Not So Fast Young, Restless, and Reformed; Not So Fast Neo-Puritans: The Reformed Faith, Not a Monological Reality but a Multilogical Made Up of Variegated Centers

I used to write about this frequently, particularly because of my education under Ron Frost; I somewhat quit alerting folks to this reality, but I think I will, every now and then, continue to offer a counter-voice to the dominant narrative that continues to build steam like a locomotive unabated. What I’m referring to is the idea that the Reformed tradition, that Calvinism, is a monolithic reality; as if what we have come to know as classical Calvinism today is and only ever was the tradition that constituted what we know as orthodox Calvinism. This is simply not the case! I operate, as an Evangelical Calvinist, within a continuing counter-stream, but not underrepresented stream in the past, of the Calvinist tradition. True, personally I have now adopted Barthian and Torrancean modes of Reformed cogitation, but these were prompted previously by impulses that I  learned were present in the Reformed tradition in people like Calvin himself, Sibbes, Eaton, Cotton, et al. Some might be willing to admit that there was dissent in the Reformed past among the Reformed, but the thesis I follow, developed by Janice Knight et al., is that the picture of ‘orthodoxy’, particularly in English and American Puritan theology, is a contested reality; it is one that I continue to contest, materially.

In order to help illustrate what I am talking about, let me quote Janice Knight, a historian of Puritan theology. She argues, just as I noted, that what we have come to accept as orthodoxy in the Reformed tradition, indeed, in the Calvinist resurgence, was a variegated reality; that it belies the monological character that historians like Perry Miller have given it in his seminal writings back in the early 20th century. The reason I think it is important to at least acknowledge this, at least at one level, is to inject a  modicum of humility into the mix with the hopes that the Young, Restless and Reformed might realize they haven’t found the theological pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow that they seem to think they have. In other words, realities like those noted by Knight ought to problematize, ought to complexify the gusto we find in both popular and academic iterations of Reformed theology on offer today. It ought to inform such folks that their version of Reformed theology is just a version and not the only one available; that there is room in the family of the Reformed tradition for brothers and sisters who operate within the space offered by the variegation that has always been present in this tradition. Knight writes this about how the current monological narrative of the Reformed understanding developed under the pressure of Miller’s reconstruction of the Puritan period of development:

A curious yet largely unexamined contradiction in the early scholarship of the field may prove instructive. Just one year before Miller published the first volume of The New England Mind, William Haller published his classic account of The Rise of Puritanism (1938). Though many scholars treat these two works as founding texts for modern Puritan studies, few have remarked that they bear surprisingly little resemblance to one another.

Like Miller, Haller constructs a genealogy of Puritan “fathers,” but he does so from the perspective of English intellectual history. Interestingly, Ames, William Bradshaw, and Hooker—central figures in Miller’s Puritan pantheon—have a lesser place in Haller’s universe. They are briefly mentioned as “the intellectual fathers of Independency.” Haller’s interest attaches to the prominent group of Puritans who move in circles of power at court and the colleges. The roll call of that leadership—Sibbes, Cotton, Preston, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye—constitute my Spiritual Brethren. As prominent actors in the salient events of the prewar period, these men achieved a reputation that eclipsed Ames’s and Hooker’s and continued to do so in subsequent historical accounts of the British national past. Haller’s reading, drawing on the Lives of Samuel Clarke, in some measure imported the whiggish bias of that early hagiography.

Conversely, the victors of the early disputes in New England have been given a disproportionate place in our national history. In the aftermath of the Antinomian Controversy, men like Shepherd and Winthrop began the task of writing apologies regarding the disputes, naturalizing their own authority as inevitable, as “orthodox,” and rewriting opposition as “heresy.” Shoring up their authority not just by exiling dissenters or by marginalizing Cotton and Davenport, they also engaged in literary acts of self-justification. The volatility of the events was represented as the inevitable emergence of “right opinion,” a history later rehearsed by Cotton Mather, among others. While admitting of rupture and dissonance, this Puritan archive inscribed the winner’s tale in the very act of narrating difference as dissent. Drawing on this written record, even wary historical reconstruction of the “original” context runs the risk of re-authorizing the myth of inevitable origin by redeploying this triumphalist dynamic of margin and center.

