Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Neglect of the Puritans

In the past 30-40 years, we have seen a substantial increase of interest in the Puritans in both popular and academic settings. The writings of these divines are more accessible than ever. Consequently, an entire Puritan industry - for good and ill - has emerged. Numerous books, monographs, dissertations, journal articles, study centers, research projects, conferences, magazines, websites, and blogs (!) are devoting considerable attention to various aspects of Puritanism. Indeed, this is a great time to be a student of the post-Reformation.

However, even with this burgeoning interest, the study of the Puritans as an academic discipline is still somewhat underdeveloped. Compared to research on their Reformation forebears on the one hand and on the subsequent intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment on the other, scholarship on the Puritans is scant.

What factors have contributed to the comparative neglect of the Puritans? After more than 300 years after the end of Puritanism (ca. 1688), why has research only begun to materialize?Obviously, no definite answers can be given, only suggestions can be supplied. The following are at least six possible reasons why the study of Puritanism is relatively uncultivated. Some of these points carry more weight than others. Please feel free to comment and add your insights. I'd love to open this up for discussion.

1. Historically: The fall of the Puritans

By the end of the seventeenth century, the Puritans, especially the Nonconformist variety, were in a state of fragmentation and disintegration. The re-establishment of the Stuart monarchy with the enthronement of Charles II in 1660 dealt a deathblow to Nonconformity of all types, for their desire for national and ecclesiastical reform was nevrealizedsed. As a result, their efforts were shifted towards toleration. Nevertheless, the political and religious influence of Puritanism was quickly fading.

Even with the Act of Toleration in 1689, the dissenting movement was never the same. Puritanism, as a whole, was a lost cause. As a consequence, many Puritan leaders faced the fate of many who never claimed the victor's prize - marginalization. Since the seventeenth century, sympathizers of the theological tradition of the dissenters have maintained a level of interest in the Puritans; however, the scholarly world has paid them little respect.

2. Academically: The dominance of Anglican scholarship

As a corollary to the preceding point, Carl Trueman makes the observation that the discipline of theological studies within English universities was monopolized, until recently, by an established church with little interest in the Reformed tradition (Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 2).

3. Intellectually: The rise of the Enlightenment

In the closing years of the seventeenth century, the confessional infrastructure erected in the wake of the Reformation by the Puritans and Reformed orthodox was slowly deteriorating as the dawn of the Enlightenment was emerging with greater cultural strength and sway. The orthodox and scholastic convictions which undergirded the thinking of the Puritans gave way to a host of modern philosophies (e.g. Cambridge Platonism, British Empiricism, Continental Rationalism, etc.) that rendered the pre-modern world of the Puritans obsolete.

One of the clearest examples of this is in the area of so called 'pre-critical' exegesis. With the Enlightenment came not only a shift in theological, philosophical, and scientific inquiry but also in biblical criticism. Today, current discussions of hermeneutics (whether theological, philosophical, philological, or historical) see the pre-critical, pre-modern, pre-scientific exegesis of the seventeenth century as passé. For example, the belief held by many of the Protestant orthodox concerning the inspiration of the vowel points in the Hebrew text is sometimes seen as primitive and unsophisticated. With the development of modern textual criticism, pre-modern exegesis has become a thing of the past for the past.

4. Historiographically: The need for revision

Here we can make at least two observations. The first concerns the non-theological dimension of Puritan studies in the last half of the twentieth century. Once again, Carl Trueman is helpful. Many of the earliest studies on the Puritans came not from theology departments but from the disciplines of history and literature (e.g. P. Miller, C. Hill, P. Collinson, etc). The emphases of these works tend not to be theological but social, political, historical, and even psychological (Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 2-3).

Secondly, and evenly more importantly, a significant body of scholarship on the Puritans has surfaced out of the infamous Calvin/Calvinist debate - as though Calvin was the only historical and theological point of contact! There has been much debate and discussion in recent years pertaining to the alleged dichotomy between the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, not least of which a surge of scholarship which has shown with great clarity, documentation, and polemic more continuity than discontinuity between these two periods (e.g. Muller, Trueman, Clark, Beeke, etc). As a result, research on the seventeenth century has tended towards reassessment and revision. It is incumbent upon us to positively and constructively build upon their historiographical corrections in an attempt to move Puritan studies forward.

5. Ecclesiastically: The use of Puritans in evangelical polemics

The Puritans have sometimes been employed by evangelicals in the last quarter of the twentieth century in debates over the nature and authority of Scripture - as well as other doctrines. This is not to imply that historical figures should not have a voice in contemporary ecclesial and doctrinal discussioemphasize emphasise that the distinct circumstances of the past can be clouded by the demands of the present. Personally, I am an evangelical and have profited by those who utilize the Puritan to make theological points; however, the criterion for assessing the historical and theological value of the Puritans cannot first be their ability to bolster the theological agendas of the day. We must first strive to understand the Puritans on their own terms in the context of their own debates, then we can discuss the merits and demerits of the Puritans for today.

6. Idiosyncratically: The language of the Puritans

The sometimes dense and even awkward prose of some of the Puritans can deter the most ambitious reader. Likewise, in a day of sound bites, grunts, and overall repulsion to reasoned discourse, the carefully constructed writings of the Puritansunfortunatelyrtunatelly - a turn off.

These are only a few possible reasons for the neglect of the Puritans. I've already written too much. I've not mentioned things such as the influence of 19th century literature and history texts in fuelling a certain stereotype of the Puritans, the alleged overly introspective/subjective quality of the Puritans, etc.

Now, let's hear from you.

1 comment:

David Shedden said...

Taking your points about historical revision and the evangelical interest in Puritan thought together, don't you think that further research on Puritanism will come full circle and demonstrate that the continuity between Reformation and Post-Reformation is actually seen in the complexity and diversity of Puritan thought? I know some of Crawford Gribben's work, and I think he has demonstrated that evangelical scholarship has failed to do justice to the subtlties of Puritan theology. As you know, recent work has shown that the Westminster Assembly had furious debates over the same issues that are vexing evangelicals today.

Thanks for this great website - keep up the fascinating input. Perhaps, in a similar way to 19thC evangelicalism, and current charismatic stuff, the only unifying theme in Puritan thought is Puritan spirituality? What are The Conventicle's thoughts on the problem of defining Puritanism?


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