Sarah Abegglen Professor Steintrager


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Sarah Abegglen

Professor Steintrager

English 101W: Diabolical Fiction

9 March 2007

Dangerous Assumptions: Unchangeable Destiny in The English Faust Book, Marlowe, and Hogg


This paper examines the topic of predestination in The English Faust Book, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It argues that each of the main characters in these texts is ultimately led to their downfall by their belief in the unchangeability of their fate, a belief manipulated by the demonic figure with which each associates; it also argues that the author of each text is using their particular form of this situation to critique and warn society of the dangerous nature of a blind belief in predestination. These three texts complement each other, each adhering to the same basic idea that it is the character’s belief in his sealed fate, aggravated by the demonic figure in each text, that ultimately leads to his ruin, though each has a slightly different take on the cause of that determination of a predestined fate. In The English Faust Book, Faust believes he is damned because of his own actions, that his sins are too great for God to forgive. Mephostophiles encourages this belief, frequently reminding Faust that he has signed away his soul and cannot break the contract he has made with Lucifer. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Faustus believes he is damned because of a combination of a Calvinist belief in the predestination of all of mankind to damnation (a conclusion he comes to by way of faulty reasoning) and, as in The English Faust Book, a Mephastophilis-encouraged belief that, having signed away his salvation, he cannot get it back. Marlowe’s play is a blend of the two ideas set forth in the other text: Faust’s belief in his unchangeable damnation because of his pact with the devil and George Colwan’s unshakeable conviction of his own Calvinist predestination to heaven in Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Colwan is told early in the narrative that he is one of God’s elect, and thus, egged on by the mysterious, demonic Gil-Martin, he commits multiple crimes, believing that nothing he does can stop his salvation. Although the reader is, in this case, left in some doubt as to Colwan’s actual fate, they are left with the distinct impression that Colwan’s salvation is not nearly as secure as he believes it to be.

Each character takes up the view (in some form or another) that God is the cause of everything, a view that Hume denounces in his “Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion,” arguing instead that humans cannot presume to know enough about such a Being to make that assumption. These ideas are a matter of wide scholarly debate, some writers arguing for an anti-Calvinist reading of the three texts and others arguing for a more ambiguous reading as a forum for the predestination debate to be played out. Both of these sides, however, admit to the characters’ own conceptions of their sealed fates, and, in fact, both sides support a reading of the experiences of these characters as a result of their firm belief in their own unchangeable destinies.

The English Faust Book, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner each tell the story of a man carried to his downfall by the assumptions he makes about his eternal soul. Through his belief in the unforgivable nature of his actions, his predestination to a particular fate, or a combination of both, each of these characters assumes more than he is justified in assuming, as Hume argues in his works. These assumptions lead the characters down paths of evil, with their actions culminating in both their earthly and their other-worldly ruins. The authors of each work use the mistakes of their characters to warn people in their respective societies of the dangers of making such assumptions. Each of the main characters in these texts is ultimately led to his downfall by his belief in the unchangeability of his fate, a belief manipulated by the demonic figure with which each associates; the author of each text uses his particular form of this situation to critique and warn society of the dangerous nature of a blind belief in predestination.

In The English Faust Book, Faust is led to his damnation by his inability to believe that he can be saved after having signed a pact with Lucifer, a viewpoint that Mephostophiles manipulates in order to ensure Faust never fully repents. Countless times in the book, Faust comes close to repenting for his sins and asking God for forgiveness and saving grace. After Mephostophiles fulfills his wish to hear the story of Lucifer’s fall from grace, Faust begins to move toward repentance; he cries out, “‘Am not I also a creature of God’s making, bearing His own image and similitude, into whom He hath made all living things subject?’” (EFB 82). Yet, each time he begins to seek forgiveness, he pulls himself back, assuming himself already damned because of his agreement with the devil. “‘...yea, pride hath abused my understanding, insomuch that I have forgot my maker, the spirit of God is departed from me, I have promised the devil my soul: and therefore it is but a folly for me to hope for grace, but it must be even with me as with Lucifer, thrown into perpetual burning fire’” (EFB 82). Faust gives up all hope, believing that there can be no forgiveness after his action of signing away his soul, despite the fact that there is no way for the devil to enforce their pact. Mephostophiles manipulates Faust’s belief in the security of the contract, using this belief rather than the agreement itself to damn him. As Smeed writes in his book Faust in Literature, “That man’s powers of perception and understanding are limited by his modes of experiencing and categorizing sense-data provides the Devil with a means of trapping Faust...” (Smeed 89). Mephostophiles plays off of Faust’s limited understanding of their contract, and his unquestioning trust of Mephostophiles’ word as truth, to further convince Faust he is damned, keeping him from repenting and achieving salvation. When Faust asks about the nature of Hell and whether those in Hell can ever find favor with God again, Mephostophiles replies:

