Latitudinarianism, as it applies to religion, refers to a “broad church” approach that downplays strict conformity to doctrine, church structure, or liturgy and places higher emphasis on reason, morality, and unity. Latitudinarianism can be seen as a tolerance of those with differing religious opinions or doctrines. The term latitudinarianism was first used in the criticism of certain 17th-century theologians who felt that Puritan theology—essentially Calvinist—had unfairly rejected the role of human understanding in apprehending Christian faith.
This first version of latitudinarianism, in contrast to Puritanism, emphasized common morality, fundamental doctrines, and a greater use of evidence when discussing the faith. Latitudinarians generally upheld the concept of sola scriptura and the exclusive truth of the gospel, but they also insisted that man needed both revelation and reason in order to fully grasp biblical truth. That focus on “critical” doctrines and a tolerance for disagreement in other doctrines meant downplaying issues such as worship style and church government and so forth.
As with most theological terms, latitudinarianism has been used in different ways by different people. It can also be applied in different degrees by different groups and different theologians. Most modern Christian denominations apply some level of tolerance to other non-heretical groups. For example, typical Lutheran and Baptist churches are latitudinarian in that they do not question each other’s salvation, even though they have disagreements over whether or not infants should be baptized. On the other hand, Baptist and Lutheran churches generally consider groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who reject the Trinity and the deity of Christ, to be fundamentally non-Christian.
In other contexts, the term latitudinarianism has a negative connotation. For example, when a modern theologian feels a certain approach to ecumenism has gone too far, he might disparage such a strategy as “latitudinarian.” Applied in that way, the term is meant to imply compromise with truth for the sake of harmony. There are some who would even consider the above example of infant baptism to be an issue about which there can be no meaningful peace; to fellowship with paedobaptists would be “latitudinarian” and therefore unacceptable.
Other than their occasional use in theological discussions, in modern contexts the terms latitudinarian and latitudinarianism have little function. The original latitudinarian movement was highly influential in the Anglican and Episcopal communities, but it eventually drifted into Unitarianism.
The term latitudinarianism is also part of philosophy and semantics. When John says, “Give me the biggest box,” there are two ways to interpret his remark. He might mean, “Whatever box happens to be biggest, that is the one I want,” and this is referred to as a de dicto statement. If John means, “I have one exact box in mind, and I’m describing it for you as the biggest box,” that is referred to as a de re statement. For the most part, philosophers and logicians consider those to be two separate types of statements. In semantics, latitudinarianism is the suggestion that de re is not a separate type of statement but only a special case of de dicto.