King, and to declare their Innocency in this Plot; I will grant their behaviour in the first, to have been as loyal and as brave as they desire; and will be willing to hold them excusd as to the second (I mean when it comes to my turn, and after my betters; for tis a madness to be sober alone, while the Nation continues Drunk:) but that saying of their Father Cres: is still running in my head, that they may be dispensd with in their Obedience to an Heretick Prince, while the necessity of the times shall oblige them to it: (for that (as another of them tells us,) is only the effect of Christian Prudence) but when once they shall get power to shake him off, an Heretick is no lawful King, and consequently to rise against him is no Rebellion. I should be glad therefore, that they woud follow the advice which was charitably given them by a Reverend Prelate of our Church; namely, that they would joyn in a publick Act of disowning and detesting those Jesuitick Principles; and subscribe to all Doctrines which deny the Popes Authority of Deposing Kings, and releasing Subjects from their Oath of Allegiance: to which I shoud think they might easily be induced, if it be true that this present Pope has condemnd the doctrine of King-killing (a thesis of the Jesuites) amongst others ex Cathedra (as they call it) or in open consistory. Leaving them, therefore, in so fair a way (if they please themselves) of satisfying all reasonable Men of their sincerity and good meaning to the Government, I shall make bold to consider that other extream of our Religion, I mean the Fanaticks, or Schismaticks, of the English Church. Since the Bible has been Translated into our Tongue, they have usd it so, as if their business was not to be savd, but to be damnd by its Contents. If we consider onely them, better had it been for the English Nation that it had still remained in the original Greek and Hebrew, or at least in the honest Latine of St. Jerome, than that several Texts in it, should have been prevaricated to the destruction of that Government which put it into so ungrateful hands. How many Heresies the first translation of Tyndal produced in few years, let my Lord Herberts History of Henry the Eighth inform you; Insomuch that for the gross errours in it, and the great mischiefs it occasiond, a Sentence passd on the first Edition of the Bible, too shameful almost to be repeated. After the short reign of Edward the Sixth (who had continued to carry on the Reformation on other principles than it was begun) every one knows that not onely the chief promoters of that work, but many others, whose Consciences woud not dispence with Popery, were forcd, for fear of persecution, to change Climates: from whence returning at the beginning of Queen Elizabeths reign, many of them who had been in France, and at Geneva, brought back the rigid opinions and imperious discipline of Calvin, to graffe upon our Reformation. Which, though they cunningly conceald at first, (as well knowing how nauseously that Drug woud go down in a lawfull Monarchy which was prescribd for a rebellious Common-wealth) yet they always kept it in reserve, and were never wanting to themselves, either in Court or Parliament, when either they had any prospect of a numerous Party of Fanatique Members in the one, or the encouragement of any Favourite in the other, whose Covetousness was gaping at the Patrimony of the Church. They who will consult the Works of our venerable Hooker, or the account of his Life, or more particularly the Letter written to him on this Subject, by George Cranmer, may see by what gradations they proceeded; from the dislike of Cap and Surplice, the very next step was Admonitions to the Parliament against the whole Government Ecclesiastical; then came out Volumes in English and Latin in defence of their Tenets: and immediately, practices were set on foot to erect their Discipline without Authority. Those not succeeding, Satyre and Rayling was the next: and Martin Marprelate (the Marvel of those times) was the first Presbyterian Scribler who sanctifyd Libels and Scurrility to the use of the Good Old Cause. Which was done, (says my Authour,) upon this account; that (their serious Treatises having been fully answered and refuted) they might compass by rayling what they had lost by reasoning; and, when their Cause was sunk in Court and Parliament, they might at least hedge in a stake amongst the Rabble; for to their ignorance all things are Wit which are abusive; but if Church and State were made the Theme, then the Doctoral Degree of Wit was to be taken at Billingsgate: even the most Saintlike of the Party, though they durst not, excuse this contempt and villifying of the Government, yet were pleasd, and grind at it with a pious smile; and calld it a judgment of God against the Hierarchy. Thus Sectaries, we may see, were born with teeth, foul-mouthed and scurrilous from their Infancy: and if Spiritual Pride, Venome, Violence, Contempt of Superiours, and Slander had been the marks of Orthodox Belief; the Presbytery and the rest of our Schismaticks, which are their