Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  


Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.   

  


Documentary Round-Up Pt. 3: The War in Iraq and the KJB

The War You Don’t See (2011):

 Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Back when I was spewing venom about the obsequious media response to the prospective war in Libya, a friend recommended this documentary to me, and I finally got around to seeing it a couple weeks ago.  It’s made by John Pilger, a veteran English documentarian who has made a business of unmasking the powers that be for more than three decades (though this is the first film of his that I’ve seen).  Indeed, with his track record, it’s surprising that he was able to get any higher-ups to sit down and consent to an interview with him.  Many of them don’t come off looking very good at all, and Pilger has no hesitation in contradicting them to their faces when they try to BS their way through awkward questions.  Of course, being English, he’s still too polite to go for the kill and elicit the kind of angry outburst that Ferguson gets in Inside Job.  Also, the film appears to be on a considerably lower budget than Inside Job, and so isn’t quite as cinematically flawless; but it does pretty well considering.

The theme of this movie is the pervasive failure of the Western media (of course Pilger’s chief focus is on the British media, but the sins he uncovers there look like petty quibbles next to what many American networks are routinely guilty of) to offer a really honest and transparent account of Western military engagements.  Too often, they simply act as the public relations arm of the government, disseminating to the masses the official statements–often enough bald lies–of White House or Downing Street.  The official account is rarely subjected to any serious scrutiny, and independent reporting that calls it into question or unearths inconvenient facts is usually swept under the rug and not allowed to make it to press.

Unsurprisingly, Pilger devotes particularly blistering criticism to the way the major news sources handled the lead-up to the Iraq War, repeating without qualification the false information government sources fed them and tripping over themselves to flatter national leaders.  Once the war started, he shows how the media practice of “embedding”–getting military permission to have reporters stationed with certain units–meant that those reporters by and large only got to see what the military wanted them to see, and when they saw something different, they generally felt pressure not to report it so as not to lose their “embed” status.  The result is that viewers generally only get to see the war from the perspective of their own triumphant troops, not from the standpoint of the civilians who are suffering.  Pilger discusses how, even though civilian casualties are mentioned in the media, they are often understated and are given only as statistics–viewers are never invited to share the pain of the victims and their families.  And he cites one arresting statistic of his own–in WWI, civilians accounted for less than 30% of all casualties, in WWII around 50%, in Vietnam around 70%, and in the Iraq War over 90%!  All this time I had supposed that, however bad civilian casualty rates were now, at least we were getting better and better at minimizing them.  Apparently not, and no wonder, when a single US GI death brings as much public outcry as the deaths of 100 civilians.  

Pilger also looks at warped media coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this is in Britain, where I always thought they were remarkably pro-Palestinian!); and gives some interesting attention to the Wikileaks issue (including an interview with Julian Assange).

 

So why does this happen?  Here is where I thought Pilger’s film could’ve done rather more.  A lot of the answer that seems to come up in his interviews with people is that it’s the embedding phenomenon–in Washington and London as much as in the field.  To get a lot of information, reporters need to gain the favor of government officials, who will supply them with information.  But this means that they are limited to sharing the information that those officials want them to know and to pass on.  If they should ever do research on their own account that contradicts the official story, they’ll immediately be threatened with losing their special access.  And so the pressure to conform is tremendous.  

However, there’s another, deeper problem that emerges when Pilger is interviewing some particularly defensive media executives, which is a confusion about what it is that the news media are supposed to do–a false ideal of democracy.  Defending themselves against Pilger’s question, a couple of execs insist that they never told viewers that such-and-such official report was true, they simply passed it on as it was, and left it up to the viewer to decide about the truth of it.  Their job, they insist, is simply to be a conduit for facts and opinions that come to their attention; it is then up to ordinary citizens to decide what to make of these facts and opinions that are passed along to them.  Our society is frightened to death of elitism and paternalism, and idolizes least-common-denominator democracy; so the news media insist they must not take any responsibility for interpreting, investigating, and cross-examining information–that is the citizen’s job.  But of course, this ignores the fact that most ordinary citizens simply do not have the time and the means to properly investigate government claims and media reports–they must opt either to assume a perenially skeptical posture (as I do), or to presume that what the authorities tells them is usually true (which most still seem to do).  They rely on media to sort through things for them and get to the truth of the matter.  But the media (at least as represented by some of the people Pilger is interviewing) is busy trying to shove this responsibility off onto the government, which is hardly the most impartial source.  Pilger presses them a bit on this point, but not as strongly as he could have.

I also would’ve liked to see him talk about how part of the problem is the instinctive patriotism and war-lust that seems to so easily seduce all people, modern Western reporters as much as anyone.  So many of the people he talks to admit to just having gotten caught up in the excitement of it all and not wanting to ask any hard questions.

 

Needless to say, an illuminating, challenging, disturbing and sobering film all round.  Now I’m going to have to go check out some of Pilger’s other work.

 

 

KJB (2011): The Book that Changed the World

 Message: N/A
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Now for something completely different!  This is not a strict documentary at all, but a hybrid docu-drama, with a generous sampling of live action mixed throughout the documentary interviews and narration.  Although it’s very politically-charged in its own way, the politics in question happened four hundred years ago, so it doesn’t seem quite as controversial anymore–however, there’s still plenty of controversy to go around, at least for Presbyterians whose identity is dependent on a certain narration of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. 

This docu-drama, made in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, invites the viewer to experience the complex political and religious milieu of the late 16th and early 17th century in which the King James emerged.  By doing this, rather than simply focusing narrowly on the production of the translation, its merits, and its reception, the filmmakers succeed in recreating the original wonder and drama of the King James Bible, helping viewers to really feel what a monumental accomplishment it was.  In this, they are helped in no small way by the booming and melodramatic presence of John Rhys-Davies as narrator and presenter, roaming around old buildings and libraries and rapturously inhaling from the pages of archaic manuscripts.  The best scene of all is when Rhys-Davies, to demonstrate the auditory qualities of the translation, thunders forth favorite passages from a pulpit in an old stone church.  

But it was perhaps King James himself who stole the stage.  Although a no-name actor on a very rushed and under-budgeted production schedule, he (see, I still don’t even know his name) does a fine job of bringing this brilliant and enigmatic monarch to life.  The scene where he brazenly mocks both the reactionary Anglican clerics and the over-scrupulous Puritan protesters at Hampton Court is almost worth the price of the film (at least for me, though I know most people aren’t doing their dissertation on Anglican-Puritan disputes).  The film offers a much more sympathetic (and from what I can gather, historically accurate) take on King James than we–at any rate we in Presbyterian circles–have generally been exposed to.  (I grew up in a church where the pastor would not even call it the “King James Version” lest he show any respect to the monarch that commissioned it, always referring to it obliquely as the “Authorized Version.”)  He comes across as a incredibly educated and theologically aware ruler, headstrong and defensive but deeply conscious of his duty to his subjects and to Christ’s kingdom, as well as politically savvy.  In particular, I was surprised to learn in the film how closely he was involved with the commissioning and oversight of the translation, which I had always assumed simply bore his name because he was the king who officially signed off on it.

 

There are only two weaknesses in this film, that account for my giving it four rather than five stars.  The first I have already mentioned–this was filmed on quite a low budget, and so one should not expect the “drama” part to be top-quality, and it’s not.  That said, it’s much better than one might expect–the costumes, acting, sets etc. are all respectable and there are few if any moments that make you wince at their corny-ness.  A bit more irritating at times is Rhys-Davies’s melodrama–indeed, if it were anyone else but Rhys-Davies, it might be intolerable, but we expect no less of him, and he has the ethos to back it up most of the time.  But occasionally, it is a bit over the top.   

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to anyone–Christian or not–who wants to learn about this most remarkable contribution to our cultural heritage and this fascinating period in history.



Relics of the Amorites?

When (if) we read about the controversies over vestments that inaugurated the English Puritan movement, we’re probably tempted to wonder how people got quite so worked up about this.  Were a mere robe, surplice, and cap really the “relics of the Amorites”? “filthy rags culled from the popish dunghill”?  Was it really worth abandoning the ministry rather than agreeing to wear such vestments, vestments that after all were simply the uniform that the clergy had always worn?  So what if the papists wore them–hadn’t the papists worshipped in the same church buildings too?  And no one was saying that these should be simply abandoned and torn down.

But on second thought, this mania, bizarre as it seems to be, appears relatively explicable when one considers the fact that there are apparently still a great many Protestants who recoil in horror and revulsion from the the idea of distinctive clerical garb.  It’s one of those things I grew up around so much that I never stopped to reflect just how bizarre it was.  Just what is the objection?

