The not so Puritanical Puritans
1. We all fail to be who we might be.
If any generation were aware of their own failings to be all they wanted to be, it would be the Puritans. It was the Puritans who left us books like The Mortification of Sin. They knew their own sinfulness better than any.
2. Complex times lead to confusing events
The Puritan Era (late 16th and early 17th Centuries), and the preceding generation of the reformers fall in a time of great upheaval in the world and the church: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the ending of the monopoly of the Roman Catholic church. There are earthquakes in these days and that leaves a lot of mess; all kinds of assumptions and worldviews are mushed together.
Protestants and Catholics alike martyred their heretics as their ideology rose to political power. This seems inexplicable in a liberal western democracy, and much of it should probably be frowned on - doubtless they would frown on many of the things we consider acceptable today: abortion, the breakdown of families and the cheapening of sex to name a few.
3. The divided house of the Puritans
As the doctoral research of Janice Knight1 and Ronald Frost2 shows, the Puritans lived in a divided house. The old order of Thomas Aquinas’ scholastic Roman Catholicism had been upset by the reforming Martin Luther and John Calvin and the next generation was left to pick up the pieces. Two groups emerged.
We find a revival of scholasticism, dressed (confidently) as a Reformed Scholasticism, claiming to be the heir to the reformers and championed by leaders such as William Perkins and William Ames with a great deal of dependence on the emphases of Aquinas and Aristotle against whom Luther protested.
The division grew out of conflicting perceptions of grace. Perkins and Ames described a moralistic theology based on a view of grace developed by Thomas Aquinas. Sibbes (with Thomas Goodwin, John Cotton, John Preston and Philip Nye) in contrast relied on an affective model of grace taken from Augustine and held by Luther and Calvin, who defined grace in explicit opposition to Aquinas.
On the one had we have a return to the emphases of “The Dumb Ox” Aquinas producing a moralistic theology, with a focus on the will and change of mind and the absolute power of God. Alongside stands Richard Sibbes, with his affectionate Puritanism emphasising a change of heart as one comes to Christ and his Father in the Spirit.
Sibbes was committed to a more emotional and even mystical theology stressing divine benevolence over power, emphasising the love of God.
Swimming in the waters of an experiential grace movement like Newfrontiers this sounds deeply familiar. Emotional and experiential, with a focus on the love of God. Yes please.
In New England the Affectionate Puritans were led by John Cotton (1591-1643) who said, “Let us hold the gospel forth in the language of Calvin, who speaks of purity of life and growth in grace…”3
Among his church was the remarkable Anne Hutchinson who gathered women in her home to expound the scriptures to them, and apply Cotton’s lovely and gracious teaching to their lives until, in The Antinomian Controversy4 of 1637/8, she was expelled from the colony.
The grace of God proves too hot for some to handle in every generation, and in many ways the Reformed Scholastics won the day, the label and the legacy, leaving the grace of God in the dark once more. But you can’t shut the Triune God away and constrain his grace. Within a century Jonathan Edwards, the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield and many others were raised up to sing the sweet melodies of the Christ once more.
Neither Sibbes, Cotton nor any of the other Affectionate Puritans were perfect. And it would be wrong to suggest that the Moralistic Puritans and the Affectionate Puritans were simply two distinct groups; their paths crossed as they breathed the same air. Nonetheless it would be our loss to dismiss the Puritans as puritanical relics. The emphases we find among the best of them, upon the heart, the love of God, and a tangible experience of God may go some distance toward rehabilitating the term “Puritan” or perhaps simply to drawing us to these Affectionate Christians whose friendship would be beneficial.
1 Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (1994)
2 Ronald Frost, The Divided House of English Reformed Theology, now published as Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (2012).
3 Quoted in Frost, ibid.
4 Antinomian = Against Law.