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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.1 (2000) 97-114

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Blackloism and Tradition: From Theological Certainty to Historiographical Doubt

Beverley C. Southgate *


"Pyrrho himself never advanced any Principle of Scepticism beyond this," complained John Tillotson at the height of the seventeenth-century "rule of faith" debates; 1 and John Sergeant, as Catholic champion and the object of his charge, must have noted the irony. For Tillotson was not unreasonable in concluding that his adversary's theological arguments had the effect of increasing the very uncertainty which they were designed to combat. Sergeant's attempts to overcome scepticism in theology were actually destined to exacerbate the problem of scepticism in relation to historiography.

John Sergeant (1623-1707) was an English secular priest and, more specifically, a member of that notorious faction of Catholics known as "Blackloists," followers of Thomas White (1593-1676), alias Blacklo. 2 White produced some forty works on theology, natural philosophy, and political theory; he was known as an eminent philosopher in his own day and has more recently been restored to wider interest following the publication of Hobbes's lengthy critique of his cosmological treatise De Mundo. Sergeant has remained best known for his advocacy of the Catholic position in the "rule of faith" debates, but he was also a prolific writer on philosophy and, as a late Aristotelian, took issue with such "modernists" as Descartes and Locke. 3 Sergeant was widely recognized as White's [End Page 97] intellectual disciple, and it will be convenient here to consider their thought together. 4 Both devoted much of their time and energy (in Sergeant's words) to "beating down scepticism" or, as White had earlier called it, the "contagion of Pyrrhonism"; and both would have been horrified to think that they had actually contributed to any extension of skeptical philosophy. 5

Blackloist concerns with the refutation of skeptically induced uncertainty had obvious implications for their contributions to the "rule of faith" debates and to their attempted establishment of one single and certain ground of religious belief. During the latter half of the seventeenth century Protestants and Catholics expended a considerable amount of intellectual and emotional energy in advocating their respective routes to that level of religious certainty which would assure salvation. While the former expressed confidence in the reliability of the scriptures' literary record, the latter counter-claimed that they alone enjoyed a faith that was reliably grounded in an unbroken tradition deriving from Christ himself.

Thomas White highlights these issues in his additions to the "corrected and enlarged" 1654 edition of William Rushworth's Dialogues, in which he laments the fragmenting effects of the Reformation. White argues that because they no longer enjoy "one rule among them all" Protestants resort to their various individual principles; and although all appeal ultimately to the authority of the Bible, they each have only their own "private conceit" by which to resolve any ambiguities in the scriptural record. The extraction of religious tenets then becomes effectively a matter of mere guesswork; the whole Bible might as well be replaced by the Koran. Something far more authoritative, White insists, is needed to overcome theological uncertainty--"this dangerous Cockatrice, Incertitude"; 6 and it is precisely such firmly based and wholly reliable authority that he and Sergeant strove to provide. [End Page 98]

In this context, however, theology became intimately interrelated with historiography. Some of the difficulties attendant on the Protestant recourse to the Bible were no doubt specific to the Bible itself, but others related more generally to the validity of any historical record, and it is some of the wider historiographical implications of theological debate that I shall examine in this paper. By arguing against the skeptics and pragmatic Protestants while simultaneously insisting on their own variety of absolute theological certainty based on reliable historical tradition, the Blackloists actually contributed to the development of that form of historiographical uncertainty which culminated in what, by the end of the century, came to be known as "Historical Pyrrhonism." 7

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