Rationalism Resisted

In the late seventeenth century, the New England theologians expanded their scope. The expansion had two sources, the first grounded in the practices of congregations, the second situated within a larger intellectual and cultural world. The congregational stimulus for change came especially through the employment of a religious genre—the catechism—that emphasized system and comprehensiveness. The growing use of the catechism within the churches of a provincial society impelled a number of New England clergy to write catechetical exercises that functioned as theological compendia for a popular audience. The change also reflected the continuing engagement of colonial theology with English and continental thought. Transitions abroad drew some of the theologians of the second generation to engage topics that the first generation had largely ignored. By the second part of the century, they attended to questions of natural science and natural theology that were pressed upon them largely by discussions in England. They began to write about meteors and comets as well as conversion.

Breadth of vision did not translate into openness toward innovation. For almost half a century, the overriding clerical aim in New England was to maintain Calvinism and to resist innovations that might promote the Armin-ian and rationalist trends that the clergy saw overtaking theology in England. The outcome was an insistent Calvinist orthodoxy and a concerted drive to maintain the purity of the New England churches. Yet the resistance to change was not the sole story. The effort to defend a Calvinist piety of conversion led to innovations in sacramental thought and the doctrine of the church. And the defense of Calvinist tradition against perceptions of rationalist subversion led to both an expanded emphasis on the reasonableness of Christian doctrine and a heightened supernaturalism. Like most forms of conscious conservatism, the clerical allegiance to the past subtly altered the shape of the tradition that the clergy were trying to defend.

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