“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.


Puritanism: A Guide for the Perplexed

Readers of this blog hear a lot about Puritanism, most of it bad.  But what on earth is Puritanism?  What do we mean by the term?  It means a dozens of different things to different people, and in fact always has.  In hopes of helping clear the waters a bit and establishing the context for my own use of the term (which I am toying of discarding in favor of “precisianism,” for reasons you will see below), I’ve adapted the following introductory discussion from my chapter draft on Puritanism, and I hope it is of some use and interest to those who have been scratching their heads all this time:

Between 1567 and 1572, the Elizabethan Church enters upon a decisive new stage, engendering a movement which was to leave a wide and lasting legacy on the Reformed world, particularly in Britain and America, over succeeding centuries, a movement traditionally known as “Puritanism.”  Although a number of scholars have quite helpfully traced lines of development for the Puritan movement back to the Marian exile, or the Edwardian reform, or even the Henrician period, there is wisdom in the preference among contemporary scholars to confine the term to the Elizabethan era and beyond.  While the Elizabethan Vestiarian controversy is quite frequently narrated as the first chapter in this new movement, and is undoubtedly central to its development (as recognized in the previous chapter), there are good reasons for drawing a caesura between its conclusion in 1567 and the outbreak of the Admonition Controversy in 1572, when young radicals John Field and Thomas Wilcox, frustrated by the lack of official response to Puritan complains, published and disseminated a scandalously rancorous Admonition to Parliament.  

The document, clearly intended (despite its name) as a piece of public propaganda, ignited a firestorm of controversy: Field and Wilcox were imprisoned, an official Answere by John Whitgift was commissioned, and battle lines were drawn as pamphlets and counter-pamphlets, treatises and counter-treatises, began to multiply.  The immediate literary controversy, in which Whitgift emerged as the spokesman for the establishment, and Thomas Cartwright as the spokesman for the Puritans, lasted until 1577, but the movement that the Admonition called into being lasted in organized form until the early 1590s, when it had grown so militant that dramatic steps were taken by the bishops and Elizabeth’s Privy Council to quash it.  The personnel of this new movement, however, were rarely the same as those who had fought it out with the bishops over vestments in 1565-67, most of whom had grudgingly submitted when it was clear the policy was inflexible.  Of the twenty scrupulous Protestants who presented a supplication to the bishops over vestments in 1565, only three, says Patrick Collinson, “remained staunch to the radical cause until their deaths,” and most “at once dissociated themselves from the new extremism.”  So much so, in fact, that from 1572 on, “we are evidently witnessing the beginnings of a new movement rather than the conversion of the old.”

And indeed, the issues at stake in the Admonition Controversy are far different, and broader, than those in the Vestiarian.  No longer is the question one of the legitimate scope for resisting imposition of certain ceremonies that troubled scrupulous consciences, a dispute on the margins of the Elizabethan settlement, but it concerns the basic validity of that settlement across the board.  “We in England are so far off from having a church rightly reformed, according to the precscript of God’s word, that as yet we are not come to the outward face of the same,” the Admonition fulminates, throwing down a gauntlet to the bishops and the government.  At stake now is not whether the bishops should enforce strict conformity, but whether the bishops have power to govern the church at all; not whether civil law should presume to bind ministers to wear the cap and surplice, but whether civil authority has any place in the church.  A fundamental platform of the Admonition is the presbyterian doctrine of church government, which, aside from a general sense that lower clergy ought to have more authority in determining church affairs, had been nowhere on the radar in the earlier controversy.  This system of polity is not presented as a suggestion, as that best suited to the edification and good government of the churches, but as a biblical requirement.  This emphasis reflects a shift in attitudes toward adiaphora across the board, with the new Admonitionists suggesting not so much that indifferent ceremonies were being used unedifyingly, but that they were not indifferent in the first place.  As Collinson puts it, the “presbyterians replaced pragmatism with dogma.”  Earlier protests against tyranny in adiaphora, and suggestions that only Scripture could guide us to their right use, hardly seem to provide a basis for these aggressive new claims.

