Page images
PDF
EPUB

ΟΡ

CIVIL POWER IN ECCLESIASTICAL CAUSES;

SHEWING THAT IT IS NOT LAWFUL FOR ANY POWER ON EARTH TO COMPEL

IN MATTERS OF RELIGION.

[FIRST PRINTED 1659.]

EDITOR'S PRELIMINARY REMARKS.

TOLAND, in his Life of Milton, having enumerated several of his learned and elaborate works, observes, that he at length "found leisure to address to the parliament this treatise, showing that it is not lawful for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion, whether speculative or practical, or in anything except immorality, or what evidently subverts the foundations of civil society; for which reason he justly excludes popery from this toleration, for being not so much a religion as a politic faction, whereof the members, wheresoever they are, own the pope for their superior, to the prejudice of the allegiance due to their natural sovereigns. Besides that, they never tolerate others where they have the mastery; and that their doctrine of dispensations, or keeping in faith with such as they count heretics, renders them worse than atheists, and the declared enemies of all mankind, besides those of their own communion."

This passage may be regarded as a remarkable illustration of the truth, that perfect toleration is one of the last virtues acquired by men in society. Both Milton and Toland were men of liberal opinions, generous character, and enlarged views, in politics and religion; yet here we find them denouncing catholicism, not as a form of religion from which they differed, but as a political faction which they utterly detested. The principles, however, laid down by our great poet, though he could not impartially employ them himself, lead directly to universal toleration; and while advocating them, he combats the interpretation vulgarly given to blasphemy, heresy, schism, &c., which, as he clearly shows, are things naturally indifferent in themselves. To blaspheme, is to speak injuriously and disparagingly, an act which becomes criminal only when such evil speaking is directed against the good. Heresy again is selection; and schism is division; and if we select what is true and divide and separate ourselves from what is false, we do well, and heresy and schism become virtues in us. Let the reader, however, take the arguments as he finds them in Milton, who discusses the subject in a masterly manner, and cannot fail to work conviction in the unprejudiced mind.

TO THE PARLIAMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND, WITH THE DOMINIONS THEREOF.

I HAVE prepared, supreme council! against the much-expected time of your sitting, this treatise; which, though to all Christian magistrates equally belonging, and therefore

to have been written in the common language of Christendom, natural duty and affection hath confined, and dedicated first to my own nation; and in a season wherein the timely reading thereof, to the easier accomplishment of your great work, may save you much labour and interruption: of two parts usually proposed, civil and ecclesiastical, recommending civil only to your proper care; ecclesiastical, to them only from whom it takes both that name and nature. Yet not for this cause only do I require or trust to find acceptance, but in a twofold respect besides: first, as bringing clear evidence of scripture and protestant maxims to the parliament of England, who in all their late acts, upon occasion, have professed to assert only the true protestant Christian religion, as it is contained in the holy scriptures: next, in regard that your power being but for a time, and having in yourselves a Christian liberty of your own, which at one time or other may be oppressed, thereof truly sensible, it will concern you while you are in power, so to regard other men's consciences, as you would your own should be regarded in the power of others; and to consider that any law against conscience is alike in force against any conscience, and so may one way or other justly redound upon yourselves. One advantage I make no doubt of, that I shall write to many eminent persons of your number, already perfect and resolved in this important article of Christianity. Some of whom I remember to have heard often for several years, at a council next in authority to your own, so well joining religion with civil prudence, and yet so well distinguishing the different power of either; and this not only voting, but frequently reasoning why it should be so, that if any there present had been before of an opinion contrary, he might doubtless have departed thence a convert in that point, and have confessed, that then both commonwealth and religion will at length, if ever, flourish in Christendom, when either they who govern discern between civil and religious, or they only who so discern shall be admitted to govern. Till then, nothing but troubles, persecutions, commotions can be expected; the inward decay of true religion among ourselves, and the utter overthrow at last by a common enemy. Of civil liberty I have written heretofore by the appointment, and not without the approbation of civil

power of Christian liberty I write now, which others long since having done with all freedom under heathen emperors, I should do wrong to suspect, that I now shall with less under Christian governors, and such especially as profess openly their defence of Christian liberty; although I write this, not otherwise appointed or induced, than by an inward persuasion of the Christian duty, which I may usefully discharge herein to the common Lord and Master of us all, and the certain hope of his approbation, first and chiefest to be sought: in the hand of whose providence I remain, praying all success and good event on your public councils, to the defence of true religion and our civil rights. JOHN MILTON.

A TREATISE OF CIVIL POWER, &c.

