Friday, September 30, 2011

The world was all before them

John Milton
In my article "Recovering the Protestant Affirmation of Life", which was published last October at the Alfred the Great Society, I tried to strip away some of the stereotypes about the Calvinist movement in general and Puritanism in particular. Although the Puritans were not immune to a certain type of Gnosticism, they were quite 'worldly' in a positive way. The psychology of self-confidence implicated – and indeed, mandated - by the Calvinist project (a point I have dealt with in my article "Calvinist Self-Confidence") found expression in an inversion of the paradigm prevalent within medieval Monastics: these Christians proved their salvation and gained assurance, not by withdrawing from the world, but by confidently engaging with it.

The result was an affirmative approach to life that was not overlooked by Abraham Kuyper, who noted that “in every instance [Calvinism] exhibited the same characteristic: viz., strong Assurance of eternal Salvation...”  The posture of self-confident assurance was by no means limited to soteriology but may go a long way towards explaining the pulse of productive energy that became characteristic of Northern Europe in the 17th century onward.
The Puritan writer, John Milton, bestowed this same self-confidence on the lately exiled Adam and Eve who, upon their expulsion from paradise, pause only briefly to look back, before fixing their attention on the world before them and all its potentialities:
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon:
The world was all before them, there to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide 
As this passage suggests, the Puritan self-confidence went hand in hand with a sense of worldly affirmation: “The world was all before them”. Weber gets it wrong when he argued that the Puritans were against “the spontaneous enjoyment of life and all it had to offer.” This was no more true of the English Puritans than it was of Milton’s Adam and Eve. It is a significant fact that Thomas More railed against William Tyndale, often considered the first Puritan, for the way Tyndale and his followers were overly indulgent. More described them as people who “loved no Lenten fast” but instead “eat fast and drink fast and lust fast in their lechery.” Their theology, according to More, erred in the direction of making the Christian life too easy. As one Puritan writer put it: “there is a kind of smiling and joyful laughter…which may stand…with the best man’s piety…” C.S. Lewis calls the early Puritans “young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date.” 
The Puritans knew how to enjoy life to the full, including a variety of sports. In his book Puritan Attitudes Towards Recreation in Sventeenth-Century New England, Hans-Peter Wagner shows that the Puritans enjoyed such varied activities as hunting, fishing, a form of football, bowling, reading, music, swimming, skating and archery. One Puritan pastor said regarding recreations that Christians should “enjoy them as liberties, with thankfulness to God that allows us these liberties to refresh ourselves.” The Westminster Confession, draw up in 1646, even makes the enjoyment of God one of man’s two chief ends.

Because the Puritans believed that Christ was Lord over every area of life, they put a premium on bodily health and enjoyment. This was reflected in the words of one Puritan who said, “God hath given us several senses that so we might enjoy the delights of them all…”

As these quotations suggest, the Calvinist sense of affirmation was not limited merely to a broader notion of vocation. As Kuyper rightly perceived, “The human heart…discovered its high and holy calling to consecrate every department of life and every energy at its disposal to the glory of God…” By vigorously affirming the sacredness of earthly life, the glory of the physical, the splendour of the ordinary and the intimate unison between spirit and matter, the Calvinist movement did more than merely dignify even the most mundane professions: it altered how one thought of the world itself. Kuyper was the first to highlight this new life-view against the backdrop of medieval dualism:
“Thus making its appearance in a dualistic social state Calvinism has wrought an entire change in the world of thoughts and conceptions. In this also, placing itself before the face of God, it has not only honored man for the sake of his likeness to the Divine image, but also the world as a Divine creation…Henceforth the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life.
But of course, whever two elements appear, as in this case the sinner and the saint, the temporal and the eternal, the terrestrial and the heavenly life, there is always danger of losing sight of their interconnection and of falsifying both by error or one-sidedness. Christendom, it must be confessed, did not escape this error. A dualistic conception of regeneration was the cause of the rupture between the life of nature and the life of grace. It has, on account of its exclusive love of things eternal, been backward in the fulfilment of its temporal duties. It has neglected the care of the body, because it cared too exclusively for the soul....This dualism, however, is by no means countenanced by the Holy Scriptures. ...the work of redemption is not limited to the salvation of individual sinners, but extends itself to the redemption of the world, and to the organic reunion of all things in heaven and on earth under Christ as their original head. ...Calvinism puts an end once and for all to contempt for the world, neglect of temporal and under-valuation of cosmical things.”
The heightened significance that the institution of matrimony would attain within reformed thought testifies again to the robust affirmation of life that was characteristic of the Calvinist vision. The tradition of Thomistic Catholicism had - to quote from George - “[granted] to the religious life, and especially the monastic life, a higher spiritual value per se than to the life of the world; and the religious life, whether monastic or ecclesiastical, is properly celibate. In consequence, marriage automatically becomes, even at best, a concomitant of a lower, less demanding, and spiritually less rewarding type of Christian life.” All this changed under the influence of Calvinism. Teachers such as the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691) poured enormous energy into marriage counselling, believing that the cultivation of natural affection between husbands and wives was central to sanctification. 

Calvinist affirmation even extended into areas where a pessimistic approach has generally be taken for granted. For example, recent scholarship has suggested that Calvin’s theology of art did not entail the pessimistic posture towards aesthetics with which it is normally associated. The comments of Samuel Mather were not untypical of Calvinists:
“All the Arts are nothing else but the beams and rays of the Wisdom of the first Being in the Creatures, shining, and reflecting thence, upon the glass of man’s understanding...Hence there is an affinity and kindred of Arts...which is according to the...subordination of their particular ends...One makes use of another, one serves to another, till they all reach and return to Him, as Rivers to the Sea, whence they flow.
Despite the doctrine of total depravity and the division of the world into the regenerate and the reprobate, Calvin’s doctrine of common grace allowed even the non-Christian world to come under the umbrella of a qualified affirmation.
This is not to say the reformed sense of affirmation was total. I have already noted in an earlier post that the Puritan notion of an inner group within the institutional church would ultimately lead to an elitism that would tend to downplay the importance of the visible church. Moreover, by getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans left a vacuum that would ultimately be filled by the non-religious ordering of time, thus reintroducing the idea that there exists a secular world that functions separately to religious categories. However, it should not be overlooked that the Puritan antipathy to the church year was hardly motivated by a dualistic impulse. In fact, quite the contrary: their rejection of Christmas and all other religious holidays was rooted in the notion that the entire years was sanctified. Yet it was surely when reformed teachers approached the subject of images that a subtle dualism was most likely to creep in. When Calvin had dealt with the subject of images, he frequently separated the spiritual from the material in a way quite distinct from his discussions of the incarnation. Puritan iconoclasm of the 1640s retained this markedly dualistic character. Moreover, when Bishop Gervase Babington (1549/1550 - 1610) took up the subject of images, his passion against idol worship led him to embrace a docetic Christology which, in any other context, would have been discountenanced among orthodox Calvinists.

Further Reading

Recovering The Protestant Affirmation of Life

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