Criticism and Confession

The Bible in the Seventeenth Century Republic of Letters

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Nicholas Hardy
Oxford-Warbug Studies
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Nicholas Hardy’s Criticism and Confession, the author reexamines several well-known figures of the 17th-century Republic of Letters, including Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon, Hugo Grotius, and Louis Cappel, to name a few. These men, previously analyzed for their contribution to the rise of scholarly criticism that challenged the prevailing religious understandings of the Bible, receive a more nuanced treatment taking into consideration their confessional commitments alongside their development of new methods of scholarship. 

Over the past few decades, scholars have challenged the once popular secularization thesis, which claimed that the rise of modernity in the Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a commitment to philosophy and reasoned thought and a consequent disappearance of religious commitment and theological orthodoxy. This historiographical shift that has taken place especially in studies of 18th-century Europe has allowed for a more nuanced view of religion, and the ripple effects are now becoming evident in historiographies of other centuries. Developed from his doctoral thesis, Hardy’s book applies this same nuance to the 17th century. He reassesses interpretations of men among the Republic of Letters whose works of criticism have been presented as “proto-Enlightened,” placing them instead in their religious and social contexts and evaluating their confessional commitments that have thus far been overlooked (309). 

Criticism and Confession is a work of intellectual history that seeks to contextualize not only the texts but also the thinkers who wrote them. It is divided into three large parts: Debating Sacred History; Commenting on the New Testament; and Criticizing the Old Testament. Hardy aims to resituate the popularly studied works of scholars such as Casaubon, Grotius, and Cappel, by also placing them in the context of their other, less studied works. In analyzing drafts of unpublished works and personal letters, Hardy is able to show us another side of these scholars. They not only contributed to the growth of new historical critical methods of scholarship, but also defended their theological commitments. Instead of a group of critics “transcending religious affiliations,” he reveals scholars whose confessional identities informed and often inspired their scholarly work (7). He places them in conversation with the peers they debated, such as de Thou, Baronius, and Bellarmine. 

A fascinating aspect of Hardy’s work is his analysis of these men as “confessionally ambiguous” (220). For example, the Huguenot Casaubon at one time wrote under the patronage of the Catholic King of France, Henri IV, and then emigrated from France to write under the patronage of James I, head of the Church of England. On the other hand, his work was not wholeheartedly embraced by the Reformed Protestants, who saw his understanding of the doctrine of justification as leaning too far toward Arminianism. Though Grotius was Protestant, and some of his work was condemned by the Index, at the same time, Catholic authorities viewed him as a possible candidate for conversion and gave him feedback on his work for potential revisions he could make to get it approved and removed from the Index. Even Jean Morin, a Catholic priest, had previously been a Protestant.

The impressive 402-page length of this volume is thanks in part to the extensive citations that often include excerpts of the texts in their original Latin and Greek. Its organization, however, is not always evident. While it is somewhat organized thematically and chronologically, those organizing principles seem to shift and result in some repetition in different sections. For example, the discussion of Cappel’s use of Old Testament typology in section 3 repeats a theme that was covered at length in section 1. The book suffers a little from the chapter divisions, resulting in a front-loaded one-hundred-page chapter on Casaubon followed by significantly shorter chapters ranging anywhere from ten to fifty pages. The chapter headings sometimes cover only part of the contents. For example, chapter 1 purports to cover Casaubon in England from 1610-1614, but nevertheless covers in significant detail the decade prior to this, laying out his time spent in France, especially his involvement in the Conference of Fontainebleau in 1600 and his participation in the conflict between Venice and Rome in 1606, for which he wrote De libertatione ecclesiastica. This study of his prior work is essential to fully contextualize his Exercitationes, published in England, but it may have been useful to divide the lengthy chapter in half in order to treat these periods distinctly before demonstrating their connectedness.

Editorial critiques aside, this is an ambitious work that helps us to better understand the 17th-century Republic of Letters and especially those figures whom historians have previously been eager to place in a heterodox camp and interpret as part of the gradual secularization of modern scholarship. Hardy’s work directs us to the importance of contextualizing early modern scholars with an eye toward their social circles, lines of patronage, and intended audiences. He broadens the scope of evidence by analyzing published works alongside incomplete drafts, suppressed manuscripts, and correspondence, and engages in close readings that show a sensitivity to the theological dimensions of these scholarly works of criticism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katrina Jennie-Lou Wheeler is a doctoral candidate in History at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Hardy is currently Munby Research Fellow in Bibliography at the University Library and Darwin College, Cambridge. His research interests cover early modern humanism, intellectual history, classical reception studies, and the history of the book. He took a BA (2008) in Classics and English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and then an MSt (2009) and DPhil (2012) in English, also at Oxford, before joining Trinity College, Cambridge to take up a four-year Research Fellowship in 2012. He has also held visiting fellowships at the Scaliger Institute, Leiden University Library, and the Folger Institute in Washington, DC.


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