What is Considered Reformed Orthodoxy today Was not what Was Considered Orthodoxy Yesteryear: Calvinism in Historical Perspective

I wrote this originally probably back in 2007. It provides introduction to history that I am almost positive that the Young, Restless, and Reformed and other eager Reformed thinkers have never heard of or considered. Everything nowadays is pretty much flattened out when it comes to what counts as Reformed thought and theology. Full disclosure: Janice Knight is an ecclesial historian, she has no Barth or Torrance ax to grind (in other words Barth and Torrance are nowhere in her sights as far as influence etc. [just felt compelled to share that given my own allegiance to Barth and Torrance]). 

If you are one of those who is interested in the history of ideas, Puritanism, Calvinism, and such things; then the following may be of some interest to you. It might be longer than you like, the following that is, but I’m sorry; I just don’t know how else to try and condense this stuff.

I have often (on one or all of my other now defunct blogs) spoken of ‘another Calvinism’ that competed with the version of Calvinism that we know of today (i.e. Federal or Five-point). When I janiceknightmention this most ‘Calvinists’ (of today) either think that I am talking crazy, or that what I am getting at is so idiosyncratic it is of no lasting value; and thus is not worth taking serious, one way or the other. Well I am going to continue to beat that drum, and hope that I will come across Calvinists who will take the time to listen; to consider that maybe ‘their’ orthodoxy, historically speaking, wasn’t the only Calvinist orthodoxy that was alive and well for so long in Old England Puritanism. My primary source, at the moment, for demonstrating such things is: Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism by Janice Knight. I am actually going to break this up into a series of posts (we’ll see how that goes per time constraints), this first one is primarily going to be a long quote (made up of several paragraphs) by Knight; wherein she describes her working thesis, which she proceeds to develop through the rest of the book. I will end this post with a few closing reflections, and questions prompted by Knight’s stated trajectory; here goes:

This book attempts to recover varieties of religious experience within Puritanism, then, by giving voice to an alternative community within what is usually read as the univocal orthodoxy of New England. My purpose is to retrace the social, intellectual, theological, and aesthetic signatures distinguishing two communities within the larger Puritan household—-groups I identify as the “Intellectual Fathers” and the “Spiritual Brethren.”

The first group, familiar to readers of The New England Mind, is composed of Perry Miller’s “orthodoxy” : Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Peter Bulkeley, John Winthrop, and most of the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; in England, William Perkins and William Ames were their authorities. These preachers identified power as God’s essential attribute and described his covenant with human beings as a conditional promise. They preached the necessity of human cooperation in preparing the heart for that promised redemption, and they insisted on the usefulness of Christian works as evidence of salvation. They were less interested in the international church than in their local congregation and their tribal faith. In general, they were pre- or a-millennial, in that they had little sense of participating in a prophetic errand into the wilderness and had no particular commitment to advancing the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Miller, among others, has lamented that these religionists developed structures of preparationism and an interlocking system of contractual covenants that diminished the mystical strain of piety he associated with Augustinianism.

The second body closely embodies that Augustinian strain. Originally centered at the Cambridge colleges and wielding great power in the Caroline court, this group was led by Richard Sibbes and John Preston in England; in America by John Cotton, John Davenport, and Henry Vane. Neither a sectarian variation of what we now call “orthodoxy” in New England nor a residual mode of an older piety, this party presented a vibrant alternative within the mainstream of Puritan religious culture. In a series of contests over political and social dominance in the first American decades, this group lost their claim to status as an “official” or “orthodox” religion in New England. Thereafter, whiggish histories (including Cotton Mather’s own) tell the winner’s version, demoting central figures of this group to the cultural sidelines by portraying their religious ideology as idiosyncratic and their marginalization as inevitable.

As this book will show, these preachers differed from their so-called orthodox counterparts in significant ways. More emotional and even mystical, their theology stressed divine benevolence over power. Emphasizing the love of God, they converted biblical metaphors of kingship into ones of kinship. They substituted a free testament or voluntary bequeathing of grace for the conditional covenant described by the other orthodoxy. Richard Sibbes speaks of this testament in affective terms as God’s legacy given “merely of love.”

