Francis Bacon: “Of Unity in Religion”

Some interesting words on religious unity from the early Protestant Francis Bacon (1551-1626). If you want to read the whole of the short work from which this entry comes (though I’ve reproduced the bulk of it), it can be found here along with his other Essays. Below I have extracted some parts that I find interesting. Page numbers are to the printed version in The Works of Francis Bacon Vol. XII, Collected and Edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath (Boston: Brown and Taggard, 1860). Also, the italicized portions (which either represent citations of Scripture or of Christian writers) and the occasional bracketed explanatory note are from the printed version.

Religion being the chief band of human society, it is a happy thing when itself is well contained within the true band of Unity. The quarrels and divisions about religion were evils unknown to the heathen. The reason was, because the religion of the heathen consisted rather in rites and ceremonies, than in any constant belief. For you may imagine what kind of faith theirs was, when the chief doctors and fathers of their church were the poets. But the true God hath this attribute, that he is a jealous God; and therefore his worship and religion will endure no mixture or partner. We shall therefore speak a few words concerning the Unity of the Church; what are the Fruits thereof; what the Bounds; and what the Means. (pp. 86-87)

If I have any editorial on that passage at all, it’s only to note that Bacon assumes something that our Modern age considers to be simply outlandish: namely, that religion is the chief glue and guarantor of human society. He could afford to assume that, though, because he didn’t live in a radically Secularized culture full of Christians who seem to think that it is possible to be religiously neutral, to separate out “religion” from all the rest of life, which is “non-religion”, and to rely on the Secular State as the public enforcer of the cultural religious neutrality.

Bacon goes on to say that the “Fruits of Unity” are of two kinds: (1) towards those outside the Church, and (2) towards those inside the Church. Disunity is a worse scandal in the perceptions of the first group precisely because a terrible wound disrupting the external integrity of a body is worse than a mere corrupt manner within the body. Thus, writes Bacon:

The doctor of the Gentiles (the propriety of whose vocation, drew him to have a special care of those without) saith, if an heathen come in, and hear you speak with several tongues, will he not say that you are mad? And certainly it is little better, when atheists, and profane persons, do hear of so many discordant, and contrary opinions in religion; it doth avert them from the church, and maketh them, to sit down in the chair of the scorners. It is but a light thing, to be vouched in so serious a matter, but yet it expresseth well the deformity. (pg. 87)

By contrast, when the body is externally unified corruption of manners within it, such as “the labours of writing and reading of controversies” are more like occasions for “mortification and devotion” (pg. 88). To keep this in its proper perspective, note that Bacon wrote this in 1601, seventeen years before the disastrous Wars of Religion hit Europe and apparently convinced Roman Catholics and most varieties of Protestants that constant warfare, division, and institutionalized factionalism are the norm of the Christian religion’s incarnation in the space and time world. A lesson that would remain foremost in the minds of the next several generations of unbelieving philosophes who stepped into the cultural vacuum Christians created by their incessant, bloody warfare with each other. A lesson that remains immortalized in the skeptical and pessimistic attitudes of today’s Christians towards each other, and in today’s unbelievers who slap us in the face with maxims like “The last time we mixed religion and [culture] people got burned at the stake.”

Given the atrocious state of factionalism that prevails today in the Christian world, Bacon’s perceptive words concerning “the Bounds of Unity” are quite hard-hitting:

Concerning the bounds of unity; the true placing of them, importeth exceedingly. There appear to be two extremes. For to certain zealants, all speech of pacification is odious. Is it peace, Jehu? What hast thou to do with peace? turn thee behind me. Peace is not the matter, but following, and party. Contrariwise, certain Laodiceans, and lukewarm persons, think they may accommodate points of religion, by middle way, and taking part of both, and witty reconcilements; as if they would make an arbitrament between God and man. Both these extremes are to be avoided; which will be done, if the league of Christians, penned by our Savior himself, were in two cross clauses thereof, soundly and plainly expounded: He that is not with us, is against us; and again, He that is not against us, is with us; that is, if the points fundamental and of substance in religion, were truly discerned and distinguished, from points not merely of faith, but of opinion, order, or good intention. This is a thing may seem to many a matter trivial, and done already. But if it were done less partially, it would be embraced more generally. (pp. 88-89)

Look around Christendom today. Is it not full on the one hand of people for whom, to borrow Bacon’s words from nearly 500 years ago, consider “all speech of pacification is odious…Peace is not the matter, but following, and party”? Is it not on the other hand full of Bacon’s “Laodiceans” who “think they may accommodate points of religion, by middle way, and taking part of both, and witty reconcilements; as if they would make an arbitrament between God and man”? I like Bacon’s tertium quid, though given the preponderance of the other two false views of unity, the path to the implementation of that third way is obviously fraught with great difficulty.

