The Political use of the Bible in Early Modern Britain


by Dr. Gai Ferdon

..Why should twenty-first century Christians take the time and effort to learn about how seventeenth-century Protestants thought about politics?…”

from the foreword by John Coffey, Professor of Early Modern History and Cambridge Papers writer. He continues:

“… I can think of three reasons. First, it is a means of resourcement. In the contemporary climate, Christians are strongly tempted to follow secular ideologies and neglect the resources of their tradition. …..And while reflecting on the political thought of previous generations of Christians can be taxing, there is no better way to enlarge our reference group and learn from the wisdom (and folly) of past generations. ….. Ferdon’s paper does just that, convening an animated and rather fractious seminar in which we hear some powerful and utterly distinctive voices: Sir Robert Filmer, John Milton, James Harrington, John Lilburne. A second reason to look to the past is that there are certain perennial issues and tendencies in Christian political thought. We still find ourselves divided over questions of political power – Who holds it? Where does it originate? To whom are the powerful accountable? How can they be removed from power? ….. Understanding the past helps us to make sense of our present. Finally, this study gets us to wrestle with the problem of biblical hermeneutics. We see how different factions in the English Revolution turned to different parts of Scripture as they sought to answer fundamental issues about power. ….. This study shows that there are no easy answers when it comes to reading the Bible politically, and it ought to make us more self-critical in our own hermeneutics. Yet we also find evidence of deep and serious engagement with the Bible, and see how the reflecting on the Old and New Testaments was once an integral part of European political thinking. Reading the Bible with the dead can be a valuable exercise. It highlights strands of Scripture that we may have neglected, and suggests levels of meaning that we may never have encountered. Past thinkers cannot do our thinking for us. But by reading them, we will learn to think more carefully and more deeply about politics. In the light of current controversies over religion in the public square, this could hardly be more necessary.”

The Political use of the Bible in Early Modern Britain Cover