An Eighteenth-Century Skeptical Attack on Rational Theology and Positive Religion: 'Christianity Not Founded on Argument' by Henry Dodwell the Younger

Intellectual History Review 23 (4):453-478 (2013)
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Abstract

In the early 1740s, one book caused turmoil and debate among the English cultural elites of the time. Entitled Christianity Not Founded on Argument, it was attributed to Henry Dodwell the Younger (1706-1784). This book went through four editions between 1741 and 1746, and the controversy that followed its publication involved some of the major figures of English religious thought in the mid-eighteenth century. Dodwell purposely led a skeptical attack on any sort of rational theology, including deistic doctrines of natural religion, which identified ‘true’ religion with the outcomes of unprejudiced, rational inquiry, and Boylean and Newtonian physico-theologies, which aimed at proving God’s existence and the veracity of Christian revelation by combining physico-mathematical rationality with traditional theological concepts. In fact, Dodwell called attention to the limits and inadequacies of human reason and, hence, to the impossibility of achieving religious truth by either reflecting on human nature and morality (as most deists used to do) or investigating the physical world (as several freethinkers, most prominently the deist and pantheist John Toland, and such physico-theologians as Boyle, Newton and their followers did). On the other hand, Dodwell did not openly reject Christianity and, instead, he claimed to be a defender of fideism. However, his observations on the Scriptures, religious education and the de jure divino (divine right) institutions of the Church and the Christian state were extremely ambiguous. For this reason, his book received a variety of reactions in the more than twenty replies that followed its publication.

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Diego Lucci
American University in Bulgaria

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