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In Praise of Rhetoric?  Anti-Covenantal Myths of Puritanism and Anglicanism (Part One)

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Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 11:10 pm
Écrasez l’infâme! Such is the clarion call of a recent ad in the Church Times directed against the Anglican Covenant. Jointly authored and sponsored by Inclusive Church and Modern Church, the ad proclaims that the Anglican Covenant would be “the biggest change to the Church since the Reformation.”
Tags: ecclesiology, anglican covenant, anglican communion, richard hooker, puritans, puritanism

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“…this present age full of tongue and weake of braine…”
- Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, I.8.2

Écrasez l’infâme! Such is the clarion call of a recent ad in the Church Times directed against the Anglican Covenant. Jointly authored and sponsored by Inclusive Church and Modern Church, the ad proclaims that the Anglican Covenant would be “the biggest change to the Church since the Reformation.” Without hesitation, the authors of the ad even claim that the Covenant is intended “to re-establish a Puritan dogmatism” within Anglicanism. Similarly, on 3 November, the feast day of Richard Hooker, a group calling itself No Anglican Covenant Coalition offered to the wider Anglican Communion a second protest against the Covenant. Like the Church Times ad, No Anglican Covenant Coalition claims to uphold a historic Anglican orthodoxy which they neither delineate nor define. In what follows, we query the identification of the Covenant with Puritanism, just as we reject the forced union of Richard Hooker with anti-Covenant sentiment. Rhetoric is no substitute for logic; logic has nothing to fear from historical study. Our argument is simple: the Anglican Covenant is wholly un-Puritan, and instead maintains the rich liturgical legacy of historic Anglicanism. Are the images of Hooker and Puritanism, used by the anti-Covenant lobby, accurate? This question offers a corollary: if the anti-Covenant crowd is incapable of evincing even the slightest understanding of Hooker and Puritanism, why should we pay attention to their denigration of the Anglican Covenant? We propose that a failure to understand the past yields an in ability to grasp the present.

I. Myths of Puritanism

We begin with a claim made in the MCU/IC advertisement. Its authors write:

Behind the campaign for an Anglican Covenant lies an attempt to re-establish a Puritan dogmatism. Reformation Puritans believed Christians should submit to the supreme authority of the Bible and therefore agree with each other on all matters of doctrine and ethics. Refusing to allow reason a role, their disagreements have often led each side to accuse the other of not being true Christians. This is why parts of Protestantism have a history of repeated schisms.

There is confusion here on three fronts. First, MCU/IC attributes to Puritans two beliefs that they had no monopoly on – namely, the supremacy of Scripture, and a belief in agreement on doctrinal and ethical matters. Second, MCU/IC claims that Puritans refused to “allow reason a role.” This so oversimplifies Reformed anthropology that it is a veritable falsehood. What is more, suspicion towards human reason was present on all sides of sixteenth century debate. Context will help us understand this facet of Puritan polemic. Third and finally, the MCU/IC ad reveals only confusion on the matter of Puritan ecclesiology. On the one hand, MCU/IC writes that Puritan a-rationality caused them to accuse “each side” of “not being true Christians.” Regrettably, these purported sides (each side of what?, we might ask) are not named. On the other hand, we are told, this same a-rationality has apparently resulted in “parts of Protestantism” having “a history of repeated schisms.” We assume that the “parts of Protestantism” being referred to are those that descended from Puritanism (surely, Lutheran schisms are not due to Puritanism). But this too is a false claim.

In terms of Puritans alone believing in the supremacy of Scripture, this is so silly that we need not spend any significant amount of time on it. Surely, Martin Luther’s claim of sola scriptura was not of Puritan origin. As early as 1521, Luther’s young protégé, Philip Melanchthon, wrote in the dedicatory epistle of his Loci Communes that “Anyone is mistaken who seeks to ascertain the nature of Christianity from any source except canonical Scripture.”1 This was not a new idea. As John Van Engen has recently noted in his work on the fifteenth-century Devotio Moderna, belief in the sole authority of Scripture was a thoroughly medieval belief and found expression not just in the teaching of both the canon law and medieval schoolmen.2 Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas evidenced a very simple theology of Biblical inspiration: “That God is the author of holy Scripture should be acknowledged.” Perhaps one may wish to counter at this point that the problem with the Puritans was the fact that they were “literalists.” Aquinas gives us insight here, too. “All meanings [of Scripture] are based on one, namely the literal sense,” for “nothing necessary for faith is contained under the spiritual sense that is not openly conveyed through the literal sense elsewhere.”3 The Angelic Doctor practically bequeathed to us the fifth article of the Articles of Religion: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not red therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite as necessary to salvation.”

