Jeremy Taylor Against Roman Catholicism

The Church of England throughout history has produced thinkers and practices that have impacted the global church.  As Anglicanism began to emerge and take shape during and after the Reformation, Jeremy Taylor was an important leader who helped form and justify Anglican theology and practice.  Taylor used his skills and influence to take aim at Roman Catholic doctrine and practice.  In critiquing Roman Catholicism, there was one aspect that he especially disapproved of, and that was the Roman Catholic belief that there is no salvation outside the Roman Church.  As an Anglican he disagreed with this greatly, but it was also because of his more eclectic theological thinking and advocacy for religious toleration.  We will first briefly give some context to Taylor’s life.  We then will look at some key points of descension he had with Roman Catholicism and then look at in depth his repudiation of the claim that there was no salvation outside the Roman Church.

Taylor was an Anglican cleric in Ireland who was born in 1613 and died in 1667.  He lived through a tumultuous time in Enlish history. During his life two people that he served closely, Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud and King Charles I, were executed.  These two events left Canterbury vacant for fifteen years and caused the turmoil of the Commonwealth, which was ended by the Restoration brought in by Charles II.  Throughout all this time and the power changes, Taylor stayed committed to the Church of England and has been recognized as one of the last Caroline Divines.[1] 

Caroline Divines were a group of theologians and scholars who were distinguished by their insistence on the catholicity of the Church of England as a decisive feature of Anglicanism.[2]  Taylor was constantly looking back at the earliest followers of Jesus and the earliest church as a model to be replicated.  He felt that the creeds were normative for Christians and a standard for heresy and persecution, among other factors.[3] Taylor’s impact has waxed and waned throughout time but has been felt in Anglicanism and is still relevant today.  One place specifically where he has had lasting impact on Christianity was his effect on John Wesley, as he was a large part in what sparked Wesley’s conversion.[4]  Taylor was known for his inspiring devotional writings which have help many live devout Christian lives.

As a Caroline Divine, Taylor was an ardent defender and believer of the Church of England and held firmly that the Church of England was the Catholic Church.[5]  His commitment to the Church of England helped keep Anglicanism as an influence in England during many of the power changes that happened during his lifetime.  He wrote that as the Catholic Church, no Anglican minister should publicly preach anything contrary to their catholic doctrine or the first four church counsels.[6]  The Church of England was now around a hundred years old, but only recently before Taylor had thinkers like Richard Hooker begin to defend and clarify Anglican theology.   At such a volatile time in English history and an important developmental time for the Church of England, it was important for the Church of England to present a unified front with their ministers. 

Given their split with Rome, the Church of England formed in consideration of Roman Catholicism and Taylor become a fierce critic of Roman Catholicism. However, it did not always seem that way.  He once had to deal with accusations of crypto-popery.[7]  As he moved past that, there were very key points where Taylor disagreed with Roman Catholicism.  He rejected transubstantiation, but was still convicted of a real presence in the Eucharist.  Taylor argued that the real presence was spiritual rather than physical though.[8] However, he did not feel that it was a matter of salvation whether one thought the real presence was physical or spiritual and so it should not be a reason for division:

there is no need at all to dispute it; no advantages by it; and therefore it were better it were left at liberty to every man to think as he please; for so it was in the church for above a thousand years together; and yet it were better, men would not at all trouble themselves concerning it; for it is a thing impossible to be understood; and therefore it is not fit to be inquired after.[9]

He also denied original sin, and sometimes was labeled a semi-Pelagian because of that conviction.[10]  These are two major points of disagreement to have with Roman Catholicism and were controversial positions to have within the Anglican Church as well.  Taylor definitely saw the Roman Church as in error on these two points, but had deeper criticism to give to Roman Catholicism.   

As much as Taylor disagreed with these points of Roman doctrine, there was something that Taylor repudiated about Roman Catholicism more than these doctrines.  He was intensely against the claim that salvation was only found in the Roman Church, and forcefully opposed how they pronounced damnation on all who were not a part of it.[11]  A doctrine like this violates two key themes that Taylor used to guide his thinking, unity and humility.  The tendency of wanting to construct rigid doctrinal walls is a major way Taylor thought Anglicanism could distinguish itself from Roman Catholicism.  Taylor saw Anglicanism’s “eclectic theology” as its “holy strength”.[12]  This eclectic disposition provided fertile ground for Taylor to develop his sense of religious toleration. 

