Did the Puritans dis the Cross?

January 17, 2008

I have just finished reading The Rise of Puritanism by William Haller. The book shows its age (publ. 1938 ) and the weaknesses of Haller’s method and controlling paradigm have been exposed by more recent studies. Despite these weaknesses I did find some interesting titbits and found my thinking stimulated.

One thing that didn’t ring true is an idea which is found in a few passages. Haller writes:

The spiritual attitude which the preachers endeavored to inculcate was one of active struggle on the part of the individual against his own weakness. The supreme image which, for that purpose, they sought to impress upon the minds of the people was that of the soldier enlisted under the banners of Christ. They could not and did not seek to eliminate all vestige of the doctrine of the atonement, but they made the atonement signify the appointment of the elect soul to join with Christ in the war against the eternal enemy…The Puritan saga did not cherish the memory of Christ in the manger or on the cross, that is, of the lamb of God sacrificed in vicarious atonement for the sins of man. The mystic birth was the birth of the new man in men. The mystic passion was the crucifixion of the new man by the old, and the true propitiation was the sacrifice of the old to the new.

Strong words. Surely he can’t be justifying this from the Puritan rejection of the liturgical calendar in their focus on the Lord’s Day. There is certainly a move towards interiorising biblical narrative in later Puritanism, especially as cognitive dissonance kicked in when hopes were dashed (see, for example, Crawford Gribben’s The Puritan Millenium) but at this point Haller is speaking of the pre-revolutionary spiritual brotherhood. I think he rightly notices a tendency in Puritan preaching to major on the ordo salutis rather than the historia salutis (though I suspect that would be true of most evangelical preaching), but the ordo relies on the historia. From reading Ussher, I can sense his wonder as he lingers and rhapsodises on the mysteries of the incarnation and the atonement. And yet Haller describes these as ‘those episodes of the Biblical story which the Puritans found least congenial and expressive’. 

Bonkers? Let’s open this one up for discussion. Did the Puritans dis the cross?

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4 Responses to “Did the Puritans dis the Cross?”

  1. Chris Says:

    I think not.

    Oh, was I supposed to defend my view?

    One could give countless examples. I can think of two off the top of my head. Richard Rogers, whom I’m studying, began his spiritual guidebook, Seven Treatises (1603), discussing the primacy of faith for the Christian life – faith in the finished work of Christ, on the Cross. He surely discussed the importance of the Christian’s behavior and life, but he spent several pages starting with faith.

    The other example is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian begins with a burden on his back, which is only removed by faith in Christ and his work. The narrative begins with that problem and solution, even if the rest is preoccupied with his wayfaring and warfaring.

    I see the Puritans as the SAS of the English Protestant movement. Pace Haller, I think they determinedly celebrated and centralized the Cross, and its effects, over against works-righteousness, which they associated with Roman Catholicism.

  2. RS Says:

    ‘Wayfaring and warfaring’ – sounds like you have read Haller too. I agree with you about the cognitive content of the Puritan faith. I suppose my question would be to what extent, if any, an over-emphasis on and psychologizing of the process of conversion, etc. could eclipse those critical events of salvation history. Some might argue that Pilgrim’s Progress is a case in point!

  3. Chris Says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Richard. I kinda thought that very thing as I was writing.

    I think it can become a matter of splitting hairs. If you would have pinned any puritan to the ground and asked them what historical event was most significant in regards to their salvation, 9 of 10 would, I think, have pointed to Calvary.

    In a sense, it just matters what you focus on in reading the puritans. To the puritans, I think the Cross was the backdrop to their spiritual existence, to an extent that, in a way, they didn’t need to dwell on it and fixate on it. I think it’s true that they were more concerned with its implications for their daily lives, their daily walk, than the event itself. If that’s what Haller is getting at, I agree. But that’s not the same thing as de-emphasizing the Cross.

    They lived a generation or two after the Reformation itself, and this sort-of represents their relationship to that doctrine (justification) which was most central to Luther et al. They believed it and embraced it, and were now preoccupied with the question of, “How should we then live”?

    I know that Loyola and his religious offspring, the Jesuits, as well as other Catholics in the early modern period, placed great attention on the events surrounding the Passion. The puritans may have felt some aversion to preoccupation with the details of the Passion narratives themselves for this very reason. But to repeat myself, I don’t think that’s the same as downplaying the Cross — if that’s even what Haller is saying.

    Thanks for letting me think out loud!

  4. RS Says:

    Thanks for that Chris,

    I take your point on the givenness of the cross in Puritan thought. Quite agree.

    I think Haller does have a point, however, but goes way too far. The ordo vs. historia question has some mileage in it, and I have yet to read something really helpful on this vis-a-vis the Puritans.

    I suppose I am trying to work out where Ussher fits in. You will remember the excellent paper that Peter McCullough gave on Lancelot Andrewes and the Passion at the Reception of the Continental Reformation Conference. He kindly e-mailed me a copy of this (as you will remember there was a lot to take in) and I hear echoes of this approach in Ussher (see my previous posts on Ussher and the cross). Perhaps this is one area where Ussher isn’t quite the Puritan that some would like to paint him as. More eclectic in approach and a willingness to go for mental imagery.

    Thanks for your thoughts. It was always my hope that this blog would generate a bit of discussion but not much luck there – Hello people! You can leave comments!

    Cheers,

    Richard


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