The Rhetorics of Revelation and Reason

by Angela Balla, University of Michigan

In early modern England, toleration as an idea and as a set of practices emerged in response to widespread epistemological anxieties. Reformation disputes over the true standard of religious knowledge, the rediscovery of Greek Pyrrhonist Sextus Empiricus' writings, and the growing influence of Peter Ramus' thought seriously undermined traditional sources of knowledge in the sixteenth century, enveloping believers and nonbelievers alike in confusion. Nor was the brunt of the upheaval limited to cultural elites, for puritan attacks on the liturgy disrupted the corporate experience of conviction for all who attended, regardless of the nature or the extent of their faith. While Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli postulated the Word and the Spirit as the only sources of truth in matters pertaining to individual salvation and godly fellowship, John Calvin added to these sources the experience of certainty. Calvin's considerable influence in England ensured that his emphasis on the experience of certainty as a source of truth predominated. Far from resolving believers' anxieties about their spiritual status, Calvinist theology intensified them. As the decades wore on, many engaged in persecution and even bloodshed in attempts to resolve the uncertainties that differing religious practices spawned.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the gap between those who relied on the Word and those who relied on the Holy Spirit as the guaranty of religious truth had widened markedly. Certainly, a number of divines stressed the need for concurrent dependence on scripture and revelation, Richard Sibbes and Richard Baxter among them. Thus Sibbes declared, "As the spirits in arteries quicken the blood in the veins, so the Spirit of God goes along with the Word, and makes it work." [Note 1] Baxter essentially affirmed Sibbes' conjuncture of the Word and the Spirit when he urged, "We must not try the Scriptures by our most spiritual apprehensions, but our apprehensions by the Scriptures: that is, we must prefer the Spirit's inspiring the apostles to indite the Scriptures, before the Spirit's illuminating of us to understand them." [Note 2] Other believers vehemently asserted the primacy of one source over the other. William Chillingworth, for example, maintained the superlative authority of the Bible in The Religion of Protestants (1638), insisting that "The BIBLE, I say, The BIBLE only" was to be believers' spiritual guide. [Note 3] By contrast, George Fox averred in his Journal (1694) that the Spirit is "the most fit, proper, and universal rule, which God hath given to all mankind to rule, direct, govern, and order their lives by." [Note 4] The rule of faith controversy may seem initially like an ecclesiastical squabble far removed from lay affairs, but the debate actually struck at the core of Christian community. Because believers lacked a shared foundation for religious knowledge, a criterion that would help them assess the veracity of competing claims, they had no reliable means of restoring spiritual concord. In such circumstances, intellectual disagreement all too easily erupted into physical violence, as the civil wars brutally showed.

Some moderate Anglicans and radical dissenters sought to mitigate the conflict by championing the unifying powers of natural reason and universal revelation. Within the established Church, a group of accomplished clergymen known as Latitudinarians emphasized the pre-eminence of ratiocination in matters of religion. Notably among them was Edward Stillingfleet, whose Origines Sacrae (1663) argued for the authority of scripture on the basis of reason rather than of faith. Shortly thereafter, he developed this view in A Rational Account of the Grounds of the Protestant Religion (1664), which posited "the judgement of Sense" as a touchstone for religious affairs. [Note 5] His peer John Tillotson offered a similar argument in his pamphlet, "The Rule of Faith," and expounded it when he edited and completed John Wilkins's Of the Principles and Duties of Natural Religion (1675). For Wilkins (and by extension, Tillotson), common sense is what enables people to know anything with moral certainty, which is an assurance untroubled by reasonable doubt. Countering the Latitudinarians' efforts to establish reason as the ground of knowledge, the Quakers asserted the primacy of universal revelation, often marshaling Scripture in support of their position. [Note 6] Fox glossed the famed passage in John's gospel in a way that suggests pagans can be more 'Christian' than some Christians: "'the light which doth enlighten every man that cometh into the world,' by whom the world was made, was before natural conscience was, or natural light either, or the blurr'd light as thou cals it; And many of the Indians do shew forth more in their conversations of the light then you do." [Note 7] As their extensive missionary travels demonstrate, Fox and his followers hoped that nurturing the seed of Christ's illumination in each person would foster the peaceful coexistence of diverse peoples, a sign that "the Lord's Truth is over all and his Seed reigns." [Note 8]

