Source: On Perfectism
At the heart of this novel and very much at the centre of the ecclesiastic authorities’ concerns about Roger Brierley is an old idea – but now a fundamentally unfamiliar one. Today – and, indeed, through much of history, we are inclined to recite that old platitude that ‘nobody is perfect’. These are not just words either; they mask a fundamental acceptance of the fact, a relegation of the issue to an assumption which almost does not require stating, an axiom in the most classical of senses. In spite of all our best efforts we are, ultimately, not all that much better than Calvin made us out to be: i.e. utterly corrupted to the core. But, just for the briefest of moments in the second decade of the seventeenth century in a secluded chapel, half a mile to the east of the hamlet of Grindleton in the middle course of the Ribble Valley, that notion came under direct question. Furthermore, it did so in an environment which nominally claimed to be an absolute and intrinsic part of that Calvinist tradition. Very probably thanks to Brierley’s influence on others who were later to migrate, it was to do so again some decade and a half later – this time not in some half-forgotten backwater beyond most contemporaries’ experiences of the North but right at the heart of the largest of all cities at the time, immediately under the very noses of the highest echelons of the Church establishment. It was to re-invigorate the pre-existing beliefs deposited by German and Dutch mystics in the underground substrata of the English capital.
The concept requires a fuller and more critical examination. The early understanding of the word, perfect, was ‘complete’, ‘finished’ – hence linguistics’ use of the word to describe a completed past tense. It also carried the implication that it contained all parts necessary – exactly what is alluded to in 1 Corinthians (and, by implication, the Theologia Germanica). Aristotle, in ‘Delta’, had drawn attention to two other implications: that it should be so good that nothing might better it and that it described something which had obtained its purpose. The Stoics (who were a source of inspiration for many of those associated with the Hiëlist wing of Continental Familism, largely thanks to Justus Lipsius’ presence amongst them) focused on perfection’s relationship with harmony between Man and Nature. However, critically, in the Stoic understanding of the word, perfection could be attained by anyone. By the fifth century after Christ, two distinct camps of understanding had emerged within Christianity. Saint Augustine had collected up Scriptural references from both Testaments to the issue of perfection for his ‘De perfectione iustitiae hominis’. In the Augustinian interpretation of perfection, man could only achieve it by divine grace; he could achieve nothing through his own will. In contrast, the alternative view – the Pelagian one, named after a British monk, Pelagius – was that perfection was attainable on Earth. However, by one fifth of the way through that century, Pelagianism had been declared heresy and the Augustianian viewpoint had prevailed. Perfectism burrowed deep underground.
Over a thousand years later, the division between Augustinian perfectism and Pelagius’ heretical counterpart resurfaced, albeit with the lines of demarcation shifted subtly. Most authors writing about ‘perfectism’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries draw a distinction between two variants of it. The first type is usually referred to as ‘imputed’ perfection. It was propagated by many of the so-called ‘first wave’ Antinomians, perhaps most notably Tobias Crisp, a follower of John Eaton. For Crisp, the state of sinlessness is ‘imputed’ by Christ’s death. He took on Man’s sin on the cross. Therefore much of the criticism levelled against Crisp and those who followed him regarded whether making Man spotless implied that Christ had actually become a sinner. Although this imputationist line was hardly likely to be met with any great enthusiasm by the ecclesiastic authorities in a society with such deep roots in Calvin, it was seen as the lesser of two evils and it was hard to present ‘imputationists’ as ‘blasphemous’ as such. After all, they were really only making a formal restatement of both the Founding Fathers and their Protestant progeny.
In contrast, there was also ‘inherent’ perfectism. Whereas the imputationist argument implied the regaining of paradise, the inherentist position implied that Eden had never actually been lost. Mankind is made in the same image as Christ, fashioned even in the likeness of the nameless deity and therefore is inherently perfect. The Christian God would not only overlook sin, unwilling to condemn a man to an eternity of punishment for the brief period of sin that is life, He was actually incapable of doing so. Man, as perfect, had stepped outside His power as creator.
In the early seventeenth century, if the imputationist position could just about be stomached, its errant, inherentist sibling certainly absolutely could not be. It shifted fundamentally the relationship between God and Man and had the potential to undermine the historical Christ and the Bible. But, whilst this latter type – advanced perhaps most forcefully by Peter Shaw in London at the end of the 1620s – bears more similarity in its theological arguments to the later ‘Ranter’ position that would crystallise in the ultra-heady anti-establishment year of 1649, it is important to realise that neither the imputationist nor the inherentist interpretations of these previous decades actually saw themselves as encouraging libertine behaviour. Nearly all those who outlined it in the first part of the seventeenth century also went out of their way to emphasise their opposition to libertinism. Effectively they drew upon Luther’s own position: namely that, moral activity was to flow from rather than to religious security. Nevertheless, the inherentist position was close enough to that which had been espoused by Hendrik Niclaes, the founder of Familism (whose adherents had almost certainly had a continuous presence in Elizabethan England in spite of a ‘lost’ intermediate period), for the authorities to make it out as open blasphemy and ‘Familistical’ – a term that seems to have become ever broader in what it could encompass. It did, of course, imply that Man was inherently as pure as Christ and that in itself was certainly enough to be considered blasphemous. After all, both Luther and Calvin had reaffirmed the Augustinian position that Man was not inherently perfect but actually inherently sinful and that he could do nothing of his own accord to correct that situation – except to have faith in Christ.
