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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 364-365
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Fear and Polemic in Seventeenth-Century England:
Richard Baxter and Antinomianism
Fear and Polemic in Seventeenth-Century England: Richard Baxter and Antinomianism. By Tim Cooper. (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company. 2001. Pp. ix, 238. $79.95.)
One can learn a great deal about the complex religious and political issues that convulsed seventeenth-century England by focusing on the prolific preacher and controversialist, Richard Baxter. Born in 1615, Richard Baxter was an important public figure from his early middle-age years as a chaplain in the New Model Army until his death at age 76 shortly after the Glorious Revolution. A man of some political significance during the Interregnum, as a Nonconformist he was largely excluded from public life after the Restoration. This exclusion led him to concentrate on writing. By his death he had published more than ten million words in almost 150 books, most of which appear to have been read by the author of this interesting monograph and "a prominent portion" of which were "dedicated to destroying Antinomianism" (p. 2). Tim Cooper's book, a revision of his Ph. D. dissertation, is not quite as narrowly focused as might be inferred [End Page 364] from the title. While it is essentially a study of Richard Baxter's interminable intellectual battles with his Antinomian adversaries during and after the English Civil War, it uses that narrow conflict to draw broader conclusions about contemporary English society and religion.
The purpose of the book is "to consider why it was that Baxter so vehemently opposed the Antinomians" (p. 2). While the basic question is simple, the author's answer is not, and in his careful exploration of the problem Cooper makes three fundamental points. First, he argues that Baxter's vigorous and frequent attacks on the Antinomians were animated by "the contentious inclinations of his own nature" (p. 50), in which his stated desire to be a "peace-loving man" (p. 49) was constantly undermined by the passionate ferocity with which he sought truth and attacked his opponents. Secondly, he argues that the extreme exaggerations that Baxter used to characterize and lambaste Antinomians were a characteristic polemical feature of the way contemporary controversialists engaged in argument. "In essence," writes Cooper, "deliberately or otherwise, Baxter made [the Antinomians] out to be far more dangerous than they actually were" (p. 60). Antinomianism was not, he asserts, the theological position of a handful of fringe-dwellers clinging to the edge of a world turned upside down, but in fact it had a respectable theological lineage. Antinomian views lay at the heart of English Protestantism and were "much more significant, more mainstream and [a] more conservative part of English life than has been previously supposed" (p. 197).
Finally, and here Cooper's argument builds on the work of his countryman, J. C. Davis, and of Leo Solt, he argues that by constructing what amounted to a parody of the real theological positions of his adversaries, Baxter was inventing a sect where none really existed and this exercise in fantasy reflected the fears and anxieties of himself and of many of his contemporaries. This latter kind of analysis, explaining the apparent existence of extreme political or religious points of view by reference to contemporary fears and anxieties is plausible and attractive. However, on reflection, one wonders just how much explanatory value words like "fear" and "anxiety" have without a great deal more analysis than they receive here. That said, this is a good book that adds value to our understanding of a major figure in the religious and political history of seventeenth-century England.
Michael G. Finlayson
University of Toronto