Book ReviewsChurch HistoryReviewsTheology & Spirituality

Book Review: Puritanism and Natural Theology

Wallace Marshall, Puritanism and Natural Theology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 144pp.

H.L. Mencken once famously defined Puritanism as that “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy!” Thanks to the work of Perry Miller and Leland Ryken, among others, the caricature of Puritans as “gloomy, obscurantist foes of science, merriment, progress, and learning” has been debunked (2). The popular-level image of Puritans always did owe more to Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne than it did to historians.

The scholarly conversation has not been insulated from simplistic narratives and conjectural assumptions, namely that the Puritans were i allergic to natural theology. The conventional view of Puritan theology is that it rejected reason, especially natural theology and evidentialism, as a legitimate mechanism for theological inquiry. In this “assimilation narrative,” as Marshall calls it, “Puritanism often functions as the contrasting background against which the rise of natural theology and evidentialism are related” (5). According to Perry Miller’s magisterial two-volume, The New England Mind, the use of reason in Puritan thought was relegated to being only an “instrument” for interpreting the Bible (see vol. I, 111-153).1 Marshall’s book now threatens to upend this long-held belief. He writes,

“[I]nsofar as the history of Protestantism in the English-speaking world is concerned, both natural theology and evidentialism are usually represented as having arisen during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, being triggered by the rise of modern science and especially the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason. Puritanism, moreover, often functions as the contrasting background against which the rise of natural theology and evidentialism are related.”

Contra the conventional view described above, Marshall convincingly shows that a clear majority of Puritan theologians embrace the legitimacy of natural theology and evidentialism, even employing them in evangelistic, apologetic, and pastoral contexts (e.g. affirming the faith of doubting Christians). “If anything,” he writes, “Puritans used natural theology and evidentialism more than their post-Enlightenment descendants did” (14). For all the ink spilled over Puritanism in recent decades, Marshall’s book stands as the first focused assessment of Puritanism’s relationship to natural theology.

In any study of Puritan theology the question of how one defines the Puritan movement rears its frustrating head. Marshall stays focused on his primary question and sidesteps this sinkhole by examining only the thought of those figures with incontrovertible Puritan bona fides, such as refusing the terms of the 1662 Act of Uniformity, being Calvinistic in views on grace, etc. (see appendix 2, pp. 141-143).

“The problem is not so much identifying the characteristics of a typical Puritan clergyman, or at least a clergyman whom most historians would recognize as Puritan… The problem rather lies in coming up with a set of criteria that can encompass all or at least most of the figures whom historians have been called Puritans without being so broad that it becomes useless as a defining concept… Happily, it is possible to write about aspects of Puritanism without arriving at a definitive solution to the problem of definition, especially if… it is the thought of Puritan theologians rather than Puritanism as a societal phenomenon that is in view (2-3).”

Regarding an easier task of definition, Marshall defines natural theology as “all of religious knowledge that is accessible through the use of reason, independently of supernatural revelation.” After discussing the role of natural theology generally (chapters 1 and 2) he identifies several areas in which seventeenth-century Puritans from both Old and New England frequently employed natural theology: regarding the existence and attributes of God (chapter 5), divine providence and immortality (chapter 6), and natural law.2

As Marshall outlines in his outstanding third chapter, the Puritans were convinced of the efficacy of reason despite their affirmation of the noetic effect of sin (e.g. Rom. 1:18-21, 8:7). Especially in their polemical writings, Puritans freely employed analogies from ancient history, rational proofs, secular sources from antiquity (e.g. the “wiser” pagans, as they were often referred to), and even examples drawn from modern science. Thought the Puritans were staunch adherents to the new logic of Peter Ramus most of them did not follow him in his categorical rejection of Aristotle and the foundational texts of the ancient world.    

In the fourth chapter Marshall contends that, with few exceptions, the Puritans acknowledged both the legitimacy of natural reason and its limits, holding them in tandem. Natural reason could indeed provide knowledge of God, implanted there by the creator in the human mind (sensus divinitatis), but also derived from contemplation of human experience and observations of the natural world (13). The conclusions of man’s natural reason did not operate outside of God’s providence and, because most Puritans rejected the conception of innate ideas, the thoughts of man were imprints resultant of the presence of the divine image in him (e.g. not autonomously derived). There was implanted and acquired knowledge.

For the Puritans, although after the fall natural theology continued to be effective, like all else it was fundamentally disordered. Adam may have only required natural theology, as Thomas Goodwin held, but fallen man required more. John Owen was representative of Puritan thought we he wrote that man can “know God by the light of nature” but “cannot come to God by that knowledge.” In the words of Stephen Charnock, “Men by reason know that there is a God, but it is so dim in the discovery of his perfections that it sees not light enough to raise it up to any close act of a fiducial dependence on him.”3 The Spirit with the written Word overcomes and corrects limited reason to reveal otherwise unattainable and essential truths unto salvation. For Charnock and Owen in particular, maintaining this point was essential to holding a high view of the mediatorial work of Christ himself.   

Thus, the Puritans confessed the two-fold knowledge of God (duplex cognitio Dei) and when regarding saving knowledge, scripture maintained its priority as a corrector of human reason and an expander of human knowledge. Furthermore, regenerate man, being enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit and a true knowledge of the scriptures, could employ his reason to greater heights than the reprobate, for grace is not opposed to nature, but rather perfects it. Contrary to much of the popular literature, Marshall boldly states that, “Grace renewing and perfecting nature was the Puritan missionary paradigm. As Increase Mather declared, ‘except men give Credit to the principles of natural, they will never believe the Principles of revealed Religion'” (14). Yet it is important to note, as Marshall does, that though the Puritans were confident that logic and classical learning could combat much of the noetic effect of sin, it was the power of the Spirit in, through, and by the Word that man was brought to saving faith; and this chiefly accomplished through the ordinary means of preaching, which was central to Puritan life.4

Most provocatively, Marshall challenges the modern consensus that the Puritans reserved the status of principium cognoscendi theologiae for Scripture alone. He argues that the Puritans held natural theology as foundational for supernatural theology (the former being assumed by the latter, but the latter being nonetheless being essential), connecting the Puritans more directly to the medieval tradition than has previously been acknowledged.

Marshall does not delve into this in his book, but the his research serves to partially expose Puritanism’s intellectual proximity to the medieval world also seems evident in their relationship to the supernatural (as at attested to by the work of David D. Hall and Samuel Eliot Morrison) and in their approach to education. Per Morrison, “The right approach to the Puritan founders of New England is historical, by way of the Middle Ages. They were, broadly speaking, the Englishmen who had accepted the Reformation without the Renaissance.”Regarding education, Norman Fiering notes that in terms of their approach to education, their treatment of the liberal arts, and their understanding of the logical relations between the two, the Puritans were “true descendants of the Scholastics” (22).

The Puritans help illustrate that historical periodization is often elusive and anachronistic. They held fast to many of the received categories (and language) of the medieval metaphysical tradition (especially in the doctrine of God), while also  embodying the humanist appreciation for the works of antiquity and classical languages. However, they also exhibited a real enthusiasm for the wonders of then being produced by modern science. When Increase Mather, then rector of Harvard College, visited London in 1688 to plead the cause of New England’s charter in the lead up to the Glorious Revolution, he was determined to gather up new scientific instruments (e.g. telescopes and “baroscopes”) to take back to Massachusetts. The discoveries of science  fueled Puritan appreciation for nature itself. Indeed, Stephen Charnock held that it was an insult to God to pay little attention to the created order: “The world is a sacred temple; man is introduced to contemplate it, and to behold with praise the glory of God in the pieces of his art” (74).6 

The point is that the Puritans maintained many medieval practices, convictions, and certainly an appreciation for the best of the medieval theologians, with Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Lombard making regular appearances in their works, while at the same time they were influenced by the intellectual currents of their own time. Their theology dialogued with the rapidly changing intellectual context around them, and they often employing contemporary sources, ranging from new critical editions of Aristotle to the natural law theory of Samuel Pufendorf, to their own ends.

In Marshall’s estimation, what can be definitively said is that the Puritans were catholic theologians, who self-consciously stood in the grand Christian tradition and availed themselves of the abundance of resources therein, even if their selection of said resources was often eclectic.7

In response to this observation by Marshall, some commentators have made an effort to distinguish the Puritans from “the Reformed.” But this is unhelpful and inaccurate, for the Puritans stood squarely within Reformed orthodoxy of the period (viz. the period of high orthodoxy, as defined by Richard Muller in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) and were not departing from the tradition (unless one is willing to deny the likes of John Owen, Stephen Charnock, Thomas Goodwin, and Thomas Watson a seat at the Reformed orthodox table). And yet, despite the fact that the Puritan’s endeavored to maintain an eclectically-source and rational theology (with the caveats and distinctions given above) they were not rationalistic. Marshall writes,

“They relished the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility and considered it to be the apex of rational natural theology. Similarly, while they maintained that the inspiration of the Bible could be proved by rational arguments and that nothing in the Bible could be ‘contrary’ to reason, they insisted that it was eminently reasonable to expect that a divine revelation would contain doctrines ‘above’ human reason.”

While nothing in Christianity is “contrary” to reason, some mysteries are “above” reason and God cannot be fully comprehended with it (Isaiah 40; Romans 11:32-36). “[R]eason itself teaches us, that such a being cannot be God, which may be comprehended by man,” said Ezekiel Hopkins, an English Puritan (11).

