Listening to the wise son of Sirach

Many thanks to the North American Anglican for publishing my essay 'Listening to the wise son of Sirach: the significance of the use of the Apocrypha in Tillotson's preaching'.  The essay suggests that his use of the Apocrypha points to Tillotson standing within a tradition of sapiential theology inherited from Hooker and the Cambridge Platonists. It is also a call for contemporary Anglicans to deepen their use of the Apocrypha as a means of renewing a sapiential preaching which can resonate with a contemporary culture seeking a meaningful, enduring wisdom.


Rather than explicitly locating Tillotson within a 'Latitudinarian' tradition – mindful that the meaningfulness of the category ‘Latitudinarian’ has increasingly been convincingly challenged – we might suggest that Tillotson’s use of the Apocrypha, with its emphasis on the Wisdom books, stands within a tradition of sapiential theology in the post-Reformation Church of England, derived from Hooker, sustained by the Cambridge Platonists, and then becoming a defining feature of Anglican life from 1660 to 1832, promoted by ‘Latitudinarian’ and High Church alike. Torrance Kirby has said of Hooker, noting the influence of the Book of Wisdom:

Hooker’s appeal to the principles of sapiential theology with their defining emphasis on the yoking together of wisdom, both natural and revealed, constitutes the mainstay of his apologetic throughout his great treatise … the grand cosmic scheme of laws set out in Book I is intended to place the particulars of the controversy within the foundational context of a sapiential theology.

Williams likewise describes Hooker as "manifestly a sapiential’ theologian". He states of Hooker’s words at the close of Books I of the Laws – "her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world" – they are "very close to those of the great hymns to Wisdom in the sapiential books". Williams continues:

The sudden transition here to the feminine pronoun would alert any scripturally literate reader to the parallel with the divine Sophia of Proverbs, Job and (most particularly) the Wisdom of Solomon.

Tillotson, inheriting this tradition from the Cambridge Platonists, embodied it to the extent that, as Nockles notes, the "ethical and prudential tone" of both (to use rather imprecise terms) High and Broad Church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries "has been called 'Tillotsonian'". Such sapiential theology was not a proto-liberalism, and "much less" the precursor of "the Age of Reason than traditionally has been supposed". As W.M. Spellman has said of the role of those, like Tillotson, whom he terms "the moderate churchmen":

If the appeal to reason be a measure of an affinity with Deism, then the moderate churchmen can no more be identified as the sole progenitors of that hostile force than the medieval successors to Aquinas.

This is suggestive of how Tillotson’s use of the Apocrypha, with its pronounced emphasis on the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, points to a Hookerian Thomism, in which reason and wisdom, rather than being anticipations of Enlightenment accounts, flow from and give expression to a natural order "drenched-with Deity". For Tillotson’s preaching, this took particular expression in how reason and wisdom should shape the Christian moral life, providing the practical exposition of one of his most often quoted verses of Scripture (appearing 43 times in the sermons), Titus 2:12: "Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world".


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