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The Puritan Theological Method

John V. Fesko

Introduction

Within the Presbyterian community the Puritans receive a great deal of admiration, praise, and respect for their spirituality, devotion, and theological acumen. Publishing houses such as Banner of Truth and Soli Deo Gloria are a testimony to their enduring value. A number of Puritan theologians of greater and lesser recognition have been resurrected from historical obscurity through the republication of many of their works. Who has not seen the works of John Owen (1616-83), Richard Baxter (1615-91), Thomas Goodwin (1600-79), or John Flavel (1628-91) adorning ministers' shelves? They are often read with great admiration for their theological depth, precision, and pastoral care. However, it seems that many who read them fail to appreciate a dimension of their theology—namely their theological methodology. In other words, when a person is asked what time it is, he will give the time of day. However, ask this same question in a watchmaker's shop, and one might receive a different answer. As one is surrounded by various timekeeping pieces ticking away, some silently, some rather noisily, others ornate and garish, and still yet others austere and utilitarian, the watchmaker might offer explanations as to how a particular watch functions and how it was made. Too often, readers of Puritan works are merely interested in asking them what time it is, when the Puritans are like a watchmaker sitting in his shop surrounded by hundreds of watches. In other words, we merely read the Puritans looking to see how we can be moved by a particular passage or to search for some sort of insight. How often do we read the Puritans and take note of how they have come to their conclusions, and in particular, what sources they have employed?

To illustrate this point, we can examine several key quotations from the Puritans to look beyond the answers they give to the underlying sources, and in this way peer into a small cross-section of the Puritan theological scholarship. Hopefully, we can be inspired and educated in our own theological studies and devotional life. To illustrate the Puritan theological method, we will examine three Westminster divines, Jeremiah Whitaker (1599-1654), William Twisse (1578-1646), and George Gillespie (1613-48). With Whitaker, we will look at a fragmentary statement from the debates during the composition of the chapter on baptism in the Westminster Confession. With Twisse, we will analyze one small section from his theological work, The Riches of God's Love. And, in Gillespie, we will explore a theological defense of the hermeneutical principle of a good and necessary consequence. Why use these three theologians? There are two chief reasons. First, they are part of the radix of the formation of Presbyterianism, as they all participated in the creation of the Westminster Standards. Second, Whitaker and Gillespie were known as preachers, and Twisse an academic scholar, but one will nevertheless find the same methodology in all three.[1] This means that the Puritan theological method was not restricted to the more scholarly types but was also used by ordinary pastors. Let us therefore delve into the Puritan mind and catch a glimpse of their theological method.

Jeremiah Whitaker

We turn first to Jeremiah Whitaker and the debates surrounding the composition of the statements on baptism for the Westminster Confession. As interesting as the debates must have been (though like any assembly of Presbyterians there were undoubtedly boring moments as well), they are important for our purposes because they allow us to see the Puritan mind at work. It is one thing for a theologian to write when he has his library surrounding him and when he has hours to search for information, skim various volumes, and write the perfect sentence. In the midst of debate, however, one is forced to recall information from memory. In one sense, what one is able to muster in the heat of debate is often an indicator of what one's mind has soaked up in his reading. This certainly seems to be the case in a fragmentary statement from Whitaker on baptism. Whitaker states: "That it does confer grace I do not find, but our divines do hold it... . When they oppose the Papists, they say it is more than a sign and seal... . Chamier says the grace that is signified is exhibited, so it is in the French Confession; it does efficaciter donare... . I conceive that it does not confer it ex opere operato."[2] Now, it should be noted that the ellipses are part of the original minutes—they are gaps in the record, not editorial elisions.[3] However, there are several things to note in this incomplete statement.

