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date: 17 June 2019

(p. 365) The Political Bible (p. 366)

(p. 367) Introduction to Part IV

The Bible was political in every sense: it was the object of political battles in its translation and dissemination; it was a source of political thought and legitimacy; it was a model for how one should govern and, equally, for political opposition. For some, its authority could trump secular power; for others, policing its misuse was among the most troubling tasks of governance. It is also the case that the political nature of the Bible changed drastically across the period covered in this book. In the sixteenth century, many of the ‘political’ issues surrounding the Bible were facets of its place in the life and liturgy of the country. The tensions between the established Anglican Church, its Puritan edges, and the survival of Catholicism were at the very centre of English political life in the century following the break from Rome, and the Bible was very frequently at issue, either directly or indirectly. Fierce disputes over idolatry, church decoration, and the role of preaching in religion were all dependent on diverse scriptural readings. The doctrinal fissures between Rome and the Protestantisms of Europe devolved upon the claims to interpretative authority, whether, as Catholics argued, interpretation had to be rooted in a centuries-old mediating tradition, to tether how the Bible was understood, or, as Protestants often claimed, that the scriptures were plain and perspicuous, containing the tools for understanding within their own pages. The Bible was read as a significant source of authority in discerning the rights and duties of ruler and ruled, along with matters of sovereignty and the relationship between ecclesiastical and secular government.

In many ways, the seventeenth century in England was still more heavily dominated by scriptural interpretation as a way of figuring questions of state. A culture of politically inflected sermons was one of the dominant features of English life in the era, in court, urban parish, and print. Biblical literacy—familiarity with its stories and their political import—was unparalleled, and the Bible became, it is no exaggeration to say, the quotidian language of political thought. It can mean a wide variety of things to say that a particular (p. 368) piece of writing is ‘political’. A good deal has been written, for example, on the ecclesiastical politics of church and state, on the politics of doctrine, of Calvinism and Arminianism, Presbyterianim and Anglicanism. But the role of the Bible in the politics of the era goes beyond its theology and ecclesiology. In a culture that knew its Bible so thoroughly, that could expect its readers and listeners to be familiar with what seem to us obscure scriptural references, sermons and tracts that consist of biblical exegesis were often pointedly political, even before any direct ‘application’.

Jane Rickard explores one of the key sources of and models for political interpretation, James VI and I, an inveterate exegete, who from early in his Scottish reign to late in his English kingship, produced learned scriptural annotations. James engaged in lengthy polemical and political readings of the Bible. These were widely read and genuinely admired, even among those who could not countenance the absolutist political positions he drew from the scriptures. The seventeenth century in England saw battles over the constitutional weight of King, Parliament, and people more vehement than any previous era. Though inadvertently, James’s political exegesis provided an impressive prototype for those many who subsequently transposed questions of biblical polity forward to the seventeenth century. It is often a mistake to attribute too much of a country’s politics to a monarch, if it is at the expense of the multiple currents of political thought. However, in both his championing of preaching and in his own Protestant model of non-clerical exegesis—his books were produced in both affordable and lavish editions—James had a significant influence on the diffusion of biblical-political practice. That this practice bore terrible fruit has become one of the truisms of seventeenth-century historiography, which has often seen overwrought interpretation of the Bible as, if not a cause, then at least a contributory factor to the radicalisms and fanaticisms of the Civil Wars.

Anne Lake Prescott’s chapter produces a micro-history of biblical-political interpretation of King Saul, the first Israelite king, in a single year, 1643, to show just how varied a set of interpretations might accrue around a biblical figure. Demonstrating the multidimensionality of such exegetical histories, Prescott’s chapter traces the cornucopia of different readings and political wrangles around this most flawed monarch, who might be seen as either sacrosanct in his anointing, or as a king deposed by the subsequent anointing of David. The array of constitutional thought that arose from this—whether the people had in effect elected their king, whether David, pursued by the increasingly incapacitated and demented Saul, exemplified legitimate self-defence—is counterbalanced by an array of related matter, on, for instance, what the story had to say about the nature of music or the nature of witchcraft. Early modern readers derived vast amounts from the minutiae of the Bible and in no sphere was this more apparent than when it was being used to create the vibrant language of politics.

That certain verses of the Bible were particularly fraught is illustrated in a number of tracts and essays touching on the electric ambiguity of 1 Samuel 8, in which kingship was inaugurated. Readers debated—and we might say went to war over—the constitutional implications of this story, how far it licensed or limited a king. It was a text that generated much comment, from tyrannicidal and Jesuit writings of the later sixteenth century, to the radical republicans and absolutist royalism of the Civil Wars. This first and tainted grant of kingship is the subject of Kim Ian Parker’s chapter, which traces across a number of writers what Samuel meant for early modern politics, and demonstrates a vibrant movement of ideas across writers who produced radically inconsistent readings of a single text. (p. 369) Proceeding from early modern understandings of the ‘Hebrew Republic’, Parker explores the ambiguities around the idea of a monarch, and the interpretative uncertainty about whether the scripture endorsed or repudiated kingship.

Alongside constitutional debate that sought to define the relative merits of monarchy, the Civil War era also gave rise to new forms of radicalism that drew heavily on the Bible, none more troubling than the communism of the Levellers, whose argument, in large part, was premised on a vexed question of biblical authorship. Leveller writers, as Andrew Bradstock’s chapter shows, made the case very seriously that the scriptures were the work of fishermen and shepherds, of herdsmen and husbandmen, that the inspiration that prompted the writers of the Bible was the same Holy Spirit that properly animated its interpretation. In such a reading, the elaborate scholarship that gathered around the Bible was a terrible ruse to lock away its liberating message, in the same way that the complexity of the quadriga, in early Reformation thought, was seen as a Roman ruse to retain interpretative control of the scriptures. Protestant thought across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries remained entangled in its insistence that the Bible was self-interpreting—that obscurity in one place would be clarified in another—and the contrary position that interpretation of the Bible was complex, demanding scholarly acumen and certainly not something that anyone untutored or untrained was fit to take upon themselves. Enthusiasm—the notion that the interpretation of the Bible was first a matter of the infused spirit, with bookish learning either secondary or a positive hindrance to understanding—remained a problem for the established church and, not surprisingly, there was often a political dimension to such untrammelled readings.

It remains an entrenched belief that the radical Bible of the Civil War era lost its political bite at the Restoration, and that, as the nation recoiled from the incendiary and regicidal uses to which it had been put, the country’s political language became more or less secular. However, it is quite wrong to suppose that this happened in any rapid fashion. Emma Major’s chapter describes the continuing currency of the Bible in political affairs up to and beyond the end of the century. Exploring the turmoil that engulfed the monarchy and country around the Exclusion Crisis and invasion by the Dutch King, William of Orange, she traces the role of scripture in the acrimonious disputes by which the country resisted the Catholic direction imposed by James II and how the Bible emerged again as a political resource, in the widely held supposition that matters of state and that the providential hand of God in events could be discerned in its pages. (p. 370)