John Hales was a principled English protestant divine born at Bath in 1584. After an education at Oxford, he was elected fellow of Eton College, the capacity for which he is best known. By 1636, his liberal theological views had brought him into conflict with the masterful,autocratic William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who however, was so charmed by his learning and conversation, that he appointed him as a canon of Windsor.
Hales was a man of learning, well read in many branches of literature, a man of sound common sense, well balanced and moderate in his views, disliked extremism, with a reputation as a peacemaker among his contemporaries. He taught a passion for unity, the value of study, a questioning of religious dogma, but also the necessity of faith. He greatly admired the teachings of Faustus Socinus (see Post: The Socinians in Poland ), and Clarendon said of Hales, ‘he would often say that he would renounce the Church of England tomorrow if it obliged him to believe that any other Christians should be damned, and that nobody would conclude a man to be damned who did not wish him so.’
Hales was one of the earliest admirers of Shakespeare, Dryden saying of him, ‘there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but that he would produce it much better done in Shakespeare’. Like many scholars, Hales wrote little, and reluctantly. His miscellaneous writings were collected and published in 1659, under the title ‘Golden Remains of the Ever Memorable Mr. John Hales’
In 1649, Hales was turned out of his Eton fellowship, having refused to take the oath of ‘engagement’ to the Cromwellian regime. This oath took the form: “I do declare and promise, that I will be true and faithful to the Commonwealth of England, as it is now established, without a King or House of Lords.” He refused on the basis of neutrality. He spent the rest of his life in great want, which was relieved to some extent by the sale of his valuable collection of books. He died on 19 May 1656.
The passage below, “How we come to know the Scriptures to be the Word of God?” I give as an example of the clarity of thought to be found in the writings of John Hales. This is a paraphrased, not a literal rendering of the original, in order to be clearly understood today, yet it retains the substance and reasoning therein.
“How would I know that the classical writings we ascribe to the Roman poet Livy were indeed written by him? What of the Holy Scriptures? If they be the word of God, by what certain means are we to be sure?
The first is the accepted voice of tradition, the generations preceding us back to the times of the apostles, accepting as fact that which they read, preserved and instructed us, by their examples and their writings. The ordinary and plain faith of those taught this way testifies to the Bible’s veracity.
Some may object, this may give weight that Moses, Matthew, Paul and the rest wrote the books attributed to them, and about those times they bear witness to, but how does this prove they penned the Word of God?
How else, indeed, would man be persuaded but by miracle, without holy spirit it would not be possible. Man born in sin, could not conceive of such a work as the Holy Scriptures, miraculous power through Christ and the apostles (and earlier men who taught in harmony with God’s will), power that if from men, would surely have failed.
The foundation then, was by miracle, but the building was raised by miracle of a different order, the truth of Christ’s doctrine, the preaching of the word, and its confirmation in the faithful record of its adherents. And what shall we think of the inward working of the holy spirit in the consciences of every believer? This too, a further assurance, strong and sufficient, and beyond argument, since it is private to every man, and yet building upon the truth of Christ and the faith of the apostles. Hence we know the Scriptures to be the Word of God”.
References: Cambridge History of English Literature (Ward, Waller, ed.)
Six Centuries of English Literature (Patterson)