In his magisterial The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, Patrick Collinson offers some hint as to why the vestments proved so polarizing, which puts the Puritan protest in a more sympathetic light (but renders modern objections all the more inexplicable).  

It was not, he said, so much that the non-conformist clergy were themselves unable to stomach the thought of clerical garb, or even of clerical garb that was similar to that the papists had worn.  Many would have preferred to do without it, for a variety of reasons, but would not have gotten up in arms about it on their own account.  For most, their objection was founded on an honest conscientious concern for their more simple-minded parishioners:

“However much they might detest the old ceremonial, men of learning could preserve a measure of detachment toward the more incidental trappings of popish worship, distinguishing between the thing itself and its superstitious use….But for ‘simple gospellers’ (as the London ministers describe them) the symbols themselves were a concrete, visible offence.  Their emotional reaction reminds Dr. T.M. Parker of the attitude of the revolutionary sans-culottes to the knee-breeches of the ancien regime, and even of the artorial principles of the first Socialist Cabinet ministers of 1924.  The comparison is not strained, for Elizabethan protestants regarded the surplice and the square cap as the uniform of an oppressive class.  Unlike the new bishops and many of the preachers, they were witnesses of the Marian burnings, and they were well aware that many hangers-on of these cruel proceedings continued to hold office in the Elizabethan Church, and that it was for them that the English ministry was still saddled with some portions of ‘the pope’s attire.’”   

In other words, for many of the ordinary folks in the pew, it felt as it might have felt to a German in 1950 if all their policemen were going around in Gestapo uniforms and swastikas.  The vestments in themselves have nothing to do with the errors of the Roman church, and certainly nothing to do with the murderous persecution under Mary, but one can certainly understand your average Joe in the pew for honing in on such visible symbols, and having trouble abstracting them from the context he had originally encountered them.  If this was how many parishioners felt, one can begin to understand the conscientious scruples of some of their ministers.

 

But of course, this sharpens the question–Why is it that so many Protestants today maintain this phobia for vestments?  The closest thing to a sensible answer I’ve heard seems to be that in the apostolic church such things would not have been worn, but all things would have been done with simplicity.  But this shaky skeleton of an argument (which was boldly asserted by many of the Elizabethan Puritans) invites a host of objections: how do we even know that?  It is entirely an argument from silence.  Even if it were so, on what basis is that normative, any more than the fact that back then, they met in houses rather than church buildings for worship?  And the simplicity that is so often extolled when it comes to ceremonies and such was of course not simply a feature of apostolic worship (if it was that–again, this is mainly an argument from silence), but was clearly a feature of the whole lifestyle of the early Church, in which all things were held to be common and luxury was eschewed.  Until Protestants are ready to return to that kind of simplicity across the board, it’s hard to see what force a call for such simplicity in clerical vestments could have.

It seems to me, then, that the main impetus for the objection today is not all that dissimilar from the phobia that Collinson identifies above.  Then, it was understandable…but now?  How many modern Protestants have had friends burned at the stake by Catholic zealots?  How many have witnessed an oppressive economy of indulgences and works-righteousness?  Indeed, given that vestments have now been honored with hundreds of years of use by fine Protestant clergymen, one can scarcely complain that they carry the inescapable association with “popery.”  What is it with the seemingly unshakeable phobia of all things Catholic that still dominates large sections of American Protestantism at any rate?  Are we fated always to be a religion of reaction?  Can Protestantism ever grow up and stop defining itself in merely negative terms, desperate to prove above all that “We’re not Catholics” (and now, more recently, “We’re not liberals”)?  

Anglicanism gets a bad rap for being a lukewarm middle way, with no positive contribution, but in many ways, it seems better positioned to demonstrate what a positive Protestantism looks like than so many Reformed and evangelical churches, which remain trapped in a perpetual reaction to imaginary foes.  



A Tale of Two Protestantisms

In our supervisory meeting yesterday, Oliver O’Donovan went off on another of his delightful and delightfully illuminating tangents, a tangent that helped make remarkable sense of my own conflicted experience in the Reformed tradition–first in a quite narrow and parochial Southern Presbyterian context, then in a “Federal Vision” context that aspired to a more “catholic” perspective, but seemed unable or unwilling to follow through, retreating always to the comforting black-and-white dualities of the Reformed tradition they knew and loved, and finally in an Anglican context that, though historically rooted in the Reformed tradition, is despised by most who wear that badge today, and seems more than content to distance itself from it.   