For what shouldst thou desire to know that, having already given thy soul to the devil to have the pleasure of this world and to know the secrets of hell? Therefore art thou damned, and how canst thou then come again to the favor of God? Wherefore I directly answer, no. For whomever God hath forsaken and thrown into hell, must there abide His wrath and indignation in that unquenchable fire where is no hope nor mercy to be looked for, but abiding in perpetual pains world without end. (EFB 87)
What Mephostophiles says is partly true, those whom “God hath forsaken and thrown into hell” are damned for eternity; however, Faust overlooks the fact that he himself has not yet actually been “thrown into hell.” Mephostophiles uses Faust’s limited understanding to further convince him that his damnation is an inescapable fact, when he can actually still be saved.

Part of Faust’s mistake in The English Faust Book is that he assumes too great a knowledge of God in his assumption of his unchangeable damnation, which is a violation of the concepts of Pyrrhonian skepticism that Hume argues for in his “Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion.” In his work, Hume writes, “It seems to me, that this theory of the universal energy and operation of the Supreme Being, is to bold ever to carry conviction with it to a man, sufficiently apprized of the weakness of human reason, and the narrow limits, to which it is confined in all its operations” (Hume 72). Hume argues that man, with his limited reasoning and understanding, cannot comprehend the workings of a limitless Supreme Being. Faust, however, assumes a knowledge and understanding of God that is faulty in that it both relies on a human model of limited forgiveness (rather than God’s all-encompassing, undeserved grace) and presumes a knowledge of a Being that exists outside the realm of Humean understanding. Faust “...was ever pondering with himself how he might get loose from so damnable an end as he had given himself unto, both of body and soul: but his repentance was like to that of Cain and Judas, he thought his sins greater than God could forgive...” (EFB 84). Faust assumes that God will not, and indeed cannot, forgive his sin of making a pact with the devil. He falls into the same trap Hume accuses those theodicean philosophers of his day, who argue that “every thing is full of God” (Hume 71), of falling into: having a line “too short to fathom such immense abysses” (Hume 72). Faust’s assumption that he can know his own destiny because he knows God cannot forgive him is a large part of what ultimately leads him to damn himself through his refusal to truly repent and accept grace and forgiveness.

The same belief Faust has in the unbreakability of his contract with the devil in The English Faust Book is also present in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and, just as it did for Faust, this belief plays a large role in Faustus’ ultimate damnation. Faustus follows a similar pattern to Faust: he comes very close to convincing himself to repent, but then he assumes that it is too late for forgiveness because of his pact and pulls himself back before he can receive the grace that will save him. In Act II, Faustus talks himself out of repenting:

Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit?

Be I a devil, yet God may pity me;

Ay, God will pity me if I repent...

...My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent.

Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven,

But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears:

‘Faustus, thou art damned!’... (Marlowe II.iii.643-645, 647-650)

When he even considers the possibility of repentance, he reminds himself that he is already damned, keeping himself from salvation. This assumption, like Faust’s, directly conflicts with Hume’s argument against man’s ability to have any certain knowledge about the nature of God. Faustus assumes that, since he has made a pact with the devil, his destination in the afterlife is set, an assumption based entirely upon the human experience of the nature of contracts. In his article, Fletcher discusses “Faustus’ growing sense of his unchangeable relationship to the afterlife” (Fletcher 191). Faustus does not consider the possibility that God can look beyond his mistakes, offering him forgiveness and release from his deal where humankind would not. Mephastophilis reinforces this viewpoint, just as he does for Faust in The English Faust Book, saying “Think thou on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned” each time Faustus brings up the possibility of repenting (Marlowe II.iii.700). Again, Faustus makes the mistake of taking the devil’s word as truth, using an untrustworthy source to back up his own false suppositions. His determined belief that he is damned as a result of his pact with the devil is a large part of why, at the end of the play, he is, in fact, pulled down into hell.

