Monday, April 4, 2016

Diversity in Puritanism

Diversity in Puritanism

It is hard to overvalue the impact of Puritanism on Christian theology and living, as well as on western culture in general. However, Puritanism is not a monolithic brand of Reformed Christianity. Puritan scholar Randall Pederson notes that the fact “(t)hat there was vibrant diversity among the Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century on various aspects of their doctrine seems without question.”[1] There is great diversity and debate found within the realm of Puritanism that labelling it as an “ism” or speaking of the Puritans can be tricky and misleading. Far from being a detriment, part of what has caused the Puritans to be so beneficial is how widely applicable they are due to this diversity in secondary matters coupled with unanimity on core doctrines and Christian living. Puritanism, as a movement, held within it many diverse understandings of the nuances and peripherals of Christian theology and its application to Christian living, but there remained an overarching catholicity that included, more but not less than, an overwhelming emphasis on a Christian life marked by experiential piety.
When viewing the legacy of Puritanism, it is important remember that “there is room for diversity among Reformed theologians. The idea of a pan-Protestant doctrine of [almost anything] can be pressed only so far, particularly when all of the details are considered.” [2] Those tasked by God to bring about reform in the Church of England during the 17th century and following were united on many core issues. This did not minimize the diversity that existed, as well as the passionate debates that resulted from this diversity, in the totality of Puritan thought.
The 17th century saw much debate between Paedobaptists and Baptists, and the Puritans were not exempt from these disagreements. Paul Chang-Ha Lim notes that a London bookseller “collected over 125 tracts written between 1642–1660 on (the issue of the validity of paedobaptism).”3 Lim also points out that, in addition to these writings, there were “at least seventy-nine public disputes.”4 Rather than simply being a debate over tradition, both sides sought to best understand the Scriptures from within the framework of their particular traditions. Beeke and Jones note that “at the heart of the contention between Baptists and Paedobaptists was covenant theology.” [3]
John Flavel and Phillip Cary had a lengthy debate, both representing contrary understandings of how the covenants and the signs applied to the New Testament church. Cary’s position is expressed well (and with typical Puritan pith) in the full title of his A Solemn Call:
A Solemn Call unto All That Would Be Owned as Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, speedily, and seriously, to attend unto the primitive purity of the Gospel doctrine and worship: or, A Discourse concerning Baptism: Wherein that of Infants is Disproved.… Wherein the Covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai, Exod. 20. That in the Land of Moab, Deut. 29. As also the Covenant of Circumcision made with Abraham Gen. 17:7, 8, 9. Whereon so much stress is laid for the Support of Infants Baptism, are plainly proved to be no other than three several Editions of the Covenant of Works; And, Consequently, that no just Argument can thence be deduced for the Justification of that Practice. Together with a Description of the Truly Evangelical Covenant God was pleased to make with Believing Abraham [4]
Flavel agreed that what lied at the root of the dispute was covenant theology. Flavel wrote that both sides understood Sinai and Abraham to both be covenants and that grace was necessarily at the heart of both, since anytime God enters a relationship with man it is a gracious condescension on his part. However, “the question is” Flavel wrote,
Whether the Sinai Law do in its own nature, and according to God’s purpose and design in the promulgation of it, revive the Law of Nature, to the same ends and uses it served to in Adam’s Covenant; and so be properly and truly a Covenant of Works? Or whether God had not gracious and evangelical ends and purposes, viz. by such a dreadful representation … to convince them of the impossibility of legal righteousness, humble proud Nature, and shew them the necessity of betaking themselves to Christ.… The latter I defend according to the Scriptures, the former Mr. Cary seems to assert and vehemently argue for. [5]

While both sides affirmed covenant theology, there was diversity in how this theology was understood and how the signs were to be applied.
One area where diversity was sharply felt in the broad body of Puritanism was over the governance of the church and in determining who held the keys to the kingdom. Beeke and Jones state that the “importance of ecclesiology to the Puritans cannot be overstated.”[6] While it is overly simplistic to frame Puritan debates on ecclesiology as simply Congregationalists vs. Presbyterians (John Owen’s shift and nuanced perspective being a case-in-point), there is benefit to recognizing that the majority of Puritan divines could firmly be placed under one of these banners or the other, often utilizing the respective terms for themselves or their opponents.
As Beeke and Jones point out, the debate between Congregationalists and Presbyterians was over authority. Different interpretations of the role of synods and who holds the keys to the Kingdom led to distinctions in ecclesiology.
The crux of the issue has to do with authority. According to the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists may have ways to deal with these types of issues, but their polity does not allow them to take any authoritative, and therefore effective, action when various problems inevitably arise in particular congregations. Thus, synods are a spiritual necessity for the well-being of the universal visible church. The major difference between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists centered on the issue of authoritative synods. When synodical authority was discussed, it was inevitably tied to the question of who possessed the keys to the kingdom.[7]

Two works of the era were representative (and formative) of these positions: the Provincial Assembly of London’s Jus Divinium and John Cotton’s Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jus Divinium offered a defense of the majority Puritan position of Presbyterianism. In Jus Divinium, Congregationalists like Cotton and Goodwin are treated respectfully. However, the Congregational position is ultimately rejected “in favor of the Presbyterian model by use of a number of scholastic distinctions and clarifications.”[8] After some key clarifications, the author’s point out that the “proper, public, official, authoritative power”[9] is the responsibility of the officers, rather than the officers and the congregation.
John Cotton’s work, Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven, gave voice to the strong minority position and was critical in converting John Owen to the ranks of congregationalism. In Keyes, Cotton argues that “the key is given to the Brethren of the Church.”[10] Cotton’s position was that each church had the “power, privileges, and liberties” in the appointment, ordination, and commission of officers, the shepherding of the sacraments, and the discipline and restoration of members. Beeke and Jones argue that “(t) he authority of synods was and is today a hallmark of Presbyterian ecclesiology,” [11] and Cotton addresses this issue explicitly. In a section of the Keyes specifically addressing synods, Cotton “insists that the elders’ collective authority in a synod is derivative, delegated by each congregation represented, and subject to their instruction.”[12] Cotton was by no means a separatist who insisted on local autonomy, but by insisting that the power of the synod was simply derivative, each local congregation superseded the authority of the synod.
Beeke and Jones make clear that the debates over ecclesiology engaged in by the Puritans were and remain difficult and important topics to the church at-large. “If any theological topic is filled with complexities for Reformed believers, it is ecclesiology.” [13] This was true in the time of the Puritans, and it is true today.
There were many other areas where Puritanism displayed the fact that it was not a monolithic movement. Highly practical issues and rather speculative and nuanced theological issues both were breeding grounds for Puritan diversity. J.V. Fesko points out that “debates over lapsarianism (were) part and parcel of the history of British Reformed theology in the seventeenth century.[14] Puritan Eschatology was a good combination of practical and speculative. While it would be anachronistic and somewhat unhelpful to use 21st century labels on Puritan views, most were in line with what could be labeled an Augustinian Amillennialism. However, there was a rise in millenarianism and a large emphasis on New England as the city on a hill. Those who wrote various treatises on the millennium included William Perkins, William Twisse, Thomas Goodwin, William Gouge, Franciscus Junius, James Ussher, and Johannes Piscator. All these writers touched on three major themes: “The first was that the pope was the Antichrist, and thus Revelation predicated the eventual collapse of the Roman Catholic Church . . . The second theme was the expected conversion of the Jews … The third theme…is the latter-day glory of the church and the New Jerusalem.”[15] Contrasting views on eternal justification and the trichotomous or dichotomous nature of the law were important debate points when interacting with the antinomian movement that arose from within Puritan circles. Also, Puritan thinkers were not immune from change within their own personal theology, as demonstrated explicitly by John Owen’s shift on the necessity of the atonement. Carl Trueman points out that “(w)hen John Owen wrote his Dissertation on Divine Justice in 1652, he was not only attacking a view of Christ’s atonement that was held by those whom he would ordinarily have regarded as his allies, he was also in effect publishing a retraction of his own earlier position. [16]
As much diversity as there was in Puritanism, the Puritans were united in their simple faith. They worshipped a Triune God. They found salvation through the merit and atoning sacrifice of the eternal Son of God who took on flesh, suffered, and died. They found hope in the fact that this crucified Savior rose again three days later and ascended to his throne to reign in heaven until he returns again to the earth. These, along with many other beliefs, were properly catholic to those of Puritanism. Puritanism was not simply a systematized system of thought. Where it shined most brightly was in its persistent application of God’s truth to the life of the believer. Puritans were particularly and, to a degree at least, uniquely united in their admonition of experiential, Christian piety. “The chief end of man,” in the mind of the Puritan, “(was) to know God and enjoy him forever.”[17] To know God can be said to experience him, and to enjoy God seems to be nothing less than loving obedience and being conformed to his image.
A larger purpose of Puritan teaching was for the believer to truly know God. This included, but was not limited to, engaging the mind with the Scriptures and sound doctrine. Puritans, appropriately, sought to purify the church from false ideas and false practices and encouraged believers to do the same in their personal lives. J. I. Packer writes about how the Puritans sought to engage and be engaged through the word of God.
The emphasis on the necessity of Scriptural and theological knowledge for the believer was universal to Puritan teachers. Not only in connection with justification, but at every point, first to last, the Puritan account of faith’s focus, exercise, and fruits is structured in terms of conscience receiving God’s word and by its light judging how God sees one and how through Christ one may or does stand related to him in covenant mercy.[18]