The reasons for such a dramatic shift in the tenor of protest, it must be confessed, remain something of a mystery.  The faultlines in the doctrines of adiaphora and Christian liberty, as we have argued in the previous chapter and shall explore further here, lead rather naturally to the biblicist mutation we find in the Admonition.  The adoption of Presbyterianism, however, appears more surprising, though it can be largely explained by two factors.  The first was the bishops’ complete loss of credibility during the Vestiarian controversy.  While in fact most of them were sympathetic to the concerns of scrupulous ministers, they were called upon to act as enforcers of a policy demanded by their sovereign, who discreetly recused herself from controversy, refusing to lend any official support, or civil enforcement, to the policy she had asked Archbishop Parker to promulgate.  Parker and his colleagues, then, were left in the unenviable position of justifying a policy which they had not crafted, unable to appeal to the sovereign for backing, and thus sure to appear to their opponents like arbitrary, power-hungry clerical tyrants of the sort that the Reformation had meant to rid England.  This, and the passionate attachment of most Englishmen to their sovereign, led those unsatisfied with the resolution of the controversy to focus their animus on the bishops, and begin calling into question the validity of the office in the first place, given its obviously (to them) tyrannical tendencies.  Second, the fact that Beza in Geneva had written sympathetically on behalf of the anti-Vestiarians, while Bullinger in Zurich had sided largely with the bishops meant that dissidents (many of whom had been exiles in Geneva under Mary), began to look exclusively to Geneva to find resources for their cause.  Beza’s presbyterian doctrine, a hardened and doctrinaire version of that which Calvin had pioneered, was taken up by some of these dissidents, particularly Thomas Cartwright, who made a name for himself by expounding the Presbyterian system in a series of lectures on Acts at Cambridge in 1570.  However, it is not enough to explain Cartwright’s Presbyterianism simply as the application of Genevan ideas to England, as has been customary among many historians.  On the contrary, with Cartwright and his associate Walter Travers, we find a systematic development of Presbyterianism, along with a distinctive version of the two-kingdoms doctrine, that went beyond anything Beza had yet articulated and indeed likely exerted an influence on his own crystallization of Presbyterian doctrine.  Certainly, Cartwright’s views on adiaphora, law in Scripture, and the two kingdoms go well beyond those of his hero Calvin, with whom he has too often been simply equated.

 

Of course, it will not do to let Cartwright speak for all so-called Puritans.  When Collinson speaks of a new movement beginning with the Admonition, he does not intend by this to imply the extinguishment of the old.  On the contrary, the more moderate style of nonconformity, and the more measured calls for the reform of obvious abuses in the administration and preaching ministry of the church, continued well beyond the Admonition Controversy, and indeed outlasted the demise of the hard-line Presbyterian movement in the 1590s.  Collinson and Peter Lake have succeeded in the last few decades in reconfiguring our concept of Puritanismso that no longer is the extreme rhetoric of the Admonition Controversy normative in defining the movement.  Rather, the moderate noncomformity and zealous Protestantism of a Laurence Chaderton (the Master of Emmanuel College at Cambridge from 1584 to 1622), they have argued, is more representative of the ethos of Puritanism, which is thus close to the mainstream, rather than on the dissident fringe, of Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritanism.  

This study can thus not avoid the extraordinarily vexed question of defining “Puritanism,” a question disputed for four centuries and now it appears further from resolution than ever.  Contemporary historians have vied with one another in expressing frustration with the elusiveness of the concept.  Patrick Collinson likens it to an elephant whose shape and attributes are debated by a group of blindfolded men, Christopher Hill to a “dragon in the path of every student of the period,” and W.J. Sheils to a “protean beast.”  If I might add my own metaphor to the discussion, we might say that Puritanismis like an impressionist painting, which appears luminous and distinct from a distance, but dissolves into a chaos of incongruous colors upon closer inspection. 

