Wondering what our (human) nature consists in has preoccupied mankind for millennia. In post-Reformation seventeenth-century England however, answers to this question came freighted with a host of particular implications; ramifications for thinking about individual and collective religion, and myriad related issues that touched theology, ethics, and politics. A significant matter then at a time when the English Church’s identity was constantly fought over. It is with exploring different conceptions of ‘nature’ and how they cashed out in the context of these confessional interests that my research is concerned.
Debora Shuger has argued that the Bible played a crucial role in aiding thinkers to navigate questions relating to human nature in Christendom’s early modern period. Unsurprisingly therefore the sources that I work with are united in taking the scriptures as their point of departure. By examining erudite commentaries, theology lectures, and public sermons dating from the early seventeenth-century to the early Restoration, I aim to show how different individuals mined key moments of early sacred history and linchpin New Testament texts, such as Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and his address to the Athenians, for evidence of the essence of human nature.
Whether they felt the answer lay in human rationality, sociability, spirituality, or a combination thereof, the figures I am interested in operated within a theologically laden context. Previously intellectual historians have observed how appealing to a universal sense of human nature offered a way to transcend post-Reformation religious disagreements between rival Christian camps. Whilst this is true, it is also the case that propounding a particular conception of human nature could enable scholars to reinforce their confessional commitments. The story I aim to tell then is not a linear narrative charting the demise of one notion of ‘nature’ in favour of another, but it is a description of the emergence of new approaches to ‘nature’ and their contest with established alternatives. Nor is it a narrowly English narrative; part of what fascinates me about this topic is the influence of cross-confessional continental traditions of thinking about ‘nature’, and reactions to them by English theologians. This previously unacknowledged conceptual battle underlay the confessional conflicts that, to a great extent, define how we think about the religious history of this era.