The Tenacity of Calvinism

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Four New England ministers dominated the theology of the era. All of them had an interest in new ideas among religious writers in Europe and England, but all resisted any change in the fundamentals of Calvinist thought. They thought of themselves as conserving the Calvinist tradition even as they revealed the extent to which theological change could occur as part of a conservative impulse.

Samuel Willard (1640-1707) transformed the genre of the catechism into the first published colonial effort at a comprehensive Calvinist theology. Willard was the teacher of the Old South Church in Boston from i676 to i707, and for the final six years of his career the acting president of Harvard. He produced more than fifty published works and attained a reputation as a man who ''excelled in eminent degree in the Knowledge of the most abstruse parts of Theology.'' He also introduced into New England a form of exposition, widely practiced in Reformed churches in Europe, known as the catechetical lecture. In 1687 he began to lecture in Boston on the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly. By the time he stopped he had delivered 220 lectures and written twenty-six more, an undertaking that ended only when his health broke in 1706. His Compleat Body of Divinity was a folio-sized book of 914 pages, the only systematic theology published in America until Samuel Hopkins wrote his System of Doctrines in 1793. Willard's knowledge in ''Systematic Divinity,'' wrote his friend Ebenezer Pemberton, was ''celebrated by all,'' but his book was simply the catechism on a grand scale.16

In addition to acting on his desire to write a comprehensive and systematic Calvinist theology, Willard expressed on more than one occasion the defining aim of his thought: ''the way lyes very narrow between Antinomian and Ar-minian errors,'' he wrote, ''and therefore needs the greater exactness in cutting the thread true.'' He complained of the ''invectives'' directed against New England theologians by critics in England. While some accused them of anti-nomianism because of their Calvinism, others charged them with Arminian-ism because they expected the faithful to be obedient to the law. Willard's most characteristic shorter works — Covenant-Keeping the Way to Blessedness (1682) and The Law Established by the Gospel (i694)—were attempts to maintain a predestinarian Calvinism emphasizing the grace of election while also distinguishing Calvinist doctrine from antinomian error.17

Willard joined the high Calvinists who defended the doctrine of supralap-sarian predestination. God both elected some to salvation and consigned others to reprobation, and Willard agreed with the supralapsarian position that the logically primary divine decree—prior even to the divine decision to create a world — was the decree of election, an argument cast in opposition to the infralapsarian position that the decree to save the elect logically followed the decree to create a world and to permit the fall. The purpose of the supralap-sarian argument was to preserve the utter freedom of God and to reassert the unconditional gratuity of salvation. It was a way of affirming that the purpose of the creation itself was the display of God's glory through the free salvation of the elect.18

Willard dealt with abstruse matters, but he still thought of theology as a practical discipline. He devoted sixty-five of his lectures to the moral life, arguing that morality was obedience to the divine will, revealed to Adam in the natural law and repeated in substance in the ''moral law'' of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus in the New. Even his most arcane lectures concluded with a listing of the practical uses to which his truths could be put. His aim was to show men and women ''what they were made for'' so that they would not ''live in vain.''19

The second theologian of unusual prominence, Solomon Stoddard (16431729), was a Harvard graduate who became the pastor in 1672 of the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he remained for fifty-seven years. A powerful personality who attained a reputation as the pope of the Connecticut Valley, Stoddard continued to pursue the agenda of the first generation, concentrating all his enormous intellectual energy on the questions about salvation that had marked New England theology since the beginning. For Stoddard, as for Willard, the center of interest was still conversion.

In the pursuit of that interest, he was willing to innovate. In his understanding of the church, he proposed a move away from a strict congregational covenant theology, with its assumption that church membership had to be limited to regenerate visible saints and their children. Stoddard preferred an inclusive church that contained both regenerate and unregenerate members. In 1677, he argued from the pulpit that no church could, in fact, distinguish the converted from the unconverted. The absence of a ''certain rule given in Scripture'' ensured that the guides of the church would always lack ''certain knowledge who have Sanctifying Grace.'' He expected converts to recognize grace in their own hearts, but he thought that even they might be unable to detect the grace within. They should not for that reason be excluded from the church.20 Neither should they be excluded from the sacraments. Arguing from the Protestant position that the Lord's Supper was the Word made visible, he contended that it was a converting ordinance. He drew the idea from dissenting theologians in England who argued that the sacramental symbols had the power to produce conversion by moving the mind to consent. Stoddard distinguished two kinds of conversion, the first a merely formal assent to the truth of Christian doctrine, the second an inward consent to the gospel. He argued that the Lord's Supper presupposed the first but could produce the second.21

The cornerstones of Stoddard's theology were the doctrines of preparation and conversion, and his life task was to show that both were necessary and that human effort could accomplish neither. He instructed the New England clergy that their duty was to serve as instruments of the Spirit's preparatory motions by preaching ''the threatening of the law, Man's Insufficiency, and God's Sovereignty.'' They were to make their listeners sensible of ''the terrours of the law'' and ''the danger of Damnation.'' He conceded that preparation did not always require unremitting terror: ''God leads men through the whole work of preparation partly by fear and partly by hope.'' But Stoddard believed that the Spirit normally prepared the heart by convicting it of sin and revealing the judgment to come, and he warned against offering any premature comfort.22