Clearly, Puritans were not alone in their views on Scripture. Did they alone believe in doctrinal and ethical uniformity? There is much evidence to suggest that, contrary to the claims advanced by the anti-Covenant lobby, uniformity on doctrinal and ethical matters was once of central importance to Anglicans. For example, in the Elizabethan Injunctions of 1559, the Queen commanded the preaching of sermons and instruction of the laity (e.g., Injunctions 3 – 5); she detailed key facets of the theological education of the clergy (Injunctions 6 and 16); she prohibited the clergy from fornication by encouraging marriage, and cited Scripture and the early Church as justifications for this (Injunction 29); she directed the giving of money and other goods to the poor (Injunctions 11 and 25). Notably, she also decreed, “that no man shall wilfully and obstinately defend or maintain any heresies, errors or false doctrine, contrary to the faith of Christ and his Holy Scripture” (Injunction 31). This latter point dovetails flawlessly with the formal title of the Articles of Religion, passed in 1562: “Articles whereupon it was agreed by the archbishops and bishops of both provinces and the whole clergy … for the avoiding of the diversities of opinions, and for the establishing of consent touching true religion.”

It seems that Anglicans, far from encouraging theological pluralism, were in their earliest days advocates of uniformity no less than the Puritans. In fact, Anglicans were really no different than any other Western Christian body in the sixteenth century. Roman Catholics lived according to the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent; Lutherans held to the voluminous body of confessional documents in the Book of Concord; the Reformed also developed a large body of confessions, the boundaries of which were determined at the Synod of Dort (1618 – 19). Anglicans had the Prayer Book, the Articles, Homilies, English Bible, the Paraphrases of Erasmus upon the New Testament, and above all the monarchy. Together these aimed at “the avoiding of the diversities of opinions.” It is of course true that this avoidance of diversity did not preclude differences in aspects of liturgy. Thus in article 33 of the Articles of Religion, it is written, “It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places utterly alike.” This was taken directly from the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, which held forth the hope that “unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by men should be alike everywhere” (I.7). Neither Lutherans nor Anglicans appear to have been willing to countenance differences in doctrine or ethics. Rather, the only acceptable differences were those that pertained to liturgical aesthetics between (rather than within) different churches.

Let us turn now to the second claim made by MCU/IC – namely, that Puritans refused to “allow reason a role.” As with the above discussion, it appears that here too the opponents of the Covenant err. Generally speaking, all Christians in the sixteenth century were skeptical about the abilities of reason. This is true of Roman Catholics no less than Protestants. For example, when the English Roman Catholic William Tresham, a canon of Christ Church, debated in Oxford against the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli, both agreed that reason was inimical to matters of faith. Toward the close of the first day of debate, Tresham tells Vermigli, “Neither reason nor sense is to be followed in matters of faith; otherwise, many absurdities would result.” Vermigli agrees: “I acknowledge what you say, that in matters of faith we must not follow reason or sense.”4 Yet again, this was not a unique point among these two disputants. In its very first article, the Lutheran Formula of Concord stated in no uncertain terms that “original sin is not a slight, but so deep a corruption of human nature that nothing healthy or uncorrupt has remained in man's body or soul, in his inner [i.e., mental] or outward [i.e., bodily] powers.” Cynical views of reason were ubiquitous in the sixteenth century. We will turn to Anglican-Puritan debates on reason in the next section. In the mean time, we simply propose that it is unfair to condemn Puritans for being so deeply a part of their own historical context.