Spawn, were always the most visible Church in the Christian World. Tis true, the Government was too strong at that time for a Rebellion; but to shew what proficiency they had made in Calvins School, even Then their mouths waterd at it: for two of their gifted Brotherhood (Hacket and Coppinger) as the Story tells us, got up into a Pease-Cart, and harangued the People, to dispose them to an insurrection and to establish their Discipline by force; so that, however it comes about, that now they celebrate Queen Elizabeths Birth-night, as that of their Saint and Patroness, yet then they were for doing the work of the Lord by Arms against her; and in all probability they wanted but a Fanatique Lord Mayor and two Sheriffs of their Party to have compassd it. Our venerable Hooker, after many Admonitions which he had given them, toward the end of his Preface breaks out into this Prophetick speech. There is in every one of these Considerations most just cause to fear, lest our hastiness to embrace a thing of so perilous Consequence, (meaning the Presbyterian discipline) should cause Posterity to feel those Evils which as yet are more easy for us to prevent, than they would be for them to remedy. How fatally this Cassandra has foretold, we know too well by sad experience: the Seeds were sown in the time of Queen Elizabeth, the bloudy Harvest ripened in the Reign of King Charles the Martyr: and, because all the Sheaves could not be carried off without shedding some of the loose Grains, another Crop is too like to follow; nay, I fear tis unavoidable, if the Conventiclers be permitted still to scatter. A man may be sufferd to quote an Adversary to our Religion, when he speaks Truth: And tis the observation of Meimbourg in his History of Calvinism, that, where-ever that Discipline was planted and embracd, Rebellion, Civil War, and Misery attended it. And how indeed should it happen otherwise? Reformation of Church and State has always been the ground of our Divisions in England. While we were Papists, our Holy Father rid us by pretending authority out of the Scriptures to depose Princes, when we shook off his Authority, the Sectaries furnishd themselves with the same Weapons; and out of the same Magazine, the Bible. So that the Scriptures, which are in themselves the greatest security of Governours, as commanding express obedience to them, are now turned to their destruction; and never since the Reformation, has there wanted a Text of their interpreting to authorize a Rebel. And tis to be noted by the way, that the Doctrines of King-killing and Deposing, which have been taken up onely by the worst Party of the Papists, the most frontless Flatterers of the Popes Authority, have been espousd, defended, and are still maintaind by the whole Body of Nonconformists and Republicans. Tis but dubbing themselves the People of God, which tis the interest of their Preachers to tell them they are, and their own interest to believe; and, after that, they cannot dip into the Bible, but one Text or another will turn up for their purpose: If they are under Persecution (as they call it,) then that is a mark of their Election; if they flourish, then God works Miracles for their Deliverance, and the Saints are to possess the earth. They may think themselves to be too roughly handled in this Paper; but I who know best how far I could have gone on this Subject, must be bold to tell them they are spard: though at the same time I am not ignorant that they interpret the mildness of a Writer to them, as they do the mercy of the Government; in the one they think it Fear, and conclude it Weakness in the other. The best way for them to confute me, is, as I before advised the Papists, to disclaim their Principles, and renounce their Practices. We shall all be glad to think them true Englishmen, when they obey the King, and true Protestants, when they conform to the Church Discipline. It remains that I acquaint the Reader, that the Verses were written for an ingenious young Gentleman, my Friend, upon his Translation of The Critical History of the Old Testament, composed by the learned Father Simon: The Verses therefore are addressd to the Translatour of that Work, and the style of them is, what it ought to be, Epistolary. If any one be so lamentable a Critique as to require the Smoothness, the Numbers, and the Turn of Heroique Poetry in this Poem; I must tell him, that, if he has not read Horace, I have studied him, and hope the style of his Epistles is not ill imitated here. The Expressions of a Poem designed purely for Instruction ought to be Plain and Natural, and yet Majestic: for here the Poet is presumed to be a kind of Law-giver, and those three qualities which I have namd are proper to the Legislative style. The Florid, Elevated, and Figurative way is for the Passions; for Love and Hatred, Fear and Anger, are begotten in the Soul by shewing their Objects out of their true proportion; either greater than the Life, or less; but Instruction is to be given by shewing them what they naturally are. A Man is to be cheated into Passion, but to be reasond into Truth.