02 August 2007

carleton on puritanism

Laurel and I have both been sick since Monday - a vague sort of virus: aches, sore throat, chills, now devolving into something more respiratory with coughing and congestion. But we're on the mend. Claire's been a trooper cooped up most of the week with two ailing parents.

In between naps, I've been doing some reading, mostly 17th century English Reformed divinity. Bishop George Carleton was part of the English delegation to the Synod of Dort and learned defender of Reformed doctrine over against opponents, especially those of Bishop Laud's party who gravitated towards Arminianism.

An Arminian interlocutor makes scoffing reference at one point to "your Puritan doctrine of final perseverance." Bishop Carleton, writing in the mid-1620s, finds this an odd rejoinder and replies, addressing his readers:
This is the first time that ever I heard of a "Puritan doctrine" in points dogmatical, and I have lived longer in the Church than he hath done. I thought that Puritans were only such as were factious against the Bishops in the point of pretended discipline; and so I am sure it hath been understood hitherto in our Church. A Puritan doctrine is a strange thing, because it hath been confessed on both sides, that Protestants and Puritans have held the same doctrines without variance. The discipline varied in England, Scotland, Geneva, and otherwise: yet the doctrine hath hitherto held the same, according the harmong of the several Confessions of these Churches. Not one doctrine of the Church of England, another of the Church of Scotland, and so of others.
So, Carleton goes on to ponder, what would motivate the use of the term "Puritan" as a term of derision and with regard to matters of doctrine, none of which would distinguish a person from the rest of (at least non-Lutheran) Protestantism. Carleton speculates:
What is your end in this, but to make divisions where there were none? And that a rent may be made in the Church? Forsooth! that place may be given to the Pelagian and Arminian doctrines. And then all that are against these must be called "Puritan doctrines."
Carleton suspects that by labeling something within the mainstream of Reformed doctrine "Puritan" his interlocutor is attempting to position it at an extreme in order that his own Arminian-friendly extreme might seem less out of the ordinary. This is a common rhetorical move that works in both directions and Carleton rightly calls him on it.

What interests me most in Carleton's response is two-fold.

First, there is the description of international Calvinism and a witness to the fundamental doctrinal commonality between the churches of England, Scotland, Geneva, and elsewhere - at least at the beginning of the 17th century, despite differences in worship, polity, and discipline. That commonality had been the basis for attempts at pan-Protestant union earlier in the 17th century, though the attempt failed to bring the Lutheran churches on board, especially in the wake of Dort.

Second, there are hints about Puritanism, or at least perceptions of it by a non-Puritan Calvinist in England, though one with sympathies towards conforming Puritans. Puritanism, according to Carleton was a matter of discipline rather than doctrine, particularly with regard to areas in which the bishops of the English church wished to determine matters in a manner to which Puritans objected.

Richard Hooker, who had died some 25 years earlier, gives us some idea of these areas of disciplinary difference in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: the manner of receiving communion, the use of wafers, the role of godparents in baptism, and so forth. Hooker points out that the churches of France, Geneva, and Scotland differed among themselves on a number of these matters as much as the English church.

I get the sense that over time and in the wake of more forceful attempts by the bishops to establish discipline - especially under Laud, with whom Carleton had few sympathies - Puritanism did slowly radicalize. Matters of discipline became matters of principle, and a desire for liberty of conscience evolved into dogmatic objections to various practices.

Some Puritans began to live in terms of the caricatures others had drawn of them, especially with the rise of what came to be called "Brownism," which even began to infect the Church of Scotland, over the objections of the General Assembly and figures such as Baillie and Rutherford.

One witness to this change in Puritanism is a curious 1642 volume by John Geree entitled The Character of an Old English Puritan, in which he contrasts the original motivations and beliefs of the Puritan movement with what he perceives in his own day - a radicalization moving towards contentiousness, over-scrupulosity, schism, and independency.

At any rate, these items are among the many windows available in understanding the nature and development of 17th century English Reformed divinity and the way in which religious movements shift and change over time, both in the eyes of those who observe them from the outside and by those within.