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