Edward Stillingfleet

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Edward Stillingfleet worked for the Church of England, and was as a clergyman noted for his sermons on doctrinal, historical, pastoral and political issues. He was doctor of divinity (1668), and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (1678). Later he became bishop of Worcester (1689). He was an apologist of the Church of England, and author of The Unreasonableness of Separation (1683). Stillingfeet was a proponent of Newtonianism. See: ODNB.

On the last page of the work (135 pages), Stillingfleet declares that he ‘finished’ the final text of A Letter to a Deist on June 11, 1677. In the treatise, subtitled ‘A Letter of Resolution to a Person Unsatisfied about the Truth and Authority of the Scriptures’, the orthodox Latitudinarian author intentionally brackets atheism with philosophical deism. He also qualifies those who defend and spread deist thought as people who express a ‘mean Esteem of the Scriptures, and the Christian Religion’. In his preface, Stillingfleet explicitly refers to the growing popularity of Tractatus theologico-politicus—the title of which is printed in italics in the external margins (‘Tractat. Theol. politic.’)—without however mentioning its masked author with his full name. During the early 1670s, Spinoza’s treatise had scarcely attracted attention and was mainly commented upon by British intellectuals in their private correspondences. The book quickly found a much wider audience after its so-called T.3e variant—set with a typically typeset and styled title page to give the edition ‘an English appearance’ and bound with Meyer’s Philosophia S. Scripturae interpres—had been published by Jan Rieuwertsz in 1673 (main text) and 1674 (title-page). In the preface to A Letter to a Deist, bishop Stillingfleet therefore warns against the notions in the Dutch book. He also worriedly remarks that its rumoured translation into English would most certainly ramify dissemination of the radical doctrines expounded in the treatise regarding biblical criticism, Mosaic law, prophecy and miracles. Stillingfleet writes in his preface:

There is a late Author, I hear is mightily in vogue among many, who cry up any thing on the Atheistical side, though never so weak and trifling. It were no difficult task to lay open the false Reasonings, and inconsistent Hypotheses of his Book; which hath been sufficiently done already in that language wherein it was written. But of for the Advancement of Irreligion among us, that Book be, as it is talked, Translated into our Tongue, there will not, I hope, want those who will be as ready to defend Religion and Morality as others are to decry and despise them.

Stillingfleet kept occupied with radical biblical criticism and continued his personal battle against atheism the remainder of his life. It would also seem that, like Leibniz, he was particularly fascinated by Spinoza. His extensive private reference library—about 10,000 printed books, now an important collection of the Dublin Marsh’s Library—contained copies of Spinoza’s books (Israel, 2002, p. 604). Apart from Renati Des Cartes Principiorum philosophiae pars I et II; Cogitata metaphysica, Tractatus theologico-politicus and Opera posthuma, Stillingfleet owned copies of Dutch refutations by Frans Kuyper, Christoph Wittich and by Johannes Bredenburg.

In 1697, Stillingfleet embarked upon a major new project of apologetics named Origines sacrae—a work that should not be confused with his earlier anti-atheist Origines sacrae launched in 1662—which was supposed to address mainly issues in the controversial relationship between the New Philosophy and religion. Confidently, Stillingfleet states in the work he also wished to deal with Spinoza, ‘a man too well known in the world, (and whom I intend to consider at large afterwards)’. Despite the announcement, he was only able to finish the manuscript up to chapter two. In Origines sacrae (2), he takes up the view that the ‘atheistical hypotheses’ of the New Philosophy—especially Spinoza’s position on imagination-driven thinking and his claim that final causation is ‘repugnant to the nature of things’—would endanger piety and religion as a whole. Origines sacrae (2) contains quotations from the ‘Ethics’, especially from the Appendix to Part 1, and on the highest good from Tractatus de emendatione intellectus. Like many of his orthodox Dutch adversaries, it becomes evident that Stillingfleet also considered that the theist notions of Spinoza, ‘a strict follower of Des Cartes’s notions in his Metaphysical Meditations’, were the fruit of Cartesian philosophy. Spinoza’s own philosophy, according to Stillingfleet, only aimed at eroding the sacrosanct status of theology and Holy Scripture, a dangerous position which would ultimately only lead to immorality and societal chaos. The portion on Spinoza’s ‘argument from the necessity of all things’ announced by Stillingfleet is lacking in what has comes down to us in Origines sacrae (2).