Faustus’ belief in the unbreakability of his contract is only half of what damns him at the end of Doctor Faustus; the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is also a very active component of Faustus’ damnation. In discussing Faustus’ rapid mood shifts throughout the play, Hamlin alludes to the influence predestination has over Faustus: “Later in the play, when doubts merge more fully with what the English Faust Book calls ‘godly motions,’ and when resolution of ambiguity becomes almost undistinguishable from presumption of damnation, Faustus undergoes still more rapid shifts of mind” (Hamlin 263). The existence of Calvinist doctrine in Marlowe’s work is also supported by his intensive exposure to it during his time at Cambridge. G.M. Pinciss writes, “Marlowe’s arrival in Cambridge coincided with the period when William Perkins became known by his preaching as the most popular and effective spokesman for the extreme Calvinists” (Pinciss 252). Pinciss explains that Marlowe’s Cambridge years coincided with a period of debate over Calvinism. “Naturally, Perkins’s success aroused the anti-Calvinist opposition and, feeling threatened, they began a counterattack. It is this controversy that provided the background for the debate Marlowe would dramatize in Doctor Faustus” (Pinciss 253). When seen in light of this debate, Faustus’ rejection of theology near the beginning of the drama takes on the significance of a belief in predestination.

[He reads.] “Stipendium peccati mors est.” Ha!


The reward of sin is death: that's hard.

[He reads.] “Si peccasse negamus, fallimur,

Et nulla est in nobis veritas.”

If we say that we have no sin,

We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.

Why, then, belike we must sin,

And so consequently die.

Ay, we must die an everlasting death.

What doctrine call you this—Che serà, serà?

What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu! (Marlowe I.i.68-78)

Faustus reads only sections of the Bible here, and thus he does not get the whole picture, which includes the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, using faulty evidence, he reasons his way to the conclusion that all of humankind is predestined to damnation. The audience can see this belief reinforced at the beginning of Act II, when Faustus speaks to himself: “Ay, and Faustus will turn to God again. To God? He loves thee not...” (II.i.446-447). When considered in light of the controversy surrounding Calvinism at the time of Marlowe’s writing, the reader can interpret the role Faustus’ assumption of predestination to hell plays in his damnation as Marlowe’s warning to society of the dangers of too strong a reliance on Calvinist doctrine.

Faustus’ Calvinist-influenced belief in predestination is another violation of the limits Pyrrhonian skeptics place on human knowledge, anticipating the problem Hume considers in his work. Hume takes these problems of knowing in his work and re-examines them. The concept of predestination is perhaps even more a violation of the limits of human knowledge than Faustus’ assumption that he cannot be forgiven. In presuming to know that he is already damned, before he even makes his pact with the devil, Faustus is presuming to know God’s mind and decisions, a direct nonobservance of the principle Hume articulates, that humans are “too short to fathom such immense abysses” as the mind of God (Hume 72). Fletcher writes, “Terrified by God’s punishing vengeance and yet unable to repent, Faustus seems to illustrate the two central themes of early Protestant thought: the otherness of the deity and the predestination of human action” (Fletcher 189). It is this very “otherness” of the deity that Hume argues for in his work, an “otherness” Faustus illustrates in his gross misinterpretation of God’s will for man. Faustus, with his limited human understanding, cannot understand the mind of a Supreme God; thus, he incorrectly assumes he knows God has already condemned him, and, in doing so, he actually condemns himself.

A similar false assumption to that of Faustus in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus leads to Robert Colwan’s1 damnation in Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner; however, in this case, it is Colwan’s unquestioning belief in his status as one of God’s Elect that leads to his ultimate downfall. Colwan celebrates his status as one of the Elect and considers himself free from sin: “I wept for joy to be thus assured of my freedom from all sin, and of the impossibility of my ever again falling away from my new state” (Hogg 115). This assurance serves as justification for his sin throughout the text. After having given a false statement in court after his scuffle with his brother, Colwan reflects that, “Had I not been sensible that a justified person could do nothing wrong, I should not have been at my ease concerning the statement I had been induced to give on this occasion” (Hogg 163-164). He disregards the fact that, even if he is predestined to salvation, he is still human and can still make human mistakes. His certainty of his Elect status convinces him that nothing he does is sinful, a misconception that proves dangerous to his salvation throughout the course of his story. Colwan’s belief in his Elect status not only makes him certain of a self-perfection and a salvation he cannot actually be certain of, but also leads him to commit damning crimes against those he believes are not among the Elect, considering that his duty. He cites this mission to his jailer, explaining: “‘Because, if you are one of my brethren, I will take you into sweet communion and fellowship,’ returned I; ‘but if you belong to the unregenerate, I have a commission to slay you.’” (Hogg 150). He justifies the murders he commits with his belief that these “unregenerate” people are hopeless cases, and, indeed, potentially dangerous for members of the Elect such as himself. Although Hogg never directly tells the reader that Colwan is damned because of his actions, his language does hint broadly at such an eventuality. Near the end of the Editor’s Narrative, the narrator remarks, “Robert Wringhim Colwan was lost once and for ever” (Hogg 92). The final lines of the book leave the reader with a similar understanding: “And in order to escape from an ideal tormentor, [he] committed that act for which, according to the tenets he embraced, there was no remission, and which consigned his memory and his name to everlasting detestation” (Hogg 254-255). Colwan’s mistaken belief that his salvation cannot be lost leads him to not only sin without worry for the consequences, but also leads him to actively seek out occasions for murder, actions which, Hogg suggests to the reader, ultimately lead to Colwan’s damnation.

