Catechetical Calvinism

The conservatism also reflected more immediate pastoral concerns. Theologians were still local pastors, and their lamentations bemoaning decline from an earlier age of purity were part of a broader attempt by the churches to preserve the faith by forming the children of the second and third generations in Puritan belief and experience. Apart from the sermon and the exercise of church discipline, they made special use after i662 of the catechism, the sum mation of doctrine designed to instruct children and new members in the fundamentals of the faith.

Between 1641 and 1660, the New England clergy wrote and published at least fourteen catechisms — some reflecting expectations that young Christians could master scholastic distinctions—and New England presses also printed four editions of the catechisms prepared by the Westminster Assembly in England. The clergy intended for parents to use them in catechizing their children, but by i660 the ministers were themselves assuming the catechetical duties in the churches—a trend that left a lasting imprint on theology in New England when Samuel Willard in Boston produced his Compleat Body of Divinity as a compilation of his nineteen years of catechetical lectures between 1687 and 1706. After its posthumous publication in 1726, the Compleat Body became an authoritative text in American Reformed theology for the next half century.12

In teaching the catechism, the clergy regularly engaged in a form of systematic thinking reminiscent of the older orthodox systems. Unlike a sermon, the catechism comprehended all the foundational Christian doctrines and organized them in their proper relation to one another. Although it remained sketchy and allusive, it moved toward systematic and comprehensive thinking. Since a catechism was a miniature systematic theology, a summary of catechetical teaching provides an angle of vision on the Calvinist theological scheme in the second half of the century.

The catechisms displayed the practical cast of New England Calvinist theology. Continuing to define theology as ''the doctrine of godliness, or living unto God,'' or the doctrine of ''living well,'' or the doctrine of ''godly life,'' they usually taught that it had two parts, designated as either ''faith and obedience'' or ''doctrine and observance.'' This bipartite division foreshadowed a persistent dichotomizing, the result partly of scholastic precedent, partly of Ramist method. The movement from faith to obedience — from doctrine to observance — illustrated the practical purpose of theology in the religious culture.13

The doctrinal part of the catechism normally began with the distinction between God's sufficiency (the internal attributes and Trinitarian nature of God) and God's efficiency. The efficiency comprised two forms of divine action: the immanent, or the eternal divine decrees, and the transient, which made the decrees effective in the temporal world. These transient acts had a twofold expression: as creation and as providence. Creation included constant natures, like angels, who were created perfect, and inconstant natures, like human beings, animals, and the material world, all needing to be perfected by degrees. Providence was also twofold—it both conserved and governed the world, in a manner either ordinary, in which God worked through ''second causes,'' or extraordinary, requiring immediate divine intervention. Some cat-echists also distinguished between providence as general, overseeing the whole creation, and as special, governing particular events. Special providence included the two covenants of works and grace, which were made necessary by human finitude and human sin.

Such dichotomies reappeared throughout the catechetical accounts of sin and salvation. The fall offended both God's holiness and God's justice and brought both guilt and punishment. The punishment was sin and death. The sin was both original (by which human nature swerved from the divine rule) and actual (by which human actions flouted the rule); the death was both physical and spiritual. Guilt was transmitted in two ways: both by union with Adam, through natural descent, and by communion with Adam, as humanity's federal representative. The communion manifested itself in both the imputation of Adam's guilt and the sharing in its consequences.

The only salvation came through Christ, who could be the mediator because his Person joined two natures. As mediator he held the three offices of prophet, priest, and king, but his mediation comprised his two states—of humiliation and of exaltation—and resulted from his twofold obedience, the active, by which he fulfilled the moral law, and the passive, by which his vicarious suffering satisfied God's wrath. The application of redemption came through the Spirit, who called the elect through both preparation, which convinced them of their sin, and infusion, which worked faith in them. Infusion occurred through vocation (the effectual calling through which the individual Christian was drawn into faith) and the creation of justifying faith. Both preparation and infusion resulted from divine grace, received in a manner both passive, through the generating of a new principle in the will, and active, through the operation of the infused faith. The process conveyed the benefits of Christ by imputation, entailing adoption and justification, and by the infusion of gracious qualities, entailing sanctification and glorification. And all of this signified a twofold relation to Christ: the union brought about by faith and the communion in Christ's benefits.

The discussion of communion usually led to the second part of the catechetical systems, which treated the observance and obedience of the sanctified believer, both through piety in the church and through moral obedience in the world. The teaching on observance and obedience continued the typical Reformed emphasis on the biblical law, and it exemplified the Reformed conviction that theological belief had manifest implications for moral practice. The core of moral theology in the catechetical tradition was the exposition of the ten commandments, which the clergy interpreted to comprehend all the duties attendant upon ''the several places and relations'' that linked men and women to superiors, inferiors, and equals. Adding instruction from the New Testament, they used the catechisms to make the point that true belief in the doctrines in the first half of the system should lead seamlessly to the practices of morality and piety outlined in the second half.14

They supplemented their catechetical teaching with moral handbooks and manuals on "cases of conscience'' resolving specific issues of moral perplexity. Cotton Mather's Bonifacius (1710), in which he argued that the great end of human life was "to do good,'' followed the time-honored casuistic method of defining the duties that followed from social relations (husband and wife, parents and children, masters and servants) and from offices (ministers, magistrates, physicians, lawyers, soldiers). For most, including Mather, ethics meant explication of biblical laws. By the 1680s, however, ethics could mean more than that. In 1686, Charles Morton, a teacher at Harvard and minister in Charlestown, drew up a system of "Ethicks" that combined biblical teaching with Aristotelian virtues. Mather would eventually complain in his diary about "the employing of so much Time upon Ethicks in our Colledges. A vile Peece of Paganism.'' But his concern was simply that the young should "Study no other Ethics, but what is in the Bible,'' a position that accorded with the maxims of the revered William Ames.15

The catechisms were the conceptual maps that laid out, for a lay audience, the internal relations of Calvinist doctrines. The persistent bipartite division in the theology made it easy to memorize—one of the prime motives behind Ramist dichotomy—and gave it a simple logical clarity. Since the sermons employed the same dichotomies as the catechisms, the catechetical instruction also enabled congregations to locate sermonic ideas within the larger conceptual system, and the more technical and polemical works of theology always presupposed the catechetical scheme. The ideal was more the transmission of a tradition than any adaptation of theological ideas to changes in the culture. It was not an ideal designed to promote theological innovation. Its purpose was conservation.

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