The problem is, suggests O’Donovan, that there were actually two quite distinct Reformed traditions from quite early on, and the difference can be seen, as plain as day, in the contrast between the Scots Confession and the Thirty-Nine Articles.  The Scots Confession holds as an article of faith the existence of an anti-Church, alongside the true Church, an anti-Church presided over by an anti-Christ, the Pope–this notion later became enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to the considerable embarrassment of 19th- and 20th- century adherents of it.  Ch. 18 of the Scots Confession opens this way: 

“Since Satan has labored from the beginning to adorn his pestilent synagogue with the title of the kirk of God, and has incited cruel murderers to persecute, trouble, and molest the true kirk and its members, as Cain did to Abel, Ishmael to Isaac, Esau to Jacob, and the whole priesthood of the Jews to Christ Jesus himself and his apostles after him. So it is essential that the true kirk be distinguished from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace, to our own condemnation, the one for the other.”  

In other words, it is possible for portions of the visible Church to become not merely rotten branches, but in fact, “synagogues of Satan”–part of an anti-Church that must be utterly repudiated and purged out.  For the Scots, this was precisely what the Roman Church had become, and so one of the first things the Scottish Reformation did was to suspend all Masses in Scotland.  Only once the anti-Church had been put out of business could a true Church with a true Eucharist be put in its place.  A bad church was no church, a bad priest no priest, a bad Eucharist no Eucharist.  In short, Donatism.

This contrasts sharply with what was going on in England.  In England, the Mass was seen as riddled with corruptions, and in need of great reforms, but no one thought of simply stopping all the Masses–after all, the Mass was the Eucharistic service–just a really bad one.  So the liturgy was reformed in stages, rather than being abolished and replaced.  And no one thought of telling the laity to stop attending the services their parish priest was conducting, even if he was still a papist–of course not!  He was still their priest, and this was still a Eucharist, and they were to go partake in faith and receive grace, even if he was going to receive damnation.  A bad church was still a church, a bad priest was still a priest, a bad Eucharist was still a Euchrist.  This understanding, inherited from Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings, is articulated forcefully in Art. 26 of the Thirty-Nine Articles:

“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometime the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments; yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the word of God and in the receiving of the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.”

The one Protestantism saw little need of historical continuity; for the other, it was clear that the Church reformed must be the same entity as the Church needing-to-be-reformed.  The one Protestantism thought that to be a true Christian, you had to deny that Catholics were Christians; the other thought this was absurd, since they professed the faith, Scripture, and the creeds, and practiced baptism and the eucharist.  The one was characterized by an ethos that was always on guard against the marks of a “synagogue of Satan”–any part of the Church might cease to be so, and we must be constantly vigilant, and ready to withdraw ourselves from it if it did; the other was characterized by an ethos which considered purity necessary for the well-being of the Church, to be sure, but not its being, and which thus sought to take differences of opinion and corruptions of practice in stride, as matters that must be resolved for the health of the Church, but upon which its very life did not depend.  

No wonder that these two Protestantisms found themselves unable to live side-by-side for long.  The English and the Scotch churches struggled with growing tensions, until these exploded in the chaos of the 1640s (of course, then the impulses of English Puritanism, which shared the Scotch assumptions, also boiled to the surface).  And this was not, says O’Donovan, merely a British phenomenon.  The same two strains can be found in the Dutch Reformed churches–indeed, the more moderate strain was at first more dominant, until Beza exerted his influence to move the Dutch churches toward a stricter kind of Calvinism, which finally won the day at the Synod of Dordt.  This landmark conference O’Donovan sees as the decisive rout for the moderate (more authentically Protestant, one might add) Reformed viewpoint–and as, needless to say, about much much more than just predestination, which is all we think of the Synod of Dordt as.  Since then, the moderate Dutch Reformed were in many ways driven underground, the Anglicans steadily detached themselves from a Reformed identity they wanted no part of, and the Donatist mentality seized hold of the subsequent heirs of the Reformed tradition, and remains deeply entrenched today in America.

 

Oversimplified?  I have no doubt–it was an off-the-cuff ramble.  But it sure makes a lot of sense of a lot of vexing questions.


