The New England Calvinists

Theology as an enterprise of sustained reflection on claims of Christian truth began in America with the Calvinist clergy of seventeenth-century New England. Long before their arrival, European Catholics and English Anglicans had conducted a Christian mission to the New World, but it was the coming of the English Calvinists to New England that produced the first substantial corpus of theological writings — literature that would set the agenda for a debate that continued more than three centuries.

They thought of theology as a delicate balance of human reasoning and divine biblical revelation, an appeal to ''the evidence of scripture and reason.'' They aspired to give reason its due credit while subordinating it always to the revealed Word. What allowed this aspiration was the Calvinist doctrine of God's accommodation to human finitude, which was also an accommodation to reason. John Calvin had employed the idea of accommodation to designate God's willingness to adapt both his self-revelation and his saving activity to the capacities of the finite and sinful creature. It provided for Calvinist theologians a religious warrant for drawing on philosophical insight, but it required that reason acknowledge its limited scope. The effort to maintain this balance would become a permanent feature of most early American theology.1

The New England Calvinists also stood in the tradition that saw theology as practical. Thomas Hooker in Connecticut expressed a consensus when he explained that theology was a discipline of ''godliness,'' which produced not only insight into ''the nature of things,'' but also ''practicall wisdome.'' Thomas Shepard in Cambridge argued that a speculative knowledge alone — or a ''notional'' or ''discursive'' knowledge that satisfied the understanding without altering the will—remained insufficient. The aim of divinity required the enlightening of the understanding, but it served ''chiefly'' as ''the art and rule of the will.'' It taught how ''to live to God.''2

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