“Life in the Republic grows increasingly uncomfortable to men of the more urbane and seemly sort, and, despite the great material prosperity of the country, the general stock of happiness probably diminishes steadily. For the thing that makes us enjoy the society of our fellows is not admiration of their inner virtues but delight in their outward manners. It is not enough that they are headed for heaven, and will sit upon the right hand of God through all eternity; it is also necessary that they be polite, generous, and, above all, trustworthy. We must have confidence in them in order to get any pleasure out of associating with them. We must be sure that they will not do unto us as we should refuse, even for cash in hand, to do unto them. It is the tragedy of the Puritan that he can never inspire this confidence in his fellow-men. He is by nature a pedant in ethics, and hence he is by nature a mucker. With the best of intentions he cannot rid himself of the belief that it is his duty to save us from our follies— i. e., from all the non-puritanical acts and whimsies that make life charming. His duty to let us be happy takes second, third or fourth place. A Puritan cannot be tolerant—and with tolerance goes magnanimity.
The late Dr. Woodrow Wilson was a typical Puritan—of the better sort, perhaps, for he at least toyed with the ambition to appear as a gentleman, but nevertheless a true Puritan. Magnanimity was simply beyond him. Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor old [Eugene V.] Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail. I daresay that, as a purely logical matter, he saw clearly that the old fellow ought to be turned loose; certainly he must have known that Washington would not have hesitated, or Lincoln. But Calvinism triumphed as his intellectual faculties decayed. In the full bloom of health, with a plug hat on his head, he aped the gentry of his wistful adoration very cleverly, but lying in bed, stripped like
Thackeray’s Louis XIV, he reverted to his congenital Puritanism, which is to say, bounderism. (“From the Memoirs of a Subject of the United States,” Prejudices, Sixth Series)
What should we stream on Netflix or Amazon Prime? Should we do what the Puritans did (even though they didn’t have wifi)?
Here’s one piece of advice on what to watch:
Does this [movie] increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?
Remember that this world is not our home. The fact that we are forgiven sinners, purchased by Christ and bound for heaven should impact every aspect of our lives.
Additionally, we know from Scripture that we have an adversary who is determined to take Christ’s soldiers out of the fight. What soldier would spend time in activities that weaken his armor?
Be critical of the choices you have when deciding what to watch. Does this movie help you to better appreciate the truths expressed in Scripture, or is it void of redemptive elements? Does this show encourage you to snuff out sin in your life, or does it entice you to see how close you can get to the flame without getting burned? Does this film make you long for God’s kingdom, or does it merely increase your desire for the things of earth?
Okay. I can understand (and always have) why some people won’t watch The Wire. As much as I appreciate the show, I don’t recommend it to all Christians. It’s like meat offered to idols. Some people can’t handle it (and those who can aren’t superior, just different).
But The Crown? Why not watch a series that is highly suggestive about the English monarchy and its responsibilities, recent British history, the nature of British politics and the decline of Britain’s empire, not to mention very revealing about human nature (nor to mention exquisitely accomplished). None of this is particularly edifying or redemptive. The Crown doesn’t make me a better Christian.
But God is not merely a redeemer. He’s also the creator and that means — doesn’t it? — he’s also involved with and oversees the non-redemptive parts of human history. In that case, watching The Wire and The Crown makes me a better human being because they help me understand God’s creation and providence.
If you only take spiritual cues from the Puritans, you’ll have Christian duties figured out (perhaps) but you’ll still need to get a life.
Would they avoid the problem that Alan Jacobs describes here (for Anglicans who read Machen see this)?
What should Anglicans do with a gay couple that wants to have their baby baptized? Jacobs thinks the child should be baptized:
[T]o deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?
But how has the enlightening power of grace worked out in the lives of this gay couple which Jacobs admits has disregarded church teaching and Scriptural imperatives on marriage and sex? It hasn’t worked well and that is why Jacobs thinks the problem is not really with the sacrament but with the failure of Anglican catechesis (in effect a failure of ministry that includes baptism and catechesis):
It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
So you continue to do what Anglicans have done for a long time — baptize without catechesis? Or do you admit that for baptism to take, it needs the work of instruction in the faith?
[W]e should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live.
Why doesn’t Jacobs see how much his sacramental theology really depends on catechetical theology? Or that the ministry of the sacraments cannot be isolated from a larger understanding of pastoral theology? Is it because he doesn’t want to admit that Puritans had a point about the Elizabethan Church?