Puritan Hypocrisies

Where I grew up, the Puritans were always the good guys in the story.  New England Puritans, English Civil War Puritans, Elizabethan Puritans, you name it.  They were always good guys.  Unlike the wicked corrupt Anglicans who would put them in prison and used their wealth and power to try to trample on them.  The Puritans wanted to purge the Church of its papist abuses, and that must be a good thing.  They wanted toleration for religious minorities, and that must be a good thing.  They opposed the idea of a state church, and wanted the Church to be free to rule itself, and that must be a good thing. 

I first sensed that something was amiss with this narrative when I realized (I wouldn’t say “learned” because in all probability I already knew it, it had just never hit home) that the Puritans (loosely defined) had beheaded their Archbishop in 1645.  That couldn’t be a good thing.  And then when I encountered someone in our circles who wanted to lionize Martin Marprelate, and I started looking at the kind of filthy slander Marprelate had written against his pastors, I knew that something was amiss.  And more recently, the truth has been laid bare in all its ugliness–the Elizabethan Puritans, at any rate, were characteristically petty, self-righteous, slanderous, vindictive, theologically naive, and unprincipled, to an extent that almost justifies the authoritarian response of Elizabeth, Whitgift, and Bancroft (which was, in any case, not all that authoritarian by the standards of the day).   

But, they were at least in favor of the freedom of the Church from the State, right?  For religious freedom, rather than authoritarian conformity?  And that’s gotta be a good thing, right?

 

So I’ve been inclined to think.  In reality, though, it’s not at all clear that we can cast the Puritans as the noble fighters for the freedom of the Christian conscience and the freedom of the Church from the State.  Both claims are somewhat anachronistic impositions from a later era.  In reality, the Puritans were not fighting so much for permission of a righteous minority to pursue its own church polity within the commonwealth, but were fighting for the complete makeover of the commonwealth along the lines demanded by the righteous minority.  Neither Puritan or Anglican envisioned religious diversity; they envisioned either a Church of England ruled according to Anglican principles, and nothing else, or a Church of England ruled according to Puritan principles, and nothing else.  All minorities want tolerance as long as they’re minorities, but if they can become the majority (or at least the most powerful), few show much interest in tolerance anymore.

The second claim is more interesting.  Is it true that the Puritans were fighting for the freedom of the Church from political control?  Well, again we might cynically say that this was just a pragmatic stance, and one that they were happy to reverse if they seized political power.  However, at the theological level, there was an important sense in which the Puritans were fighting for ecclesial autonomy (though whether they were theologically right is questionable).  What’s interesting here is how, for pragmatic purposes, they set aside that principle from the get-go, and were actually, throughout the Elizabethan controversies, the ones trying to manipulate the Church.   

See, what’s interesting about the Elizabethan settlement is that it’s not simply the subjection of the Church to the State that we moderns might imagine.  On the contrary, political and ecclesial power are set up as separate parallel governments in the Elizabethan constitution, united only in the person of the sovereign.  Queen Elizabeth was head of the Church and of the State, but she governed the one through the bishops, and the other through Parliament.  For Parliament to seek to govern the Church was, in Elizabeth’s mind, an unacceptable political intervention in the affairs of the Church.  Yet it was precisely this that the Puritans sought to effect.  Having marked out the bishops as their irreconcilable foes (on the whole, quite unfairly, since most of the Elizabethan bishops were actually quite moderate and reasonable), the Puritans radicalized their position and called for the abolition of the episcopacy.  Clearly this was a “reform” that they could not try to pursue through the existing structures of the Church, so they turned to political machinery to accomplish their goal, using Parliament to propose legislation that would remove power from the bishops.  And it was this, more than anything, that Queen Elizabeth would not tolerate–the idea that Parliament should be permitted to set ecclesiastical policy, which was the responsibility of the bishops.  Hence, she vetoed every bill that came forward, not always on account of their content, but chiefly on account of what she saw as their unconstitutionality.   

Throughout the Elizabethan period, the story is the same–the Puritans working for a politically, rather than ecclesiastically, determined government of the Church.  So which side was it that stood for the freedom of the Church from political manipulation, from subjection to the State, if this is our ideal?  Well, neither really, since our ideals were simply not the ideals of the sixteenth-century, but if one had to pick, one might well say the Anglicans, not the Puritans, and that’s what you call ironic.