First, notice that Whitaker makes appeal to French Reformed theologian Daniel Chamier (1565-1621), who was trained under Theodore Beza (1519-1605) at Geneva.[4] Second, he also appeals to the French Confession (1559), specifically: "We believe, as has been said, that in the Lord's Supper, as well as in baptism, God gives us really and in fact that which he there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us" (§ 37).[5] Third, further in Whitaker's statement, he says: "From the union of the sign and the thing signified which is in the analogy, ... and in conjuncta exhibitione as Ursin[us] ... when we lawfully receive it."[6] Here Whitaker appeals to Zacharias Ursinus's (1534-83) commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus writes:

The names and properties of the things signified are attributed to the signs; and, on the other hand, the names of the signs are attributed to the things signified, on account of their analogy, or on account of the signification of the things through the signs, and on account of the joint exhibition and reception of the things with the signs in their lawful use.[7]

Though the information is sparse, from this small window we can peer into Whitaker's mind and take note of the theological method. One can see that Whitaker was very well read. He references Chamier, the French Confession, and Ursinus's commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. In other words, though Whitaker was an English theologian, he was familiar with Continental Reformed theology. We can find the same pattern in Twisse, though in Twisse we find a broader theological knowledge that extends far beyond the Reformed world.

William Twisse

William Twisse was the moderator of the Westminster Assembly until his death, but beyond his churchmanship, he was known as a learned theologian. One can find an example of his learnedness in a statement he makes in his theological work where he traces the origins of absolute predestination. Twisse was compelled to trace the history of absolute reprobation because there were critics who believed that the doctrine was of recent origin, specifically that it had come from the pen of Beza, John Calvin's (1509-64) successor at Geneva. Twisse writes:

Now judge I pray with how little judgment, or modesty this author intimates Beza to be the author of the doctrine of absolute reprobation. Perhaps he will say his meaning is, that he was the author of the upper-way, as touching the making of the object of Predestination, mankind not yet created. But to this I answer, that Beza does so indeed, but he was never called to a conference hereabouts, and consequently he never declined it. And that which was declined, he makes to be declined by the abettors, as well as the authors; which cannot be understood of this nice and logical point, as touching the object of reprobation. The main question is, whether there be any cause of reprobation, as touching the act of God reprobating: the negative whereof, was maintained very generally amongst the school-divines before Beza was born.[8]

In other words, Twisse argues that the doctrine of absolute reprobation did not find its origin in Beza. Rather, Twisse believed it had roots in medieval theology.

In defense of his doctrine of predestination, Twisse argues that his explanation of "this doctrine is not only approved by Dr. Whitaker, Doctor of the Chair in the University of Cambridge ... but [it is] justified and confirmed by a variety of testimonies both of schoolmen, as Lombard, Aquinas, Bannes, Peter of Alliaco, Gregory of Rimini ... Bucer at Cambridge, by Peter Martyr at Oxford."[9] What is of great interest here is the host of names he cites. Twisse begins with William Whitaker (1548-95), an influential English Reformed theologian. Twisse also references Peter Lombard (1100-60), author of the chief theological work of the Middle Ages before it was replaced by Thomas Aquinas's (1225-74) Summa Theologia as the standard text for theological instruction. Twisse also mentions Peter of Alliaco (d. 1425), a fifteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian, and Gregory of Rimini (c. 1300-58), a fourteenth-century Augustinian. It should also be noted that Twisse edited De Causa Dei, a work by another fourteenth-century Augustinian, Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349).[10] Lastly, he also invokes the names of two predecessors, Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562).

Again, setting aside theological issues, however interesting they might be, we see that Twisse was very well read. Not only was he knowledgeable about the theology of his Reformed predecessors, such as William Whitaker, Bucer, and Vermigli, but also he was very knowledgeable of medieval theology. Moreover, his knowledge was not merely of one or two key figures, but rather he was familiar with a number of theologians spanning several centuries both within and without the Reformed tradition. We turn to the last of our figures, George Gillespie, in whom we find the same pattern.

