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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 11. Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious; His Literary Career and Philosophical Development: Letters to Serena; Pantheisticon

So far as Blount was concerned, the controversy might have ended here. For, despite his learning and ability, he was something of a free-lance; he could not match himself with his opponents in Christian theology or in biblical learning; his criticism and his own doctrines revealed an outside point of view. There were, however, many sympathisers with his general attitude among wits, and perhaps, also, among scholars: Leslie’s reply is a testimony to the prevalence of deism. And, in the year which saw that triumphant reply, there appeared a work by a new author—Toland’s Christianity not mysterious—with which the controversy entered upon a fresh phase. Within the church, the Roman controversy had died down, and the protestant faith had been firmly established. The time was ripe for the discussion of the content and basis of protestant theology; and the great trinitarian controversy followed. At this point, the chief stimulus to theological thought came, from within the church, indeed, but from outside the ranks of professional theologians. Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity appeared in 1695, and marked out the ground to be occupied by almost all controversialists for a long time to come. In his straightforward way, he went to the Scriptures: miracles and prophecy convinced his reason of their authority; the same reason was used for understanding the doctrines they revealed. He did not linger over the former—the external evidences, as they were called, of religion. His interest was in the content of the faith. The same interest dominates the controversies of the first half of the eighteenth century; it was only afterwards that the question of the external evidences came to the front. Throughout the whole century, however, and by both parties, the question was debated in the court of reason. The controversy was not between rationalists and those who distrusted reason. The question was what, on rational grounds, ought to be believed. And, as Clarke and Tillotson and, finally, Butler appealed to reason not less than Locke and Toland and their successors did, so, too, there was another point of agreement between the orthodox and the leaders of the deists. The latter, also, for the most part, and in the earlier stages of the dispute, at any rate, professed to accept the Christian faith. The problem was as to its content: what was its genuine meaning and the scope of its essential doctrines? This much must be borne in mind by anyone who would understand Toland, especially in his earliest and most celebrated work. Toland was born near Londonderry in Ireland in 1670 and died at Putney near London in 1722. His education was varied. He was at school in Ireland, went to the university of Glasgow, took his degree at Edinburgh, afterwards studied at Leyden, and spent some time at Oxford, where he wrote Christianity not mysterious (1696). He led a strenuous and varied life, with somewhat uncertain means of livelihood. He was the object of bitter attack by the controversialists opposed to him; and they called in the aid of the civil power. After the publication of his first book, he had to leave Ireland to escape arrest by the Irish parliament, and in England he was for a time in danger of prosecution. He busied himself in political as well as in theological controversy, defended the protestant succession, took part, though unofficially, in important missions, and became known to the electress Sophia and her daughter the queen of Prussia, to whom his Letters to Serena (1704) were addressed. He made some influential friends, also, and Leibniz was among his correspondents.

Christianity not mysterious shows the influence of Locke—of his Essay, however, rather than of his Reasonableness of Christianity, which, published only a year before Toland’s book, can hardly have affected its argument. Locke’s name is not mentioned by Toland; but Locke’s view of knowledge, as consisting in the agreement of ideas, forms the starting-point of his argument and, in the preliminary matter, he often adopts Locke’s words. But he is more aggressive in applying his principles. Locke’s aim was to show that Christianity was reasonable; Toland’s, to demonstrate that nothing contrary to reason, and nothing above reason, can be part of Christian doctrine. There are no mysteries in it. Revelation has unveiled what was formerly mysterious. Whoever reveals anything must do so in words that are intelligible, and the matter must be possible. The things revealed, therefore, are no longer mysteries. This holds, whether the revelation come from God or from man. The only difference between the two cases is that a man may lie, and God can not. Without ideas, neither faith nor knowledge is possible; and, “if by knowledge be meant understanding what is believed, then I stand by it that faith is knowledge.” The ideas may not be adequate; but, in nature as well as in divinity, we have to be content without adequate ideas; even a “spire of grass” is not known in its real essence; we understand only its properties or attributes; and God and the soul are known in the same way.

Toland was a scholar, and boasted acquaintance with more than ten languages. He was also a theologian, and could meet his opponents on their own ground. This interest dominated his literary career; even his political work was in the service of the protestant religion, and his scholarship was chiefly shown in the field of Christian origins. His own theological views went through various modifications. He was brought up a Roman catholic; at the age of sixteen, he became “zealous against popery”; afterwards he was connected with protestant dissenters; when Christianity not mysterious was published, he reckoned himself a member of the church of England, his sympathies being with the broad (or, as it was then called, low) church party. When his book was burned at the door of the Irish house of parliament, he may have felt his churchmanship insecure. His later works exhibit its gradual disappearance.

In Amyntor (1699), a defence of his Life of Milton (1698), he gave, in answer to an opponent, a long list of early apocryphal Christian literature. His interest in researches of this kind was shown afterwards in Nazarenus; or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity (1718). His text, in this work, was an Italian manuscript, with Arabic annotations, which he had discovered. He took it for a translation from the Arabic and identified it with the lost Gospel of Barnabas. In both conjectures, later scholarship has shown that he was in error. But his discovery led to some remarkable reflections on the differences between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early church. He maintained that the former, who kept the Jewish law themselves, but without enforcing it on the Gentiles, represented “the true original plan of Christianity”; and he declared that he himself took “less exception to the name of Nazarene than to any other.” More than a century afterwards, the same distinction as that upon which he laid stress was made fundamental in the explanation of early church history offered by F. C. Baur and his followers.

Among other topics in the Letters to Serena was a discussion of Spinoza, which, perhaps, shows the trend of Toland’s speculation. Leibniz, at any rate, in a letter of 30 April, 1709, remarks that Toland, in several of his books, refers to the opinion that there is no other eternal being than the universe, but offers no refutation of this “pernicious” error. In his reply, Toland promises an answer to this point in his next; but he does not seem to have kept his word. Pantheism, however, was the doctrine with which he ended, if we may trust the evidence of Pantheisticon (1720). This curious piece was issued anonymously, with “Cosmopolis” on the title-page as the place of publication. But the author took no pains to conceal his identity, for the preface is signed “Janus Julius Eoganesius.” Now, Inis Eogain or Inishowen was the place of Toland’s birth; and Janus Julius were the extraordinary names by which he was christened and known, till a sensible schoolmaster changed them to John. The little book, which is written in Latin, describes the ritual of certain (supposed or real) pantheistic societies. It imitates the fashion of a prayer-book, gives the responses of the congregation and is printed with red rubrics. As a whole, it is a clever skit, though in the very worst taste. But Toland had not received any favours from fortune; he had been harshly attacked by his opponents, even when he regarded himself as a defender of the Christian faith; and, perhaps, it gave him satisfaction to retaliate bitterly.