Two radicals, Herbert of Cherbury and John Milton, are worth highlighting because of the surprising ways in which they extended and qualified the tenets of those camps touting right reason and universal revelation as the solution to religious conflict. Although the Latitudinarians stressed the importance of reason in religious affairs, they nevertheless subordinated it to orthodoxy. For them, reason allowed believers to disagree peacefully on matters of worship, but it didn't sanction heresy. Yet Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, utilized reason in a more extensive way. All people, he claimed in De Veritate (1624), possess an innate knowledge of five basic religious truths, or Common Notions: God exists; he ought to be worshipped; his worship requires piety and virtue; vice demands repentance; and God's judgment in the afterlife will involve both reward and punishment. [Note 9] In De Religione Laici (1645), Herbert went further, charging that all religions were also plagued by human error. [Note 10] If people would recognize the Common Notions operating in their own lives and those of others, and if they would admit that all religions were grounded in some error, then, he believed, toleration would be their rational response to religious diversity.

Milton's arguments for toleration, by contrast, made implicitly in the joint publication of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (1671) and explicitly in his brief treatise, Of True Religion, Hæresie, Schism, and Toleration (1673), depended on revelation rather than reason. Already in Areopagitica (1644) Milton thought that divine truth could be found in unexpected places, and so it was Parliament's duty to allow all seekers to be "still searching what we know not, by what we know, still closing up truth to truth as we find it." [Note 11] His treatise issued a clear imperative: the dissevered body of Truth must be painstakingly reassembled in the hope of her eventual rejuvenation. When he later scattered divine truth among the tribes in Samson Agonistes, Milton enacted part of the epistemological tragedy illustrated earlier in Areopagitica. Consequently, his poem suggested that readers should tolerate the holders of wronghearted views because even 'Philistines' can teach 'Hebrews' how to be (more) faithful if the 'Hebrews' perceive and respond to the Truth possessed by the 'Philistines.' Like the Quakers he befriended, Milton upheld the prophetic function of the Spirit in arguing for toleration. Yet his vision of political order was decidedly millenarian. Underlying Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained is Miltons persistent injunction to wait for Truth's Master by not presuming to possess the fullness of divine revelation and so uncharitably restrict--or murderously halt--others in their search for Truth. For Milton, divine inspiration could unite and not just divide embattled tribes.


  1. Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (1862; reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 3.434.
  2. Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 5.559, quoted in Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1946), 32.
  3. William Chillingworth, The religion of protestants a safe way to salvation (Oxford, 1638), 375.
  4. George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 687.
  5. Edward Stillingfleet, A Rational Account of the Grounds of the Protestant Religion (London, 1665), 109, quoted in Raymond D. Tumbleson, "'Reason and Religion': The Science of Anglicanism," Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (January 1996): 131.
  6. Frequently cited were Proverbs 20:27 ("The spirit of man is the candle of the LORD") and John 1:9 ("That was the true light, which lighteth every man that commeth into the world"). These references are to the Authorized Version.
  7. George Fox, The Great Mistery of the Great Whore (London, 1659), 185, quoted in Nuttall, 160.
  8. Fox, Journal, 709.
  9. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937), 291-307.
  10. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "De Religione Laici," ed. and trans., Harold R. Hutcheson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), 93-105.
  11. John Milton, Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), 1018.

Suggested Readings

  • Herbert, Lord Edward, of Cherbury. De Veritate. Trans. Meyrick H. Carré. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937.
  • -----. Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "De Relione Laici." Ed. and trans. Harold R. Hutcheson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944.
  • Milton, John. Paradise regain'd a poem in IV books: to which is added Samson Agonistes. London, 1671.
  • -----. Of true religion, haeresie, schism, toleration, and what best means may be us'd against the growth of popery the author J.M. London, 1673.
  • Nuttall, Geoffrey F. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1946.
  • Popkin, Richard. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. and exp. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Tumbleson, Raymond D. "'Reason and Religion': The Science of Anglicanism." Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (January 1996): 131-56.

Key Questions

  • How did early moderns characterize the relationship between reason and revelation, and how did these characterizations affect their understanding of spiritual authority?
  • In what ways and to what effect did arguments for liberty of conscience employ the rhetoric of reason and/or revelation?
  • To what extent did an understanding of natural law and universal revelation shape Britain's exploration of the Ottoman Empire and the New World?

Image 1

  • John Milton. Poems, &c. upon several occasions. London, 1673

Image 2

  • George Fox. A general epistle to Friends, and all people, to read over and consider in the fear of God. London, 1667

Image 3

  • William Penn. The great case of liberty of conscience once more briefly debated & defended. London, 1670