On the Anglican liturgical calendar, today is the commemoration of Jeremy Taylor, the prolific divine who served as Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland after the Restoration. Most famous for his devotional treatises, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, Taylor was influential to several generations of Anglican clerics, including Charles Wesley. However, the theology he espoused in many of his written works (the notable exception being his prayers) has left him open to charges of legalism and Pelagianism. Samuel Taylor Coleridge offered the first, and for several centuries the only, comprehensive critique of Taylor’s theology.
And yet Jeremy Taylor will not be called a Pelagian. Why? Because without grace superadded by Christ no man could be saved: that is, all men must go to hell, and this not for any sin, but from a calamity, the consequences of another man’s sin, of which they were even ignorant. God would not condemn them the sons of Adam for sin, but only inflicted on them an evil, the necessary effect of which was that they should all troop to the devil! And this is Jeremy Taylor’s defence of God’s justice! The truth is, Taylor was a Pelagian, believed that without Christ thousands, Jews and heathens, lived wisely and holily, and went to heaven; but this he did not dare say out, probably not even to himself: and hence it is that he flounders backward and forward, now upping and downing. (Quoted in Allison, p. 94)
Elsewhere, Coleridge made the devastating conclusion that “Socinianism is as inevitable a deduction from Taylor’s scheme as Deism or Atheism is from Socinianism.”
In more recent times, Bishop C. FitzSimmons Allison has acknowledged the usefulness of Coleridge’s critique and offered a comprehensive critique of his own in his book The Rise of Moralism. Taylor, according to +Allison, expounds a Gospel that “may be concisely summed up as the willingness of God to accept us tentatively on account of his more lenient covenant. Thereafter, however, our hope depends upon our sincere endeavours in the life of repentance.”
Christianity is, for Jeremy Taylor, an enterprise only for those capable of helping themselves. There is no indication as to how Christianity applies to the helpless, nor as to how the weak and the wicked are initially contacted by God’s grace. A person caught in a sinful habit of which he is unable to purge himself cannot expect God’s pardon to help him, and the Church’s role is merely to exhort him to further, seemingly futile, efforts. Such a person may receive Holy Communion only at the further peril of his soul. Taylor almost invariably insists upon the initiative of the sinner and not of God. The sinner must first endeavour, obey, believe, and love, then God will accept, forgive, pardon, love, and save. (pp. 80-81)
Jeremy Taylor, while still held in high esteem for his literary and devotional works, is not everyone’s favorite Anglican.