This ambiguity is perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that the term “puritan” originated as a term of abuse by its conformist opponents, and thus it was naturally long before any puritan acknowledged the term for himself.  As is usual with protest movements, puritanism had far more unity in the eyes of its opponents than of its various advocates, who quarrelled with one another, each denouncing others as either extremists or time-servers, and claiming his own platform as a moderate middle ground.  Elizabethan puritanism combined conformist, reformist, and separatist impulses, which created faultlines not merely between different “puritans” but often within one and the same puritan leader.  So it is that at different points in his career, we find Thomas Cartwright denouncing the Church in England as one that can scarcely lay claim to the title, having denied the kingship of Christ over it, and defending it against Rome as a true and pure church, authentically reformed; Presbyterianism is presented at times as a sine qua non for a church of Christ, at times merely as a desirable ornament.   Peter Lake has thus sought to undermine any attempt to draw a clear and fixed dividing line between “moderate” and “radical” Puritanism, mere conscientious nonconformity and Presbyterianism.  Amid the shifting rhetorical contexts in which Puritan principles were advocated, and the at times turtuous attempts of Puritan leaders to resolve the warring impulses within their own platform, it is no wonder that many modern historians have thrown up their hands in resignation at the attempt to describe a coherent theological or practical agenda for the movement.

A number of a generalizations attempting to define the heart of Puritan doctrine, many rooted in the earliest conformist polemics, have been offered, refuted, and counter-offered in variant forms.  For instance, it has been common to summarize the essence of Puritanism as biblicism; as Christopher Durston and Jacqueline Eales put it, “for the puritan the Bible was elevated to the status of the sole and complete repository of doctrinal and moral truth.”  They go on to quote William Bradshaw that Scripture was “the sole canon and rule of all matters” and Jacobean Puritan Robert Harley’s description of a Puritan as “one that dares do nothing in the worship of God or course of his life but what God’s word warrants him, and dares not leave undone anything that the word commands him.”  Of course, as others have pointed out, a high view of Scripture was not at all unique to Puritans, but was shared by their conformist adversaries; the difference, then, can be identified when it comes to the question of adiaphora.  Puritanism, it has been declared, consists in the rejection of the concept of adiaphora: “the Puritans’ extreme reliance on scripture led them . . . to denounce the whole idea that certain religious observances were ‘adiaphora’—‘things indifferent’—and that the leaders of the church and government had the right to decide whether they were valid and binding.”  Yet this stereotype has been categorically denied by John S. Coolidge in his detailed study of Puritanism and adiaphora, The Pauline Renaissance in England: “The Puritan categorically denies that he means what Conformists nevertheless persist in suspecting that he means: ‘to exact at our hands for every action the knowledge of some place of Scripture out of which we stand bound to deduce it . . .’ .  On the contrary, Puritans sometimes make a point of insisting that there is no precise scriptural directive for Church ceremonies, and that these should therefore not be the same in all times and places.”  And indeed, Peter Lake’s study Moderate Puritans in the Elizabethan Church not only reveals moderates like Chaderton extensively employing the adiaphora concept, but even Thomas Cartwright himself in his critiques of separatism during the 1580s.  Indeed, even in the Admonition Controversy, Cartwright repeatedly grants the validity of the concept, and either contends simply that a particular matter under dispute (e.g., Presbyterian church government) does not happen to be an adiaphoron, or else falls back upon the earlier insistence that adiaphora must be used to edification.  On this basis, Lake and others have denied that a rejection of adiaphora should be understood as part of even the Puritan platform.  Stephen Brachlow, on the other hand, cautions against disposing too readily of this stereotype, noting that harder-line Puritans were subject to intense cross-pressures when it came to this question, unable to do away with the adiaphora concept in certain settings, but hardly comfortable with it.

