Emergent Puritan…

Posted on February 19, 2008


…sounds like it ought to be a blog title.

There is considerable grass-roots interest in the Puritans amongst a certain slice of current Christianity. This is, of course, a good thing–any interest in church history is a good thing, and the Puritans represented a practical and doctrinally serious model of living the faith that deserves and repays reflection. I’ve had the privilege of being involved in some attempts to renew popular and scholarly interest in the Puritans, and applaud some others.

However… I observe that most of those interested in the Puritans fall into the ‘golden age’ trap. Ignoring all that was wrong with the movement (and there was plenty), and even all the diversity in the movement (and there was even more), the Puritans become a cipher for an idealised vision of uncompromisingly Calvinist and astonishingly reactionary Christianity that never, in fact, existed. ‘Puritan’ becomes some sort of Platonic ideal, or Jungian archetype: Calvinist, presbyterian, separatist, committed to certain ethical stances and certain patterns of worship, it is held out as a well-defined and uniform challenge and ideal to which we are called to aspire.

In scholarly use, ‘Puritan’ is astonishingly difficult to define: the movement was just far too diverse. Its centre of gravity was certainly Calvinistic, but there are recognisably Puritan pastors and authors who are Amyrauldian (including Richard Baxter, hardly a minor figure in the movement!) and even Arminian; to a lesser extent, the centre is presbyterian, but the movement includes many congregationalists, some of them Baptist, and not a few episcopalians. Some Puritans (Baxter again) were astonishingly ecumenically-minded for their day; on most controverted ethical issues, they could be found on every side (John Milton offered a defence of divorce; William Perkins–again, not a minor figure–wrote books of casuistry that rival anything the Jesuits produced).

The point struck me forcibly last week in two ways; I stumbled across a book in the library whilst looking for something else which rejoiced in the title Liberal Puritanism and Other Essays (A.W. Harrison; pub. 1935); in the epynonymous essay, Harrison makes a convincing case for a tradition of socially liberal thought stretching from the Puritans down. Second, when dipping into a collection of Puritan quotations, published by Banner of Truth, I read some fine words, and saw underneath the name of Ralph Cudworth. Now, Cudworth’s Intellectual System of the Universe is an excellent book, representing (alongside John Scotus Eriugena and Coleridge’s unpublished Opus Maximum) the fullest flowering of a persistent British tradition of mystical Christian Platonism. But Puritan it is not!

If I had to define ‘Puritan’ in a useful way, I think I would offer four points. First, the great and uniting rallying cry of the movement was ‘Reformation without tarrying for any!’ Puritanism was a restless and urgent reform movement. They might not agree on what a pure church would look like, but they were utterly at one on the pressing and immediate need to create one. Careful, political steps designed to bring the mass of the populace–or even the mass of the congregation–along with you were not appropriate; what God’s Word said was to be done, and done now.

Second, the movement was radically ‘congregationalist,’ not in the sense of a system of church government, although some of them did hold to congregationalism as well, but in the sense of a focus on the local congregation as the place where reformation must be applied, where pastoral care would be focused, and where evangelisation would happen. God’s basic tool, and perhaps God’s biggest idea, was the local church fellowship. A few of the great Puritans held offices other than local pastor, of course (John Owen, to continue the list of the greats who do not fit the stereotype…), but they still witness to the local church, where the Word is preached, the sacraments celebrated, and discipline and discipleship practiced, as the beating heart of God’s mission in the world.

Third, and already hinted at, the Puritan vision of the Christian life was an astonishingly high one. Jim Packer entitled his book recommending the Puritans A Passion for Holiness; Kelly and Randall, in the one I contributed to, went for The Devoted Life. Both point to this same instinct, that at the heart of the Puritan vision was a pastoral theology that sought and expected to create a congregation of visible saints. Again, what visible sainthood might look like was somewhat controversial amongst them, but nonetheless, a seriousness in Christian practice, an utter commitment to living the truths of Scripture, was what Puritan pastors expected from themselves and their congregations.

Finally, the Puritans were Biblicist, but in a rather particular way. They were constantly innovative in their readings of Scripture, typically rejecting tags and traditions, wanting to test and re-test everything by direct appeal to the Word. Their primary hermeneutic was the sermon; texts yielded doctrines which demanded applications, and if a text challenged received practice, the application demanded an urgent revision of practice. The notion, so common amongst those who are noisiest about the Puritans today, that there is a settled and agreed account of Biblical truth which needs defending rather than discovering, would be utterly foreign to them.

Restless, endlessly reforming, united by the urgency of pursuing a vision, rather than by the vision they were pursuing, focused on new and high visions of Christian community, committed to living Scripture, but impatient of inherited readings of Scripture that merely justified the status quo, always radical and never conservative–I think there is an argument for finding the true heir of the spirit of Puritanism not in Reformed and conservative circles, but in the restless radicals of every age, for all their failings and faults. Darby and Irving in the 1830s; Keswick in the 1890s; the new charismatic churches in the 1960s–

–and in the emerging church movement of today!

I’m at least half-serious about this; go on, shoot me down…

Posted in: Uncategorized