Reason

The rule for the proportional reading of scripture suggested a place for reason in theology, and the New England clergy combined two different ways of understanding rationality. Both the Protestant scholastic recovery of Aristotle — and of philosophy, more generally — and the sixteenth-century humanist reform of logic offered grounds for thinking of reason as a guide alongside the biblical revelation. The Puritans derived some of their ways of thinking about theology from both Aristotelian scholasticism and sixteenth-century humanism.

The clergy bore a debt to scholastic traditions. They read not only medieval Catholic scholastic theologians but also the contemporary Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic writers who had cast theology into a form suitable for instruction in academies and universities. Designed to impress a confessional identity on competing Christian groups, this Protestant ''school theology'' emerged in the late sixteenth century under the guidance of academics who wrote manuals of theology for classroom use, employed philosophical concepts to explain theological ideas, and guarded against error by emphasizing precise distinctions and the interconnections between doctrines. In their own university education, the New England clergy had learned their theology through scholastic techniques, especially through oral disputations, and had absorbed a scholastic vocabulary. They carried on their debates with Platonic and Aristotelian ideas of substance, accident, potency, act, matter, and form. When precision became necessary, they turned to such scholastic distinctions as those between God's ordained and absolute power, habit and act, efficiency and sufficiency, immanent and transient acts, and material, formal, efficient, and final causes.

Like the scholastics, therefore, the New England theologians employed the customary rational arguments to demonstrate the authenticity of the scriptural revelation. They began the long tradition in American theology of jus tifying Christian faith by appeal to the time-honored evidences. Shepard pointed out that even Calvin tried ''to prove the Scripture to be the Word of God by reason,'' and while Cotton cautioned that the faith wrought by the Spirit was higher than ''any science gotten by demonstration,'' he laid out the historical evidences for the authenticity of scripture.19

It would be misleading, however, to describe the New England Calvinists merely as students of scholastic theology. They drew also on other sources, including especially the logical reforms of the French humanist Petrus Ramus (1515-72), a critic of scholasticism who reviled, revised, and simplified Aristotle in order to generate a new method for learning and teaching ''easily and clearly.'' Ramus and his admirers taught the New Englanders how to envision theology as the apex of the arts and then how to organize their theological reflections according to the clear canons of "method.''20

They did this first through the discipline of technometria, also known as technologia or encyclopedia, a philosophical attempt to define the arts and determine their relations to each other and their practical uses. It was axiomatic to Ramists that all the arts — logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, physics, and divinity—had a practical aim. Ramus defined logic, for example, as the art of discoursing well, grammar as the art of speaking well, and rhetoric as the art of expressing oneself well. All of these arts were subservient to a larger practical end — the end of "living well'' — and this was the domain of theology. Each art was distinct, with its own rules, and yet all the arts were interrelated. No conclusion in physics or mathematics could be devoid of significance for theology. Every art had the aim of eupraxia — well-doing — and theology taught the highest eupraxia.

Ramus outlined the method for ensuring that theology attained its end. Like every other art, theology required logic, the most general of the arts. But it did not require the subtleties of Aristotelian logic as it was understood in seventeenth-century universities. Ramist logic was a discipline designed to ''invent'' and then to ''dispose'' arguments, which were in Ramist logic any conceptual ''elements'' employed in thought—or as Ramus explained, "an argument is that which is affected to argue anything.'' What counted as an argument depended on what was being argued — an argument could be as general as the principle of causation or as particular as an observation about the visible world — but to ''invent'' an argument was simply to discover it, whether through observation and experience or by accepting the testimony of others.21 It was the second step — disposition or ''judgment'' — that made Ramist logic distinctive. To dispose an argument was first to give it a clear definition and then to analyze it by discovering the conceptions implicit within it. Ramus believed that every argument could be subdivided into at least two more specific ideas, which in turn could also be analyzed into further dichotomies, in a chain that moved continually from the general toward the specific. Having defined and dichotomized the arguments, the Ramist could then combine them, either in syllogisms or, better, in axioms linked in a self-evident chain of argumentation that could be displayed in an outline chart making the point manifestly clear. These procedures Ramus called ''method,'' and they reappeared in theological argumentation in New England for more than a century.22

The theologians assumed that the truths revealed in scripture would be consistent with the truths conveyed by all the arts, and their notions of tech-nologia implied a natural theology that had its roots in Platonic philosophy. The Ramists often taught that Art was a term for the wisdom of God; it therefore constituted the law by which God created the world. Through the act of creation, the archetype in the divine mind expressed itself in the created order as the entype, the essence of a thing, which could be taken into the human mind as an ectype — a conceptual idea — that not only grasped the entype in the creature but also dimly recognized the traces of the archetype in the divine mind. To perceive the world rightly was to recognize something about the ens primum, the Prime Being, from which everything else has come.23

With technologia in the background, the New England preachers could insist that ''the book of the creatures,'' legible by the reason, provided a real knowledge of God. Thomas Hooker noted the reach of this natural theology: ''There are some things of God that are revealed in the creation of the world. . . . A man that looketh into the fabrike of the world, and seeth the making of the earth, and the Sea, and all things therein, hee cannot say but God hath beene here, an infinite wisdom, and an almightie power hath been here. . . .'' Thomas Shepard recited the familiar arguments for God's existence—design and order and the need for a sufficient cause to account for the world — and he thought that the ''workmanship'' of the creation should prove to any rational person the reality of a God worthy of worship.24

The clergy invariably added, however, that this natural knowledge remained insufficient, even misleading, without the revelation of God in scripture. The book of the creatures said nothing of God as reconciled, or of Christ as redeemer, or of the mercies of grace. Natural truth, as Norton put it, might be found in the creature, moral truth in the law of nature, and legal truth in the law written in the conscience, but the evangelical truth of God's merciful grace in Christ was revealed only in the Bible. However revealing nature might be, it remained a ''dark'' book. Only the Bible discovered God ''in all his glorious attributes.''25

To make matters more complicated, the ministers also agreed that the deepest knowledge of God came only through the motions of the Spirit that elicited a true faith. A true knowledge of God was no simple matter of the understanding. When Shepard as a young man suffered the mental agony of skepticism, he discovered that "strength of reason would commonly convince my understanding that there was a God, but I felt it utterly insufficient to perswade my will of it unlesse it was by fits.'' Hooker told his readers that the understanding might discern the "excellency" in God but that only the will could taste the "goodness" in God. To know God was not merely to entertain correct thoughts; the true knowledge of God was a passionate knowledge, a form of knowing that embraced the heart and will.26

Calvin had said that the internal witness of the Spirit certified the authority of the biblical Word, and it became a standard Calvinist tenet that Word and Spirit stood in a polar relation: scripture truly became Word as the Spirit led the reader into its depths, and the Spirit never dispensed revelations independent of the Word. This was a safeguard against fanatics who might boast of direct revelations from God. "Gods Spirit goes alwaies," said Hooker, "with the word." Shepard taught that to seek the Spirit "without or beside the word" was to stand on the "precipice of all delusion."27

Long before Cotton left England, he defined the distinction between the two forms of theological knowledge: to believe "that" a God exists, he wrote, was an act of the understanding, but to believe "on" God was an act also of the will, which required an altering of the disposition by the inner movement of the Spirit. The theologian's task as Cotton saw it was to promote both forms of knowledge while helping readers and hearers press beyond a "superficial" knowledge, consisting simply of "opinion," toward a more profound form of knowing, grounded in the will as well as the understanding, that Cotton called "acquaintance." It was his way of saying that theology was useless unless it was practical.28

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