Indeed, as Aquinas (who, along with other medieval theologians, and contrary to popular belief, was cited regularly and approvingly by the Puritans of the high orthodoxy period) said, “It should be said that the whole God is attained by the mind of the blessed by not wholly, because the mode of the divine knowability infinitely exceeds the mode of the created intellect [e.g. the finite cannot contain the infinite].” Thus, the truths of scripture were never unreasonable but often “above” reason. On this point, Puritan Anthony Tuckney, member of the Westminster Assembly, stated plainly that he was in full accord with Aquinas (12). One of the instructive points of Marshall’s book for the modern protestant is this latter categorical distinction which was ingrained in the theology of our medieval and Reformation era forebears but has been virtually lost from evangelical theological discourse. This coincides with the loss of a general sense of the awe (incomprehensibility) of God, as well as disdain for the theological precision of the scholastic method and the concomitant convictions of classical theism. The Puritans would not recognize the theistic personalism that is rampant in much of evangelicalism today. Though many modern protestants might reject the Puritan confidence in reason as overly optimistic, in truth it is the modern Christian, not the Puritan, who more regularly confines God to the bounds of human understanding, experience, and emotion, but I digress.

Hopefully, Marshall’s book will act as a corrective to misconceptions at both the scholarly and lay level. Contemporary evangelicals who have profited from the beloved devotional works of the Puritans would do well to engage with their more technical theology as well, and glean therefrom their orthodoxy regarding God and revelation, man and sin.

In my opinion, one of the most beneficial portions of Marshall’s book, in terms of debunking old assumptions in Puritan studies, is found in the first appendix which deals with John Locke and the reception of his works by Puritans. Marshall determines that Locke’s works were examined, accepted or denounced by the Puritans on a case by case basis; there was was never a wholesale rejection of Locke as (arguably) with Hobbes. In any case, it was not Locke’s use of rational arguments that offended Puritans, but rather his Socinian leanings that fostered tension. As has been noted elsewhere, Locke’s real attack on the Puritan way of life lies in his rejection of the idea of generalist education, advocating instead a utilitarian approach.8 Thus, although Locke could more aptly be labeled a rationalist, his Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) was entirely conventional amongst Puritans in the period (15). The Puritan’s comfort with such uses has led some, like James W. Jones (The Shattered Synthesis) to suggest that the digression in to rationalistic Unitarianism was baked into the system of Puritan thought from the get-go. I think Marshall’s assessment offers a need counterbalance to both extreme assumptions at the popular level, that Puritans were dull students of but one book living in intellectual isolation, and against the hasty conclusions of scholars like Jones.   

One of my disappointments with the book is its lack of attention given to natural law, politics, and ethics. In the introduction, Marshall notes that he purposefully avoided the subject, except for insofar as it pertains to the duty to worship, “and on the argument for God’s existence ex consenu gentium (from the universal consent of nations).” Especially given his notes on Locke, I would have relished the inclusion of natural law (touched on only briefly in chapter 5, e.g. p. 95) and political theory.  A chapter like that would have complimented nicely chapter 5, which covers natural theology arguments for “the existence of God, the human duty of loving and living for God, natural law, divine providence, and the immortality of the soul,” and chapter 6 which deals with the Puritan use of natural theology to address theodicy in defense of both God’s sovereignty and goodness. The most eclectic of examples featured in the latter chapter is Richard Baxter, who wrote on theodicy extensively throughout his life and eventually argued for a plurality of worlds, all populated by unfallen, angelic creatures.

An additional shortcoming of the book is that Marshall, while doing much to debunk the narrative that Puritanism was antithetical to reason and science, does not address the seeming contradiction between these reasonable theologians and the hysteria surrounding witchcraft, which seems to represent regression rather than progression in the Puritan mind. Connected to this, I would also add that Marshall’s book reads like a dissertation (which it is), sometimes resorting to stringing relevant quotes together accompanied by minimal analysis. Since Marshall is challenging one popular narrative of Puritanism I would have like to have seen a more developed counter narrative. Given my comments above, that Puritanism maintained more of a pre-modern mindset than is often acknowledged, it would have been helpful for Marshall to expound on whether or not he thinks the use of natural theology in Puritan thought contributes to the narrative that Puritanism is a direct link to, and catalyst for, modernity.9 Perhaps that narrative is not so tidy either. For example, Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World stands in a good deal of contrast to his father’s (Increase) Cases of Conscience, other than the fact that they both affirm that witches are real. This could be read as evidence of real regress of thought. But with the added component of the younger Mather’s own Return of Several Ministers, wherein he condemns the use of spectral evidence whilst justifying the Salem trials, “progress” could again be identified. Thus, the clean link between Puritanism and modernity (even in this one example) becomes messy. Any light that Marshall could have shed on this area, given that he is clearly steeped in their natural theology, would have been welcome. 

Marshall’s book is a welcome sight to this lover of Puritan theology, and I expect his claims will be increasingly considered and debated in the years to come. Critics will find it especially hard to argue with Marshall’s reliance on primary sources. I can only hope that he continues to add to the body Puritan scholarship, and enlighten all readers, by capitalizing on (or adding to) this first work.


View Sources
Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

Previous post

Meditation and Incarnation

Next post

Brief Reflections on Christian Leadership