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You may grow tired, you might be wearied by my constant references to the history of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, but check the name of my blog. I don’t do this gratuitously though, it comes from a heart that recognizes the need for people to be informed; and in many cases liberated from a received personal history that has them living in a world where they feel there are only binaries to inhabit and thus no space to grow. I am referring to, at least in the conservative evangelical Christian world, the binaries of Calvinism and Arminianism. What, at the very least I hope to do is alert people to the reality that even in the history and development of Reformed theology itself it was not a monolith; there were thinkers who were considered the orthodox who were not close to what we consider to be orthodox Calvinism or Reformed theology today (at least by way of emphasis). In an effort to continue to provide exposure in these directions let me once again, and quickly, refer to Janice Knight’s work on the history and development of English and American Puritanism. Here she is referring to Richard Sibbes as a touchstone thinker who represented a movement of Reformed theologians who challenged what we know as orthodox Reformed theology today; at least as that is given expression in federal or covenant theology.

When the Cambridge Brethren preached the covenant, they described an unconditional promise: the personal Christ, not the covenant bond, secured spiritual adoption. Reversing the emphasis of the Intellectual Fathers, Sibbes and his disciples invented a language stressing divine activity and human passivity in the work of salvation. Consistently, they favored metaphors of God as effulgent, a fountain of goodness overflowing, or an abundant river of graces pouring forth. The Brethren carefully qualified legalist language that might restrict the freeness of this exuberant flow.[1]

When Knight refers to the ‘Intellectual Fathers’ she is referring to William Perkins (as the figurehead of the movement), and those following his lead and style of federal theology. It is his style that has become synonymous with what people think of when they think of Reformed theology (proper) today. You see the way Knight construes the way Sibbesians reversed the emphasis of a contractual God to a personal Jesus. This fits well with Evangelical Calvinism; it fits well with Barth’s and Torrance’s theological emphases; and so Evangelical Calvinists have antecedent impulses within the theology of Sibbes and the Sibbesians. Some today want to simply gloss Sibbes and Perkins together, as if the distinction Knight is making is artificial; but just read Sibbes, read Perkins, and see if it is so artificial.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 109.

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As a continuation from the last post I wanted to get into William Ames’s Federal or Covenant theology a bit further; in order to do that I will be referring to Janice Knight—at great length!—with the purpose of highlighting what in fact are the guts of Covenant theology. Within the field of Covenant theologians there are a range of nuances and views, whether that be historically or contemporaneously, relative to the way that this theologian or that emphasizes this syllable or that in the covenants (of works, grace, and redemption). That noted there is also a general self-referential ambit within which someone who is considered a Federal theologian thinks from; it is within this shared reality, conceptually, that I want to lift up Ames’s theology as exemplary of what the foundational stuff of Covenant theology entails. Knight, as our tour guide, I think, provides insightful analysis and description of Ames’s theology, with the type of critical attention that is often lacking in others when engaging with this period of theological development.

As a caveat, before we get into Knight’s analysis, I want to make clear that she isn’t writing as a Barthian, Torrancean, or even an Evangelical Calvinist; she is writing from the perspective of a historian who is attempting to critically offer penetration through the historiography of this period.[1] She is attempting to break down the wall that early 20th century, Puritan expert, Perry Miller set in regard to reading the Puritans monolithically; to reading Calvinism and Reformed theology in general as monolith. Her work is typically dismissed by the establishment historians and theologians of this period; ironic, I know! Clearly this is why she is so appealing to me; her work coalesces well with the work that Evangelical Calvinists are engaged in (e.g. broadening the landscape or the scope of the makeup of Reformed theology in the history). With this in mind let’s turn to Knight, and allow her to explicate the clarion of federal theology in its classic English form.

William Ames was careful to maintain the distinction between covenant as contract and as free testament; he argue that the first sense properly applied only to Adam’s bond. The fall of Adam made necessary the death of Christ and the testament of his free grace. The first covenant was between friends and implied mutual responsibilities; the second was a “reconciliation between enemies” made possible only by divine intercession.

Yet Ames’s discourse, like that of his famous teacher William Perkins, seems consistently caught in the undertow of legalism. His admirers argue that “theologically and propositionally Ames preached the omnipotence of God,” yet admit that for Ames “on the practical level man was responsible.” Detractors like R.T. Kendall claim that Ames’s theology “is ‘Arminian’ in every way but in the theoretical explanation that lies behind the actual practice of the believer.”

In terms of the covenant, this emphasis meant that despite strong reminders of God’s provenience, Ames exhorts auditors as if faith were a condition of the covenant, contingent on human action. Practically speaking, the doctrine of the covenant became an exhortation to the saint to work out his or her salvation with fear and trembling; it offered a means of assurance but also enjoined the saint to make that assurance secure. In one sense, it was a doctrine of great comfort, motivated by a humane desire to provide a place for human initiative. In another sense, however, it bound men and women to unremitting self-scrutiny and anxiety.

