Friday, June 24, 2011

The Puritan Doctrines

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The Puritan Doctrines

It is always amazing to realize just how many people have a negative image of John Calvin. It seems that whenever his name is mentioned, people suddenly look slightly offended and ready to get into a fierce theological debate. Perhaps this apprehension of Calvin and his doctrines has something to do with Puritan dogma; however, it has come to this reader’s attention that many of the Puritan ideals are in direct contrast with Calvin’s teachings. Three major differences between Puritan and Calvin’s theological theories are the importance of the testaments, the lifestyles of the elect, and what should be included in a formal education.

Before getting into Calvin’s many theories, it is necessary to impart some information on the Calvinistic background. John Calvin was born in northern France in 1509. Shy and unsociable, he went to Paris where he received a humanist education, earning a masters degree in art and a doctorate in civil law. Instead of pursuing a career in law, he decided to devote his time and talents to repairing “Christ’s church”, which he deemed as being “neither One nor Holy nor Catholic nor fit to express the communion of Saints”. Exiled from Great Britain, he spent three years in Geneva where he eventually started an academy teaching Reformation principles. He remained active in the Reformation until his death on May 7, 1564. Calvin’s principles and teachings eventually gave birth to Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Calvinism in Holland, and the French Huguenots, as well as influencing Episcopalian doctrines.

Certainly with so many different forms of faith springing from one man’s teachings, there are bound to be theological differences between the denominations and Calvin himself. One such contrasting view between Calvin and the Puritans is a matter of deciding which Biblical testament is the more important. Calvin’s writings rely mostly on the New Testament. This dependence is made obvious by the fact that he wrote his New Testament commentaries first, as well as including almost twice as many references to it in comparison to the Old Testament in his book entitled Institutes. Even when writing about the Old Testament, Calvin uses it as a type of foreshadowing for the New Testament. He was quoted as saying that he considered the entire Bible as being a “testimony to Christ’. As a testimony to Christ, the Old Testament’s chief purpose is to drive home the points of the New Testament. Calvin’s chief reliance on the New Testament is a clear indication that he believes its message to be more important than that of the Old Testament.

Conversely, Puritanical writing focuses more on the Old Testament, particularly Levitical law. One instance of Levitical law is when William Bradford says the following concerning a case of bestiality at Plymouth Plantation “For first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus xx.15, and then he himself was executed”. Although the Puritans have need of all their livestock, as well as all of the colonists, they do not hesitate in putting Thomas Granger to death “according to the law.” There is no mention made of the colonists even considering forgiveness or imprisonment for this heinous act; instead they go immediately to Leviticus to deal with the problem. Thus, they ignore the teachings of the New Testament in order to better focus on the Old Testament. To them, the laws and customs of Old Testament are in many ways more important than the love and forgiveness taught in the New Testament.

Following closely on their theories concerning the different testaments comes Calvin’s and the Puritan’s disparity concerning the lives of the elect. Calvin believed that, “we see daily the state of the faithful is more miserable than the state of the despisers of God”. This remark is intended to make one understand that a person’s earthly life is not a reflection on his or her state of redemption; in fact, he believes that the “faithful” are often “more miserable” than the unbelievers. Calvin goes on to say that it is the “error of the Sadducees” (McNeill 0) to believe that God’s favor is reflected in one’s material possessions. In mentioning the “Sadducees,” Calvin compares those who disagree with him to the very people that had Jesus arrested. Such a flaw in theology leaves one to inquire whether such dissenters can actually be called Christians.

The Puritans, however, believed that a person’s misfortunes are a form of God’s judgment and condemnation. John Winthrop, for instance, used Anne Hutchinson as an example of what happens to women who forget their place in Puritan society. Because she had gone against Puritan theology, she “was delivered of a monstrous birth”. Already disliked for her ideals, Mrs. Hutchinson’s “monstrous birth” enforces the Puritans’ belief that God will condemn her for her actions. Certainly the Almighty would not cause her to give birth to a malformed fetus if her beliefs did not affront Him. Thus, the Puritans believed that she was made to suffer because she had angered the Creator. Their belief in a vengeful God can be directly related to their dependence on the Old Testament. As mentioned earlier, Calvin disagreed with this belief of the “Sadducees” and would, therefore, see the Puritans as making a serious doctrinal error.

Finally, Calvin’s view on education and wisdom was vastly different from Puritan beliefs. Contrary to popular belief, John Calvin did not consider non-Biblical works to be trivial. Drawing on his humanist training, Calvin considered the works of church fathers, philosophers, and other writers to be instrumental in the edification of young minds; he used every author as a potential teacher. Students at the Geneva Academy were expected to read works by Virgil, Homer, Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle, and various other influential nonChristian authors. In response to others’ rejection on nonChristian works Calvin says, “‘If we regard the sole Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God’”. According to his beliefs to “reject” any form of truth is to reject the very essence of God. Thus, it goes against Christianity to ignore the great pagan philosophers and poets. Calvin’s influence in this are can be attested to when one considers that Thomas Bodley, the founder of the University of Oxford’s prestigious library, received his education at the Geneva Academy. Let Calvin’s critics argue as they will; he did not discount the Classics.

Conversely, Puritanical society in America found nonBiblical literature to be worthless drivel. In describing Puritan views on a multicultural education, Froud (a famous historian from Oxford University) said, ‘in this quarrel, the Calvinists, Bible in hand appealed to the God of battles. They grew harsher, fiercer, -if you please, more fanatical’. The Puritans, victims of religious and educational persecution, have fled Europe to establish their own “fanatical” persecution in the New World. They totally discounted the wisdom passed down from ancient cultures like the Greeks and Romans. Even Anne Bradstreet, possibly the most progressive Puritan poet of her time says, “But this weak knot they will full soon untie. / The Greeks did nought, but play the fools and lie”. The very Puritan who makes the most allusions to Classical studies still deems it necessary to call the Greeks “fools.” Puritans looked down on the polytheistic Greeks and found no reason to study their many writings, which they deemed to be “lies.” No school wishes to teach untruths, so it is only logical that the Puritans refused to study what they thought of as folly. Therefore, they refused to pay any heed to the Classics.

Thus it was that Calvin and the Puritans disagreed on several important theological and societal points of order. Their outrageously different opinions in matters of scriptural importance, societal esteem, and educational policies lead one to wonder what it was exactly that they agreed upon. And yet, when one hears the name John Calvin, he or she automatically thinks of dour faced men in dark clothes, eking out a living with subsistence farming. Perhaps people should start trying to read his doctrines for themselves before they begin to judge him based on a long-dead people.


Works Cited

Boettner, Loraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. 6th Ed. Michigan Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Bradford, William. “from Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Norton Anthology of American

Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et. al. 6th Ed. Vol. A. New York W. W. Norton and Company.

Bradstreet, Anne. “The Prologue.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed.

Nina Baym, et. al. 6th Ed. Vol. A. New York W. W. Norton and Company.

George, Timothy. “Introduction.” John Calvin and the Church. Ed. Timothy George.

Louisville Westminster / John Knox Press.

McNeill, J.T. “John Calvin Doctor Ecclesiae.” The Heritage of John Calvin. Ed. John

H. Bratt. Grand Rapids William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Raynal, Charles E. III. “The Place of the Academy in Calvin’s Polity.” John Calvin and the Church. Ed. Timothy George. Louisville Westminster / John Knox Press.

Winthrop, John. “from The Journal of John Winthrop.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et. al. 6th Ed. Vol. A. New York W. W. Norton and Company.



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