The Winthrop orthodoxy has dominated American hagiography, theirs is the theology that has become synonymous with the univocal Puritan piety. Drawing on this record and from an Americanist perspective, Miller could conclude that with respect to the “fundamental point” of preparationism “Hooker’s influence eclipsed Cotton’s and his share in the formation of American Puritanism is correspondingly larger.” This bias is reflected in a subsequent focus on the preparationist orthodoxy in succeeding historical interpretations and a romanticizing of Cotton’s piety as the lost, best part of ourselves.

My study is offered as an effort of recovery—one that seeks return to the period before orthodox modes were secured in New England in order to restore a sense of drama and volatility to our early history. A corrective to triumphalist histories, this study offers a thick description of the ideas, associations, and experiences that bound the Sibbesian party together and describes the set of compromises, dialogic exchanges, and heated conflicts that ultimately set them apart from the “orthodox” culture. Rather than acquiescing in a description that locates them as dissenters from an orthodox center, this study places them at the center and considers the production of a single “orthodoxy” as a volatile process that has only come to seem inevitable in subsequent narrative accounts.[1]

This remains largely an untold unheard story. I have mentioned it to people like R. Scott Clark and others of like mind in the past, and they have only dismissed the work of Knight; of course!! My hope is that by alerting folks to this, once again, that they will slow their charge down a bit. That when they label ‘dissenting voices’ within the Reformed tradition as ‘heretics’ or ‘heterodox’ that they will realize they are only continuing on a historiographical charade that started early in Whiggish England and early America.

Does this reality—i.e. that there were ‘orthodoxies’ in the Puritan Reformed faith—necessarily challenge the material theological developments that are currently being retrieved and recovered by the jubilantly resurgent? No, not necessarily. But it does marginalize the claim that they are THE orthodox in the Reformed theological domain. It does problematize the belief that other voices, other than theirs, are merely dissenting, even heretical voices. On this point, something of interest to me is how indeed someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance are treated; they are labeled heretics by many of these hard charging Young, Restless, and Reformed types. And if not labeled heretics they are received with suspicion and as sub-Reformed thinkers who might offer pearls or flourishes of theological wisdom that can be extracted for utilitarian purposes; the fall-back always being the belief that Reformed orthodoxy’s sum can be found in something like the Puritan produced Westminster Confession of Faith.

I offer this up as a form of protest; dissent even. But dissent that works from within the orthodoxies of the Reformed faith rather than outwith.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997), 10-11.

6 thoughts on “Not So Fast Young, Restless, and Reformed; Not So Fast Neo-Puritans: The Reformed Faith, Not a Monological Reality but a Multilogical Made Up of Variegated Centers

  1. I find it interesting that our classic Reformed ecclesiology allows for dissent (e.g. minority reports), but that functionally we have a quest for a monolithic orthodoxy. What concerns me most, and I suppose it is part of the Protestant impulse in general, is to factionalize around orthodoxies at the cost of catholicity. For example Bullinger’s protest against Calvin’s hard-line double predestinarian program is dismissed off hand by modern orthodoxy, as if there weren’t genuine lines of divergence developing in Reformed Christianity – all one has to do is run a straightforward comparison between 2nd Helvetic and WCF or the Thirty-Nine articles to see that there were real differences in what these confessing bodies believed to be orthodox. And, if, as many in the non-Baptist Reformed camp do today, we grant that the only form of Reformed Orthodoxy is encapsulated in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards we risk sanctifying the 16th-17th Centuries and the particularities that gave rise to these confessions a status very near to special revelation. RS Clark ends up in the position of a vicious circularity in his book Recovering the Reformed Confession where he argues that the Reformed confessions are biblical because they are in the Bible and they are in the Confessions, effectively slamming the door on any other doctrinal or exegetical development or rapproachment with others in the broadly catholic tradition that might help to shape and deepen our confession of the truth and our practices in the church.

    These things aside, whatever the popular motifs of orthodoxy are today, I think it would be foolish for the leaders at Westminster East or West, or The Gospel Coalition to presume that their iterations of Reformed Christianity have reached some kind of eschatological fullness. Regarding the Seminaries, I do still hold them in high regard for the general integrity of their institutions, but TGC is constantly in a position of having to defend its spurrious leadership, or so embroiled in controversy that it is difficult to take anything they promote seriously. This is were I say to you Bobby, keep on pushing, it is important to have voices like yours pushing for a more catholic and evangelical Reformed Christianity – if we can’t have diversity in our ranks we will end up guaranteeing that the following generations will throw out the baby with the bathwater as their rejection of even the most generous orthodoxies lands them in dangerously heterodox waters.