Another common but unstable stereotype is the idea, loudly and frequently repeated by their conformist opponents, that Puritans were seditious, against the royal supremacy over the Church, ready to “spoil him [the magistrate] of the one half of his jurisdiction.”  Puritan opposition to the royal supremacy, and indeed revolutionary tendencies more broadly, has been a popular subject among modern historians, always eager to find political implications to old theological controversies.  And yet here too the “protean beast” proves elusive, with Puritans of all stripes vying with one another in the fervency with which they affirm their loyalty to the Queen and even her supremacy over the Church.  John Penry, a radical if there ever was one, executed for sedition in 1593, calls the charge “plaine slandering” and protests “Looke whatsoever prerogative in ecclesiastical or civil causes hee or any man livinge can truly attribut unto the civil magistrate, wee do the same.”  Cartwright also never loses an opportunity, in his interchange with Whitgift, to denounce Whitgift’s charges on this score, and insists that on the Presbyterian platform, the Queen would still have wide jurisdiction over religious matters.  Confronted with these protestations of innocence, some historians have suggested that this is a point which tends to divide Presbyterians, who still favor an established church, from separatists, who seek a “reformation without tarrying for the magistrate.”  Yet as the example of Penry, on the verge of separatism when he wrote the tract quoted above, shows, this generalization too falters.  Brachlow’s treatment of the issue in Communion of Saints conclusively shows even hardened separatists doing homage to the concept of the royal supremacy.  Again, however, he suggests that this does not mean that the stereotype is altogether wrong; instead, we find strong cross-pressures which led more radical Puritans to continue making affirmations that they had great difficulty squaring with their doctrine.  Certainly it was the opinion of many conformists at the time, such as Whitgift and Bancroft, that puritans affirmations of loyalty were mere lip-service, and the true thrust of their platform, intentional or not, was destructive to the Queen’s jurisdiction. 

The distinction of Presbyterians and separatists, just mentioned, is another way in which historians have attempted to make sense of the various threads within the Puritan movement.  The former still wanted an established church, legally imposed on the nation as a whole, with a unified institutional apparatus, while the latter argued for individual voluntary congregations of the faithful, free from the coercion of the magistrate or of clerocratic Presbyterian synods.  Certainly this divergence loomed large in the 1640s and 1650s, once Puritans were given the opportunity to put their program into practice, but as Brachlow has convincingly shown, it is somewhat anachronistic five decades earlier, in which any line the historian draws between the two camps dissolves on closer inspection.  Again, he argues, all Puritans were cross-pressured by the desire on the one hand to maintain unity with the national church and the inability to imagine a plurality of “churches” within the same land, and on the other hand, their strong emphasis on the need for “visible saints,” for the church to become in reality the pure community of the “godly” that God had called it to be, and to exclude the lukewarm from its midst.

 

Given the evident difficulty of drawing stable generalizations about Puritanismas either a theology or as a political-ecclesiastical program, and yet the seemingly indispensable value of the concept, there has been a notable shift among historians in recent years toward thinking and speaking of Puritanismas a “culture,” an “ethos,” or a “mentalité.”  Durston and Eales capture the new emphasis well in their statement “Above all else, puritanism was a movement grounded in a highly distinctive cast of mind—or to use a more fashionable term, mentalité—which displayed itself in the individual puritan as a peculiarly severe yet vibrant spirituality, and within groups of puritans as a unique and dynamic religious culture.”  Along with this has gone a tendency to rely less and less on polemical portrayals of puritanismby its opponents, given the obvious difficulty of mapping their stereotypes onto the messy reality, and more on more on the internal dynamics of Puritanismin its various manifestations, as attested by its adherents and the products of its practical piety.  Moreover, by focusing less on attempts to draw strict dividing lines  between “Puritan” and “Anglican,” contemporary scholarship has been able to recognize much more clearly the extent to which aspects of Puritan theology and culture permeated the Elizabethan and Jacobean churches.  Accordingly, it seems that recent studies have grown increasingly tired of the tendency to rely on the “canonical texts” of Puritanism—the writings of Thomas Cartwright and his close allies during and immediately following the Admonition Controversy—for an understanding the movement, deeming them to have been mined to depletion by now, unlikely to yield much fresh insight.

