Rival British Christianities of the 17th Century

England’s Christian Revolution

A review of Christopher Hill’s The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution

by Gwydion M. Williams

One and a half millennia ago, the decaying Roman Empire took a totalitarian turn. Led by generals whose main aim was to raise enough taxes to keep the troops happy, it tried to impose control on all aspects of life, including religion. When a small but determined Near Eastern faith showed itself to be a fanatically determined hold-out, one of Rome’s rival dynasts chose to make a logical Historic Compromise. Constantine the Great recruited some of the many rival sects of Christianity into his state-building efforts.

Even though the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, Latin and Christian ideas were thereafter always tied together. Barbarians on the fringes of the Roman world – such as the Germanic settlers who overran Britain and became the English and Lowland Scots – received this Latin / Christian creed as a single complex well-developed package.

In the 17th century, the packaging had entirely fallen apart, and many ingenious Scottish and English minds began examining the different things that had previously been bundled together. In part, this had happened earlier, with the Renaissance freeing older Greek and Roman ideas from their Christian entanglements. And then with the Reformation, with dissident theologians like Luther rejecting Greek and Latin distortions of Christianity.

In the 17th century, people tried to go back to Christian ideas without the Latin and Greek entanglements. The trouble was, where do you stop? Plato and St Paul make extremely strange bed-fellows. Tertullian had logic on his side when he asked ‘What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?’And while it was not of course Tertullian’s version of Christianity that was taken up by Constantine, he was looked as a valid theological source. Yet to to try to free Primitive Christianity from its entanglement with Greek Philosophy would imply all sorts of profoundly radical changes. Many people tried, with many unexpected and completely incompatible results.

Christianity in Western Europe had infiltrated existing societies and changed them gradually. But the continuous attempts by the Latin Church to impose control over secular rulers led them to support whatever Christian Dissident Movement might be going. The short-term greed of Church and State let loose creeds that were subversive of all of the things that both Kings and Popes believed in. Subversive even of themselves – a large part of the Civil War was fought between Cromwell’s version of a Christian Revolution and the rival versions of Levellers, Fifth Monarchy, Scottish Presbyterians etc.

When the various attempts at a Christian Revolution produced only chaos, moral confusion and civil war, a lot of clever people tried the opposite. The Enlightenment saw Greek and Latin ideas as the prime wisdom, retaining Christian forms only in as far as they matched 18th century notions of Reasonableness. I do not think that this would have happened without the previous attempt.

None of the above comes from Hill. In as far as he says anything about the historic build-up to his subject, he concerns himself with technical matters. The origins of the English translation with William Tyndale. The Geneva Bible, with its subversive anti-monarchical marginal notes. The Bishops Bible, that only really appealed to Bishops and never circulated in cheap versions that might educate the uneducated. The King James Authorised Version, which used as much of Tyndale and the Geneva Bible as was not directly subversive. The wider social context is ignored.

Hill, like many other Marxists in the Communist Party tradition, seems to have become a complete Nowhere Man. To put it biblically ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Yet this is not in fact true at all. Some present-day oaks can be seen ‘in acorn’ back in the 17th century, while others are moribund or vanished. A great deal has changed, and is changing all the time. Hill’s depressing Nowhere Man view is best ignored.

Years back, I heard Brendan Clifford say that it did not in fact matter who educated the educators. What mattered was who educated the uneducated.

If you want to really understand what was going on in 17th century Britain, look to what is happening right now in the Islamic world. For non-Muslims, it has about as much appeal as Cromwell had for the Irish. But in its own terms, it is a very necessary process of clarification and resolution. The chance to quietly subvert Islamic faith was messed up by Western hostility to anything even mildly progressive or nationalistic. Idiot tricksters with an eye only for short-term interests have guaranteed that Muslims are not going to quietly slide into a secular view of things. They’ll have to make their own messes and run their own societies into all sorts of dead ends before that can happen.

[I wrote this some time in the 1990s, but never quite completed it. What it said about Islam has been amply confirmed by later events.]

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