Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting Past the Word 'Puritan'

It is very easy to dismiss a doctrine or practice as 'Puritan' rather than to study it in the light of the word of God. The practice is very old, and is continued in our culture today, even within the church, even amongst Reformed Christians. In our society, the word 'Puritan' conjures up images of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or evokes the recollection of H.L. Mencken's quip that "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." The Puritan-minded are not ashamed of the label assigned to them, but desire above all that people would look at the substance of the thing, more than the label, and Berean-like, then consider whether it is in accord or not with God's word.

Lewis Bayly, The Practice of Piety, p. 86, describes those hindrances which keep sinners back from endeavoring after Biblical piety, among which he lists the use of semantics by the ungodly in their vocabulary designed to label evil good and good evil:

8. The last, and not the least block at which piety stumbles in the course of religion, is by adorning vices with the names of virtues: as to call drunken carousing, drinking of healths; spilling innocent blood, valour; gluttony, hospitality; covetousness, thriftiness; whoredom, loving a mistress; simony, gratuity; pride, gracefulness; dissembling, compliment; children of Belial, good-fellows; wrath, hastiness; ribaldry, mirth: so, on the other side, to call sobriety in words and actions, hypocrisy; alms-deeds, vain-glory; devotion, superstition; zeal in religion, Puritanism; humility, crouching; scruple of conscience, preciseness, &c. And whilst thus we call evil good, and good evil, true piety is much hindered in her progress.

Gisbertus Voetius expounds upon this theme in his Selectae Disputationes Theologicae, "Concerning Practical Theology," Part II, as quoted by John W. Beardslee III, ed. and trans., Reformed Dogmatics: Seventeenth Century Reformed Theology Through the Writings of Wollebius, Voetius, and Turretin, pp. 282-283:

The wholeness and precision of faith and conduct which all the pious are required to seek and to desire have now been assigned by some to a hated "Puritanism." That this has happened to purity of faith and teaching is shown by the vernacular works of the Remonstrants as well as by their Apologia, and by the innovators who began to spread Remonstrant errors in England after the meeting of the Synod of Dort in 1619, and who attacked those who were orthodox in this hateful business, as they regarded it, by the name of Cathari or Puritans; namely, those who were zealous for purity and the orthodox doctrine of the total grace of God, against the old and new scraps of Pelagian depravity. As to conduct and morals, Lewis Bayly, the bishop of Bangor, has witnessed in his widely distributed and famous book The Practice of Piety that piety has often been disparaged under the name of Puritanism. Since we see that the name was first conceived and used by papists in England, in order to have a label for those who desired simplicity of ceremonies and church organization, concern for good works and praxis, it is necessary to inquire whether those on whom they wished to place the label Puritan were ignorant of practical theology or hostile to it. The Puritan teaching must be earnestly studied, to see whether it agrees with the word of God or not, whether it carries on a struggle over shadows and words. I do not remember that it has been proved by anyone that the conduct and praxis that the Reformers urged, and that we urge with them, contradict the word of God.

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