“A word of God for all things we have to do”

The long-promised discussion on Elizabethan theonomy, although it turns out to be a rather short one, developed amidst a discussion of Puritan biblicism more generally—adapted from the draft of ch. 3 of my thesis.

Unfortunately, Cartwright does not rest content with asserting the supremacy of our duty to God’s glory and our brethren’s salvation over civil concerns.  Indeed, how could he, after long battles in the Vestiarian controversies had ended indecisively, with conformists earnestly insisting that God’s glory and the salvation of the brethren was not in fact at stake?  A more certain rule for resolving the doubtful conscience and adjudicating clashing loyalties was needed—Scripture.

“No man’s authority . . . can bring any assurance unto the conscience,” Cartwright concluded.  Perhaps in “human sciences” the word of man carried “some small force” but “in divine matters [it] hath no force at all.”  Of course, whether the matters in question were “divine matters” or “human sciences” was precisely the point at issue between him and Whitgift.  Whitgift would concede that in divine matters, Scripture alone was our guide, but if the disputed orders and ceremonies were merely civil ordinances, Scripture did not necessarily have much to tell us.  When pressed, then, Cartwright would go so far as to insist that in all actions of moral weight, Scripture was our guide: unless we “have the word of God go before us in all our actions . . . we cannot otherwise be assured that they please God.”  Recognizing the boldness of this claim, Cartwright offers a syllogism to back it up: “But no man can glorify God in anything but by obedience; and there is no obedience but in respect of the commandment and word of God: therefore it followeth that the word of God directeth a man in all his actions.”  Whitgift, breathless at such a declaration, answers that this would make not merely the matters in question, but all civil matters as well dependent on the Word, indeed, any action whatsoever, even “to take up a straw.”

Cartwright happily swallows the reductio, acknowledging that the guidance of Scripture is needed for the taking up of a straw.  Why?  Because although a class of action may be indifferent in itself, any particular action takes on the moral quality of goodness or badness based on the motive, and the motive, says Cartwright, must always be a desire to please God; since he has already argued that no man may be confident he pleases God except when acting in adherence to the Word, Scripture must in some sense go before us even in the most trivial of actions.  Cartwright has thus, under pressure to find some certain rule for guiding the Christian amidst doubtful and disputed moral decisions, collapsed any distinction between indifference epistemologically construed and morally construed, with the result of rendering the concept largely meaningless.  Since no action is morally neutral, and since the Christian must have guidance in all moral matters, and since Scripture is the Christian’s surest guide, Scripture must be taken to pronounce positively or negatively on all matters.

Even the relative indifference of the adiaphora, it would seem, would have to come from the positive permission of the Word.  And indeed, when Whitgift expresses concern on this score, Cartwright confirms that this is his meaning: “For even those things that are indifferent, and may be done, have their freedom grounded of the word of God; so that unless the word of the Lord, either in general or especial words, had determined of the free use of them: there could have been no lawful use of them at all.“  This is a remarkable transformation of the doctrine of adiaphora; no longer is Scriptural silence regarding a matter demonstrative of its moral lawfulness, but it is constitutive of it, so that this silence is to be construed as a positive act of  permission, without which the matter would have remained morally illicit. 

 

The fundamental difference between the conformist and the precisianist, then, is not merely that the precisianist considers that fewer matters have been left indifferent than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; nor is it merely that the precisianist considers Scriptural guidance on matters that are indifferent to be more detailed and constraining than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; rather, it is that the precianist considers all the relevant moral criteria to derive from Scripture, rather than merely being expressed in it.  We may see what this difference of approach entails by considering the role of the Mosaic judicial laws in Cartwright’s system.  Whitgift, worrying that the precisianist principle of Scriptural direction for every action would lead not merely to the abridgement of the magistrate’s freedom over ecclesiastical matters, but over strictly civil matters as well, was met with a curious waffling on the part of his adversary.  On the one hand, Cartwright and other precisianists would frequently insist that as ministers of the Gospel, they disclaimed all interest in merely civil and political matters, leaving those to the lawyers; moreover, they denied that the principles they advanced regarding ecclesiastical polity necessitated a similar reconfiguration of civil polity.  On the other hand, however, they at times forthrightly admitted that the laws of England ought to take the laws of Moses as their guide, and were to be condemned as unjust whenever they failed to do so.

