Shortly after 1633 the churches in New England began to insist that candidates for membership give a credible narration of their conversion; the church voted on the credibility. This meant that social practice in New England intensified a clerical interest that had emerged among such English Puritans as William Perkins and Richard Rogers in the late sixteenth century as an attempt to deal with the pastoral problems connected to the doctrine of predestination. It focused attention on the ordo salutis, the order of salvation, or the stages of the spiritual life. The notion of an "order" of salvation reflected the idea of accommodation — the sense that God had "freely bounded himself'' to observe the order revealed in scripture. It proved to be a troublesome notion.52

Among the colonial analysts of the order of salvation, Thomas Hooker was the most prolific. Several of his books described the stages of regeneration: first the preparatory stages of conviction and humiliation for sin, and then vocation (God's effectual gracious call through which the decree of election took effect in the prepared soul), faith (the soul's responsive act of trust), justification (God's imputing to the soul the merits of Christ, acquitting and accepting the sinner as righteous), ingrafting or union with Christ (a participation in the spiritual good of Christ), adoption (by which Christ gave the believer his Spirit), sanctification (the gracious creation of holy dispositions and inclinations that restored the image of God), and glorification (the final blessedness of the saints in heaven). Hooker could devote an entire book to a single stage, and though his vocabulary shifted in the three decades between his brief essay introducing John Rogers's Doctrine of Faith in 1627 and his grand summation in The Application of Redemption in 1656, he was consistent throughout his career.

Along with other New England ministers, Hooker received both praise and criticism for the emphasis he placed on the preparatory stage. ''Preparation'' meant driving the soul to contrition and humiliation, and most of the New Englanders agreed that it was necessary. John Cotton, preaching in England, said that ''the Spirit of grace will not come but into an heart in some measure prepared,'' and he continued after moving to New England to insist that God prepared sinners by dashing their worldly confidence. Bulkeley thought it possible that faith might be created ''without any preparation,'' but he too pointed out that God's ''usuall course'' was to break the heart before scattering the seeds of faith. The idea of preparation captured the sense of the biblical texts that described a feeling of bondage and brokenness as preliminary to grace.53

Hooker believed that preparation required a ministry that would uncover sin. That meant preaching the law. Cotton agreed: ''There are a generation of preachers,'' he complained in an English sermon, ''that would now have no Law preached, but onely to draw men on to Christ, by the love of Christ.'' Such smooth and comforting sermons were worthless; the heart had to be wounded unto death.54

Thomas Shepard therefore tried, one of his hearers recalled, ''to pound our hearts all to pieces.'' This dismayed Giles Firmin, who lived about fifteen years in New England before becoming a Presbyterian minister in England. Firmin thought it was a mistake ''to preach and print of such strong convictions, such dreadful legal terrors, deep sorrows and humblings, as being the common road through which men go that come to Christ,'' and he charged that Shep-ard's sermons cast people into despair and distraction, but Shepard held to his position that the heart had to be ''prepared'' for conversion. What especially offended Firmin was the contention that the unregenerated soul should, using Hooker's phrase, be ''content to bear the extent of damnation.'' Firmin thought that only a saint could be that unselfish, but he also thought the idea odd even for saints. Hooker and Shepard replied that a soul ''truly prepared and empty'' would willingly abandon itself to be damned.55

Hooker thought that such ''legal humiliations'' were the harbingers of faith, but he also went a step further, arguing that self-denial of that magnitude suggested ''a saving worke of Christ'' in the soul even before the onset of faith. It followed that troubled souls might find in their very despair a sign of ''special'' grace. But when Hooker tried in 1636 to persuade his colleagues in New England, most of them seem to have demurred. One observer reported that this was only ''Hooker's position, the rest of the Ministers do not concurr with him.'' John Cotton suggested that others — though not he — shared Hooker's view, but neither Shepard nor Bulkeley accepted the doctrine of ''saving preparatives,'' and Norton made it clear that for him preparation was a matter of

''common grace,'' not of the ''special grace'' that imparted ''saving qualifications.''56

Neither Hooker nor the other ministers ever meant to suggest that sinners could prepare their own hearts. The doctrine of preparation referred to divine activity, not to natural human effort. ''Nothing but grace doth all, workes all, prepares all,'' Hooker wrote. ''He that doth prepare is the Lord; he that doth receive the work, and is prepared, is the soules of those whom God hath elected to salvation.'' Preparation was not a matter of human striving. ''These saving preparations,'' he wrote, ''are no acts of mine, therefore not my fruit. . . . They are wrought in me, not by me.'' To the New England clergy, any suggestion that human beings might prepare their own hearts for salvation would have suggested the error of Arminius, who contended that the natural will, aided only by common grace, could accept or reject the divine offer of salvation. They ridiculed such a ''naked Arminian illumination and persuasion.''57

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment