Exact Walking

Christopher Hill

  • Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 by R.T. Kendall
    Oxford, 252 pp, £12.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 19 826716 9

In 16th-century England Protestant theology was overwhelmingly predestinarian. ‘Calvinist’ is the word normally used, but Dr Kendall, as we shall see, is unhappy about it. Bishops like Jewell, Grindal and Whitgift, Puritans like Cartwright and Perkins (though Dr Kendall would not call him a Puritan), later King James I, all agreed on the essentials of theology. This orthodoxy was challenged by Laudians in the 1630s, by sectaries in the Forties and Fifties. By the end of the century, Calvinism was no longer the intellectual force it had been. It was not stressed by the official Church of England, though the ‘Latitudinarians’ who came to dominate the Church had more in common with the earlier ‘Puritans’ than with Laudians. In the 18th century the ‘old dissent’, Presbyterians and Independents, was still mainly Calvinist, though Arminianism and Unitarianism were making inroads into their ranks. Calvinism survived among Particular Baptists and Muggletonians. It had ceased to be in the forefront of intellectual history. What had happened?

Dr Kendall is a theologian, and he suggests some of the internal reasons for the disintegration of the Calvinist theology. He rewrites the history of the theology in rather an alarming manner. I am not competent to assess the value of all his judgments, but they seem to me highly discussable, and very relevant to the problem of the eclipse of Calvinism.

He sees Beza as a major revisionist of Calvinism – Stalin, as it were, to Calvin’s Lenin. Whereas Calvin believed that Christ died for all men, the belief that Christ died for the elect only is fundamental to Beza’s thought. Beza’s doctrine ‘1. inhibits the believer from looking directly to Christ’s death for assurance; 2. precipitates an implicit distinction between faith and assurance; 3. tends to put repentance before faith in the ordo salutis; and 4. plants the seeds of voluntarism in the doctrine of faith’. In England, the great theologian William Perkins followed Beza (Chapter Four, passim).

All predestinarian theologians have to face the problem of how one can be assured of salvation. For Calvin, faith comes only from without, as a divine gift; assurance and faith are in effect the same thing. Repentance follows faith. There are problems about how exactly you know that your faith, your assurance, are genuine and permanent; Calvin acknowledges that men may have temporary faith. But since the gift of faith comes before repentance it is no good looking inside yourself for signs that will justify assurance, or trying to verify your faith by good works. For Beza and Perkins, the problem is how a man can know that he is one of the elect for whom Christ died. This was a very real pastoral problem, since the belief that one was irredeemably damned could lead to despair. Beza’s and Perkins’s theology ‘puts the knowledge of faith within the reach of anyone who wills to be godly’. One may have temporary faith, but the elect are those who persevere in holiness. Perkins goes so far as to say that ‘the will to believe is faith’; ‘and the desire to repent, repentance itself ... God accepting the will for the deed.’ This opened a very wide gateway to voluntarism. As Dr Kendall puts it, ‘believing in Christ to Perkins means sooner or later to descend inside ourselves; the eventual result is not merely introspection, but a doctrine of faith that could easily breed legalism.’ Our calling and election are made sure by the evidence of good works.

This aspect of Perkins’s theology has long been recognised. More novel is Dr Kendall’s insistence that ‘it was Beza not Calvin ... whose theology Perkins perpetuated.’ He founded what Dr Kendall calls ‘the experimental predestinarian tradition’. For Perkins, knowledge of saving faith, or assurance of election, is ‘experimental’. Conscience pronounces judgment ‘by a kind of reasoning or disputing’, from which one may not only have ‘experimental certainty of the truth of the Bible’ but also know that ‘he is in the number of the elect.’

Perkins’s theology became orthodoxy for men like Dod, Cleaver, Bradshaw. Hildersham, Baynes, Sibbes, Preston. Thomas Hooker and Ames. Dr Kendall sums up: ‘we are saved by grace, we are assured by works. Other writers above have implied this: Sibbes says it.’

Assurance is ‘a reward of exact walking’. Men should ‘labour to be such as God may love us’. This is ‘a strange comment for any predestinarian’, Dr Kendall observes, but it reveals ‘how far one can go towards an anthropocentric doctrine of faith when assurance is regarded as a reward for “exact walking” ’. Hooker tells us that we can and must prepare for grace. He urges a man to ‘use the means whereby he might get faith’. ‘Hooker’s doctrine of faith is voluntaristic from start to finish.’ ‘Once a man believes.’ Hooker claims, ‘the hardest is done, the worst is past.’ That is, as Dr Kendall points out, a long way from Calvin’s belief that faith can only come, inexplicably, from without.

Dr Kendall argues that ‘Arminius’s doctrine of faith is in effect no different from that in the figures seen in the experimental predestrinarian tradition.’ ‘If one believes.’ wrote Arminius, ‘he is elected; if he does not believe, he is not elected.’ The difference is that ‘the experimental predestinarians explain that believers persevere because they were elected: Arminius says God elects believers whom He foresees will persevere.’ ‘The two schools of thought ... meet each other coming from opposite directions.’ ‘The debate between Perkins and Arminius is a case of two forms of voluntarism in opposition to each other.’ But Arminius is closer to Calvin than Beza and Perkins are in his belief that Christ died for all. Arminius’s condemnation at the Synod of Dort ‘represents a substantial departure from Calvin’s doctrine of faith’, an adherence to Beza rather than Calvin.

William Ames, who played a big part behind the scenes at Dort, tried to bring the ‘voluntarism that was begun in Beza’s theology and popularised by Perkins’ to ‘a logical conclusion’. He ‘corrected’ Perkins by placing the seat of faith in the will, not the understanding; and by stressing the active rather than the passive receiving of grace. ‘An endeavour to abound in virtue and to do good works is the only means to make our calling and election sure.’ The theology of the Westminster Assembly, Dr Kendall concludes, ‘is experimental predestinarian. Its doctrine of faith is retroactive to Perkins and Beza, but not Calvin. Its actual theology is most akin to that of William Ames, who saw the need to correct Perkins, while retaining nearly all of his mentor’s basic structures. Calvin’s thought, save for the decrees of predestination, is hardly to be found in Westminster theology, only the notion of assurance itself seems traceable to Calvin.’ ‘Westminster theology hardly deserves to be called Calvinistic’.

The assertion that the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly of Divines were not Calvinists but Bezaists will flutter some dovecotes. Whether the thesis will be universally accepted remains to be seen. Dr Kendall’s case is well-documented and seems plausible. What he does not discuss is the historical background against which these theological shifts take place. He does refer to one theological factor of some historical importance. John Cotton, who left England for New England in 1633, was an experimental predestinarian on this side of the Atlantic who slipped into something very like antinomianism in America. He did so by reviving Calvin. Assurance is the essence of saving faith, and faith alone is the evidence of justification. ‘As a Christian looketh not for salvation by his obedience to the Law, nor feareth condemnation by his disobedience: so neither doth he seek for any blessing from his obedience, nor fear any curse from his disobedience.’ Cotton was believed to have been mainly responsible for the antinomian aberrations of Mrs Anne Hutchinson which shook New England in 1636-8 until she was condemned, Cotton deserting her only just in time.

These facts must have been in the minds of the Westminster divines. Equally important were the antinomians who had remained in England – John Eaton, Tobias Crisp and Henry Denne, whom Kendall discusses, and a host of others, mainly lower-class radicals, who were terrifying the respectable godly in the 1640s. Men like Lawrence Clarkson and Abiezer Coppe were already preaching pretty fundamental antinomian heresies. ‘Sin and transgression is finished,’ Coppe was to declare in 1649. ‘Be no longer so horridly, hellishly, impudently, arrogantly wicked as to judge what is sin, what not.’ ‘What act soever,’ Clarkson wrote in 1650, ‘is done by thee in light and love, is light and lovely, though it be that act called adultery ... No matter what Scripture, saints or churches say, if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned.’ John Milton did not publish his views, but he wrote, rather remarkably, that ‘the practice of the saints interprets the commandments.’ ‘We are released from the decalogue.’ ‘Precise compliance with the commandments ... when my faith prompts me to do otherwise ... will be counted as sin.’

The establishment of religious toleration led to widespread discussion of such subjects, including predestination itself. Intellectuals like John Goodwin and Milton were outraged at the insult to human freedom which the eternal decrees perpetrated. William Walwyn could not believe that men would be ‘tormented for ever without end for a little time of sinning in this world’. The anonymous author of Tyranipocrit Discovered remarked that ‘faith no doubt is a comfortable thing for him that hath it, but another’s faith cannot help me. But if I be poor and want food and raiment, if my rich neighbour do love me, although he do not believe as I do, yet love will cause him to help me; but if he have faith to remove mountains, and goods to build churches, yet if he does not love me, he would not help me.’ Good works are becoming synonymous with charity. Roger Crab put another difficult question: ‘if the elect are chosen from all eternity, what do priests take our money for?’ With such ideas about, no wonder the Westminster Assembly preferred Beza and Perkins to the Calvin whom Cotton had embraced.