Bacon continues:

Of this I may give only this advice, according to my small model. Men ought to take heed, of rending God’s church, by two kinds of controversies. The one is, when the matter of the point controverted, is too small and light, not worth the heat and strife about it, kindled only by contradiction. For, as it is noted, by one of the fathers, Christ’s coat indeed had no seam, but the church’s vesture was of divers colors; whereupon he saith, In veste varietas sit, scissura non sit [let there be variety in the garment, but let there be no division:] they be two things, unity and uniformity. The other is, when the matter of the point controverted, is great, but it is driven to an over-great subtilty, and obscurity; so that it becometh a thing rather ingenious, than substantial. A man that is of judgment and understanding, shall sometimes hear ignorant men differ, and know well within himself, that those which so differ, mean one thing, and yet they themselves would never agree. And if it come so to pass, in that distance of judgment, which is between man and man, shall we not think that God above, that knows the heart, doth not discern that frail men, in some of their contradictions, intend the same thing; and accepteth of both? The nature of such controversies is excellently expressed, by St. Paul, in the warning and precept, that he giveth concerning the same, Devita profanas vocum novitates, et oppositiones falsi nominis scientiae [Avoid profane novelties of terms, and oppositions of science falsely so called.] Men create oppositions, which are not; and put them into new terms, so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning. There be also two false peaces, or unities: the one, when the peace is grounded, but upon an implicit ignorance; for all colors will agree in the dark: the other, when it is pieced up, upon a direct admission of contraries, in fundamental points. For truth and falsehood, in such things, are like the iron and clay, in the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image; they may cleave, but they will not incorporate. (pp. 88-90)

Bacon then speaks of his third topic, “the Means of procuring Unity”:

Concerning the means of procuring unity; men must beware, that in the procuring, or muniting, of religious unity, they do not dissolve and deface the laws of charity, and of human society. There be two swords amongst Christians, the spiritual and temporal; and both have their due office and place, in the maintenance of religion. But we may not take up the third sword, which is Mahomet’s sword, or like unto it; that is, to propagate religion by wars, or by sanguinary persecutions to force consciences; except it be in cases of overt scandal, blasphemy, or intermixture of practice against the state; much less to nourish seditions; to authorize conspiracies and rebellions; to put the sword into the people’s hands; and the like; tending to the subversion of all government, which is the ordinance of God. For this is but to dash the first table against the second; and so to consider men as Christians, as we forget that they are men. (pg. 90)

Speaking of the willingness to propagate religion by force, even to the point of overthrowing lawful secular rulers, an action which he attributes to “the Anabaptists, and other furies” and likens “to bring[ing] down the Holy Ghost, instead of the likeness of a dove, in the shape of a vulture or raven; and set[ting], out of the bark of a Christian church, a flag of a bark of pirates, and assassins”, Bacon recommends that the Church deal decisively with such revolutionary spirits:

…Therefore it is most necessary, that the church, by doctrine and decree, princes by their sword, and all learnings, both Christian and moral, as by their Mercury rod, do damn and send to hell for ever, those facts and opinions tending to the support of the same; as hath been already in good part done. Surely in counsels concerning religion, that counsel of the apostle would be prefixed, Ira hominis non implet justitiam Dei [The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.] And it was a notable observation of a wise father, and no less ingenuously confessed; that those which held and persuaded pressure of consciences, were commonly interested therein, themselves, for their own ends. (pp. 91-92)

Interesting little essay from a Protestant, especially since it was penned several decades after the disastrous final split between Roman and Protesting Catholics that was the infamous Council of Trent.

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