Gil-Martin, the devil figure within this work, adds to Colwan’s convictions, manipulating him into committing crimes he could be damned for by reassuring him of his predestination for salvation. In fact, it is Gil-Martin himself who first introduces the idea to Colwan; he “proposed calmly that we two should make away with Mr. Blanchard” (Hogg 133). After agreeing to the various plans Gil-Martin devises, Colwan often has moments of hesitation before he commits one of his crimes, but Gil-Martin is able to talk him out of these moments. In the period leading up to Colwan’s attack on his brother, he frequently has doubts about what he is doing. His “ began a little to give way, and [he] doubted most presumptuously of the least tangible of all Christian tenets, namely, of the infallibility of the elect” (Hogg 147). Colwan is on the verge of remedying his mistake of assuming he can know the status of his salvation for certain, but Gil-Martin re-convinces him that nothing he does will affect the state of his eternal soul. Colwan is “...brought over again by the unwearied diligence of [his] friend to repent of [his] backsliding, and view once more the superiority of the Almighty’s counsels in its fullest latitude” (Hogg 147). Even before he suggests to Colwan that they do away with those not among the Elect, Gil-Martin begins planting the idea in Colwan’s head. “He had hinted as much already, as that it was more honourable, and of more avail to put down the wicked with the sword, than try to reform them...” (Hogg 130). Thus, from the beginning of their alliance, Gil-Martin feeds the dual misconception that Colwan carries: first, that he is one of the Elect, assured of his salvation, and, as such, is entitled to take on the work of the Lord without thought for its consequences and second, that the “wicked,” being already predestined to damnation, might as well be killed as there is no chance for their salvation anyway. In doing so, Gil-Martin leads Colwan down the path to his potential damnation, murdering people whose guilt he pre-supposes based on an authority he cannot actually possess.

Despite the fact that Gil-Martin is clearly the primary demonic figure in this text, Colwan’s “reverend father,” Wringhim, also acts as a sort of devil, feeding Colwan’s belief in predestination and thus further contributing to Colwan’s downfall. Wringhim fosters Colwan’s notion that he can know the mind of God in several different ways. First, when Wringhim tells Colwan that he is one of God’s Elect, he begins by explaining “ he had wrestled with God, as the patriarch of old had done, not for a night, but for days and years, and that in bitterness and anguish of spirit, on [his] account; but that he had at last prevailed...” (Hogg 115). This visual of Wringhim wrestling with God and ultimately defeating Him places the mistaken idea of a sort of equality between God and man into Colwan’s head. Wringhim, and thus Colwan, believes he can know the mind of God because of this false image of equality between the two, and, perhaps, even the supremacy of man in certain instances. He continues, telling Colwan that he:

...had now gained the long and earnestly desired assurance of [his] acceptance with the Almighty, in and through the merits and sufferings of his Son: That [he] was now a justified person, adopted among the number of God’s children—[his] name written in the Lamb’s book of life, and that no bypast transgression, nor any future act of [his] own, or of other men, could be instrumental in altering the decree. (Hogg 115)

In telling Colwan that he is predestined for salvation, Wringhim is passing along the mistake that man can know God’s mind and will. However, Wringhim is also promoting a more subtle misconception: that because of this supposed knowledge that Colwan will be saved, he can now do no wrong. In telling Colwan that “no bypast transgression” or “future act” can change his Elect status, Wringhim gives Colwan permission to do anything without fear for the consequences. This contributes to Colwan’s ultimate damnation, retrospectively painting Wringhim as a demonic figure within the text. In his article on Scottish Calvinism, Donald Macleod discusses this idea of sins without consequence, concluding that “There is no doubt that Hogg portrays both Wringhim [Colwan] and his entire circle as vindictive, predestinarian antinomians” (Macleod 3). Whether intentionally or not, Wringhim’s belief that he can know the mind of God clearly contributes to Colwan’s downfall.

