IRBS Information

Recent Publications

Click for more information

Related Links

« | Main | »

The Precisianist Strain: An Important Book on Puritanism

By admin | July 10, 2008

The Precisianist Strain: An Important Book on Puritanism

Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion & Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2004). Reviewed by Prof. Renihan

Theodore Dwight Bozeman is a scholar of primary importance in the field of puritan studies. His 1988 work “To Live Ancient Lives”: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism is the standard text on primitivism, and his most recent book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion & Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 is destined to function similarly as an examination of the tensions present in pietist and antinomian English Reformed theology. Skillfully written and carefully executed, it makes an important contribution to our understanding of the difficulties present in developing puritanism in England and America through the fourth decade of the Seventeenth century. It deserves careful attention, as it fills out our knowledge of the varieties of belief and practice within the burgeoning movement. The perception of a monolithic consensus within puritanism, often present among those who appreciate the theological and pastoral writings of the era, cannot stand up to the evidence so skillfully presented in this book.

The title of the book is a neat double entendre. It identifies the puritan species (strain) known for its precise manner of living, while demonstrating that this precision put tremendous pressure (strain) on the saints who sought to live according to its precepts. Some responded by advocating practice that highlighted more centrally the work of divine initiative in the ordo salutis.   Others more radical, unable to bear the level of exertion necessary for the demand, developed a contra-piety, what Bozeman denominates an “antipode,” in response.

To a large degree, the precisianists may be traced to the ministry of Richard Greenham, vicar in the Cambridgeshire village of Dry Drayton, whose reputation for red-hot preaching, searching casuistry and fervent counsel to fellow-pastors led to something of a household seminary at his manse and senior status among puritan ministers. His ideas, disseminated both personally and through publication, provided the impetus for a careful examination of conscience and behavior among adherents of the church. Following Greenham were men such as Richard Rogers, William Perkins, and the majority of the New England puritans. These carried forward the detailed application of the principles of what Bozeman calls “a zest for control and purity so strict as to evoke the epithet ‘precise'” (page 333). Bozeman locates this zeal in a complex of theological issues, but at root in the type of covenant theology advocated by Greenham and his successors. He identifies several contributing factors: the problem of assurance and the practical syllogism, the necessity of self-examination, and even the importance of personal participation in achieving salvation. When the covenant is viewed as conditional, focus tends to shift to human actions, producing a legalistic religion.

The response to this turn in the direction of legalism was the complex development of “antinomianism” in several “waves.” The first came from English ministers like John Eaton and Tobias Crisp; the latter appeared in New England, in both mild and radical forms. John Cotton is identified as the theologian of the more minor form; Ann Hutchinson is the focal point of the more virulent mode. Bozeman expertly sorts through these variations, assesses their causes, and demonstrates the points of differences between the establishment and the protestors. The tensions were real, especially in New England. The Antinomian Controversy of 1636-38 was the first great test for the errand into the wilderness.

Perhaps there is more that may be said about the tensions present. While Bozeman frequently presents covenant theology via commercial metaphors (e.g. contract), this approach oversimplifies and at times misrepresents covenant theology and fails to reckon with the diversities present among those committed to this system. Certainly among federalists there were those who emphasized this kind of commercialism, and thus degenerated into legalism; there were, however, other formulations that avoided it. It is probably best to think of the various articulations as differing points on a spectrum defined by the monopleuristic/dipleuristic distinction present in more than a few expressions of the structure. Monopleurism tends to emphasize the unconditional divine aspects of the covenant: heavenly initiative, sovereign imposition, pneumatic priority. Dipleurism notes the conditional human aspects: the acts of faith and repentance, the necessity of pressing after heavenly things, the responsibility of perseverance. But these two are not antithetical-in most formulations, theologians argue that the same covenant of grace must be viewed from both perspectives. When considered from the divine viewpoint, the covenant is fully gracious, initiated by God, imposed from above, and actuated by the work of the Spirit. From a human standpoint, the same covenant implies obligation. As different theologians presented their systems, some emphasized the divine, some the human. Bozeman identifies a strain of theologians who, though firm Calvinists, tended to focus more on human responsibility than divine initiative, and thus developed a pastoral theology that tended to be legalistic, oppressive and even authoritarian. This reality cannot be avoided or neglected-there was, within puritanism, this precisianist strain.

One wonders if there is not another factor, directly related to covenant theology, which also ought to be considered: paedobaptism, at least in its highest form. A close reading of the primary sources presents not covenant theology, but covenant theologies, each framed to fit the practice of the larger ecclesiological system (or often framing the larger system). One may speak of a Presbyterian Covenant theology, an Independent/Congregational Covenant theology, and a Particular Baptist Covenant theology. It is a mistake to equate them. The (older) Presbyterian version justifies the coalescence of church and society. Infant baptism enrolls the child in church and state, blurring the distinction between the two. Faith is not requisite for church membership.  For ministers of this persuasion, the church is a mixed society, making it necessary to expose the hypocrites sitting alongside the saints in the Christian congregation. Anything less is a dereliction of duty. When reading the Presbyterian puritans, this must be kept in mind. They were preaching to congregations which by definition incorporated hypocrites. In this context, it is no surprise that they tended to emphasize the human dimensions of the covenant.

Independent/Congregational Covenant theology itself took two forms-that of New England resembling more closely the Presbyterian view, while its later English counterpart moved away from the blurring of society. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, church membership was requisite for enfranchisement. Like their Presbyterian counterparts, these men tended to highlight dipleurism, and degenerated into preparationism and legalism. Contract is often a suitable term to designate their view.

But there is a third variety. Granted it begins to appear just after the terminus of Bozeman’s study, but it nonetheless deserves consideration. Arising out of a separatist though primarily Independent/Congregational framework, the Particular Baptist formulation moved closer to monopleurism, as it by definition emphasized divine initiative. Before admission to the church, individuals were required to profess their faith via baptism, a faith initiated from above. For these men, a regenerate church alone fit the pattern of divine sovereignty in salvation. Church and state were separate; regeneration was the requisite for membership. The emphasis was on the priority of divine action; the theoretical result was the absence of hypocrites in the assembly. The 24th through 26th articles of the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 make this point well:

XXIV. That faith is ordinarily begot by the preaching of the Gospel, or word of Christ, without respect to any power or capacity in the creature, but it is wholly passive, being dead in sins and trespasses, does believe, and is converted by no less power, then that which raised Christ from the dead.

XXV. That the tenders of the Gospel to the conversion of sinners, is absolutely free, no way requiring, as absolutely necessary, any qualifications, preparations, terrors of the Law, or preceding ministry of the Law, but only and alone the naked soul, as a sinner and ungodly to receive Christ, as Christ, as crucified, dead, and buried, and risen again, being made a Prince and a Savior for such sinners.

XXVI. That the same power that converts to faith in Christ, the same power carries on the soul still through all duties, temptations, conflicts, sufferings, and continually what ever a Christian is, he is by grace, and by a constant renewed operation from God, without which he cannot perform any duty to God, or undergo any temptations from Satan, the world, or men.

It is no surprise that Hanserd Knollys, attracted to John Wheelwright’s theology (see page 290-91), ultimately became a leader among these Calvinistic Baptists. One finds a different approach to pastoral theology when reading the remains of these men.

The Precisianist Strain is a very important book. It identifies problems present in many puritan theological formulations while also identifying the dangers inherent at the opposite end of the spectrum. A careful reading will provide those who delight in treatises from this era with a fuller portrait of the difficulties and tensions present, and provide much matter for careful analysis and contemplation.

Topics: Calvinism, Church, Confessions, Covenant Theology, Law and Gospel, Pastoral Ministry, Puritanism, Puritans, Reformed Theology | Comments Off on The Precisianist Strain: An Important Book on Puritanism

Comments are closed.