Posted by: Kenn Hermann | September 29, 2006

Will the Resurgent Interest in Puritanism Lead to Neo-Calvinism?

The recent September cover story in CT on “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is Making a Comeback — and Shaking Up the Church” brought back a flood of memories, a host of cautions, and a faint glimmer of hope. I was first introduced to the Puritans as an undergraduate history major at Trinity College. While I was not aware of it at the time, in looking back after 40+ years, that encounter sparked my intellectual development and maturity. For a young person growing up in the pietist Evangelical Free Church, wrestling with the rigors of Puritan thought across the whole spectrum of knowledge was daunting and bracing at the same time. When I went to graduate school I knew that I wanted to study colonial American thought and Puritanism in particular. If I was going to find answers to my intellectual and theological questions, I felt that I had to work my way through their thought. In some way, I knew that they were ‘my’ people, despite being repulsed and attracted by certain of their arguments all at once, it seemed. The consequence was that I immersed myself in the Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic, from the Elizabethan Settlement down to Jonathan Edwards. My copies of Perry Miller’s seminal studies of New England puritanism are well-marked. I still have several shelves of books devoted to these fascinating ancestors in the Faith.

My gnawing questions about the biblical grounds of certain Puritan theological constructs finally sent me back to the fount of Puritanism, Calvin himself. What a surprise. There I discovered a very different ‘Calvinism’ than the ‘Calvinism’ of either the Puritans or the caricature of the textbooks. Calvin wasn’t a ‘Calvinist’ after all. Neither Theodore Beza, William Perkins, or Richard Hooker accurately reflected the heart of Calvin’s pastoral concerns. The disconnect between Calvin and his heirs launched a study of the history of the transmission of Calvin’s thought. The short story there was the liberating discovery that there have been numerous ‘Calvinisms’ down through the centuries — some ugly, some winsome, all shaped largely by internal conflicts over the meaning of both Scripture and Calvin’s thought. The good news for me was that there were other streams flowing from the genius of Calvin’s thought than those flowing through Cambridge, England and Boston, Massachusetts.

After catching a glimpse of another version of Calvinism in the thought of Francis Schaeffer and wrestling with the entanglements of Cornelius Van Til, I discovered the Calvinist stream of thought in the Dutch tradition of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. It was a breath of fresh air for me. (How Dooyeweerd, steeped in the continental theological and philosophical tradition, could appeal to an innocent American evangelical, shaped by Fanny Crosby hymns, and growing up in rural Minnesota, still mystifies my friends — and me, too!) I had finally found a way around the slough of interminable arguments about predestination and election to a place where penetrating philosophical analysis was embedded in deep theological ground. As an intellectual historian I was also deeply attracted to Dooyeweerd’s history of thought. Here was a Calvinism that resonated with my own reading of Calvin and hunger for an intellectually engaging understanding of the Faith and a breaktakingly comprehensive vision of the Lord’s world that went beyond narrow apologetics.

My intellectual and theological odyssey through the various expressions of Calvinism over the centuries has led to several serious misgivings about some accents in Puritan thought. Of the many, I will note only two here. First, while the Puritans were busy slaying the dragons of Popery, they were uncritically shaping their theology in the image and likeness of a mixture of competing and alien philosophical systems born in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, including Petrus Ramus, Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Rene Descartes, John Locke, George Berkeley, and Isaac Newton. (See Evan Runner, The Relation of the Bible to Learning, 76-81)They were so intent on removing the mote of Pelagianism from the eyes of their congregations that they were blinded by the beam of alien philosophical assumptions in their own systems. (The rule is: never ground your theology in a polemic.) Those tensions gave birth to many of the shortcomings in modern evangelicalism. Second, my foray into the history of science and religion led me to a sobering discovery. The Puritans lacked a fully-developed and biblically-grounded Christology. For all of their talk about ‘God,’ they were not keenly interested in Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of the universe. The Old Testament towered over the New Testament in their doctrine. They professed to be Trinitarians, but their theology did not give ample place to the Second Person of the Trinity. In my judgment, they failed to give Christ His crucial place as the mediator (Spykman’s third term) between God the Father and the creation. Without Christ natural theology soon degenerated into deism. Evangelicals are still reaping the fruits of this legacy. (I am painting in very broad strokes here.)

(Those interested in the history of these matters, may wish to consult Ralph Bronkema’s dissertation on The Essence of Puritanism(1929) which analyzed the many ways that Puritanism departed from Calvinism, both doctrinally and behaviorally.)

Yes, I am very pleased to see that a younger generation of evangelicals has tired of liturgical and theological froth and is rising to the challenge of meaty doctrine and intellectually challenging biblical exposition. May their numbers increase. My fear, expressed on the tee-shirt of the young man with the “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy” slogan, is that this fascination with Puritans will degenerate into an uncritical adoption of Puritan theological categories as THE only true biblical or Calvinist ways of thinking and believing about these weighty matters. Needless to say, Jonathan Edwards would be appalled by seeing his influence reduced to a trite cliche. The irony of the tee-shirt slogan, of course, is that one of the besetting weaknesses of American evangelicalism has been its penchant for trivializing theological complexities: it has never met a profound doctrine it could not reduce to bullet points. I well-remember how quickly Francis Shaeffer’s overview of the history of philosophy was reduced to slogans. The very best way to honor the Puritans is by critically engaging their thought, even if that means disagreeing with them in the end — and even in the name of Scripture and Calvinism. I hope that the leaders of this movement will encourage a nuanced understanding of our Puritan forebears. And, just perhaps, they may encounter the neo-Calvinist tradition of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and company in their studies.


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