George Gillespie

When we turn to the work of Gillespie, we can briefly explore his defense of the hermeneutical principle, the good and necessary consequence. In his work Treatise of Miscellany Questions, Gillespie defends and explains the following proposition: "That necessary consequences from the written word of God do sufficiently and strongly prove the consequent or conclusion, if theoretical, to be a certain divine truth which ought to be believed, and, if practical, to be a necessary duty which we are obliged unto, jure divino."[11] It is interesting to note the variegated streams of theological thought that flowed into the theology of the divines. Gillespie points to a diverse body of authorities in his explanation: John Cameron (1579-1625), professor of theology at the Academy of Saumur in France, Aquinas, John Gerhard (1582-1637), the well known Lutheran theologian, as well as Rabbinic literature, including the Talmud.[12] Once again we see that Gillespie had a knowledge that went far beyond the bounds of the Reformed tradition.

Observations Concerning their Methodology

With this brief survey of these three Westminster divines, we can draw some observations. First, we should note that the divines were in no way parochial. They did not have a narrow knowledge of one particular thread of Reformed theology or even theology in general. Second, their theological reading evidences an important historical point, namely that Reformed theology did not begin de novo with the posting of Luther's Ninety-five Theses, theologians having only their Bibles. Rather, there is an organic connection between the Reformation and the Middle Ages. Hence many Westminster divines were well read in medieval theology. Third, the divines were willing to explore the writings of non-Reformed theologians, such as John Gerhard, or even the writings of unbelievers, as with Gillespie's appeal to the Talmud. And, though not surveyed here, one can find that the Puritans had a great knowledge of the liberal theology of their day, including Socinian, Anabaptist, and Roman Catholic works. These three observations have important implications for how we do our theology in our own day.

Often times we read the Puritans with great appreciation. We are awe struck by their piety and theological depth. We admire them, much like a child might admire a baseball great like Babe Ruth, as he struts to the plate, takes a powerful swing, crushes the ball over the centerfield wall, and then trots around the bases in the glitter of camera flashes and the thunderous roar of the crowd. Yet, we forget that we are not spectators. We are on the team, the same team as every other Reformed theologian who has stood behind the lectern or pulpit to teach or preach the word of God. If this is the case, is it enough merely to read the Puritans and go no further? Should we not bring the same dedication, devotion, and work ethic to the theological task as they did?

Seminary graduates sometimes have great gaps in their theological knowledge—they know Calvin, the Westminster Standards, Berkhof, or the other standard works. But few have read Aquinas, Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, the Church Fathers, or contemporary theologians such as Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, or Robert Jenson. Moreover, when these same seminarians get into their pulpits, they make little effort to remedy the situation.

Yet it is easily within reach to begin to fill the gaps. One can incorporate documents such as Luther's Small Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism during devotional times, or identify a medieval or contemporary theologian to add to one's reading list. There are also a number of helpful resources, such as introductions to the church fathers, which have selections from various well-known patristic theologians.

It also seems that the Westminster divines, or more broadly the Puritans at large, are employed by Reformed fundamentalists in an effort to maintain doctrinal orthodoxy. This is sometimes evidenced in the bibliographies that follow papers submitted by seminarians to candidates and credentials committees. The bibliographies are hundreds of years old, with little to no interaction with contemporary sources, commentaries, and theological works. Such an employment of the Puritans has more in common with fundamentalism than it does with the spirit of the Puritan theological method.

It was Paul Tillich (1886-1965), one not known for his orthodoxy, who observed the great chasm between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant theology and contemporary fundamentalism. Tillich first distinguishes between classical Protestant orthodoxy, the genus under which one would find the theology of the Westminster Standards, and fundamentalism:

We must also be sure to distinguish between orthodox and fundamentalism. The orthodox period of Protestantism has very little to do with what is called fundamentalism in America. Rather, it has special reference to the scholastic period of Protestant history. There were great scholastics in Protestantism, some of them equally as great as the medieval scholastics... . Such a thing has never been done in American fundamentalism. Protestant Orthodoxy was constructive. It did not have anything like the pietistic or revivalistic background of American fundamentalism. It was objective as well as constructive, and attempted to present the pure and comprehensive doctrine concerning God and man and the world. It was not determined by a kind of lay biblicism as is the case in American fundamentalism—a biblicism which rejects any theological penetration into the biblical writings and makes itself dependent on traditional interpretations of the word of God. You cannot find anything like that in classical orthodoxy. Therefore it is a pity that very often orthodoxy and fundamentalism are confused.

So, then, Tillich was certain that fundamentalism and Protestant orthodoxy were beasts of a completely different stripe.

Tillich goes on to explain specifically how Protestant orthodox theologians are different than American fundamentalists:

One of the great achievements of classical orthodoxy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the fact that it remained in continual discussion with all the centuries of Christian thought. Those theologians were not untheological lay people ignorant of the meanings of the concepts which they used in biblical interpretation. They knew the past meanings of these concepts in the history of the church which covered a period of over fifteen hundred years. These orthodox theologians knew the history of philosophy as well as the theology of the Reformation. The fact that they were in the tradition of the Reformers did not prevent them from knowing thoroughly scholastic theology, from discussing and refuting it, or even accepting it when possible. All this makes classical orthodoxy one of the great events in the history of Christian thought.[13]

Tillich's description is certainly evident in this small survey of Whitaker, Twisse, and Gillespie. However, one can find this same pattern in the theology of many of the great Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Some read exclusively the Puritans, as a bulwark against liberalism, and do not engage and read a wide theological spectrum. This is to ask the watchmaker what time it is with no interest in how the watch is made. Our task is not simply to tell people the time, but also to build watches.

Conclusion

When we reflect upon the Puritan theological method, we find a rich and impressive breadth of knowledge and learning, one that spans the centuries. If we only read the Puritans to the exclusion of others, can we say that we advance the Puritan legacy well? If the Puritan theological method as found in Whitaker, Twisse, and Gillespie is any evidence of their devotion to Christ in their pastoral and academic endeavors, then it behooves Reformed pastors to dedicate themselves in a similar fashion. Instead of reading a Puritan work the next time we go to the bookshelf, why not read in the spirit of the Puritans and pick up the work of a church father, a medieval theologian, or a contemporary theologian? Why not pick up the work of a Lutheran, Baptist, or Roman Catholic theologian? In seeking to broaden our reading habits, we should read as the Puritans read—seeking to engage, critique, and even learn from these sources. Hopefully such a commitment will enrich our theological studies to the benefit of the church and future generations and will glorify Christ.

Endnotes

[1] For brief biographical sketches, William Barker, Puritan Profiles: 54 Contemporaries of the Westminster Assembly (Fearn: Mentor, 1999), 18-21, 110-12, 136-39; James Reid, Memoirs of the Westminster Divines, 2 vols. (1811; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 1.32-67, 2.216-46, 278-83.

[2] Alexander F. Mitchell and John Struthers, eds., Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1874), 174. William Barker, Puritan Profiles: 54 Contemporaries of the Westminster Assembly (Fearn: Mentor, 1999), 136-40.

[3] David F. Wright, "Baptism at the Westminster Assembly," in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, vol. 1, ed., J. Ligon Duncan (Fearn: Mentor, 2003), 163-66.

[4] Samuel MacCauly Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 3 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1909), 1.

[5] Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 3.380-81.

[6] Mitchell and Struthers, Minutes, 176.

[7] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (repr. 1852; Phillipsburg: P & R, n.d.), 355.

[8] William Twisse, The Riches of God's Love unto the Vessels of Mercy (Oxford: L. L. and H. H. Printers to the University, 1653), 1.61. Quotations have updated spelling.

[9] Twisse, The Riches of God's Love, 2.10-11.

[10] John Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Richmond: John Knox, 1973), 39.

[11] George Gillespie, Treatise of Miscellany Questions (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle and Oliver & Boyd, 1854), 100.

[12] Gillespie, Treatise of Miscellany Questions, 100-03.

[13] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed., Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967-68), 103.

John V. Fesko is pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Woodstock, Georgia, and adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. Ordained Servant, August-September 2008.

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