Unquestionably, the recent flowering of scholarship along these lines has fostered an abundance of new understanding, shattering sterile stereotypes and paving the way for fresh consideration of aspects of Puritan life and piety, and lesser-known Puritan figures that have been previously marginalized.  What it has gained in breadth, though, it may be fair to say, some of the recent scholarship has sacrificed in depth.  That is to say, by adopting a posture of skeptical detachment from the sharp dichotomies drawn by the preeminent theological interlocutors of the period—Cartwright and Travers on the one hand, Whitgift and later Hooker on the other—scholars have perhaps missed opportunities to clearly discern the genuine theological commitments that were at stake and their relation to the received principles and tensions of the magisterial Reformation. If we conclude too hastily that conformist allegations of Puritan “popery” or “Anabaptistry” are mere stock-in-trade polemical jabs, without asking why these identifications were significant to the interlocutors, we will miss substantive emerging differences in ecclesiology and the theology of law and authority.  Given the remarks above about the elusiveness of pinning down Puritan convictions, it goes without saying that many of the theological faultlines are implicit, and take the form of divergent emphases rather than fundamentally contradictory claims.  We must resist the temptation to impute directly to any of these theologians the apparent logical conclusions of his claims, but we must equally resist the temptation to say nothing about those underlying trajectories.  

If we confine ourselves to the period 1570-1593, and to the more “radical puritans” of this period, those determined to erect a Presbyterian discipline, we might do well to jettison the slippery terminology of “puritan” and adopt instead what was in fact the designation of choice in this early period, “precisian.”  This too, of course, was a pejorative term adopted by conformist adversaries, rather than a self-label, but it captures perhaps more clearly the aspects of the presbyterian movement that will dominate my discussion here, and that dominated Whitgift, Bancroft, and Hooker’s critiques of the movement.  

In this, I am following the lead of Dwight Bozeman, who in his recent book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanismto 1638, identifies the theme of “preciseness,” a “zest for regulation,” as lying at the heart of both Puritan theology and piety.  “A primary attribute of the deity they served, ‘exact precise severitie’ was equally a habit and credential of his people.  ‘Walke precisely, or exactly, or strictly in all things,’ enjoined John Preston in a sermon, ‘Exact Walking’ . . . . To ‘walk exactly,’ this eminent preacher and college head explained, is to ‘goe to the extremity.’  It is ‘so to keepe the commandements . . . that a man goes to the utmost of them, . . . lookeing to every particle of them.”  It is clear from this description that by speaking of Puritan “preciseness” Bozeman does not mean to resurrect the stereotype of Puritan as mere nitpicker, preoccupied by a merely negative agenda of removing offenses that trouble his trivial scruples.  John Coolidge, echoed by Peter Lake, has rightly attacked this image, emphasising the very positive vision of reform that drove precisians of all stripes.  But contrary to Coolidge’s sometimes rosy-spectacled revisionism, this positive reform was to be conducted at every point according to strictly predefined rules, under the watchful eye of a rule-loving God.  At the heart of this outlook was the urge to leave as little undetermined as possible, and the conviction that failures to conform to these determinations were punished severely.  

It is not at all hard to see how such an outlook was bound to create deep theological rifts in a church formed by the Protestant spirit of adiaphorism, which contended both that a great deal of the Christian life was left undetermined—or at least underdetermined—by God’s commandments, and that, by virtue of the doctrine of justification by faith, failures to walk exactly were readily pardonable.  The doctrine of Christian liberty, with which the Puritan protest began, is at risk of being lost in a thicket of legalism.


Between Babble and Beast? A Review of a Review

Peter Leithart’s long-awaited new book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective, is starting to make a splash among Reformed folk, evangelicals, and political theologians in general.  Although in the introduction he expresses his expectation that he will “offend everyone,” the predominant response thus far has been praise.  Princeton University’s Eric Gregory goes so far to say, “Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial ‘Americanism.’ But Leithart’s distinctive analysis provides a more complex–and potentially more constructive–biblical perspective on international politics than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart is one of the most interesting voices in theology today” (although one must take back-cover blurbs with a considerable grain of salt).  