 This knowledge did not culminate in simple, mental assent. Knowledge of God moved beyond simply affecting the mind to reaching into the affections and emotions of believers as well. The caricature of the frozen chosen, heatless stoic of a Puritan is laid to waste when the critic actually encounters Puritan teaching. The affections, the heart, of the believer was an important aspect of knowing God. This was never to be divorced from the knowledge of God. As Packer points out, the Puritans were adamantly opposed to mere emotionalism.
All the Puritans regarded religious feeling and pious emotion without knowledge as worse than useless. Only when the truth was being felt was emotion in any way desirable. When men felt and obeyed the truth they knew, it was the work of the Spirit of God, but when they were swayed by feeling without knowledge, it was a sure sign that the devil was at work, for feeling divorced from knowledge and urgings to action in darkness of mind were both as ruinous to the soul as was knowledge without obedience. So the teaching of truth was the pastor’s first task, as the learning of it was the layman’s.[19]

The chief end of man was not simply to know god, according to the Puritans. It was to know him and enjoy him. Knowledge of God is intricately tied with knowledge of man and to truly know God is to truly know one’s self, the state of condemnation that one lies in apart from the freely given salvation of Christ. It includes the knowledge of how wretched man is and the great love shown by the Father, sending the Son, the Son taking on the curse, and the Spirit sealing the believer for all time. This knowledge, when properly received, stirs the affections of the believer to a great, overwhelming love that is incapable of culminating within the heart. It inevitable overflows into a life of obedience and a desire for greater and greater holiness: that is, the pious love of a redeemed saint.
While far from monolithic, Puritanism was a critical movement that has been used by God to purify and edify the church. Difficulties arise when studying Puritan views on issues that require interpretation, so much so that R. T. Kendall is probably correct when he points out that “if one accepts the term ‘Puritan’ one must, if consistent, either readjust the definition to fit one man at a time, or, if dealing with a tradition, begin with one definition and end up with another.”[20] However, this is a great benefit of Puritan thinkers and Puritanism as a whole. Many found a home within Puritanism while disagreeing on significant and important issues. This diversity has cause the writings of Puritan thinkers to be applicable and useful across a broad spectrum and to many, many believers.

Beeke, Joel B. and Jones, Mark. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012.

Cary, Phillip. Solemn Call. London: John Harris, 1690.

Chang-Ha Lim, Paul. In Pursuit of Purity, Unity, and Liberty: Richard Baxter’s Puritan Ecclesiology in Its Seventeenth-Century Context. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Cotton, John. Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven. London: M. Simmons, 1644.

Haykin, Michael A.G. and Jones, Mark eds. Drawn into Controverse. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprech, 2011.

Kendall, R.T. Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1979.

Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.

Pederson, Randall J. Unity in Diversity: English Puritans and the Puritan Reformation, 1603-1689. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Provincial Assembly of London, Jus Divinum. London: Legat and Miller, 1654.

The Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996.

[1] Randall J. Pederson, Unity in Diversity: English Puritans and the Puritan Reformation, 1603-1689 (Leiden: Brill, 2014) p. 268.

[2] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), p. 148.
3 Paul Chang-Ha Lim, In Pursuit of Purity, Unity, and Liberty: Richard Baxter’s Puritan Ecclesiology in Its Seventeenth-Century Context (Leiden: Brill, 2004), p. 55.

4 Ibid., p.55.

[3] Beeke and Jones, p. 729.

[4] Philip Cary, Solemn Call (London: John Harris, 1690).
[5] Beeke and Jones, p.

[6] Ibid., p. 621.
[7] Ibid., p. 628.

[8] Ibid., p. 624.

[9] Provincial Assembly of London, Jus Divinum (London: Legat and Miller, 1654) p. 92.

[10] John Cotton, Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven (London: M. Simmons, 1644) p. 12.

[11] Beeke and Jones, p. 623.

[12] Ibid., p.631.

[13] Ibid., p. 639.

[14] J. V. Fesko, “Lapsarian Diversity at the Synod of Dordt“ in Drawn into Controverse , edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprech, 2011), p. 99.
[15] Beeke and Jones, p. 778–779.

[16] Carl Trueman, “The Necessity of the Atonement” in Haykin and Jones, p. 264.

[17] The Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), q. 1.

[18] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 68–69.
[19] Ibid., p. 70.
[20] R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1979) p. 6.