The stress on conditionality evolved with the elaboration of English covenant theology; it entered into the formulation not only by the avenue of antecedent faith but from the other direction, by a consequent moralism. Once elected, God’s saints manifested their gratitude by observing the moral law. Since Ames de-emphasized the doctrine of perseverance, keeping within the covenant also became tinged with the conditional. Even theologians who were adamant about the absolute freeness of grace might admit conditionality in this second sense. Flexibility with respect to perseverance of the saints, then, allowed conditionality even where God’s prevenience was insisted upon. Covenant-keeping became the province of human beings, and the engine for communal as well as individual exhortation. It was by this means that the tribal identification with Israel was effected, and the jeremiad as a rhetorical strategy for social control was born.

Ames first introduces the covenant as a part of God’s providence, his special government of intelligent creatures: “the revealed will of God, which is the rule for the moral life, applies to the rational creature” and requires obedience. God’s governance demands that he “give to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his action.” From this sense of justice and reasonable recompense, “from this special way of governing rational creatures there arises a covenant between God and them.” Resting on justice and its conditions, “this covenant is, as it were, a kind of transaction of God with the creature whereby God commands, promises, threatens, fulfills; and the creature binds itself in obedience to God so demanding.” This description properly applies to the governance of creatures under the covenant of works.

In this context, Ames seems to advocate the kind of contractualism with which he has been so widely associated. He argues that moral deeds done under the rubric of the covenant “lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment.” In theory, however, he protects God’s sovereignty by adding that “the latter is deserved, the former not.” Men and women are fallen creatures who deserve only reprobation; grace is wholly gratuitous. The terms of the covenant of works are satisfied only by the sacrifice of Christ. Accordingly, at one point Ames declares that the new dispensation is termed a testament as well as a covenant. Yet, this is a designation and a meaning he does not pursue.

Indeed, though Ames repeatedly reminds his readers that God fulfills all of these conditions under the covenant of grace, in practice he begins to exhort them, to stress the necessity of an active faith. Just as he argues that the two covenants are parts of the single work of redemption, differing only in application from age to age, so too Ames discovers conditions in both covenants. Christ performs obedience to God’s decrees, but human being must accept Christ’s offer of righteousness. Drawing on biblical injunction to believe and live, Ames and his followers argued that the covenant of grace depends “upon condition of faith and obedience.” Even though God himself provides faith as the fruit of his favor, human beings must actively hope in Christ. To the Amesians, the very term covenant implies this reciprocal relation. In contrast to the unilateral testament of the Sibbesians, Ames asserts that this is a covenant in which faith defines human obligation.

The original relation of the sinner and God, based on such vast disproportions of sin and power, now issues in relation suggesting greater mutuality. Emphasis on the condition of faith focuses Ames’s theology on practical divinity. Indeed, though his rhetoric takes him further in the direction of human voluntarism than he would wish, it might be argued that the central concern of the Marrow is to map the ordo salutis as a series of predictable and practical increments. The first step on Ames’s path involves not only passive receiving of the habit of faith but also active believing, in which the individual turns to Christ. For Ames, both of these steps precede justification.

Faith is the virtue whereby “we learn upon [God], so that we may obtain what he gives to us.” Ames uses active verbs to describe the life of faith: “by faith we first cleave to God and then fasten on to those things which are made available by God.” Faith is “our duty towards God,” the condition by which we enter his covenant and secure his promises for ourselves. Ames is not afraid to spell out the “divers duties . . . which both ought and are wont ordinarily to be performed by the certainty of this grace can be gotten.” As with Perkins, there is an implied condition or contract whereby human beings deal with God. The activism implied in the constructions “to cleave,” “to labor,” “to fasten on to” become more pronounced in Ames’s followers, as does the appeal to self-interest in laying hold of the covenant.

Conditionality is admitted into an otherwise predestinarian scheme by way of the distinction between chronometricals and horologicals—God’s time and ours. This distinction allows for the simultaneous understanding of God’s promise as absolute and conditional, and therein underwrites an emphasis on preparationism. Ames argues that justification is a twofold change, “relative and absolute.” In real terms, “the change, of course, has no degrees and is completed at one moment and in only one act.” This absolute change, however, is according to God’s reckoning. As Ames goes on to say, “yet in manifestation, consciousness, and effects, it has many degrees; therein lie justification and adoption.” This space between the relative and absolute allows preparationism to thrive, and with it the pragmatism closely associated with American religious expression. By focusing on relative change, men like Ames and Hooker could map the steps to the altar and enjoin their auditors to make their salvation sure. Their antinomian critics, however, would argue that even when deployed in the interests of a pastoral pragmatism, preaching the conditionality of faith invests doctrine with a legalistic aura.[2]

Much to consider. I will not try to unpack what I just quoted from Knight, I’ll let what she wrote stand on its own and allow it to impose itself on you one way or the other (this quote covers a whole little sub-section on her coverage of Ames and the conditionality and preparationism inherent to his style of federal theology).

