Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Unity and Diversity among the "Puritans"

Randall J. Pederson, Unity in Diversity: English Puritans and the Puritan Reformation, 1603-1689, vol. 68, Brill Studies in Church History (Leiden: Brill, 2014). 380pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

“Puritanism” is so difficult to define that some historians have rejected it as a useful category. Randall Pederson has made a fresh attempt at navigating the minefield of defining this often-nebulous term. In doing so, he revives “Puritanism” for historical investigation and paves a way forward for future studies. While it is impossible for the daunting task Pederson has set for himself to be without limitations, he effectively demonstrates his thesis that Puritanism is a necessary term that is here to stay (36, 311). This is an outstanding study that should become a starting point for this subject.

This book is broad in scope, but focused in its aim. Pederson traces unity and diversity within Puritanism by special examination of John Downame, Francis Rous, and Tobias Crisp. Each section sets these authors in their historical contexts and examines unity and diversity within Puritanism in light of their teachings on the doctrine of God and humanity, predestination and assurance, the covenants of works and grace, justification and sanctification, law and gospel, and Christian life and piety. Downame represents the “precisionist” strain within Puritanism, Rous the “mystical” strain, and Crisp the “antinomian” strain. Pederson admirably demonstrates the common Puritan culture shared by such authors, in spite of their nuanced differences. The result is that readers leave with a slightly more focused idea of how to recognize a Puritan if he or she meets one.

However, Pederson’s study makes it somewhat difficult to distinguish Puritanism from Reformed orthodoxy. For instance, his descriptions of Downame (152) and Rous (161) representing the precisionist and mystical strains within Puritanism, respectively, do not distinguish them adequately from one another or from Reformed orthodox theology on the continent. Downame’s theology does not appear to differ much, if at all, from Reformed orthodoxy in general. Likewise, Rous’s “mystical” piety as tethered by Scripture does not appear to this reviewer to differ either from Downame or from continental emphases on union and communion with Christ. This is particularly evident by the translation and endorsement or Rous’ work by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Koelman (161). Crisp is the only author treated that stands out, due to his “antinomian” position regarding the time of justification being prior to conversion (254).

We are still left largely with Pederson’s initial observation that we know instinctively that there is something distinctive about Puritanism (305). Pederson argues in the end that we should understand Puritanism as consisting predominantly of Reformed orthodox theologians, with acceptable diversity within the movement, and radical Puritans on its fringes (287). Perhaps in the final analysis, the primary factor that marked a Puritan was neither his orthodoxy nor his piety, but his desire to reform the church of England in light of both (301).

Greater interaction with continental theology would have strengthened this otherwise excellent study as well. A good example is the absence of continental sources treating theology as a “supernatural light” or gift of the Holy Spirit, which Pederson attaches to Rous as an example of his mysticism (185). However, this position was standard in almost all Reformed theology textbooks at the time. In addition, his treatments of the law and the gospel in relation to each figure lacks theological nuance. Pederson treats the terms as though they related primarily to the grounds on which people should do good works. However, in Reformed theology law and gospel were used in widely differing ways. Law, for instance, could refer to the moral law, the covenant of works, the Old Testament, the Mosaic covenant (as opposed to the new covenant), and several other options. Evidence also suggests that Reformed uses of law and gospel differed from Lutheran ones due to the effects of covenant theology on such terminology. His discussion asks readers to use these terms to assess unity and diversity among Puritan authors before evaluating their meaning in Reformed theology.

History is messy. Its subjects do not always like to fit into the categories that we place them. Pederson’s text is a great achievement. He introduces readers to the daunting literature on the subject and funnels his analysis through the lives and theologies of three previously neglected (313), but important, authors. Though he has not solved the problem of defining Puritanism with scholastic precision, he shows us that this is not necessary. The unity within Puritanism enables us to put its diversity in perspective. Anyone doing serious study on Puritanism should not pass by this text.



This review appeared previously in Calvin Theological Journal. Used with permission.