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Peter Harrison on ‘Religio’

James 1:27 does typically give Christians some grief: how can “true religion” be properly equated with making charitable stop-overs to orphans? In an incisive discussion on the historical relationship between the terms religion (religio) and science (scientia) in his Territories of Science and Religion, Peter Harrison makes clear that we typically misunderstand the import of the term used by the Apostle James for “true religion”.

The idea of “true religion”is translated as religio in Latin. Religio was typically meant to imply an inward piety, whereas ‘religion’ is today usually equated with a system of beliefs and practices. Harrison discusses some examples of the use of the term religio that will interest the readers of this website.

The translation history of Protestant Reformer John Calvin’s classic Institutio Christianae Religionis (1536) gives a good indication both of the importance of the definite article and of changing understandings of religion in the seventeenth century. Calvin’s work was intended as a manual for the inculcation of Christian piety, although this fact is disguised by the modern practice of rendering the title in English as The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The title page of the first English edition by Thomas Norton bears the more faithful “The Institution of Christian Religion” (1561). The definite article is placed before “Christian” in the 1762 Glasgow edition: “The Institution of the Christian Religion.” And the now familiar “Institutes” appears for the first time in John Allen’s 1813 edition: “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” The modern rendering is suggestive of an entity “the Christian religion” that is constituted by its propositional contents— “the ­ institutes.” These connotations were completely absent from the original title. Calvin himself confirms this by declaring in the preface his intention “to furnish a kind of rudiments, by which those who feel some interest in religion might be trained to true godliness.”1

As his discussion develops, Harrison identifies changes in the conception of scientia and religio over time. One consequence of these changes is that during and after the Reformation, religio began to be viewed more as a social entity, or a “political and legal construct”. The reasons are complex, and I won’t expand upon them here (although you can read a compelling review of the book by Jamie Smith here). Harrison summarises the changing understanding of religio from the magisterial and Puritan perspective as follows:

For some, these new, objectively defined religions were entirely compatible with more traditional conceptions of religion as inner piety. Those who held to the primacy of the interior dimension of religion could at the same time uphold the importance of explicit belief and could also understand religion in those terms. For the first generation of Protestant Reformers and the English Puritans, for example, there was an intimate relationship between the inner and outer components of religion. As we have seen, the major Reformers stressed both the importance of genuine piety and the need for the profession of explicit beliefs.2

Religio as inner piety and outward conformity to faith-related practices and belief systems were not held to be in tension by our Protestant forebears. Harrison’s discussion serves to remind us that religio is not to be mere externals, which brings us back to the Apostle James. Religio should be characterised by an inward piety compelling outward love toward our neighbour.

  1. Harrison, Peter. Territories of Science and Religion. (Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2015) pp. 10-11
  2. Ibid., p. 98.

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.

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