In closing though, let me just put this out there in anticipation of the dismissiveness that comes with sharing critical things like this from Knight. Indeed, someone offered this response to my last post, and what I shared from Knight (this is very typical):

From a Calvinist perspective, I don’t recognize this critique at all. There seems to be a lack of familiarity with the Puritan and Reformed tradition if Sibbes is seen as an outlier. What about Rutherford? What about Goodwin? Andrew Gray? There are so many Puritan sermons and works which pointedly attack the love of Christ merely for his benefits and not his person.[3]

The respondent in the last post failed to appreciate the gravitas of Knight’s thesis; her thesis isn’t that Sibbes and those of his company were the “outliers,” no, just the opposite. Knight’s thesis is that Richard Sibbes offered an alternative emphasis and trajectory within the English house of Puritanism which was just as much, and even more so in England, the accepted or majority report among many of the more successful Puritan pastors and theologians. Knight addresses this respondent’s other concerns as well; but what is required is that he actually reads her argument in full. Will he; will others?

For further reading from ecclesial historians who also see the things that Knight does (and some of these are on the side that Knight is critiquing when it comes to their own theological moorings), to one degree or another let me suggest:

There are of course more resources, the primary literature itself; but these are helpful in getting a handle on Knight’s own claims. At the very least it should problematize the critic’s easy-dismissivism of Knight’s work.

 

[1] It’s funny that I feel compelled to make this caveat, but I feel I must since so many simply reject what they perceive might be informed by Barthian themes in regard to anything historical theological; particularly when it comes to Reformed theology. Believe it or not there are other critics of the turn to Muller historiography of things; in Knight’s case she is critiquing a thesis that Muller himself follows in Perry Miller’s reading of English Puritanism. He set the stage, just as Muller is nowadays, for how historians ought to read the Puritan age; she thinks he flattened things too much thus missing important movements within the period. Rather than simply being a complexity within a monolithic frame (think Muller’s own thesis in regard to the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period), Knight sees English and thus American Puritanism as an amalgam of two distinct movements. She doesn’t downplay emphasis, instead she thinks this is definitive in the formation of the distinct movements of Puritans that she is engaging with.

[2] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 93-6.

[3] Unnamed respondent from a Facebook thread.

The ‘resurgence’ of Reformed theology in the conservative evangelical sub-culture and beyond continues, but what is being retrieved in this recovery of the so called ‘doctrines of grace?’ In this post I wanted to briefly highlight an emphasis, or lack thereof, that is present in the style of Reformed theology that is currently being recovered. It might be argued that the English and American Puritan forms of Reformed theology represent a type of flowering or blossoming of the Post Reformed orthodox theology that developed most formidably in the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed we see an organic overlap between these developments, something of the theoretical/doctrinal (i.e. ‘school theology’) moving to the applied practical outworking in the Puritan experiment. It is this period that is being looked to as the resource that is supposed to revitalize and reorient the wayward evangelical churches of the 21st century. But again, I ask, what in fact is being recovered; what is present, theologically, by way of emphasis that is informing the reconstructive work being done by the theologians presently involved in this effort?

Janice Knight in her book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism offers some helpful insight on the role that reception of William Ames’s form of Puritanism, his ‘Intellectual’ style, had in regard to shaping what we even now are seeing in the recovery of Federal or Covenantal theology. What you will note, and this has been the source of my own critique, along with others of Federal theology, is the lack of focus on the personal Christ, with an alternative focus, instead, on a legal contract (Divine Pactum) and its conditions. You will notice, through Knight’s analysis, that Christ is seen more as an instrument of meeting the conditions of the covenant (of works/grace). Knight writes at length:

Students of the period have long regarded this preference for the functional rather than the personal Christ as characteristic of all Puritan preachers. John Eusden, for example, draws a sharp distinction between Lutheran and Reformed christology, arguing that Luther’s emphasis on the mystery of incarnation was never of crucial importance to English divines: “The Christocentrism of Martin Luther is not shared by most English Puritans . . . The incarnation . . . was not a mystery in which man should lose himself.” A chorus of scholars has echoed this conclusion, arguing that Puritans “minimized the role of the Savior in their glorification of the sovereignty of the Father.” Their means was to focus on the ascended Christ and their purpose was “as far as mortals could” to emphasize the distance between heaven and earth.” The only bridge was the contractual covenant, not the personal Christ.