This emphasis on the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws has frequently attracted the interest of scholars for its idiosyncrasy among the Protestant Reformers (with the exception of the Scotch Presbyterians, who were in this of a similar mind as their English brethren), and its lasting influence on later Puritan theonomic/theocratic aspirations.  Paul Avis, in his instructive article “Moses and the Magistrate,” has shown that even where they used similar language, there was a compelling difference between a Calvin and a Cartwright on this issue.  The former, although much more emphatic about the positive uses of the law than Luther was, took a fundamentally similar tack on the judicial laws.  Luther believed that the while the Ten Commandments summed up the natural law, the latter temporally and logically preceded this formal expression, and the same principle applied to the rest of the Mosaic laws.  They were expressions and applications of natural law in a particular polity, and so, although its accuracy as a good application was, by virtue of its divine revelation, more assured than that of the law of Solon, it was not intrinsically more binding.  Only inasmuch as our own circumstances were the same as those of the Hebrews should we expect our own judicial laws to be similar to theirs.  Calvin’s argument is similar, viewing the natural principle of equity, perfected in the gospel principle of charity, to be instantiated in the Mosaic judicial laws, but to exist independently of them, so that it might and often should be instantiated quite differently in a contemporary Christian polity.  Cartwright, however, while he will use Calvin’s term of the “general equity” of the law, understands this as something posterior, rather than prior, to the particular positive law, extracted from it, rather than instantiated in it.  Accordingly there is some room for flexibility in application, but not a great deal:

“And as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and the magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require.  But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny.”

 

This is because, for Cartwright, as Joan O’Donovan says, “the particular command . . . is the perfect form of law because it ‘leave[s] as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be.’”  Accordingly, we ought never to rest content with a mere general moral intuition if a clear Scriptural directive can be found; indeed, the latter is the only basis upon which the former can be valid.  This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed.  For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”  When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.”  At another point, discussing the requirements for elders, he says “The holie Ghost prescribing by Jethro what officers are to be chosen doth not only require that they should fear God . . . be wise and valiant, but also requireth that they be trusty.”  Jethro’s counsel to his son-in-law can no longer be read merely as prudent counsel, the prudence of which ought to be obvious in similar situations, such as the choosing of church officers, but must appear as a specific prescription of the Holy Spirit, intended for use as a positive law for the church.

This style of reasoning permeates the writings of Cartwright, Travers, and other precisianists, and is undergirded by two syllogisms that we find frequently repeated.  The first finds perhaps its most amusing expression when Whitgift queries the Admonition’s statement that in the Apostles’ time, there was always a careful examination of communicants before they were permitted to receive the Supper—how, he asks, do they prove this in Scripture?  “After this sort,” replies Cartwright: “all things necessary were used in the churches of God in the apostles’ times; but examination of those whose knowledge of the mystery of the gospel was not known or doubted of was a necessary thing; therefore it was used in the churches of God which were in the apostles’ time.”

It should not surprise us to find this sort of reasoning given the precisianist obsession with finding certainty; for the Christian convinced that he must please God in all actions, it was clear that the Church needed detailed guidance in all its practices, and since God must love and favor His church, it stood to reason that he must have provided such guidance in Scripture.  Moreover, since the most specific form of law was the most perfect, the more God loved his Church, the more detailed legislation we should expect.  Accordingly, we frequently find the following form of a fortiori syllogism:

“To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do: I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse, than the estate of the Jews.  Which the Adm. confesseth to have had ‘direction out of law, in the least thing they had to do.’  And when it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be: the Answerer in imagining that we have no word for divers things wherein the Jews had particular direction: presupposeth greater perfection in the law, given unto the jews, then in that which is left unto us.  And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I hade showed that a conscience well instructed and touched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions.”

In a remarkable early passage of his Full and Plaine Declaration, outlining the Scriptural plan of Presbyterian polity, Walter Travers manages to combine both syllogisms side-by-side.  God’s care for his people, he says, is apparent in the precise and detailed legislation for the building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament; even though Scripture describes David and Solomon’s changes to the worship and building of the temple without narrating God’s prescription of them, we may safely conclude, given the obvious approval of their actions, that they would have only made such changes by express divine command.  “And,” concludes Travers, “how absurd and unreasonable a thing is it, than especially to think the love and care of God to be diminished towards his Church” that he would omit such express commands in the New Covenant?  

 

In their quest to safeguard Christian liberty, then, the precisianists have so hedged it in with unchangeable divine law that even Whitgift’s cold call to submission seems a charter of freedom by comparison.

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