We now turn to our third and final point. MCU/IC claims that among Puritans, “disagreements have often led each side to accuse the other of not being true Christians.” We cannot help but wonder what the sides are that they refer to. We would appreciate MCU/IC clarifying the matter, not least because the history of Puritanism reveals a remarkable level of theological coherence. This was, admittedly, worked out within a Congregationalist polity – thus, arguments about schism need to be qualified by recognizing that a collection of like-minded congregations will express unity in ways that are fundamentally different than how an episcopal polity would express unity. Puritan New England – perhaps best thought of as a culture, rather than as a singular church – was quite resilient to proselytization by other Christian groups throughout the seventeenth century. Puritans did not devolve into a host of competing denominations; their eclipse in the eighteenth century was due principally to the rise of other religious groups, particularly revivalist movements, over which the remaining Puritans only later split.5 Claiming a simple causal relationship between Puritanism and Protestant schism is wholly erroneous.

Part of the reason that Puritans shared a singular cultural imagination was because of their intense apocalypticism.6 Quite obviously, you don’t have time for dividing over scholastic quiddities when you believe yourself waging war against the forces of antichrist. We do well to pay attention to this particular point, as it draws attention to the fact that Puritans were not Biblical literalists – they were actually quite far from it. Apocalypticism led Puritans to frequent tendency to allegorize the Bible through typology, a form of Biblical interpretation in which past, Biblical events are understood as playing out in the contemporary world. In Puritan typology, Old Testament figures were seen as prefiguring Puritan leaders. In American literature, the most famous example of this was made by Cotton Mather, for whom John Winthrop was “Nehemiah Americanus,” leading God’s people on an “errand into the wilderness” against the forces of antichrist.7 Mather’s narrative is defined, however, not just by a use of Biblical typology, but by drawing upon pagan sources as well. Mather also deploys a remarkable familiarity with a range of classical sources, including Cicero, Plato, Terrence, and Josephus, and claims that in Winthrop the pagan aspiration of “overcoming” oneself was finally fulfilled.8 Puritans may have been skeptical of reason, but they were hardly allergic to studying pagan classics. Within Puritanism’s apocalyptic worldview, the typological imagination was able to draw upon and utilize a host of sources in quite imaginative ways.9

To summarize all of the above, MCU/IC makes three claims about Puritans. First, they claim that Puritans had a unique view of Scripture’s authority. This has been shown to be wrong. Rather, the supremacy of Scripture was a theological conviction that extended back to the medieval era and simply continued on in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Second, MCU/IC claims that Puritans had a problematic and erroneous view of reason. This assertion, too, has been debunked; Puritan skepticism about reason was in fact a common feature among all religious groups in the sixteenth century, and in sharing such views Puritans were simply part of their own historical context. Third, MCU/IC claims that Puritans have had a history of dividing against one another, claiming that each side was not in fact Christian. This has been shown, in the American context, to be false. The American context should take primacy over the English context as New England is where those who advocated a Calvinist reform of the Church of England lived. We cannot deny that antinomianism grew out of the “left wing” of English Dissent, but we do deny that all English Dissenters were simply Puritans. The death of Puritanism in the New World came about through revivalism, with its Dissent-like preference for subjective experience over the objective, received truths of Scripture and the Christian tradition. Finally, in our penultimate paragraph, we briefly drew attention to the brightly apocalyptic strain within Puritanism, thereby showing that the claims of MCU/IC fail on every count. Puritans were not literalists, but typologists; Puritans were not anti-intellectual, but widely read and deeply imaginative; Puritans were not divided into factions, but shared a broadly apocalyptic worldview. In the second part of our essay, we will consider the ways that the anti-Covenant lobby also misrepresents Hooker and the structure of early Anglican orthodoxy, and thereby propose that it is the Anglican Covenant and not its opponents which is most faithful to the Anglican heritage.
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  1. Loci Communes (1521), in Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck (Westminster Press, 1969), 19
  2. John Van Engen, Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 260 – 1
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a. 1.10
  4. The Peter Martyr Library I.7, The Oxford Treatise and Disputation On the Eucharist, 1549, translated and edited by Joseph C. McLelland (Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 2000), 171
  5. David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Harvard University Press), 239 – 245
  6. Avihu Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and apocalypse in the Puritan migration to America (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
  7. Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (Yale University Press, 1975), esp. 187 – 205; James B. Bell, A War of Religion: Dissenters, Anglicans, and the American Revolution (Palgrave, 2008), esp. 1 – 32
  8. Bercovitch, Puritan Origins, 205
  9. However, this skepticism later changed. See Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1953), 417 – 446; readers may also wish to peruse the philosophical writings of Jonathan Edwards.