The Flight from Calvinism

When they looked toward England after 1660, the New England clergy saw little but disheartening change. One consequence of the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in i660 was a continuing eclipse of Calvinism as a force within the Church of England. The turbulence of the civil wars and of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell had already provoked during the 1650s a reaction against a theology that some now associated with political instability as well as religious error. The punitive laws enacted after i662 pushed large numbers of Puritan clergy with Calvinist views out of the established church. They became dissenters, exiled from Anglican parishes and subjected to humiliation. An aggressive company of Anglican thinkers now dismissed them, along with all other Calvinists, as antinomians and dogmatists.

The depiction of Calvinism as antinomian, as disregardful of the need for moral obedience to God, appeared especially in the writings of the Anglican theologians who subscribed to the theology of ''holy living'' popularized by the Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland, Jeremy Taylor (1613-67). Convinced that Calvinist doctrine undercut Christian morality, leading Anglican churchmen like Herbert Thorndike (1598-1672) and George Bull (1634-i7i0) became wary even of talk about justification by faith alone, insisting that justification required both faith and good works. Instead of asserting, like earlier English reformers and contemporary Calvinists, that the ''formal cause'' of justification was the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer, they began to say that the formal cause — ''that which makes a thing what it is'' — was the faith and moral obedience of the justified believer. It was a seemingly abstruse point, but it registered the change in the status of Calvinist theology in the Church of England.1

Even in dissenting circles, prominent figures called for revision. While John Owen (1616-83), the vice chancellor of Oxford until his expulsion in 1658, would continue to expound a traditional Calvinist theology that enjoyed broad support among English dissenters, the disaffection with orthodoxy could be seen in no less a figure than Richard Baxter (1615-91), the dissenting pastor at Kidderminster who struggled to secure cooperation among conflicting parties. Like the theologians of holy living, Baxter argued that faith included obedience and that the formal cause of justification was not the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer but rather the reckoning of the believer's obedient faith as righteous. His critics charged him with Armin-ian error. Even in English dissenting groups, therefore, it could not be taken for granted that older forms of Calvinism would prevail.2

Among English Independents — the counterparts of the New England Con-gregationalists — a small company of theologians who saw themselves as the true Calvinists reacted against Arminian tendencies, a reaction that led after 1690 to alarming disputes over the old questions of the civil war era: whether faith could be described as a condition of the covenant of grace and whether obedience to the moral law had any bearing on salvation. The evangelistic campaign of the Independent preacher Richard Davis that began in Northamptonshire in 1690 drew on the contributions of enthusiastic but uneducated shoemakers, weavers, and farmers who preached a rigorous Calvinism that seemed dangerously antinomian even to the more staid dissenters of Presbyterian sentiment.3

On the European continent, the orthodoxy of the Synod of Dort maintained its hold in the Calvinist schools, but important voices there also argued for revision. In France, Protestant theologians at the Academy in Saumur raised objections to Dortian doctrines as early as the 1630s. Moise Amyraut (15961664) disputed the claim that Christ died only for the elect. In Amyraut's "hypothetical universalism,'' Christ's death was "efficient" only for the elect, but it was "sufficient" for every human being. To some this seemed a distinction without a difference, since only the elect benefited, but the language disturbed more traditional Calvinists. Amyraut supplemented this idea with a distinction between the sinner's moral and natural ability: the sinful could respond (they had the natural ability) but they would not (they inevitably lacked the will to do it). Neither proposal could be considered Arminian, but both represented a slight softening of the public presentation of Calvinist doctrine.4

Amyraut's colleague Josué de la Place added an objection to the doctrine of imputation. Rather than accept the orthodox view that the imputation of Adam's guilt to the human race logically preceded their natural depravity, la Place reversed the order and argued that God imputed guilt to the sinful as a result of their innate depravity. His position came to be known as the doctrine of "mediate imputation,'' and American Calvinists would still debate about it in the mid-nineteenth century. Most French Calvinists rejected all of these innovations, but the academy at Saumur existed until 1685, the ideas originating there stirred up conflict even after its closing, and theologians in New England felt obliged to offer refutations.5

The drift away from Calvinism in England coincided with a new appreciation for reason in religion. As early as the 1640s, a gifted group of theological professors at Cambridge University proposed that reason, illuminated by revelation, was ''the very voice of God'' and that in a reasonable religion doctrines like predestination could have no place. Convinced that the enjoyment of God consisted in ''the use of Reason and the exercise of virtue,'' these Cambridge Platonists—John Smith (1618-52), Henry More (1614-87), Ralph Cud-worth (1617-88), and Benjamin Whichcote (i609-83) — battled against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes on the one side and the determinism of the Calvinists on the other. In the two decades following the Restoration they propagated the message that reason, as ''the candle of the Lord,'' could test and verify scriptural revelation, that ethical ideals came not simply from the divine will but from the eternal nature of things, and that dogmatism had no place in religion.6

