A Brief Investigation of Puritan Theology (Zac Bodine)
Within Puritan theology, worshipers tried to define what it means to be truly and fully human, which required a relationship with the Divine outside of the hierarchical, sacramental, sacerdotal, system of cooperative salvation grounded in canon law, known as the Catholic church. This search produced many great theological works and subsequent movements but not without growing pains and the ugliness of violence from the overflow of internal squabbles all on public display. To understand the Puritan disposition and the ideology of their day – and consequently the ideology of early American life – one must examine their works without eisegesis, allowing the work to speak for itself.
The way to best understand the Puritans is to encounter their expressions of devotion found within their poetry and theology. The Puritans's theology is filtered through the Reformed or Reformation theology, in particular Calvin’s Tulip – known as the five points of Calvinism. “The five points represented by the word [tulip] are: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the Saints” (Grudem, 597).
These theological points can be summarized to mean that man’s nature is bent on destruction and selfishness which needs to be redeemed or redefined to become one who loves both the Divine and humanity and is utterly selfless. God looks upon the evil of the world and chooses men and women who will rise up and bring redemption to it by the sharing of the liberation God has brought to humanity from evil. The people God has recruited are in a sense drafted and therefore cannot ignore God’s demands to be involved in the fight against evil. God will ultimately provide help and hope to allow those he called to join the fight to stay true to the message, endure and truly believe.
“For Reformed theology the fundamental issue is, where does the initiative lie in the divine-human encounter? And the answer given to this question… is that God alone is the initiating party. Those who have been chosen, called, saved, and commissioned then have the privilege and responsibility of responding to this divine initiative in faithfulness and praise” (Maas and O’Donnell, 206-207).
The outward expression of this theology can be found especially in “the writings of…theologians [like] William Perkins, William Ames, and John Owen…particularly in…their teaching on the extent of the death of Christ, the divine sovereignty in providence and election…[and]…reached its zenith in the ministry and writings of Richard Baxter.” (McGrath, 79). Among these theologians and pastors are Puritan poets like Anne Bradstreet who best synthesized these complex and often confusing ideas into simple verse. “My hungry Soul he fill’d with Good; / He in his Bottle put my tears, / My smarting wounds washt in his blood, /And banisht thence my Doubts and fears” (Bradstreet).
This one stanza exemplified the Puritan ethic and understanding of the Divine which emphasized that it is the individual’s responsibility to know God and to respond to him. The church was then not the ends to which salvation was found, nurtured, and sustained, but a means to which the congregants were able to grow and experience God alone, but with others. This notion radically changed how men and women experienced the Divine, engaged with others within the faith, and practiced their beliefs within the social and political spheres outside of their denominational lines.
As the Puritan poet Edward Taylor would express, “My heart was made thy tinder box. / My ’ffections were thy tinder in’t: /Where fell thy sparks by drops. / Those holy sparks of heavenly fire that came / Did ever catch and often out would flame” (Taylor). The individual believer is the keeper of the Holy flame, not a building, not an institution. God is the only one who can light the fire of passion within the individual. The individual’s responsibility is to maintain the relationship.
This rugged individualism birthed by Reformation theology, nurtured by the Puritan movement, and then eventually expanded by the Pietist movement made its way across the waters of Europe to the land in which we live today, the United States of America. “Puritanism may be described empirically as that point of view, that code of values, carried to New England by the first settlers… the New Englanders established Puritanism – for better or worse – as one of the continuous factors in American life and thought.” (Miller, 1). The better we understand the Puritan’s point of view, by the examination of their poetry and comprehend this code of values by their theology, the better we understand the oddities, complexities, and virtues of a culture far removed, but influential, to our current ways of living.
Bradstreet, Anne. “By Night When Others Soundly Slept by Anne Bradstreet.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43698/by-night- when-others-soundly-slept.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Zondervan Pub. House, 2000.
Maas, Robin, and Gabriel O'Donnell. Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church. Abingdon, 1997.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Blackwell, 2000.
Miller, Perry, editor. The American Puritans, Their Prose and Poetry. Anchor Books: Doubleday & Co, Inc, 1956.
Taylor, Edward. “The Ebb and Flow by Edward Taylor.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry