Sunday, January 15, 2017

Puritans: Right and Wrong

I saw a snippet of a John Piper sermon, and I sat there with a kind of thorough disgust, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The point of the sermon was to blast the Prosperity Gospel and to highlight the kind of faith that only desires God, despite all horrible tragedies. I started writing out some of my ideas, and I realized I was rehashing a diatribe that I had, reading over it, severe second thoughts about. This post is to explain what's wrong with all of this.

My first reaction was a kind of eyes rolling: targeting the Prosperity Gospel is easy and usually doesn't get to real issues. Yes, Americans chasing BMWs and McMansions is sinful and yet the Prosperity Gospel provides a dual means to justify this and call greed a form of virtuous prayer. But, there are plenty of people across the globe who don't have the same material access, and I struggle to hand-waive their attraction to false doctrine. But that's not my real problem, it was in how I heard Piper and how I wanted to respond.

Piper said that he'd want to see the faith of someone who crashed their car in an accident, their daughter die, and be able to look up and say "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, Blessed be the Lord". My gut turned inside of me. I felt a sense of outrage and vengeful anger. And yet, given such a set of circumstances, which is more common than perhaps I want to admit, what is a person supposed to do? Piper set up this macabre scene for pastoral reasons. People die in car accidents, and there are survivors. What do they do? According to Piper, the Prosperity Gospel teaches that they are doubly damned: they lost and God, if He was not blessing, had turned His back. It was a dual alienation, a failure to follow God and now a heartbreaking loss. In Piper's vision, even if the worst were to happen, it was all in God's hands anyway, and He hasn't abandoned you.

This is what Piper was trying to say, and yet I felt acid in my blood. I was angry and enraged. Why? I knew a girl once who turned towards a kind of atheism, in part, because, in the wake of a sudden and tragic death, she'd rather believe in impersonal chaos than anything Divine that had intended any of it. I'm not going to discuss the merits of her claim, but merely the fact that my feelings revealed I was in the same boat. Given the car crash, in my mood, what would've I said? I would've veered towards confusion and a gesture that things just happen. In the moment of crisis, what good is a hang-wringing Christianity like that? I believe in God until reality intrudes, and in comes despair, platitudes, and moving on? Was that the sum total of my faith? May God keep me from it!

I believe my emotional reaction was residual effects of my own secular Stoic philosophy in my teens and my time immersed among a liberal higher education environment that substitutes intellectual vitality, revolution, and the flames of challenge and expansion for the saccharine feeling of tolerance, self-seeking, and high pitch whine, barely discernible, of trying to fix the world. But it still highlighted a problem with Piper, even as he offered some good and hearty truths along with it.

Piper's reasoning fits within the broader schema of bare-bones Calvinism, but is bizarre when compared with richer forms of Calvinism. Over the years, I've had conflicting thoughts and evaluations of the Puritans. But, with my eyes open, I see the Puritans understood what it means to live in a world directed by God. Only the rich and powerful could afford to be Arminians and live lives of action and doing. For the commoner, they were at the mercy of prelacy and possibility. The Puritans pushed a fiery insistence upon God's true presence in the World, setting the courses of things. Despite stupid, ahistorical, apologists, Puritans were not lazy or anomians. They were severely active in trying to alter the course of English society. The example of the Puritans can be expanded to other groups of Calvinists on the Continent who, even as a minority, exercised immense influence through perseverance.

I bring this up, not to justify the actions of the Puritans or to collapse a theological postulate into a social phenomenon. Instead, the Puritans brought a biblical truth to bear in such a way that empowered Christians to walk in the Spirit as the holy apostle Paul commends us to. The Puritans were, relatively and depending on what, a force for unleashing the power of the Gospel.

But the Puritans, and Calvinists more generally, seem to have little place for spiritual warfare. Unlike the form of clericalism and prelacy that dominated monastics in Latin Europe, Eastern Christian monastics were individual or collective peoples who were empowered to act and to do, but were well aware they were in a war-zone. They not only fought against the darkness, but knew their lives and the lives of all things were in the hands of the Living God. This offered a different sense of the Christian life, not professionalized, though always under siege of becoming so. The Puritans had a demonology that did not properly understand the Christian way of combating the Devil.

The problem with the Puritans was that they most had ejected this from their spirituality. They mained a demonology that could accuse Indian nations of being minions of Satan, and thus justify slaughter and destruction, along with the burning of witches. This was a demonology of a world at war, but they failed to properly grasp the nature of the demonic. In this way, they failed to see the mature light of the Gospel and fought with carnal weapons. They were Judaizers of the demonic.