Such a view argues against a doctrine of preparation by refusing human performance as a sign of salvation and pastoral discipline as a mode of social order. Recalling Augustine and anticipating Jonathan Edwards, these preachers construed sin not as a palpable evil but as an absence of good. They preached that grace was a new taste for divine things, that it “altereth the rellish” and is immediately infused into the passive saint by God alone. For the Spiritual Bretheren the transformation of the soul was neither incremental nor dependent on exercises of spiritual discipline. In this piety, there are no steps to the altar. Labor is the joyful return for grace already received. Love, not anxiety, is the hallmark of this piety . . . .(Janice Knight,”Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism,” 2-4)

You might wonder why any of this is even pertinent; good, let me give you some reasons:

1. Because Christians are people of the truth.

2. If we think of something one way, and it is another, then we are setting ourselves up to make judgments that are’nt truthful; and thus we fail to be people of the truth.

3. If we follow Perry Miller’s thesis [the one alluded to in the quote above] that Calvinist Puritanism was an univocal or monolithic or singular voice or reality (i.e. represented by the so called “Intellectual Fathers” or Federal Calvinists [what we know as Calvinism today]) then we will fail to recognize the fact that this is simply not true. We will lump all Puritan’s together, per Miller’s thesis, which many theologians and histiorographers have done (the one I think of is Mark Dever’s PhD on Richard Sibbes, he fails to identify the distinction that Knight substantiates — that there was another ‘orthodox’ party of Calvinists, the so called ‘Spiritual Brethren’ — and thus his whole dissertation broad-strokes Sibbes into the “Intellectual Fathers” camp (because according to Perry Miller’s thesis there was really only this one ‘camp’). The contemporary fall-out of this, is that Calvinists today think, wrongly, that they are the only true representatives of the Calvinist and ‘Reformed’ tradition; and thus if a person does not affirm their confessions, catechisms, and creeds then those folks are not truly ‘Calvinist’ nor ‘Reformed’ . . . this is just not truthful.

4. Maybe Calvinist orthodoxy, today, would take on a new light if it was able to distinguish between ‘their orthodoxy’ and the more prevelant orthodoxy that once was in Old England — represented by folks like Richard Sibbes [the ‘Father’], John Preston, John Cotton, et al.

5. The interesting thing is that the Calvinism that ‘became’ prominent in ‘New-England’ was not the prominent one in ‘Old-England’; the ‘Spiritual Brethren’ [noted above] version was . . . now this neither speaks to the truthfulness or the falsity, per se, of either ‘orthodoxy’. Interestingly, the Calvinism, that we know today [Federal or even simple Five-Point] became prominent, in part, in America, for sociological reasons; more than for ‘theological’ reasons.

6. If a person is under the assumption that the only ‘doctrines of Grace’ that are available are strictly captured by the “Intellectual Fathers” version of Calvinism they are mistaken [historically].

7. Calvinist ‘orthodoxy’ is multilayered, and the thesis presented above by Knight proves this to be the case (well she proves this throughout the rest of her book).

8. The primary source for determining which version, if any, of Calvinism is true (let’s not forget about the Scottish strain as well ;-), of course is the scriptures. But unless one becomes aware of their own informing assumptions, the scriptures will not have a fair chance to re-shape said assumptions; since for this person their assumptions are self-same with scripture. Hopefully this exposure, provided by Knight and these posts, will provide the possibility for some Calvinists to obtain some ‘critical’ distance through which they might be able to approach the scriptures ‘afresh’.

9. Finally, and ultimately, ‘labels’ are not the banners we are fighting for; Christian truth is, and it is folks who realize that, for whom I write these posts!

There are more posts on this to come, maybe not in succession to this post (i.e. I might throw some other posts out there before I return to this series); but they are coming, rest assured.

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2 Responses to What is Considered Reformed Orthodoxy today Was not what Was Considered Orthodoxy Yesteryear: Calvinism in Historical Perspective

  1. and Christian truth is all that matters in the end….so thankyou again 🙂

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Yes, which is why it is important to approach things critically and thoughtfully.

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