The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote
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The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote


Most philosophers today have never heard of Benjamin Whichcote (1609– 83), and most of the few who have heard of him know only that he was the founder of Cambridge Platonism.1 He is well worth learning more about, however. For Whichcote was a vital influence on both Ralph Cudworth and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, through whom he helped shape the views of Clarke and Price, on the one hand, and Hutcheson and Hume, on the other. Whichcote should thus be seen as a grandparent of both the rationalist and the sentimentalist strands of eighteenth century British ethical theory. In this paper, I will elucidate the particular ethical positions of Whichcote’s that played such an important role.

Whichcote’s thought is interesting in its own right, moreover, as a lens for examining the implications of certain prevalent religious and moral commitments. In what follows, then, I will also seek to show that Whichcote’s profoundly theistic view of human nature is ultimately incompatible with the belief that is fundamental to his Christianity. Perhaps the idea of an irresolvable conflict between Whichcote’s Christianity and his theism sounds at first a bit paradoxical. I hope, though, that by the end of this paper it will be clear how, for many seventeenth century rationalists, such a conflict was virtually inevitable.2 [End Page 271]


The most central claim of Whichcote’s, the thought around which all his other thoughts coalesce, is that religion is rational.3 To understand Whichcote, therefore, we must determine what this claim amounts to.

We can begin by noting that religion, for Whichcote, constitutes all and only those things necessary for salvation.4 So when Whichcote says that religion is rational he is maintaining that everything one needs to do in order to achieve heavenly eternal life is rational to do. If something is not rational to do, conversely, then it must not be part of religion and so one could refrain from doing it and yet still achieve salvation.

Let us say that this view—that religion consists of all and only those things necessary for salvation—is of the form of religion. Whichcote also has a view of what we can call the content of religion, i.e., a view of the particular rational things one must do in order to achieve salvation. Indeed, as one would expect, the lion’s share of Whichcote’s sermons concerns religion’s content. We will discuss Whichcote’s account of the content of religion below, in sections 5, 6, and 7. First, however, let us examine what he means when he insists on the rationality of religion.

Whichcote’s rationalism should initially be viewed against the backdrop of voluntarism. According to voluntarism, God has arbitrarily decided to reward certain actions and punish others. There is, on the voluntarist view, nothing intrinsically right about the actions God rewards and nothing intrinsically wrong about the actions God punishes. He just as easily could have made a different decision, could have rewarded the actions He now punishes and [End Page 272] punished the actions He now rewards. And if God had made a different decision, it would have been right for us to perform actions it is now wrong for us to perform and wrong for us to perform actions it is now right for us to perform.

Whichcote adamantly opposes this voluntarist position. He claims instead that some actions are intrinsically right and others are intrinsically wrong, and that it is the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of an action that makes it rational or irrational to perform, not God’s will.5 Whichcote acknowledges that God rewards people for performing intrinsically right actions and punishes them for performing intrinsically wrong ones (although, as we shall see, he just barely acknowledges such reward and punishment). But he thinks God does this because the actions are antecedently right or wrong. So for Whichcote, what makes an action rational or irrational to perform is an intrinsic feature of it, one that God Himself could not alter—a feature that is essential to the action in the same...