That being the case, my friend Steven Wedgeworth’s bruising review posted today on The Calvinist International will be sure to cause a certain degree of consternation among Leithart’s many admirers—while gentlemanly and in many respects highly appreciative, Wedgeworth does not hesitate to indict Leithart of some fairly significant historical and theological errors, fundamentally calling into question key aspects of both his descriptive account and his constructive agenda.  

As someone known to be a longtime admirer and follower of Leithart, and deeply influenced by his theopolitical vision, yet more recently closely identified with the Calvinist International, some may be wondering what I think of all this.  That is difficult to say with any certainty just yet, as I am still awaiting the arrival of my own copy from across the Atlantic, after which point I hope to draft a thorough review of my own.  However, I’ve read enough about the book, and know enough of the background to it, that I can form some preliminary conclusions about the aptness of Wedgeworth’s review.

 

Although I might read Between Babel and Beast somewhat more sympathetically, I expect I would share several of Wedgeworth’s concerns, of which at least four in particular stood out to me in the post; they are worth calling attention to because they are recurrent features of much of Leithart’s recent work in political theology and ecclesiology.  (Of course, they are not unique to Leithart, but can be found in much of the broadly Radically-Orthodox historiography and theology that has shaped Leithart’s own diagnoses and prescriptions; and indeed I recognize them in a lot of my own earlier thinking about many of these issues).  I will content myself with merely listing them here, and recommend that you avail yourself of Wedgeworth’s thoughtful review, and read the book yourself with some of these questions in mind:

1) There seems to be a proclivity toward an idealist philosophy of history that is content with sweeping explanations of complex historical events as merely the concrete embodiment of pre-existing religious commitments, ideas which necessarily unfold themselves in time.  Of course, oversimplification is to be be expected in a book of such wide scope and short length, but the objection is not merely that empirical complexity is being telescoped into something more generalized, but that empirical historiography is never really the method to begin with.  This seems a natural product of the kind of grand-paradigm typologies in Leithart’s approach to the historical narratives in Scripture.  The problem is that Scripture can be treated in a unified text in a way that history can’t quite—not so readily at any rate.

2) Related to this, but distinct, is an inattentive reading of the Protestant Reformation which heavily relies, in fact, upon Catholic counter-Reformational polemics, rather than the self-understanding of Protestant theologians and jurists as they forged new ecclesiastical and political orders in the 16th and 17th centuries.  At a time when such Roman Catholic apologetics are increasingly resurgent, it’s important for Protestants  at least to stand up and give their forebears a sympathetic reading.

3) At the heart of the account of where things went wrong and how they might be set right lies an aestheticized account of the Eucharist and of the structures of church discipline and government that surround it which consistently sidestep basic questions about how these ideals are concretely realized.  What is a eucharistic counter-politics?  If it is merely the cultivation of a new social ethos based on charity, then what exactly is gained by the language of counter-politics?  If it entails concrete disciplinary powers for a juridical church authority structure, then exactly how are these to be enacted without becoming sucked into the very vortex of power politics that we are claiming to transcend, as they did in the Middle Ages?

4) Related to this, but distinct, is a systematic ambiguity surrounding the concept “church,” which does not fit recognizably into any established Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox traditions of ecclesiology, simultaneously displaying features of each while disclaiming its identity with any.  This ambiguity may be largely masked behind the fashionable language of liturgy and ritual that speaks of the Church as a culture based on a cult, but at some point this sociological account has to make clear distinctions between the church of aspiration and the church of actual practice.  How has the Church presented itself to us as a historically embodied reality?  Within those constraints, what are the realistic potentialities of the Church as a shaper of politics, and what exactly is gained by using the singular rather than the plural “churches” or even “Christian people”?

 

I would be eager to see Leithart engage critiques such as Wedgeworth’s, as I think his recent work is rich with insights that need to be heard in contemporary political theology, and it could be rendered considerably more valuable if he could address and resolve some of these sources of ambiguity.