Two things there be, which have been ever found working much mischief to the church of God and the advancement of truth force on one side restraining, and hire on the other side corrupting, the teachers thereof. Few ages have been since the ascension of our Saviour, wherein the one of these two, or both together, have not prevailed. It can be at no time, therefore, unseasonable to speak of these things; since by them the church is either in continual detriment and oppression, or in continual danger. The former shall be at this time my argument; the latter as I shall find God disposing me, and opportunity inviting. What I argue shall be drawn from the scripture only; and therein from true fundamental principles of the gospel, to all knowing Christians undeniable. And if the governors of this commonwealth, since the rooting out of prelates, have made least use of force in religion, and most have favoured Christian liberty of any in this island before them since the first preaching of the gospel, for which we are not to forget our thanks to God, and their due praise; they may, I doubt not, in this treatise, find that which not only will confirm them to defend still the Christian liberty which we enjoy, but will incite them also to enlarge it, if in aught they vet straiten it. To them who perhaps hereafter, less experienced in religion, may come to govern or give us laws, this or other such, if they please, may be a timely instruction: however, to the truth it will be at all times no un

needful testimony, at least some discharge of that general duty, which no Christian, but according to what he hath received, knows is required of him, if he have aught more conducing to the advancement of religion, than what is usually endeavoured, freely to impart it.

It will require no great labour of exposition to unfold what is here meant by matters of religion; being as soon apprehended as defined, such things as belong chiefly to the knowledge and service of God; and are either above the reach and light of nature without revelation from above, and therefore liable to be variously understood by human reason, or such things as are enjoined or forbidden by divine precept, which else by the light of reason would seem indifferent to be done or not done; and so likewise must needs appear to every man as the precept is understood. Whence I here mean by conscience or religion that full persuasion, whereby we are assured, that our belief and practice, as far as we are able to apprehend and probably make appear, is according to the will of God and his Holy Spirit within us, which we ought to follow much rather than any law of man, as not only his word everywhere bids us, but the very dictate of reason tells us: Acts iv. 19, "Whether it be right in the sight of God, to hearken to you more than to God, judge ye." That for belief or practice in religion, according to this conscientious persuasion, no man ought to be punished or molested by any outward force on earth whatsoever, I distrust not, through God's implored assistance, to make plain by these following arguments.

First, it cannot be denied, being the main foundation of our protestant religion, that we of these ages, having no other divine rule or authority from without us, warrantable to one another as a common ground, but the holy scripture, and no other within us but the illumination of the Holy Spirit, so interpreting that scripture as warrantable only to ourselves, and to such whose consciences we can so persuade, can have no other ground in matters of religion but only from the scriptures. And these being not possible to be understood without this divine illumination, which no man can know at all times to be in himself, much less to be at any time for certain in any other, it follows clearly, that no man or body of men in these times can be the infallible judges or determiners in matters of religion to any other men's consciences but their own.

And

therefore those Bereans are commended, Acts xvii. 11, who after the preaching even of St. Paul," searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." Nor did they more than what God himself in many places commands us by the same apostle, to search, to try, to judge of these things ourselves and gives us reason also, Gal. vi. 4, 5: "Let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another: for every man shall bear his own burden." If then we count it so ignorant and irreligious in the papist, to think himself discharged in God's account, believing only as the church believes, how much greater condemnation will it be to the protestant his condemner, to think himself justified, believing only as the state believes? With good cause, therefore, it is the general consent of all sound protestant writers, that neither traditions, councils, nor canons of any visible church, much less edicts of any magistrate or civil session, but the scripture only, can be the final judge or rule in matters of religion, and that only in the conscience of every Christian to himself. Which protestation made by the first public reformers of our religion against the imperial edicts of Charles the Fifth, imposing church traditions without scripture, gave first beginning to the name of Protestant; and with that name hath ever been received this doctrine, which prefers the scripture before the church, and acknowledges none but the scripture sole interpreter of itself to the conscience. For if the church be not sufficient to be implicitly believed, as we hold it is not, what can there else be named of more authority than the church but the conscience, than which God only is greater? 1 John iii. 20. But if any man shall pretend that the scripture judges to his conscience for other men, he makes himself greater not only than the church, but also than the scripture, than the consciences of other men: a presumption too high for any mortal, since every true Christian, able to give a reason of his faith, hath the word of God before him, the promised Holy Spirit, and the mind of Christ within him, 1 Cor. ii. 16; a much better and safer guide of conscience, which as far as concerns himself he may far more certainly know, than any outward rule imposed upon him by others, whom he inwardly neither knows nor can know; at least knows nothing of them more sure than this one thing, that they cannot be his judges in religion:

« PreviousContinue »