In demanding a reasonable religion, the Cambridge Platonists defined reason not only as the capacity to unify the materials of sense perception but also, more importantly, as the operation of innate ideas, of principles prior to sensory experience, or of intuitions able to grasp supersensuous truths. They thought, for example, that the mind could not recognize empirical events as causes and effects unless it operated with an innate conception of causation that had to be prior to any given sensory experience. Human knowledge, argued Cudworth, could not be the mere product of ''sensible things and singular bodies existing without.'' Reason participated in universal and eternal ideas that could have their grounding only in the eternal mind of God. Human reason participated in divine reason. The Platonists, therefore, minimized proofs and evidences that depended on sensory experience. They illustrated a way of viewing reason that a small number of Americans would later employ to criticize the dominant American conceptions of rationality.7

The mood typified by the Cambridge Platonists characterized a broad range of the younger Anglican clergy, who began in the 1650s to turn away from what they described as a misguided Puritan ''solafidianism'' — reliance on faith alone and disregard of ethical conditions for salvation—and to rehabilitate both the notion of morality in religion and the rationality of faith. Wary Calvinists labeled them as ''latitudinarians.'' The term had no precise meaning and functioned chiefly as an abusive label, but it indicated the unease among Calvinists about the directions of Anglican thought. A number of younger Anglican clergy wished to see themselves as more moderate, impartial, and rational than earlier polemicists, and they helped form the clerical generation that set the tone for Restoration Anglicanism. Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), rector in Bath and a member of the Royal Society, which was formed in 1662 to promote the study of nature, exemplified that generation's interest in natural theology. Edward Stillingfleet (1635-99), dean of St. Paul's in London, typified their investment in moral rather than dogmatic questions and their opinion that reason should confirm and interpret scripture. While some of them shared the epistemology of the Cambridge Platonists, others maintained the older Thomist interest in religious truths derived from the data of sensory experience.8

The clerical interest in the Royal Society signaled the importance for theology of the more empirical understandings of rationality. John Wilkins (161472), the bishop of Chester, served as the first secretary of the Society and wrote treatises on planets and mathematics as well as essays on natural religion. The naturalists and clerics who joined the Society contributed to a theological trend that would reach its apex when the naturalist John Ray (1628-1705) published The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691) and the Anglican cleric William Derham (1675-1735) published his Physico-Theology (1713). Ray and Derham employed empirical observation to argue that design in the creation — illustrated in planetary orbits, the topography of the earth, the adaptations of birds and fishes, the intricacies of the human body, and a vast catalogue of other natural phenomena—proved both the reality and the benevolence of God.9

A handful of British and continental writers concluded that such rational arguments alone were sufficient for a natural religion, and their confidence in reason drew them toward deism. The French writer Pierre Viret used the term "deism" in 1564 to designate a belief in God that did not depend on a special Christian revelation, and Blaise Pascal used it in 1660 to describe the views of people who sought to ground religion on reason alone. Later authors employed it in such a wide variety of ways that it would lose any fixed meaning, but when Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), the soldier and philosopher who served as the ambassador to Paris, proposed in 1624 that no special revelation was essential, and the political pamphleteer Charles Blount (165493) charged in 1679 that claims of special revelation cloaked imposture and economic interest, the deist attitude began to assume a more fixed meaning. Blount's Summary Account of the Deists Religion (1686) set the English deist controversy into motion with the insistence that "the Morality in Religion is above the Mystery of it.''10

New Englanders observed these changes in the midst of their own distress over political and religious change closer to home. Royal pressure from En gland after the Restoration made it more difficult for them to maintain uniformity of religious practice, and growing royal interference in New England reached a decisive peak in 1684, when the king annulled the charter of the Bay Colony. Two years later, James II appointed a royal governor. The political interference had religious consequences in a region already divided over the halfway covenant of 1662. The crown pressed for religious toleration, and New Englanders found themselves debating Quakers and Baptists whom they once would have banished. Equally distressing to the Congregational clergy, James II sent an Anglican priest to Massachusetts Bay and compelled New England to accept an Anglican congregation in Boston.

Insofar as the New England Congregational clergy devoted themselves to the defense of Calvinism, their conservatism signified, therefore, resistance to changes both religious and political. To defend Calvinism was to defend not only biblical truth but also assumptions about the proper ordering of a religious and political culture that seemed threatened. Convinced, moreover, that New England was undergoing religious decline from within—a conviction announced explicitly in the Reforming Synod of 1679 — the New England clergy called for a public reassertion of the older theology. Their 1680 ''Confession of Faith'' reaffirmed their allegiance to the Calvinist theology of the ''Reformed Churches.''11

Insofar as they engaged in the debate about the scope of reason, they followed mainly the empirical rather than the Platonic path. By the end of the century, the Cambridge Platonist Henry More gained the attention of a few theologians in Boston, but they were more interested in his ethics than in his epistemology. None followed up on the implications of the Platonist insistence that a priori principles of reason made coherent sensory experience possible and linked the human mind to the mind of God. They felt drawn rather to the English theologians and naturalists who connected empirical claims about the natural world to the interpretation of scripture. They tried to make certain that reason remained in the service of scriptural revelation and that the heterodoxy of the deists not take hold in the American colonies.

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