Furthermore, for all it was sought out amongst those of an antinomian persuasion, the Theologia Germanica warns implicitly against claims of human perfection. Nevertheless, a close reading of it reveals elements of both types of perfectism embedded within the framework of its thinking. And, if it had enough controversy to get those of an antinomian persuasion excited, it had more than plenty to enrage the establishment – even the Puritan-leaning end of that establishment which would even venture into temporary alliances with its arch-critics – if only to demonstrate its own supposed distance from such Familistical tendencies.
So much for the framework! Because, rather awkwardly, Brierley’s own position does not quite fit either type. It has to be remembered that he never actually saw himself as deviating from the strictly Calvinist mode in which he had been raised – or rather, in which he considered himself to have been raised – in Rochdale. This means that his own approach encompassed elements in common with the Precisianist ‘Pietist Turn’ post-Perkins and Greenham. Indeed, contrary to expectations, Brierley would probably not have seen himself in direct opposition to the Precisianists and his differences with them are as much matters of degree and emphasis as they are of fundamentals. Of all of those who might have been accused of advocating libertinism, allegations of such a type against Brierley would have been the most inappropriate. That is not to say that they would not have stuck. It is, of course, perfectly possible – indeed, highly likely by the look of the evidence – that some within his congregations seized on his conception of perfection to promote different conceptions of perfectist behaviour and that this would have attracted the attentions of the authorities more readily. It was very probably their beliefs and their likely more vocal espousal of them (and, possibly, even his tacit tolerance of them) which resulted in the initial complaint against Grindleton’s curate. Prior to that he had only been in trouble (although, indeed, briefly excommunicated) for the standard Non-Conformist godly fare. However, Brierley’s own position from the very start trod a fine and contradictory line between the ability of Man to arrive at perfection and the type of life that such perfection implies. In the novel this conflict is brought home to him with his own translation of the Theologia which focuses his mind more clearly than any ongoing perceived or unconscious struggle with the Precisianist position. Brierley’s Puritan upbringing and his active struggle to cling to this combine at this point with the strong traditions of German mysticism evident in the Theologia.
Therefore, this ‘Calvinistic perfectionism’ (essentially an oxymoron outside of Brierley’s own thinking) might equally be called ‘emulationist’ as perfection is arrived at only be the emulation of the way of life lived by the historical Christ, even though it comes about via the Spiritual Christ; very much in the same tradition as Eckhart, Tauler and À Kempis. Perfection is therefore neither inherent nor imputed but rather earned through hard struggle. However, over time, Brierley seems to have arrived at the sorry conclusion that we really are not up to it! The best we can do is continually try to move in the right direction without slipping back so that we might end up – like Martin Luther – with ‘a certain measure of perfection’.
Meanwhile, in the capital, at a broadly contemporary moment in history to Brierley’s own disillusion, the arrival of several prominent ministers with antinomian leanings and their superimposition upon an urban landscape underpinned by a small but still very radical network of interacting groupings – presumably, at least partly the residue of the English Familism of the late 1500s – brought about an astonishing amalgamation of heterodox ideas. At the heart of this transformations seem to have been a small number of illicit texts ranging from Niclaes’ ‘Evangelium Regni’ to the only recently-discovered English translation of Van Barrefelt’s ‘Treasure’ and from Fitch’s ‘Rule of perfection’ right through to the frequently misascribed Hermetic-alchemical text, ‘The way to blisse’.
Of course, the exact relationship between the nominally-respectable antinomian-leaning ministers and their intrinsically irreputable ‘Familist’ associates is usually a questionable matter. For example, we do not know whether John Everard was really very closely linked to the main Familist factions, he may only have encountered them ‘second hand’ through common links such as Thomas Hodges. However, in a number of instances – most prominently Peter Shaw, baptised in Bury but presumably raised in nearby Radcliffe, Lancashire – we have a little more documentary evidence regarding the nature of their involvement.
Those involved with the remnants of the Family of Love in London, like so many of the theologically radical sects which were to emerge in the Commonwealth, believed that their time was coming: the ‘Fall of Babylon’ as one of their former leaders, the mysterious ‘T.L.’ had put it. At some point (and, indeed, a point which might well have been mathematically calculable) God would step in and draw all the Worldly corruption to an end. Brierley was less clear, debating the wisdom of setting a time and a date in very Calvinistic fashion. All he would say was that the time would come when mankind felt all too comfortable. Four centuries on and the majority of people in the Western World do not give a lot of thought to such ideas. We have all become comfortable enough in our debt-fuelled consumer culture but a culture which has gone over a spiritual cliff and, subsequently, potentially an economic one as well. There may well be wisdom in allowing Roger Brierley to give us some perspective on our lives.