Polemic and piety in Francis Cheynell's The divine trinunity (1650)
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Embargo end date23/03/2023
Francis Cheynell’s (1608-1665) The Divine Trinunity (1650) has recently been acknowledged for its co-extensive treatment of Puritan polemical and practical Trinitarian divinity. This thesis substantially advances the insight that Cheynell was a Puritan exemplar of harmonising scholastic divinity with Trinitarian spirituality. It does this by examining the contents of Divine Trinunity, contextualising them in a broader historical, theological, and philosophical framework. This thesis argues that Cheynell, in the English amphitheatre of Trinitarian polemic, presented his version of Trinitarian theology and spirituality centred on the ‘infinite simplicity’ (i.e., divine unity) of the Trinity. Indeed, at the heart of Cheynell’s polemical-practical Trinitarianism is the metaphysical idea of ‘one single infinite perfection’ common to the Trinitarian persons. The Trin-unity is thus the object of faith and worship, for knowledge of God’s Trinunity carries over into Cheynell’s practical Trinitarianism. At the same time, this thesis shows that Cheynell carved out his own version of Trinitarian Reformed orthodoxy. The internecine Trinitarian strife of Cheynell’s period threw the definition of ‘orthodoxy’ into sharp relief. As a Reformed scholastic, Cheynell, arguing that his Trinitarianism carries the orthodox credentials of biblical and historical testimony, ransacked the humanist storehouse of received wisdom and offered a scholastically nuanced and rich Trinitarian defence that reinforces the synergy between Trinitarian faith and piety in the one true God. Cheynell’s eclectic scholasticism was shaped by the metaphysical and theological priority of God’s infinite simplicity. Chapter One situates Cheynell within current scholarship and mid-seventeenth-century English Trinitarian controversies. It also explores the hinterland of Puritan piety to contextualise Cheynell’s pursuit of Trinitarian communion and provides an overview of the method, thesis, and structure of this study. Chapter Two charts Cheynell’s intellectual life before and during the English Civil War. Key events in Cheynell’s life contributed to his growing concern with rationalist modes of thought that undermined classical Trinitarianism. Such events were conducive to the maturation of Cheynell’s Trinitarian thought, which came to fruition in Divine Trinunity. It will be shown that 1645 onwards marked the watershed moment of the beginnings of Cheynell’s explicit anxieties over Trinitarian unorthodoxy and the need to define God’s identity for England in a 480-page treatise on the Trinity. Chapter Three demonstrates that the notion of infinite simplicity summons the mystery of divine incomprehensibility. This mystery inevitably circumscribes the capacity of human reason in its contemplation of God. The chapter therefore sets the agenda for how Cheynell wanted individuals to think and speak about God. It amplifies Cheynell’s warning against any metaphysical confidence of reason in salvation, paving the way for the necessity of biblical revelation in attaining Trinitarian knowledge of God. At the same time, this chapter’s exploration of divine simplicity by way of Cheynell’s Thomistic eminent distinction of the divine attributes with a slightly Scotistic accent and Nominalist overtone points forward to the way in which Cheynell conceptualised divine unity as regards the nature-person distinction. Chapter Four establishes that, for Cheynell, the Spirit speaking in the Scripture is the authoritative source of Trinitarian knowledge. Thus, Cheynell tackled competing sites of authority (e.g., unwritten tradition and reason as imposed onto the biblical text) to adjudicate the meaning of God’s identity from Scripture. Cheynell opposed Tridentine Catholicism and Socinianism to make clear that the ‘single Godhead’ of the Trinity rests in the divine testimony of Scripture. Chapters Five and Six focus on Cheynell’s metaphysics of unity in Trinunity and Trinunity in unity, respectively. As Chapter Five illustrates, Cheynell’s understanding of personhood emphasised that ‘person’ is not abstracted from the ‘nature’ common to the divine persons. Supporting this point, Cheynell stood on the methodological shoulders of Franciscan Trinitarianism that championed a transcendental vision of the Trinity. As Chapter Six demonstrates, Cheynell espoused a relation theory of personal distinction but contemplated a non-relation theory of the Father and sympathised with other non-relation theories based on an affirmation of God’s simple unity. The chapter also argues that Cheynell adopted the classical tradition of essential communication, which he called ‘natural’ communication to buttress diversity in divine unity. Chapter Seven explores the practical ramifications of the concept of Trinitarian oneness. It argues that ‘natural’ and ‘divine’ worship of Christ terminates in communion with the Trinity as one God. Cheynell called for affectionate knowledge of Christ’s divine nature under the influence of a continentally charged Chalcedonian-Reformed divinity. He deepened this point by stressing apocalyptic communion with the Trinity. Overall, this thesis represents the first major study on Cheynell. It demonstrates that Trinitarian oneness as infinite simplicity characterises Cheynell’s polemical-practical Trinitarianism. It also shows that Cheynell’s Trinitarian defence is nuanced, complex, and rich: his catholicity of ‘orthodoxy’ carries an eclectic vision of Trinitarian tradition.