Wringhim’s assumption that he can know beyond doubt who is saved and Colwan’s willingness to believe in his own salvation are in direct contradiction with the tenets of Pyrrhonian skepticism as they are illustrated in Hume’s account of knowledge, an even stronger contradiction than in either of the Faust stories. In this case, Hume’s work had already been circulated, leaving the possibility that Hogg had not only grappled with the philosophical tradition of Pyrrhonian skepticism, but had also considered Hume’s argument in writing his own work.2 Immediately after Wringhim dedicates him to the Lord, Colwan decides to become an active champion for the Lord, striking down sinners; he makes this decision based solely on his belief in his predestined state. He decides:

From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination had for ever rendered impracticable. (Hogg 122-123)
His belief in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination leads Colwan to the credence that he has been called to kill all people not of the Elect, as any attempts to save their souls would be fruitless. He believes that it would simply be better to remove such wicked people from the earth, as there is no hope for their salvation. Colwan, however, cannot know this; Hume directly argues against such a possibility. In his arguments that man cannot comprehend God’s nature, Hume is refuting those philosophers who believe that “...every thing is full of God. Not content with the principle, that nothing exists but by his will, that nothing possesses any power but by his concession...” (Hume 71). In essence, that is what Colwan and Wringhim are doing: assuming that God has already chosen the destinies of all mankind, and, thus, the Elect can make no errors and the damned can never be saved. In his work, Hume denounces the very principle on which Wringhim bases his philosophy and Colwan bases his murderous actions.

Each of the texts is the author’s way to criticize too strong a conviction about one’s own fate. There is no author listed for The English Faust Book; however, Faust’s damnation as a result of his inability to believe that God can forgive him makes it clear that the author’s intention was to warn against assuming too great a knowledge of God. Had Faust accepted the possibility that God could forgive even a sin he, as a human, thought unforgivable, he might have repented and been saved; however, he chose instead to cling to his conviction that his sin was too great, a conviction that ultimately prevented him from repenting and finding salvation. Faust’s failure to accept forgiveness serves as the author’s warning to society to not assume more than the human mind can know for certain; that is, the will of God. It is somewhat easier to ascertain Marlowe’s theological message in his version of the Faust story. G.M. Pinciss writes that “...the young playwright was not only reacting to the fierce debate between Calvinists and anti-Calvinists he had witnessed as a Cambridge undergraduate but also incorporating into the poetry something of his own personal reaction to this debate” (Pinciss 259). When taken in conjunction with the summation of Faustus’ faith journey, “Much as he may desire it, Faustus’s conception of himself prevents him from achieving justifying faith,” Marlowe’s version of the Faust story can be seen as showing the dangers of having too strong a conception of one’s predestination (Pinciss 258). This is similar to the warning laid out in Hogg’s work. According to Macleod, “Hogg knew Scottish Calvinism too well to identify it with predestinarian antinomianism and throughout his narrative he is at pains to distance himself from Wringhim [Colwan] and to contrast him with the authentic religion of the reformation” (Macleod 4). Thus, while Hogg was not criticizing Calvinism in and of itself, he was commenting on the dangers posed by the ideology. Taken to its extreme, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination can serve as justification for many evil acts, a possibility Hogg points out and warns against in his Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Proverbs 20:24 reads: “A man’s steps are of the Lord; / How then can a man understand his own way?” (NKJV). Whether or not the characters in each of these works are actually ultimately damned is of little importance; it is their belief that they can know for certain that they are either saved or damned that leads to their downfall. It is their preconception of their own predestination, aggravated by the demon each of them interacts with, that leads to their definite downfall on earth and implied damnation in the afterlife. This situation is each author’s criticism of the doctrine of predestination and each author’s warning to society of the dangers of humans supposing they can know God’s mind with any certainty.

Works Cited

The English Faust Book. Doctor Faustus with The English Faust Book. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis, Hackett, 2005.

Fletcher, Angus. “Doctor Faustus and the Lutheran Aesthetic”. English Literary Renaissance 35.2 (April 2005): 187-209.

Hamlin, William M.. “Casting Doubt in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus”. SEL 41.2 (Spring 2001): 257-275.

Hogg, James. Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Considering Human Understanding. London, 1777. Leeds Electronic Text Centre. July 2000. <>.

Macleod, Donald. “Scottish Calvinism: a dark, repressive force?”. The Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 19.2 (Autumn 2001): 195-225.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus with The English Faust Book. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis, Hackett, 2005.

Pinciss, G.M. “Marlowe’s Cambridge Years and the Writing of Doctor Faustus”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33.2 (Spring 1993): 249-264.

Smeed, J.W. Faust in Literature. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975. 81-98.

1 Although Robert does take his adoptive father’s name, Robert Wringhim, in the book, I will refer to him as Robert Colwan throughout this paper for clarity’s sake, so that he is not confused with the Reverend Robert Wringhim.

2 Interestingly, both Hogg and Hume were Scottish.


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