Sunday, August 13, 2017

Puritan foundational doctrines: depravity, covenant, election, grace, and love

From Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. Page 22. A very interesting discussion of the variety of Puritan beliefs.
The religious beliefs of these Puritans were highly developed before they came to America. Revisionist historians notwithstanding, these people were staunch Calvinists. Their spiritual leader John Cotton declared, “I have read the fathers and the schoolmen, and Calvin too; but I find that he that has Calvin, has them all.” Many other ministers agreed.

Without attempting to describe their complex Calvinist beliefs in a rounded way, a few major doctrines might be mentioned briefly, for they became vitally important to the culture of New England. These Puritan ideas might be summarized in five words: depravity, covenant, election, grace, and love.

First was the idea of depravity which to Calvinists meant the total corruption of “natural man” as a consequence of Adam’s original sin. The Puritans believed that evil was a palpable presence in the world, and that the universe was a scene of cosmic struggle between darkness and light. They lived in an age of atrocities without equal until the twentieth century. But no evil ever surprised them or threatened to undermine their faith. One historian remarks that “it is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan.” They believed as an article of faith that there was no horror which mortal man was incapable of committing. The dark thread of this doctrine ran through the fabric of New England’s culture for many generations.

The second idea was that of the covenant. The Puritans founded this belief on the book of Genesis, where God made an agreement with Abraham, offering salvation with no preconditions but many obligations. This idea of a covenant had been not prominent in the thinking of Luther or Calvin, but it became a principle of high importance to English Puritans. They thought of their relationship with God (and one another) as a web of contracts. As we shall see, the covenant became a metaphor of profound importance in their thought.

A third idea was the Calvinist doctrine of election—which held that only a chosen few were admitted to the covenant. One of Calvinism’s Five Points was the doctrine of limited atonement, which taught that Christ died only for the elect—not for all humanity. The iron of this Calvinistic creed entered deep into the soul of New England.

A fourth idea was grace, a “motion of the heart” which was God’s gift to the elect, and the instrument of their salvation. Much Puritan theology, and most of the Five Points of Calvinism, were an attempt to define the properties of grace, which was held to be unconditional, irresistible and inexorable. They thought that it came to each of them directly, and once given would never be taken away. Grace was not merely an idea but an emotion, which has been defined as a feeling of “ecstatic intimacy with the divine.” It gave the Puritans a soaring sense of spiritual freedom which they called “soul liberty.”

A fifth idea, often lost in our image of Puritanism, was love. Their theology made no sense without divine love, for they believed that natural man was so unworthy that salvation came only from God’s infinite love and mercy. Further, the Puritans believed that they were bound to love one another in a Godly way. One leader told them that they should “look upon themselves, as being bound up in one Bundle of Love; and count themselves obliged, in very close and Strong Bonds, to be serviceable to one another.” This Puritan love was a version of the Christian caritas in which people were asked to “lovingly give, as well as lovingly take, admonitions.” It was a vital principle in their thought.

These ideas created many tensions in Puritan minds. The idea of the covenant bound Puritans to their worldly obligations; the gift of grace released them from every bond but one. The doctrine of depravity filled their world with darkness; the principle of election brought a gleam of light. Puritan theology became a set of insoluble logic problems about how to reconcile human responsibility with God’s omnipotence, how to find enlightenment in a universe of darkness, how to live virtuously in a world of evil, and how to reconcile the liberty of a believing Christian with the absolute authority of the word.

For many generations these problems were compressed like coiled springs into the culture of New England. Long after Puritans had become Yankees, and Yankee Trinitarians had become New England Unitarians (whom Whitehead defined as believers in one God at most) the long shadow of Puritan belief still lingered over the folkways of an American region.

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