Also, it should be remembered the religiously hostile environment Taylor was brought up in.  There were strong and sometimes violent disagreements between Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants.  With this historical setting, it makes sense that Taylor would have a disposition towards religious tolerance.  Many were exhausted by the religious feuding between the different denominations and longed for peace and security.  Although it may be hard to give a number, Taylor did face imprisonment on more than one occasion.[13]  Religious toleration and a sense of Christianity unity would have helped bring security and rest to the nation.  Beyond just theological and rationale reasons for religious toleration, Taylor’s environment and experiences played a role in shaping those beliefs.

Taylor would become one of the earliest protestant thinkers to advocate religious tolerance.[14]  His push for religious tolerance was a major factor for why he disapproved of the Roman Catholic teaching that there is no salvation outside the Roman Church.  For Taylor, one’s faith and salvation were more about what one actually believed and how one lived, rather than what particular church one gave allegiance too.  He wrote this to a woman who recently converted to Roman Catholicism:

it were better you enquired what your Religion is, than what your Church is; for that which is a true Religion to day, will be so to morrow and for ever; but that which is a holy Church to day, may be heretical at the next change, or may betray her trust, or obtrude new Articles in contradiction to the old, or by new interpretations may elude ancient truths, or may change your Creed, or may pretend to be the Spouse of Christ when she is idolatrous, that is, adulterous to God: Your Religion is that which you must, and therefore may competently understand; You must live in it; and grow in it; and govern all the actions of your life by it; and in all questions concerning the Church, you are to choose your Church by the Religion, and therefore this ought first and last to be enquired after.[15]

Taylor saw that there were multiple instances and varieties of Christianity practiced in the world that should be respected.  To be clear though, he did not find all the different denominations as equally valuable, even if in many respects they were equally valid.[16]  To him, no church has the ability to claim exclusive catholicity and salvation.  This means we need to honor and respect the diverse array of Christian Churches.  Some churches may uphold catholic tradition more fully than other churches, but this does not give one church the right to claim to be the only church were salvation may be received.  He points out all the established churches and Christians that would be damned if the Roman Church was the only church to provide salvation:

In the mean time you can consider this; if the Roman Church were the Catholick, that is, so as to exclude all that are not of her communion, then the Greek Churches had as good turn Turks as remain damned Christians, and all that are in the communion of all the other Patriarchal Churches in Christendom, must also perish like Heathens.[17]

If other Churches could trace back their leaders and beliefs to the early church and the creeds, then pronouncing damnation on them was utterly erroneous.  However, Taylor did not have unbounded tolerance and acceptance of diverse Christian beliefs.  As much as he stressed unity, he did believe there were limits to conciliar projects.[18]  For Taylor, catholicity and the creeds were king.  The more a church departed from these two things, the more they were leaving what it meant to be Christian and the likelihood to be an avenue for salvation.

We get the sense that unity and humility are major themes that direct Taylor’s thinking.  In order for one to accept that there are multiple legitimate churches, unity and humility must play a significant role.  Taylor has a desire to acknowledge the full scope of Christian expressions in the world and to allow everyone to follow their conscience on how to follow God.  Also, he wants to guard against arrogant doctrine that does not allow for mystery and wonder, but thinks it knows all the answers and tries to make final judgements on people.  So, it is these two themes that are directly offended and disregarded when Roman Catholics claim salvation is in the Roman Church alone.

Unity and humility were connected for Taylor in an intimate way and were key concepts to be practiced in local churches, not just in theological discussion.  He wrote to church leaders telling them that if there happen to be members in your church who are not just disagreeing with your theology, but of the highest forms of dissenters, “Papists and Sectaries”, do not abuse them or treat them harshly.  Talk to them often with gentleness and kindness, and do this so that you may bring them into unity with the church.[19]  He even goes further than this and tells church leaders not to make proclamations about damnation on people because this is not their place:

Be not hasty in pronouncing damnation against any man or party in a matter of disputation. It is enough that you reprove an Error; but what shall be the sentence against it at the day of Judgment, thou knowest not, and therefore pray for the erring person, and reprove him, but leave the sentence to his Judge.[20]