But Interregnum antinomianism, important though it is, does not explain the earlier drift towards voluntarism in Beza, Perkins and their successors. It is interesting to recall that Perkins is especially associated with the trend in Puritanism which regards the poor as incurably wicked. This contrasts markedly with the liberating optimism of some of the earlier reformers. A recent impressive book by Keith Wrightson and David Levine, Poverty and Piety in an English Village,[*] suggested that Calvinist theology became especially acceptable to parish élites, the minority who were prospering in the great economic divide of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as against the mass of the poor who were subsiding into permanent poverty. Since they could not spare the labour of their children, they could not have them educated; the narrow gateway to upward mobility was closed to them. Perkins’s theological emphasis on the wickedness of poverty and idleness dates from the 1590s, a decade of especial economic hardship in which the poor law was codified. If this is a coincidence it is an interesting one. Puritanism, Wrightson and Levine suggest, appealed especially to the middling sort above the poverty line, some of whom could hope to prosper by hard work, frugality and good luck. They needed what Dr Kendall calls a voluntarist theology, of the type that Beza and Perkins gave them and Calvin did not.

So far as literate members of congregations are concerned, I think we must stress the pastoral point made above. Thomas Shephard, who emigrated to New England in 1635, believed that only one out of 1000 human beings was saved. This may have been a numerically extreme position, but few of the orthodox believed that the elect were a majority of the population. Yet – given a state church – preachers had to address themselves to the 999 unregenerate. (It was different in the gathered churches, which is perhaps one reason why Calvinism – or Bezaism – survived better there.) There are many stories of men and women reduced to despair by contemplating their probable eternal destiny. The doctrine that God’s decree was unchangeable and bore no relation to human merits or efforts, however logically compelling, was not comfortable doctrine to preach to parish congregations. The modifications of Perkins, Preston, Ames and their school in the direction of voluntarism met half-way those serious men and women who worried about their salvation.

The comparison of Beza to Stalin is not wholly inappropriate. Beza was the effective head of an international organisation, though Geneva had to take more cognizance of the views of other churches than Moscow took of other parties. But by the mid-17th century the Calvinist International had ceased to exist. It had still been a reality when James I and the French Huguenots had sent theologians to the Synod of Dort in 1618. But Charles I helped Louis XIII to suppress the Huguenots at La Rochelle, and Archbishop Laud severed links with Continental Calvinists. Even after his fall, wars between Puritan England and Presbyterian Scotland, commercial wars between England and the Netherlands, showed how much theological ties had weakened by the mid-century.

Even before 1640, men were reacting against the high Calvinism of the universities, its arid scholastic discussion of assurance of salvation and the visibility of the elect. Young poets like Richard Crashawe (and Andrew Marvell for a short time) swung to an emotional Popery, others to the half-way house of the Laudian ‘beauty of holiness’. Liberal intellectuals like John Hales and William Chillingworth reacted towards an intellectual Socinianism. During the revolutionary decades the radical Arminianism of General Baptists and other sectaries made great headway, rejecting the theology of Calvinism and a professional priesthood. Calvinism became associated with Presbyterian intolerance. Neither the bishops restored in 1660 nor radical dissenters had much use for it.

The modifications of the Beza-Perkins school were, I suggest, aimed at adjusting Calvinism to the pastoral needs of the clergy and the demands of an educated laity in a national church. But after 1660 many Calvinists found themselves outside the state church. Calvinism could survive within congregations of the self-selected godly, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Muggletonian. But it had never been popular with the ‘loose multitude’, for whom the Church of England still had to cater, and after the Interregnum it lost much of its appeal for the traditional ruling class and the universities. The discipline which the Westminster Assembly had wished to impose was almost as clerical as Laudianism had been, and therefore as unpopular with the gentry; and Calvinism was inextricably associated with a rebellion that everybody was trying to forget.

Dr Kendall does not suffer his fellow theologians gladly; his rebukes of their shortcomings are firm and sometimes harsh. It remains to be seen how they will react to him. I hope they will not accept his attempt to impose a new vocabulary, in which Perkins is not a Puritan, and ‘experimental predestinarians’ (as opposed to ‘experiential predestinarians’ and ‘credal predestinarians’) are those whom we used to call Calvinists. Patrick Collinson in his admirable Archbishop Grindal[†] recently reminded us that Beza was ‘a Calvinist in a sense that Calvin himself never was’. We still usefully employ the word ‘Marxist’, even though Marx himself denied being one. But the substance of what Dr Kendall has to say is well worth thinking about.

[*] Academic Press, 1979.

[†] Cape, February 1980.