H. L. Mencken explains:
The badness of English cooking is proverbial all over the world, but no one seems to have investigated its causes. I suggest that it may be due, at least in part, to two things, the first being that the English have a Puritan distrust of whatever is bodily pleasant, and the second that it is practically impossible to grow good food in their country. The first point needs no laboring. Every American who has been in England in winter knows who the whole population shivers and freezes. The simple device of putting in adequate stoves has apparently never occurred to anyone — or, if it has, it has been rejected as unmanly. The English prefer to be uncomfortable, and think of their preferences as heroic.
So at the table. Most Englishmen have been abroad, and know very well what good victuals taste like. But when they are at home they take a gloomy, stubborn, idiotic delight in eating badly. To say that they have a diseased taste and actually enjoy their flabby flavorless, badly cooked dishes, — this is to go beyond plain facts. It takes only a glance to see that they suffer almost as much as visitors to their country. But they can’t get rid of the feeling that it is virtuous to suffer — that eating better stuff would be frenchified, wicked, and against God. So they remain faithful to a cuisine which Nietzsche long ago described as next door to cannibalism.
I have hinted that the native victuals of the English are all bad. An exception, of course should be made of their incomparable mutton, and another, perhaps, of their sole, but beyond that the judgment holds. Their beef, for all their touching veneration of it, is distinctly inferior to ours, as anyone may discover by eating in the form of steaks. Their pork, at best, is only so-so, and their veal is not better. They seldom eat lamb at all. Of the stuff they get out of the sea, not much is really good. Their oysters are vile, and their turbot is flabby and almost tasteless. Their salmon is better, but it is surely not to be mentioned in the same breath with our mackerel, blue-fish and shad. That leaves their excellent sole — usually ruined in the cooking. . . .
What saves England from complete culinary darkness is the mutton. At its best, it is probably the most magnificent red meat to be had in the world. . . . I believe it is one of the great glories of the English people — a greater glory, indeed, than their poetry, their policemen, their hearty complexions, or their gift for moral indignation. It is the product of English grass — unquestionably the best grass on this piebald ball. Ah, that the English nobility and gentry could dine as well as their sheep. (“Note on Victuals,” 1930)
Dr. Helm is on a roll. First he defends 2k from charges of quietism and includes this poignant remark:
Those who advocate a Christian view of this or that fail to recognize the seriousness of what they are proposing. To have a Christian view of X is to be committed to proclaiming it as the word of God which Christians have an obligation to uphold and propagate.
In other words, redeeming culture or doing things Christianly may inspire, but the claims bite off more than the claimants can chew — namely, invoking Christianity brings norms that believers seldom apply to the variety of callings in which they find themselves.
Then, Dr. Helm observes how John Owen could have used a dose of 2k for the brief time he believed that England was the greatest nation on God’s green earth:
What happened to Owen’s theology can be explained in two phases. In the first phase his understanding of the accepted Reformed understanding of the secret will and revealed will distinction changed shape during the Commons sermons. As we saw earlier the distinction, as Owen understood this, is between what God decrees, reserved to himself, and what he requires, his revelation. Owen extended the revealed will, the promises, from ‘generals’ to include the particular contemporary and future events in the British Isles about which he preached to the House of Commons, going beyond what he had said were secrets to include the unfolding events of the Civil war and their significance, and in particular to the military operations in Ireland. He daringly attributed to what he said of these the character of God’s revealed purposes, long prophesied, in turn giving rise to Christian precepts.
It is likely that his relative youth, sudden promotion to Cromwell’s side, and the way of thinking exhibited in his sermons, had turned his mind. He believed he was in the cockpit of the unfolding of God’s plan for England, foretold by the prophets, and that he was their mouthpiece. The outcome was assured.
If it can happen to the orthodox Puritan, Owen, perhaps we can give Ted Cruz a pass.
Really zany stuff, brah.
But how are people supposed to take you seriously about antinomianism when it is so hilarious? Haven’t you learned in all of your studies that the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Protestant divines were not doing stand up at the Globe? Remember what H. L. Mencken taught us, that Puritanism is the haunting fear that somewhere someone may be happy.
