Nature the Supernatural and Virtue

Calvinists believed that God governed the world through both natural causation and supernatural intervention. Most maintained a sense of balance between grace and nature, revelation and reason, and special providence and natural order. In their soteriology, they emphasized both special grace and the participation of the human will and understanding in the order of salvation. In their view of religious knowledge, they stressed the priority of scriptural revelation but left a considerable space for reason to operate. In their understanding of the cosmos, they found numberless signs of divine providence, but they also agreed that secondary natural causes displayed sufficient regularity to justify natural philosophy. Such a sense of balance was implicit in the Calvinist idea of divine accommodation. By the 1720s, however, even as the Mathers promoted their heightened supernaturalism, some were beginning to rethink the balance by expanding the scope of the natural, the volitional, the reasonable, and the ethical.

For the most part, the rethinking stayed within the boundaries of Calvinist theology. In the opening decades of the eighteenth century, a small group of ''catholick'' Calvinists, clustered in and around Boston, cautiously employed a language that shifted the tone of Calvinist doctrine even as they affirmed its content. By the 1730s, this impulse assumed slightly more daring expression, blending with a concern for virtue that led a few clergy beyond traditional

Calvinism. At the same time, the anti-Calvinist temper of post-Restoration Anglicanism left its mark both on Anglican theologians in the southern and middle colonies and on converts to Anglicanism in New England. On occasion, the resulting disputes reflected the two forms of reason that had distinguished the Cambridge Platonists from the physico-theologians, especially when the New England Anglican convert Samuel Johnson adopted the Neo-platonist epistemology to construct a philosophical idealism quite unlike the more empirical temper of the "catholick" Congregationalists. For the most part, however, the clergy differed about reason only insofar as a few of them spoke with slightly more appreciation of its powers than others did.

The more important dispute was about virtue, especially about the extent to which the virtuous life made salvation more likely. All Calvinists honored the virtuous life, but some sought ways to link the virtuous life more closely to salvation. Others gradually veered away from their Calvinist heritage because they came to believe that it could not accord proper weight to virtue. The revivals of the 1740s stimulated a reassertion of Calvinist thought and piety against such innovations, but by mid-century, a few colonial theologians, some Anglican and some Congregationalist, often reacting against the seeming excesses of the revivals, opened the way toward a theology that defined the virtuous life as a clearer sign of religious devotion than the experience of conversion itself. The ensuing debates revealed the extent to which many Calvinists adjusted their theology to accommodate a turn in eighteenth-century intellectual life toward ethics and the ideal of virtue.

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