Edward Stillingfleet, an English Protestant theologian, was born in Cranborne, Dorset. He entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1649. On graduating in 1653 he was elected a college fellow, but after a year went into private employment. He was appointed rector of Sutton, Bedfordshire, in 1657.
The Church of England was then under Presbyterian administration, but Stillingfleet received episcopal ordination in a clandestine ceremony and readily conformed after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. A popular preacher in London legal circles, he became rector of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, London, in 1665, and in 1678 rose to be dean of St.
Paul’s. On the accession of William III (1650–1702) in 1689 Stillingfleet was created bishop of Worcester. He was active in the politico-theological controversies of the time,most of which had a philosophical dimension. None of his writings was narrowly or exclusively philosophical.
His first work was Irenicum (1659). Though ostensibly an attempt to restore Protestant unity after several decades of sectarian divisions, it had a disguised episcopalian agenda. Stillingfleet resumed the debate with less disguise in the 1680s amid growing fears of a Catholic revival, publishing The Mischief of Separation (1680), The Unreasonableness of Separation (1681), and Origines Britannicae (1685).
In Irenicum he allowed that episcopacy, presbytery, and independency could all point to precedents from the apostolic period; thus, all three could coexist compatibly. By 1685, however, he was arguing that the original English church had been an episcopal foundation, independent of Rome.
Stillingfleet’s most consistent claim was that the primitive churches constituted a single society within each political state. Citing the authority of both natural and scriptural law, he portrayed the church of his own day as a subsociety operating within and compatibly with the laws of civil society, under which its members receive or lose privileges in proportion to their conformity.
This was “latitudinarianism,” a scheme that, by distinguishing essential from inessential matters, aimed to comprehend all believers in a national church and opposed the legal toleration of dissenting denominations.
On matters not dictated by natural or revealed law—including the balance between episcopal and other forms—the overriding issue was one of civil peace, for which the civil administration was legislator. But many dissenters believed that there were theological issues here on which the civil power was incompetent to arbitrate.
By the time of Stillingfleet’s later writings against separation, there was a growing lobby in favor of the tolerationist alternative. John Locke prepared a critique of Stillingfleet in 1681 that survives in manuscript.
A second important early work, Origines Sacrae (1662), attempted to demonstrate the rational foundations of Judeo-Christian monotheism. Stillingfleet presented a detailed philosophy of history, exploring the nature of historical evidence and the grounds of assent to testimony.
He claimed to establish the general superiority of written records over tradition and of the biblical record over ancient pagan history. On these principles he defended the authenticity of the biblical miracles, but not others, as confirming the authority of a revelation. Central to his argument was the concept of moral certainty.
This was a genuine certainty attainable in matters beyond reasonable doubt by persons in possession of normal reason and of the evidence, where part of the function of reason is to judge the type of evidence appropriate to the context. By this means one can attain certainty in doctrinal matters that are above reason but not contrary to it. One’s confidence is underwritten by the certainty one has of the existence of God.
This was a different kind of certainty based on clear and distinct ideas, yet compatible with the recognition that the object of certainty is largely incomprehensible. Part of the inspiration here was Cartesian, but Stillingfleet’s enthusiasm for Cartesianism moderated in his last years after he absorbed Henry More’s criticisms of René Descartes’s cosmology and saw the direction taken by some post-Cartesian thinkers such as Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza. In 1697 he was at work on a new Origines Sacrae, but only a fragment survives.
|Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza|
The epistemology developed in Origines Sacrae provided the basis for a relentless polemic against Catholic views of the rule of faith, from A Rational Account of the Grounds of Protestant Religion (1664) to The Doctrine of the Trinity and Transubstantiation Compared (1687), with many intervening titles.
Stillingfleet appealed to weakly formulated principles of reason and common sense to reiterate his conviction that the doctrine of the trinity, being derived from a historically sound scripture, albeit above reason, was an assured certainty of faith; whereas that of transubstantiation, being contrary to reason and sense, was not. The Catholics argued for an exact parallelism and believed that the Protestants had no reliable arbiter in their disagreements about biblical interpretation.
By 1687 Stillingfleet had opened up the debate over the identification of substance and the distinction of persons. This was an opportunity for a growing Unitarian movement on the edge of Anglicanism to weigh in, seeking to demonstrate on clear and distinct principles that both the trinity and transubstantiation were equally indefensible and to promote a revisionist account of the atonement.
Simultaneously with this, a rising tide of deism—religious belief based on natural reason alone without revelation—was beginning to pose awkward questions about the credibility of revelation.
Stillingfleet had already attacked Socinianism, a continental form of Unitarianism, in 1669 and deism in 1677, without obvious effect. Beset with opposition on so many fronts, he published A Discourse in Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity (1696). He incorporated an attack on John Toland’s deistic Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), implicating Locke as the supposed inspiration for Toland’s rejection of truths above reason.
As a result, his final years were taken up with a highly public dispute with Locke, each side contributing three pieces. The dispute was over whether Locke’s philosophy was capable of supporting what Stillingfleet considered the basic propositions of the creed.
Confused by Locke’s Cartesian language about clear and distinct ideas, he challenged Locke to show how such ideas could come by sensation or reflection. Locke, he complained, had a “new way” of ideas, one that left him apparently ambivalent over mindbody dualism, agnostic about substance and essence, and unable to demonstrate immortality or to explicate the distinction of persons on his philosophy: in short, unable to bring any certainty to matters of faith.
Locke gave no quarter to Stillingfleet in his replies, insisting on the coherence of his philosophy and its compatibility with biblical doctrine but refusing to be drawn into theological debate.
Where, however, Stillingfleet had identified illchosen uses of the phrase “clear and distinct ideas” in Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke silently amended them in the fourth edition (1700).