You may disagree with H. L. Mencken, but he sure could spot a major weakness when the pursuit and prosecution of vice goes from the duties of pastors and elders to magistrates and reformers:
Moral endeavour, in brief, has become a recognized trade, or rather a profession, and there have appeared men who pretend to a special and enormous knowledge of it, and who show enough truth in their pretension to gain the unlimited support of Puritan capitalists. The vice crusade, to mention one example, has produced a large crop of such self-constituted experts, and some of them are in such demand that they are overwhelmed with engagements. The majority of these men have wholly lost the flavour of sacerdotalism. They are not pastors, but detectives, statisticians and mob orators, and not infrequently their secularity becomes distressingly evident. Their aim, as they say, is to do things. Assuming that “moral sentiment” is behind them, they override all criticism and opposition without argument, and proceed to the business of dispersing prostitutes, of browbeating and terrorizing weak officials, and of forcing legislation of their own invention through City Councils and State Legislatures. Their very cocksureness is their chief source of strength. (Book of Prefaces, “Puritanism As a Literary Force,” 245)
If that doesn’t sound like the kind of moral activism favored by some “conservative” Protestants these days, I don’t know what does. In fact, this is the kind of engagement with “culture” that seems to go with heavy doses of the law and attacks upon antinomianism. It makes me wonder if the moralists our there really want a return to the kinds of constraints that Mencken faced as an editor (where books like Theodore Dreiser’s The “Genius” could land you in court). Here’s Mencken on his considerations as an editor of the Smart Set circa 1915:
I am, in moments borrowed from more palatable business, the editor of an American magazine, and I thus know at first hand what the burden is. That magazine is anything but a popular one, in the current sense. It sells at a relatively high price; it contains no pictures or other baits for the childish; it is frankly addressed to a sophisticated minority. I may thus assume reasonably, I believe, that its readers are not sex-curious and itching adolescents, just as my colleague of the Atlantic Monthly may assume reasonably that his readers are not Italian immigrants. Nevertheless, as a practical editor, I find that the Comstocks, near and far, are oftener in my mind’s eye than my actual patrons. The thing I always have to decide about a manuscript offered for publication, before ever I give any thought to its artistic merit and suitability, is the question whether its publication will be permitted —not even whether it is intrinsically good or evil, moral or immoral, but whether some roving Methodist preacher, self-commissioned to keep watch on letters, will read indecency into it. Not a week passes that I do not decline some sound and honest piece of work for no other reason. I have a long list of such things by American authors, well-devised, well-imagined, well-executed, respectable as human documents and as works of art—but never to be printed in mine or any other American magazine. It includes four or five short stories of the very first rank, and the best one-act play yet done, to my knowledge, by an American. All of these pieces would go into type at once on the Continent; no sane man would think of objecting to them; they are no more obscene, to a normal adult, than his own bare legs. But they simply cannot be printed in the United States, with the law what it is and the courts what they are. (276-77)
This was not Rome in the 1860s when Protestant worship could get you in trouble with the Roman Inquisition or Constantinople in the 1880s when converting from Islam to Christianity had significant penalties. This was the greatest nation on God’s green earth, established to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by Jove!!
I am not in the habit of defending the New Englanders. They have lots to answer for (apologies for the dangling preposition). But John Fea’s post on the minimum wage reminded me of how easy it is to cast Puritanism in our image rather than theirs.
Fea quotes from another blog that the language of the minimum wage comes from Roman Catholic Social Teaching:
The term was coined by John A. Ryan, a Catholic priest and the leading figure in the minimum-wage movement. Born to Irish immigrants on a Minnesota farm in 1869, Ryan watched bankers prosper while common laborers struggled to make ends meet. “We must have a more just distribution of wealth,” Ryan wrote in his diary in 1894. “We must have less individualism, more humanity and no absolutely unrestrained competition.”
. . . In 1912, Massachusetts became the first American state to adopt a minimum wage; the following year, eight more states followed suit. But many of these measures were struck down, especially after the Supreme Court voided the District of Columbia’s minimum-wage law in 1923. According to the court, the D.C. measure violated citizens’ “liberty of contract”; it also extracted an “arbitrary payment” from employers.
Nonsense, Ryan replied. The Supreme Court’s decision reflected the “extreme individualism” of America’s “Puritan” heritage, he argued. Americans needed to leaven that tradition with the “social and organic” principles of Catholicism, Ryan added, which emphasized our shared duties to each other.
Ryan’s identification of Puritanism with extreme individualism does not add up since John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity was almost communistic in its prescriptions for the settlers to care for each other’s needs:
This law of the Gospel propounds likewise a difference of seasons and occasions. There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor, as they did in the Apostles’ times. There is a time also when Christians (though they give not all yet) must give beyond their ability, as they of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8). Likewise, community of perils calls for extraordinary liberality, and so doth community in some special service for the church.
Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means. This duty of mercy is exercised in the kinds: giving, lending and forgiving (of a debt).
Question: What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?
Answer: If the time and occasion be ordinary he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them; taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.
Objection: A man must lay up for posterity, the fathers lay up for posterity and children, and he is worse than an infidel that provideth not for his own.
Answer: For the first, it is plain that it being spoken by way of comparison, it must be meant of the ordinary and usual course of fathers, and cannot extend to times and occasions extraordinary. For the other place the Apostle speaks against such as walked inordinately, and it is without question, that he is worse than an infidel who through his own sloth and voluptuousness shall neglect to provide for his family.
Objection: “The wise man’s eyes are in his head,” saith Solomon, “and foreseeth the plague;” therefore he must forecast and lay up against evil times when he or his may stand in need of all he can gather.
Answer: This very Argument Solomon useth to persuade to liberality (Eccle. 11), “Cast thy bread upon the waters…for thou knowest not what evil may come upon the land.” Luke 16:9, “Make you friends of the riches of iniquity…” You will ask how this shall be? Very well. For first he that gives to the poor, lends to the Lord and He will repay him even in this life an hundredfold to him or his. The righteous is ever merciful and lendeth, and his seed enjoyeth the blessing; and besides we know what advantage it will be to us in the day of account when many such witnesses shall stand forth for us to witness the improvement of our talent. And I would know of those who plead so much for laying up for time to come, whether they hold that to be Gospel Matthew 6:19, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” etc. If they acknowledge it, what extent will they allow it? If only to those primitive times, let them consider the reason whereupon our Savior grounds it. The first is that they are subject to the moth, the rust, the thief. Secondly, they will steal away the heart: “where the treasure is there will your heart be also.”
The reasons are of like force at all times. Therefore the exhortation must be general and perpetual, with always in respect of the love and affection to riches and in regard of the things themselves when any special service for the church or particular distress of our brother do call for the use of them; otherwise it is not only lawful but necessary to lay up as Joseph did to have ready upon such occasions, as the Lord (whose stewards we are of them) shall call for them from us. Christ gives us an instance of the first, when he sent his disciples for the donkey, and bids them answer the owner thus, “the Lord hath need of him.” So when the Tabernacle was to be built, He sends to His people to call for their silver and gold, etc., and yields no other reason but that it was for His work. When Elisha comes to the widow of Sareptah and finds her preparing to make ready her pittance for herself and family, he bids her first provide for him, he challenges first God’s part which she must first give before she must serve her own family. All these teach us that the Lord looks that when He is pleased to call for His right in any thing we have, our own interest we have must stand aside till His turn be served. For the other, we need look no further then to that of 1 John 3:17, “He who hath this world’s goods and seeth his brother to need and shuts up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” Which comes punctually to this conclusion: If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt of what thou shouldst do; if thou lovest God thou must help him.
This is not to deny that by the 1920s Americans were not a nation of individualists. But the reasons for that have a lot less to do with the Puritans and more to do with the revivals of the Second Pretty Good Awakening.
Readers at Old Life know that Puritanism is not on the A-list of favorite topics (unless it is to kvetch about experimental Calvinism). But the recent discussion of Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans,” has me reaching in my apologetics tool box (as if John Frame taught me nothing or that I ever heard of Propaganda before).
The issue so far seems to be whether or not to criticize heroes. Anthony Bradley, defender of Propaganda, argues for a sensible outlook on historical actors:
Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
Thabiti Anyabwile concurs at his Gospel Coalition blog (though the irony is rich since TGC is pretty averse to criticism of its theological celebrities):
That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting.
. . . we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this.
If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.
What is missing from this discussion is not a defense of the Puritans or of slavery — though I would suggest it is possible to defend the Puritans without defending slavery — but what is lacking is a critique of the holier-than-thou anti-slavery meme. Of course, slavery is unjust and of course, racism is despicable. But is it possible to see problems with the anti-slavery? The charge of slavery, like that of racisim, paints with a broad brush. It lacks nuance. It renders the world manichean, akin to the old line about pregnancy — you can’t be a little bit with child. In which case, if you owned slaves or are guilty of racism, no need ever to consider anything you have to say. You will forever be known as a slaveholder and racist the way that we now know Jerry Sandusky as a one dimensional pervert.