John Piper presented us with a world where it is merely a matter of God willing that so-and-so crashes his car and gets his daughter killed. At least the Puritans had the good enough sense to see that Piper was merely Job's friend, peddling bad advice. At least the Puritans would know enough to rebuke John Piper for being a blind, bourgeois justifier of the status-quo. And even though he claims Calvinism, he is a terrible Calvinist, in any rich or biblically deep sense of the word. He is just one of those soft-handed Evangelicals that emerged out of Puritanism.

The real problem is not an issue of God's sovereignty, but how we have to see this all as a battle for our souls, a war waged against the devil and his demons. If we forsake this, we not only affirm the status-quo, becoming arch-conservatives, but we might slide into equating God with the devil. The insistence of many a Calvinist that God was with him, however lowly he was, is something every Christian should learn, and never be tempted to seeing things as "random" or sadly chaotic. This doesn't allow us to stand our ground for the truth. But neither ought we to forget that this world is a battle, not just against the flesh or the world, but also the devil, who reigns and threatens with the fear of death. Even if the Puritans were wrong, they knew something that a two-dimensional Calvinist like Piper will forget when he screams about pious feelings and untimely deaths.


  1. Piper's one of those neo-Calvinists I've always found exasperating. There's too much Job's comforters theodicy in what he opts to say in the wake of natural disasters and disease.

    the puritans had little place for spiritual warfare? I ... wonder about that. William Gurnall's treatise on spiritual warfare is 1,500 some pages (I own it). While I doubt Mark Driscoll's rambles on spiritual warfare reflected what Puritans actually wrote his bibliography on Puritan tracts on spiritual warfare ... basically ... checks out (though it may, for all we don't know, have been assembled by research assistants). Gurnall's just the most long-winded example of a Puritan writing about spiritual warfare. The trainwreck of the witch trials might suggest that Puritan obsessions with spiritual warfare issues might be one of the only things people "remember" about them in popular imagination. Susan R Garrett (sic) has written a couple of books on how one of the conundrums of contemporary Western scholarship is that biblical scholars try to pretend that diabology and exorcism were not central elements of Jesus' ministry recounted in the Synoptic traditions. There are a handful of books out there on prophecy as coded political speech that have been fun reads but some of the trouble with our understanding of what earlier Christian and religious groups believed about spiritual warfare is stymied by a contemporary secular academia that finds it a bit embarrassing to admit this is a topic worth historical study.

    My own reading and experience has been that there's some great stuff in the English Puritans, particularly the ones who never got a chance to exercise formal political power, but that I've got much less use for the American Puritans (although Roger Williams' stand against state-sponsored persecution seems admirable to me, and he's the kind of Puritan you're never going to see promoted at!). But the Puritans may be most emblematic of both the best and worst of Anglo-American Christian thought in the last five centuries.

  2. It's true I didn't touch on the witch-hunting, the Puritan crackdown on folk-magik, and the New England Puritan construal of Indians (some of them, some of the time) as minions of Satan and demon-influenced. And maybe I need to define spiritual warfare more concretely. I do not mean to say that questions of Satan and the demonic were not apart of the Middle Ages, Reformation, or the Early Modern period!

    But it's a question of diabology, not whither diabology. The Puritans, especially New England ones, emphasized a demonology that was materialized, following the Old Testament, and not the Apostolic gloss and re-emphasis of it. Thus, Indians could be demons incarnate and witch-craft was punishable by death. And of course, I'm not denying physical manifestations of the demonic nor conscious practice of dark arts. But they lacked a full sense of seeing the demonic in lusts and desires, in social structures, as supervening entities that sat behind Pilate and Caiaphas. They had optimism they could rebuild the world in the image of God, misunderstanding the pessimism of Apostolic language of the god of this age.

    The point was that the Puritans, and perhaps serious Calvinistic theology over-all, generally provided a revived sense of the vocation of all Christians in the world. The solitary life could upset the world, the power of God working to make demons tremble. The Priesthood was expunged of priestcraft, and ordained leadership was saved from prelacy. There was a sense that the world was shattered but God called men and women to bear witness otherwise, even the lowest on the totem pole could stand in God's glory and truth.

    Puritans talked about mortifying sin, and this is something that is often too neglected. But they possessed too strong a sense of accommodation with the pillars of this age. They tried to recreate Israel, without understanding the pedagogical nature of the Law of Moses. They missed the point. They didn't understand that Paul could advocate a constant sense of holy war, without ever advocating Christians take up the sword or burn down temples. They had zeal without full discernment. Thus they'd kill Pequots as Canaanites and burn witches in accordance with Torah (and English custom). In this, they were Judaizers.


  3. I re-read what I wrote, and realized that in the heat of writing this when half-asleep, I jumbled up a lot of things. I edited it to make my point much clearer, I hope.