Reflections on re-reading R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Part 2 – John Preston and the Search for Assurance.

Kendall says:

In Preston’s thought federal theology has made full circle, now becoming in effect a covenant of works… The upshot is that we must concentrate on our attitude towards the Law rather than our receiving the righteousness of Christ . Preston urges that we must ‘labour’ to ‘grow to assurance of the forgiveness of our sinnes’. This assurance is in the end derived entirely from the reflective knowledge of our ‘sincerity’ to keep the Law.

The reality is not quite so straightforward, nor so helpful for Kendall’s argument. Whilst Preston can be considered an experimental predestinarian, and whilst there are passages in his writings that speak of the marks of sanctification testifying to the believer’s regeneration, there is another side to his thought that Kendall overlooks.

For example, having discussed the testimony of sanctification, he notes that many fail to persevere in the ways of godliness because they lack faith, ‘this maine grace, this root and foundation of all the rest’. Their good intentions come to nothing because they lack that ground. He continues (The Breast-plate of Faith and Love, 5th ed., 1637, I.183f),

Therefore labour to beleeve the promises, to be assured of salvation, that you are translated from death to life by an effectual faith: when this is done, you shall find that your purposes will hold, and till then they are in vaine.

And so againe, this should teach us, seeing all depends upon faith, when wee come to search, to consider what assurance wee have, that so wee may goe the right way to worke. For commonly, when we consider our estates, we look what fruits we have, what sincerity hath appeared in our life, and if wee finde that weake, we commonly conclude that our faith is weake also; and so the weaknesse of our sanctification weakeneth our assurance; but we should goe another way to worke: When we finde a weaknesse, we should goe to the promises, and strengthen our assurance: for there be two wayes to encrease assurance.

One is by the promises, the sure word on which faith is built.

The second is by the fruits of sanctification in our selves.

In a nutshell: ‘so assurance grounded upon the promise, it enableth, and inlargeth, and encreaseth sanctification, and sanctification encreaseth assurance’. Faith is the ground of all.

Calvinism under a Cloud?

September 18, 2008

I have spent a cheery day reading John Stachniewski’s The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair. This paints Calvin’s theology in dark colours, arguing that his doctrines of election, reprobation, and temporary faith did untold damage to the psyches those that sat under the preaching of Reformed ministers in seventeenth-century England. The puritan self in particular was driven inward in search of signs and marks. This introspection would all too often lead to religious despair and contemporaries recognized that suicide had become a problem in society.

Interesting read. My instinct would be to suspect that those who left spiritual journals, a major source for such a study, would be the sort who would be more inclined to introspection in the first place. Stachniewski anticipates this objection and claims he will build a case to the contrary, so I will have to keep reading. This book is very negative about Reformed theology and describes the typical puritan pastoral approach as ‘morally disgusting’. Anyone else read it? I imagine Chris Ross has. Care to comment?

In the meantime, here is a darkly comic moment as Henry Jessey recalls a meeting between two young women:

‘Mris Sarah saw one walk about and about in a sad habit, and went to her, and asked how shee did, shee answered; In as sad a condition as ever was any. Mris Sarah, None is in a Condition like to mine. So they sate together; and after that, they went together, and spake further of their sad conditions: each counting their own state the worse’.

I call this a case of ‘My cat’s twice as black’. Stachniewski describes it as an ‘edifying contest in ultimate one-downmanship’.

Puritan Pith (2)

September 16, 2008

A little gem on the fruit of assurance from Thomas Brooks. Assurance makes the believer ‘more motion than notion, more work than word, more life than lip, more hand than tongue’. Sweet.