In 1687 Stoddard produced his masterpiece, The Safety of Appearing at the Day of Judgment in the Righteousness of Christ, an essay in covenant thought designed to show that, because Christ had fulfilled the covenant of works and had borne the curse and assumed the guilt for original sin, believers should cast themselves entirely on his righteousness. The book treated themes that Stoddard would pursue for the next four decades: the demand of the law, the sovereign will of a God under no obligation to show mercy, the merciful decision of God to bring himself ''under bonds'' by entering into ''a solemn covenant'' of grace to save the elect, the necessity that the elect undergo the ''preparatory work of humiliation'' as a prelude to faith, and the imputed righteousness of Christ as the ground for salvation. He always described both preparation and conversion in terms entirely consistent with Calvinist orthodoxy. The special grace that drew the elect into salvation differed from every kind of ''common grace'' that the nonelect might have been granted, and it produced a love of Christ for his intrinsic excellence that the reprobate could never attain.23

Stoddard's doctrines brought him into conflict with the most formidable opponents he could have found: the Mathers of Boston. For intellectual breadth, no one could match the Mathers, and no theologians made a greater effort than they to preserve Calvinism. They agreed with Stoddard about the truth of Calvinist doctrine; they thought, however, that he had often failed to draw proper conclusions from it.

Increase Mather (1639-1723), the son of the founder Richard Mather, presided over Boston's Second Church (North Church) for more than half a century, oversaw the fortunes of Harvard College as its president for sixteen years, and assumed a commanding role in almost every political and religious movement in the colony. He wrote around 130 books and pamphlets on theology, history, politics, and natural philosophy, speaking almost always in a conservative voice that resisted theological innovation.

His battle with Stoddard came over the nature of the church and the sacraments. Increase Mather struggled relentlessly for the purity of the church, which meant that he continued to insist that church membership required the presumption of saving faith. After years of opposition to the halfway covenant, he gradually came by 1671 to accept it, but in his mind this made it all the more important to restrict full membership — and access to the Lord's Supper—to church members who could give evidence of the work of saving grace in their souls. Just as the Jews of ancient Israel required fidelity to the covenant on the part of parents who presented their children for circumcision, so the church, the antitype of Israel, must require faithful adherence to the covenant of grace on the part of its adult members.24

He opposed both Stoddard's open invitation to the Lord's Supper and his description of the sacrament as a converting ordinance. If the sacrament sealed the covenant of grace, then no one should receive it who rejected the covenant itself: "But an Unregenerate and an Unbeliever does reject the Covenant of God, and of Life.'' In Mather's view, to administer the elements to the unregenerate was to "set the Lords Seal to a Blank.'' He spoke for most of the clergy of New England when he argued that the sacrament nourished rather than created the principle of spiritual life.25

On the essentials of Calvinist doctrine, however, Mather and Stoddard agreed. Mather taught that salvation rested on the "Sovereign Grace of God in the Salvation of the Elect,'' and he had no sympathy for even the mild revisions of Calvinist thought that Amyraut had attempted in France. He tried to soften somewhat Stoddard's severe doctrine of preparation for salvation; in the preface to one of Stoddard's own books he aligned himself with Giles Firmin's earlier criticisms of Hooker and Shepard for insisting too much on the Spirit's preparatory humiliation of the elect. He also reassured the parents of New England that the children of the covenant, baptized and nurtured by faithful parents and churches, had a special "promise of converting grace.'' God, he said, had "cast the line of Election'' so that it ran for the most part "through the loyns of godly parents.'' These concessions signified a rhetorical domesticating of the doctrine of election, but Mather resisted any further softening of Calvinist views.26

So also did his son Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who served for thirty-eight years at North Church alongside his father, whom he approached in influence and exceeded in international celebrity. Cotton Mather shared his father's reservations about Stoddard's innovations. An untiring writer, he also had something to say about almost every topic in theology. His Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) traced the history of the church in New England; his Free Grace (1706) defended Calvinism and laid out the order of salvation; his Bonifacius (1710) assessed critically the growing interest in ethics; his Christian Philosopher (1721) sought to reconcile theology and natural science. And these were but four of more than four hundred books, treatises, and sermons. Since many of these works displayed a fascination with enlightenment ideas, Mather has gained a reputation as a precursor of the liberal temper in theology. In fact, his consistent intention was to preserve the old ways, and he never departed from Calvinist orthodoxy.27

In 1702 he published his Seasonable Testimony to the Glorious Doctrines, a critique of English Arminianism and a defense of total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, the bondage of the will, and justification by faith through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. He urged the clergy to defend predestinarian doctrine and to include it in their sermons. Like his father, he emphasized that the Spirit's preparation of the elect could occur in various ways, but he still assumed that the contrition and humiliation that it normally produced as a prelude to conversion came as a gift of the sovereign Spirit. He insisted that the ''cannot'' which bound the unregenerate will was a ''will not,'' a moral rather than a physical inability, but he still insisted on the bondage of the will. He tried to affirm and to urge a human striving for salvation, but he explained its occurrence as a result of the divine decree.28

Mather increasingly emphasized a view of theology as practical. He told the German Pietist Bartholomew Ziegenbalg that ''the Christian religion is nothing other than the doctrine of living unto God through Christ; and further, that it is more a practical than a theoretical science, of which the goal is the animation of real, solid, living piety.'' This emphasis probably helped Mather develop a tolerance for theological disagreement. He read widely in German Pietism and corresponded with the Pietists at Halle, especially August Hermann Francke, and he shared their interest in promoting Christian unity around a few essential doctrines. In 1716 he proposed fourteen; the next year he reduced them to three maxims of piety: belief in the Trinity, complete reliance on Christ for salvation, and the love of the neighbor for the sake of Christ. He told a French Arminian that though they must differ they could work together to reform the Reformation. But it was Calvinism, he thought, that most clearly grasped the truth. Mather's theology exemplified the tenacity, not the fragility, of Calvinist doctrine in New England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.29

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