When we look back towards the Roman Catholic claim of exclusive catholicity and salvation, it is becoming clearer why Taylor would be deeply against this doctrine.  Not only did it damn him, but he saw it going against the governing themes of unity and humility. To make matters even more contentious, Taylor was convinced that anything the Roman Church could point to as being grounds for claiming their church leads one to salvation, was really taken from Anglicanism and found in the Church of England.  So, the Roman Church is stealing from the Anglican Church and using this stolen material as their basis for salvation, and then telling the Anglicans they have no salvation in the Church of England:

I wish you would consider, that if any of our men say salvation may be had in your Church, it is not for the goodness of your new Propositions, but only because you do keep so much of that which is our Religion, that upon the confidence of that we hope well concerning you.[21]

He definitely had a low view for the possibility of salvation through the Roman Church as he also writes, “We warrant it not to any, we only hope it for some”.[22]  For Taylor, the perspective on salvation should be flipped between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.  It is the Anglican Church that possesses the essentials for salvation, and it is the Roman Church that accidently produces a saved soul, and this is only done because of the way the Roman Church is leaning on the truths in the Church of England.

As we have seen, Taylors rejection of the Roman Church’s claim to exclusive catholicity and salvation is multi-faceted.  He rejects this claim most obviously because he is an Anglican, and thus believes he has received salvation outside of the Roman Church, and feels the Roman Church is in so much error that anything of truth in it is really borrowed from the Anglican Church.  Beyond that, he views a claim as grand as this to be blindly arrogant and unreasonable given the vast number of Christians that would be damned since they are not a part of the Roman Church.  Especially if they may be able to reasonably trace their church and doctrines back to the creeds and the earliest followers of Jesus.  Taylor said this was a belief that goes against reason, and could be a dangerous way of thinking if taken up by the wrong person.[23] This sort of statement violates the themes of unity and humility that formed and guided Taylor’s thinking and caused him to react forcefully against this belief.

Taylor valued humility and unity and they directed much of how he lived his life as a Christian.  We should strive to unify the Church under the teachings and creeds that were born from the apostles and earliest church leaders.  Matters outside the first four creeds thus were not essential beliefs for salvation and required humility and tolerance for conflicting convictions.  He had a position about the real presence in the Eucharist, but also was humble enough to recognize that the Eucharist is a mystery and so should not create heated debate that causes division.  Even among heated disagreements, we could still find a way to be united.  For Taylor, the Roman Church was going directly against both of these guiding principles of life and faith and betraying some of the most intimate ways Taylor oriented his life when they claimed that salvation is only found in the Roman Church.

[1] High Church Tradition (Class Handout). 2.

[2] Moorman, John R. H. A History of the Church in England. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 1994. 235.

[3] Richey, Jeffrey L. 1998. Eclectic Theology as Holy Strength: Jeremy Taylor, Pluralism, and the Search for an Anglican Way in Theology. Sewanee Theological Review 42 (1): 66–85. 78.

[4] Elmen, Paul. 1962. Fame of Jeremy Taylor. Anglican Theological Review 44 (4): 389–403.392.

[5] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman Newly Seduced to the Church of Rome. Project Canterbury, 1687. 1.

[6] Taylor, Jeremy. Rules and Advices to the Clergy. Project Canterbury, 1672. 7.

[7] Spurr, John. Taylor, Jeremy, D.D. (1613–1667). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, September 28, 2006,1–14. 2.

[8] Taylor, Jeremy. The Real Presence and Spiritual of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament Proved Against the Doctrineof Transubstantiation. Project Canterbury, 1828. 3.

[9] Taylor, Jeremy. The Real Presence. 2.

[10] Spurr, John. Taylor, Jeremy, D.D. (1613–1667). 11.

[11] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman. 7.

[12] Richey, Jeffrey L. 1998. Eclectic Theology as Holy Strength. 70.

[13] Spurr, John. Taylor, Jeremy, D.D. (1613–1667). 5.

[14] Spurr, John. Taylor, Jeremy, D.D. (1613–1667). 9.

[15] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman. 2.

[16] Richey, Jeffrey L. 1998. Eclectic Theology as Holy Strength. 82.

[17] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman. 2.

[18] Richey, Jeffrey L. 1998. Eclectic Theology as Holy Strength. 72.

[19] Taylor, Jeremy. Rules and Advices to the Clergy. 3.

[20] Taylor, Jeremy. Rules and Advices to the Clergy. 6.

[21] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman. 9.

[22] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman. 7.

[23] Taylor, Jeremy. A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman. 9.

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