An English Puritan Critique of Contemporary ‘Reformed Theology’

There continues to be resurgence among many of my evangelical dortbrethren of appropriating classical theistic, classically Reformed theology for today’s evangelical church. The Gospel Coalition comes rushing to my mind most prominently when I think about who is having the broadest impact among evangelical North American pastors, but TGC is not alone! There is also an academic undercurrent among up and coming pastor-theologians and young scholars as well who are helping to contribute to this retrieval and push back to what we ought to call a retrieval of Puritan Federal or Covenant theology.

In light of this I want to offer a counterpoint. There is a better way to go, and ironically it reaches back into the Puritan past as well. There were critiques present among the Puritans themselves in regard to what has become the most prominent form and accepted form of that tradition today. And this, I think is the troubling part; what is being pushed today, retrieved today, is one strand of classically Reformed theology, without noticing that there were more strands available to draw from, strands materially distinct one from the other. The strand that is being retrieved most strenuously today, I would suggest, is the one that pushes a nomist or Law-based spirituality. Part of the reason this is so, I would further suggest, is because among those doing the retrieval there isn’t a critical apparatus available to them to critically engage that period of ideas for today. And so it is just presumed among these folks that the whole period and development of English Puritanism, Federal theology, and classically Reformed theology is pretty much a monolith. But this is too facile, and this presumption does not withstand critical and historical scrutiny.

Since I think this retrieval is potentially deleterious to the souls doing the retrieving and then the souls that these souls teach I want to alert people to the reality that there is indeed more depth and a better way forward in regard to reaching back into this period, if we feel the need to at all to begin with. Ron Frost offers a helpful index toward better being able to engage this period critically and in a way that might allow thinkers to think critically about this period. Here are four distinct strands that were present within English Puritanism; as we understand what these strands are better we will be set up to think about Reformed theology more critically and in a way that we will not attempt (hopefully) to import theological themes that ultimately (I would contend) are destructive to our Christian souls.

Here Ron Frost identifies these four strands as he writes about the theology of William Perkins and Richard Sibbes in his now published PhD dissertation:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[1]

I would contend, using this taxonomy laid out by Brauer via Frost, that what dominates Reformed theology in our current context is the nomist law based understanding. This understanding emphasizes obedience to the law (the third usage of the law) as what it means to live a fruitful life unto God. There is no emphasis in this framework on a loving, winsome relationship with God, but instead a life of rigorous performance based salvation.

The reality is though, is that none of this will affect folks too much. On one hand most evangelicals are so aloof to theology that most of this will just be academic to them, or then on the other hand there are indeed academics who study Reformed theology, but for the most part it remains an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, I hope that some of this will make some sort of headway into the minds and hearts of people who might be interested in the history of ideas and development of Reformed theology. I hope that this stuff isn’t just academic to you, and I hope that theology matters to you; it should, since it is the study of God, and in our case the Triune Christian God.

[1] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.

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7 comments

  1. Bobby, I’d like to see more on what differentiates the four categories if you ever have desire or time. I definitely get the sense from modern TGC-style “reformed theology” that a particular strand has been elevated as the only valid option.

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  2. Hi Johnny, I am referring to the general adoption of classical metaphysics; as far as I know New Covenant theology still thinks through those categories at a metaphysical level.

    I also recognize that I broad brush, but of the TGC folks I know–even the younger ones–they follow an Aristotelian informed trajectory still.

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