    BTW – where would you put the Mercersburg Theologians in the mix here?


  2. But even in the references you mention there is a shared doctrine of a decretal God etc. What I am noting is a fundamental point of departure in regard to the way God was conceived of as a God of love rather than law; where marriage mysticism instead of law code was seen as the frame of reference—so counter the precisianism of federal theology etc. The point is that what has become known as the “majority” report in the history wasn’t.

    Mercersberg reflects the type of expansive Reformed theology that is present, but it developed as a more minority report indeed. Marcus Johnson contributed a chapter to our most recent book on Nevin. But what I’m referring to in the history—at the time of the WCF—was that there was another orthodoxy present that at one point was the majority. This is in part what Janice Knight argues, and what Frost further develops in his dissertation.

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  3. Thanks for the clarification. What is disturbing among the contemporary repristinationists is the insistence on a monolith of Reformed Orthodoxy. Of course this reads as an exercise in self-justification for present praxis. I could be wrong, but it seems to me like a lot of it is done by those who lionize Machen, in spite of some of his faults, and pine for the days when American Presbyterianism was synonymous with Old Princeton. I lay the present NAPARC antipathy for Barth (and as a result TFT) squarely on the lap of Van Til. His reading of Barth was disastrously wrong-headed and uncharitable, and had was gobbled up by the conservative factions in the Reformed world still reeling from their defeat at the hands of liberalism. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail – and Barth was, for them one more way for liberalism to gain a foothold. So liberals appropriated Barth, who clearly was not liberal, and conservatives abandoned him, when he, not the Old Princeton factions held out the most promise for the future of the Reformed churches.

    But, to your point, this sort of phenomena isn’t new – it stretches back to the beginnings of the Reformation. It makes me question the value of robust confessions. What has ended up happening with the Westminster Standards is that those who actually believe them are becoming an ever-narrowing minority, and those bodies that hold to them eventually have such a loose relationship with them that they become rather useless. I don’t know how the problem gets solved, especially when Reformational Baptists get thrown in the mix. But, I do think it is incumbent from the voices in these minority reports to do exactly what you are – namely, pointing out that there once was a much larger majority report, and that if Reformed Christianity wants to grow in the 21st Century (beyond picking off disaffected mainstream evangelicals), it is going to have to take catholicity seriously. In addition it is going to have to be willing to question the federalism that has been clearly shown to be untenable by many Reformed exegetes, and comes off as morally reprehensible to even the most casual uninformed observer.


  4. Yes, Van Til, Carl Henry, and current day WTS (to a lesser degree since they are pretty ghettoized unto themselves) have definitely ruined Barth for many evangelicals; along with Henry’s influence at Christianity Today. Currently Mark Galli, general managing editor for CT is a fan of Barth and has written a new book introducing evangelicals to Barth (he mentions my blog as a reference)—I’m supposed to be reviewing it here at the blog when I get the chance—so CT is shifting; of course so is their support by much of the Reformed class. But yeah, there’s definitely Old PTS v the New PTS stuff still present.

    And yes, I agree that catholicity needs to be present. Yet, this just will never be the case for my who see themselves as the Reformed class; particularly the YRR for whom being Reformed is a novelty. Many of the YRR I’ve come across don’t even know what Federal theology entails; they don’t understand Covenantal theology very well at all. Even some Federal people I’ve come across don’t understand how that all works. They’ve never heard of experimental predestinarianism; the Divine pactum; the practical syllogism; preparationism; temporary faith; and a whole host of other loci that attend the Federal system. Indeed, many contemporary Federalists rarely if ever talk in such terms, even if all that I just mentioned and more are necessarily attendant to their type of quid pro quo bilaterally construed Covenantal theology.

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  5. And Oliver Crisp with his Deviant Calvinism and Saving Calvinism is also doing similar work from his own angle that we are attempting to do with EC. Not to mention what my mentor Ron Frost continues to do at mostly the church level and through his blog in regard to what he calls Affective Theology as he has appropriated that from Richard Sibbes.

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