This argument is confirmed by the structure as well as the content of the Marrow. The person and life of Christ are only briefly treated, and again in language that is figurally abstract. Christ as agent of the covenant assumes center stage in the Marrow. This emphasis on Christ’s legal function effectively forces Ames’s discussion away from godly essence and toward divine omnipotence.

Ames’s real interest is indeed the efficiency or the “working power of God by which he works all things in all things.” Other aspects of God’s nature are subordinated to this application of power. “the meaning both of the essence of God and of his subsistence shines forth in his efficiency.” In this somewhat surprising move, Ames collapses distinctions he had been careful to establish: “The power of God, considered as simple power, is plainly identical with his sufficiency.” In these statements Ames shifts the focus of divinity from a mediation on the being of God (esse) to his performance (operati) in the world—from God’s nature ad intra to his being ad extra.

This stress on the exercise of power is inscribed in the works of Ames’s disciples as well. Again, the caveat obtains: while they celebrated the beauty of Christ and the blessings of grace, on balance preachers like Hooker, Shepard, and Bulkeley focused on the functional application not the indwelling of Christ. It is not God as he is in himself, but as he deals with the sinner that engages them—God as exacting lord, implacable judge, or demanding covenanter. God is imagined as the creditor who will “have the utmost farthering” due him, or the landlord pressing his claim. Repeatedly, Hooker refers to Christ as “Lord Jesus,” or “Lord Christ”—terms which are found with far less frequency in the writings of Sibbes and Cotton. To be sure, this is a loving God, but he is also a “dreadful enemy,” an “all-seeing, terrible Judge,” a consuming infinite fire” of wrath.

And when these preachers use familial tropes to describe God’s dealings, they often warn that loving fathers are also harsh disciplinarians; there is “no greater sign of God’s wrath than for the Lord to give thee thy swing as a father never looks after a desperate son, but lets him run where he pleases.” Though God is merciful, if is a mercy with measure, “it is to a very few . . . it is a thousand to one if ever . . . [one] escape this wrath to come.” Such restriction of the saving remnant is of course an axiom of Reformed faith, but one that Sibbes rarely stressed. On the other hand, Hooker and Shepard’s God often acts by “an holy kind of violence,” holding sinners over the flames or plucking them from sin at his pleasure. This God wounds humankind, hammers and humbles the heart until it is broken.

Divine sovereignty also animates Hooker’s description of conversion as royal conquest and dominion: Christ is like “the King [who] taketh the Soveraigne command of the place where he is, and if there be any guests there they must be gone, and resigne up all the house to him: so the Lord Jesus comes to take soveraigne possession of the soule.” With sins banished and the heart pledged to a new master, the saint begins the long journey of sanctification. This repetition of the language of lordship insists not only on the centrality of domination in conversion but in the general tenor of human/divine relations—abjection replaces the melted heart so often imagined by Cotton and Sibbes.[1]

This helps summarize what I have been writing on for many years; writing against in fact! It is this harsh version of ‘Calvinism’ that became orthodoxy in New England and North America at large; it is this version of Reformed theology that is currently being retrieved for purposes of revitalization for the evangelical churches in North America and elsewhere. But we see the emphasis that is being imported into the evangelical church world; an emphasis wherein Jesus Christ is underemphasized as the centrum of salvation, instead instrumentalized as the organ that keeps the heart of Federal theology pumping.

The concern, at least mine, is that pew sitters sitting under such ‘recovery’ are getting this type of theology; one where Jesus Christ is not the center, instead the contract, the covenant of works/grace is. The emphasis of salvation, and the correlating spirituality present in this framework does not provide the type of existential contact with the living God that there ought to be; at least according to Scripture. We see Knight mention folks like Richard Sibbes and John Cotton; they offered an alternative focus juxtaposed with what we just surveyed. They offer an emphasis upon God’s triune love, and his winsome character; they focus on God in Christ as the Bridegroom and we the Bride. Evangelical Calvinists, like me, work within the Sibbesian emphasis, albeit informed further by folks like Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s theological loci. I invite you to the genuinely evangelical focus we are offering by seeing Christ as the center of all reality, in particular salvation, and within this emphasis we might experience what it is to have a participatory relationship with the living God mediated through the second person of the trinity, enfleshed, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 77-8.

*Artwork: Gwen Meharg, He Will Not Snuff Out!accessed 05-09-2018.

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.

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.

Here is a video I did, when I still had hair 😉 , on the history of Calvinism (the weird thing is that I actually had cancer in this video, but wouldn’t find out for another few months); I am reading what I have transcribed below the video here, so if you just want to read it and not listen to it (or you can do both), then you can.

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 mention 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 judgements 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 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.

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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