Puritans have had some bad press throughout the years. Often they have been ridiculed by Christians and seculars alike for their seemingly legalism and hypocritical attitude, but they also had some of the most interesting beliefs of the early religious groups. “They sought an intellectual, moral, and spiritual “clean-up” of institutionalized Christianity. Their standard of purity was the Bible. The most comprehensive, but concise articulation of their ideology is the Westminster Confession of Faith” (Gatis 1). They had goals to achieve. They wanted to frame their whole lifestyle on the word of God. They also wanted to assert every bit of their ideology by the Bible. Puritans were very reverent to the Bible as inspired by God. Their attitude was in complete submission, to them what the Bible said, God said (Brow 4). They believed that by adherence to this basis would remove them from the chance of heresy. The Holy Scripture was their foundation. Upon this, they built their whole theology, society, and government. Puritan ideology consisted of a staunch belief in Calvin’s Institutes, covenant relationships, and a theocracy.
Theology is extremely essential to every religion’s dogma. The Puritans happened to base a large portion of theirs on John Calvin’s teachings (much of which is in the Westminster Confession of Faith). Puritans adhered to the basic sinfulness (or depravity) of man, and the fact that some will be chosen through the righteousness of Christ despite their transgressions. No man can be sure in this life what his destiny will be (Puritanism 1). That statement summed up the basic elements of Calvin. Within the basic points there are specialized points of Calvin, which were strictly held by the Puritans. These are also reiterated in the Westminster Confession of Faith. For convenince, the quotations shall be stated from there as opposed to the lengthy and difficult Institutes.
The first point of Calvin deals with the total depravity of man, which could also be referred to as basic sinfulness of man. This is one of the easier points of Calvin to accept. In this writer’s opinion, the basic sinfulness of man is very evident throughout the Bible. The Westminster Confession states in Chapter 6 that, “from original corruption, by which man is completely averse, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and thoroughly inclined to all evil, and man does proceed all actual transgressions”. That is total and complete depravity. Not only does the Bible state that from Adam all men are sinful, but just observing the current culture and human nature throughout history explicates the absolute wickedness of the heart. The Bible also says (Jeremiah 17.6), “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”
Puritans were strong believers in unconditional election, Calvin’s next point. The Westminster Confession directly states in Chapter 10, “All of those whom God has predestined to life…He effectually calls…out of that state of sin and death…”. So God calls the predestined elect out of total depravity to become his saints. The calling is of God’s free and special grace alone (which is boundless). No amount of works can get one to heaven. Works are totally inefficacious, that is also stated in the confession. However, it goes on to say in chapter 10 that good works…done in obedience to God’s commandments, are fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith. Certainly good works are fruits, but some contend advocating works as proof of the elect would support getting to heaven by works (Packer 136). Seeing this, one must read on to the next point. This says that others are not elected…can never come to Christ. If there is unconditional election, then there are going to be some people going to hell. In other words, Christ’s atonement for sins is limited. How damaging would it be to preach only certain elected people can go to heaven? From this researcher’s viewpoint, the Bible clearly refutes limited atonement. The Bible says Christ died for all. Some want to add two words in the margin, Christ died for all (the elect). That seems to be a gross misinterpretation.
The next point is irresistible grace, which makes sense, seeing that God’s grace is greater than anything is. Calvin taught that those who God allowed into His arms (the elect) can neither entirely nor ultimately fall away from the grace of God, but shall forever persevere and go to heaven. As also found in Chapter 17, only the decreed elect would be those recipients of irresistible grace.
All of this was not what made the Puritans unique in their convictions. Many prominent theologians believe the same particulars. At the heart of their unique theology was the idea of the covenant (Keesee and Sidwell 88). As will be seen, this molded their church and their state. First of all, the word covenant refers to a commitment to Christ and to one another which is graver and more demanding than most people today would be willing to make. Often the Puritans would make reference to the fifth verse of Psalms 50. “Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” (Marshall and Manuel 183) This verse takes the saints and binds them by covenants. The covenant was a vital and critical constituent of Puritan doctrine. The Westminster Confession lays out the covenant as constructed by Puritan idealists. It declares God made two covenants with man. But man made himself incapable of the first one, which consisted of good works. So God was pleased to make a second one of God’s grace that we may be saved. Puritans gathered their covenant relationships from Jesus’ two greatest commandments (Mark 12.29-31). First man was to love the Lord with all his being, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”. This was the vertical part of the covenant. Once man discovered God’s grace he was to embrace him as Lord and Master (Marshall and Manuel 167). The vertical part of the covenant was always the most important part, it had to come first (Marshall and Manuel 168). But there was also a horizontal aspect to the covenant that was especially important on the scale of earthly relationships. In the next part of the passage Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This demands that one should love others to the utmost capabilities that he or she has. Loving others as yourself creates a love others before yourself situation (the epitome of a happy and utopian society). This part of the covenant went beyond theology, it permeated the community. Just by the meaning of the word one can gather that it produced a group sense of right and wrong (Gatis 4). This produced a society that connected God with people and people with people. This covenant could not be broken; it was a promise, a bargain, and an obligation to fulfill (Gatis 4). They believed that God entered into covenants with nations to form the kingdom of God on earth, which would be a universal theocracy (Leithart 2).
“Yes, they actually believed…that the kingdom of God really could be built on earth, in their lifetime. But they knew they were sinners. They were dedicated to their covenant to produce a society that lived in obedience to God’s laws” (Marshall and Manuel 145). Puritans wanted a universal command with God at the head. They wanted every individual, family, church, court, executive, and legislature to surrender to the Bible (Gatis 1). Not only did the Puritans think that God commanded them to establish a universal theocracy, they also thought such a society was prophesied in the Bible for them to attain (Gatis 2). In order to accomplish this goal (however impossible it was), the Puritans accepted clear steps to ascend the spiritual ladder to national godliness (Gatis 6). Laying idealism aside, this is totally impossible. The Puritan society eventually became corrupted because they did not understand an important point, total depravity. That is a bit surprising. They did not understand Zion could not be patterned on earth.
In closing, the Puritans had a noble purpose in mind. Although they never accomplished their purpose, (in fact they fell severely short) and they are often scorned for that; one must have respect for them and their beliefs. Trying for admirable (however impossible) purposes is not a passion the modern Christian has. As said before, it takes great commitment to love God and others as they did (or strived to do). And today, one would not think anyone would have enough conviction to take steps towards establishing the kingdom of God on earth. The challenge of cleaning up the spiritual state of a country is a task that calls for a superior group of people.
Holy Bible (NKJV). Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville, 1980.
Puritanism. 30 September. 1999.
Westminster Confession of Faith, AD 164. 3 October 1999. Grace Presbyterian Church of Redding, California.
Brow, Martin. In Defense of the Puritans. Fire and Ice. 3 October 1999
Gatis, George Joseph. Puritan Jurisprudence: A Study in Substantive Biblical Law. Contra Mundum. 3 October 1999
Keesee, Timothy and Mark Sidwell. United States History for Christian Schools. Bob Jones University Press: Greenville, South Carolina, 1993.
Leithart, Peter J. Puritan Coventalism. Contra Mundum. 3 October 1999
Marshall, Peter and David Manuel. The Light and the Glory. Fleming H. Revell Company: Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1977.
Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness: the Puritan vision of the Christian Life. Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois, 1990.