For instance, is it possible to make distinctions between orthodox slaveholders and Unitarian ones? If so, is it possible to say that the orthodox slaveholder’s theology is better than the Unitarians? In which case, is it possible to read slave holders’ theology and benefit from it? Can we separate aspects of historical actor’s life or does his wickedness go all the way down? The differences between Reformed confessionalism’s 2k posture, which separates holy, common, and profane matters all the time contrasts here with Reformed pietism which disdains all such distinctions under the canopy of “all is religious.” Of course, if we can’t separate matters, then readers should avoid Old Life at all cost not because I own slaves but because I — can you believe it — sin.
In other words, inherent in the anti-slavery position is not a form of genuine Christian reflection but one of perfectionism. This is a one-strike and you’re out scorched earth policy, with certain sins achieving red-letter status. If you break those, we’ll never hear from you again. This has happened with the American founders, slaveholders and chauvinists that they were, among large sectors of the academy. It also explained why mainline churches don’t read older theologians — the PCUSA’s awkward attitude to Princeton Seminary’s bi-centennial is an example. This trend seems to be afflicting evangelical Protestants. No surprise there since nineteenth-century evangelicals fell prey to this binary perfectionism back in the antebellum era.
And if a similar cultural perfectionism is seeping into the evangelical world, when will denunciations of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and the West more generally follow? The lyrics of Propaganda’s song point out the problem.
Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
So what is the pastor to do? If he says, “the English theologian,” before quoting doesn’t he bring up all the enormity that went with English colonialism? What will the Native Americans in the congregation think? Or how about “the Calvinist theologian”? All monarchists who think well of the Stuarts will be put off with that nasty business of regicide. Or how about if the pastor quotes a male theologian, will feminists quiver and melt?
Are all of these offenses equal? Probably not and it would be hard to find any monarchist these days. But other minorities do have their list of offenses and if we only listened to the pristine, we’d be left quoting Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Keller, and Mrs. Carson.
Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to toughen up. After all, how happy were the early Christians hearing the apostle Paul quoted in their worship services? Wasn’t he the guy who helped kill Christians? In fact, if we apply our standards of social justice all the way through the past, we will have to close the good book altogether. The reason is that none of the Bible’s saints could withstand our moral rectitude.
Historians may not be rocket scientists, but they can generally outwit the smartest of their interlocutors simply by knowing the origins of an idea, event, person, or argument. This is not to say that those who talk to historians understand when historical knowledge trumps philosophy, exegesis, or ideology. Some people are so committed to abstract truths that their ideas are impervious to concrete facts. But historians enjoy an advantage in debate thanks to clay feet that all historical actors (short of being divine persons) have.
For instance, knowing that w— v— thinking began at a certain date in the modern era, or that dramatic conversions are not much older, has an effect on claims that these are timeless truths revealed in holy writ. This historical awareness even extends to ideas that Old Lifers promote such as the spirituality of the church. The historical origins of an idea or truth doesn’t mean it is wrong. It only means it is not timeless and so perhaps its connections to the Bible are less certain.
Current reading and teaching has made me aware of the peculiar strains and tendencies of Puritanism both in Old and New England. For instance, it does look to me like chapter eighteen in the Confession of Faith on Assurance is a direct result of debates among the Puritans about the relationship among good works done in preparation for conversion, justification, and how to evaluate good works after conversion. These debates may have absorbed other Reformed churches, but the Westminster Divines’ willingness to explore the interior dimensions of Christian experience does seem to reflect the turn of experimental Calvinism or practical divinity that in the 1590s surfaced in England and caught fire in the Netherlands.
Another feature of the Confession of Faith that seems to reflect its British setting is the twenty-second chapter on Lawful Oaths and Vows. It is not a brief chapter and discusses the topic as follows:
1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.
2. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.
3. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform.
4. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.
5. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.
6. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.
7. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.
My point in bringing up this chapter is not to challenge the Confession. I don’t find anything objectionable in this chapter. And the counsel about monastic vows has merit and reflects the genuine challenges that confronted Protestants. Still, I wonder when the last time a pastor taught his congregation about oaths and vows. I also wonder when the last time was that a candidate for ministry had to answer questions about oaths and vows. These questions are all the more pressing when we remember that none of the other Reformed confessions have such extensive comments on oaths and vows. Could it be that the background of the National Covenant in Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant of Parliament and the Scots had more to do with this chapter than the development of Reformed teaching?
I am just asking.