Author: Holifield, E Brooks
Date published: March 1, 2012
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A tradition is not a consensus; change is not decline; variety does not entail discontinuity; and Calvinism has never been a monolithic system of thought. Wallace, a distinguished member of the faculty of George Washington University, has traced the history of English Calvinist thought from the beginning of the Restoration in 1660 until the death of Queen Anne in 1714 by analyzing in considerable detail the thought of seven Calvinist theologians who exemplified the variety of Reformed thought while responding to early Enlightenment modernity. His approach is typological: he identifies five types of Calvinist thought that introduced new dimensions to the tradition while remaining within its boundaries. Each represented a defense of the tradition against scoffers, enthusiasts, atheists, socinians, deists, and materialists.
Peter Sterry (1613-1672), chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, expounded a mystical form of Calvinism. Theophilus Gale (1628-1679), preacher at Winchester Cathedral until his ejection as a dissenter in 1660, combined Calvinist thought with the "ancient theology" of the Hermetic tradition; Joseph Alleine (1634-168), a Presbyterian cleric at Taunton, preached, along with his circle of clerical followers, a form of evangelical Calvinism. Richard Baxter (1615-1691), the pastor for many years at Kidderminster, along with William Bates (1625-1699), who held the living at St. Dunstans-in-the-West in London, and John Howe (1630-1705), the pastor at Torrington, expounded a Calvinist natural theology and used the traditional "evidences of Christianity" to fend off deistic and Socinian thinkers. Finally, John Edwards (1637-1716), the parish incumbent at St. Sepulchre's in Cambridge, represented the Calvinists who stayed within the Church of England while criticizing the growing Anglican affection for theological alternatives to Calvinism. Mysticism, the ancient theology, evangelicalism, natural theology, and Anglican conformity--the theologians who represented these trajectories all altered traditional Calvinist thought without abandoning it. And each of them represented a response to early modernity. This is the guiding theme of Wallace's book.
Sterry's mysticism found expression not only in his leanings toward Neoplatonism but also his striving for a consciousness of "the immediate or direct presence of God" (58). Using images of light and unity and freely allegorizing the Bible, Sterry advertised the possibility of union between the soul and God. Gale, on the other hand, attained his reputation for his argument in The Court of the Gentiles (1672) that all knowledge, even the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, and especially all religious knowledge derived from the ancient Hebrews. He was particularly fond of the Hermetic texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a supposed contemporary of Moses, and he depicted Hermes, along with other figures, some historical and some legendary, as "ancient theologians," a practice that went back to the second century. Alleine and his circle, on the other hand, maintained older Puritan preoccupations with conversion, and Alleine's posthumously published and often re-published Alarm to Converted Sinners (1671) represented the turn to inward piety that had also appeared in the Pietist and Quietist movements. Baxter, Bates, and Howe all had pastoral interests, but they also assumed the apologetic task of showing the partisans of the early enlightenment that reason could prove some Christian truth and the time-honored "evidences of Christianity" could show that the Bible was the unique divine revelation. Edwards was a conformist to the Church of England but no irenic soul. Fond of controversy, he argued against almost everything he found deviant in seventeenth-century theology, often in a manner acerbic and harsh, but he also combined the themes found in the other four types of theology, except, apparently, for Gale's predilection for "ancient theology."
Indeed, the five types often exhibit, as Wallace recognizes, considerable overlap, not only in their Calvinism but in other ways as well. They are separated by permeable boundaries, not high walls, but Wallace is looking for the differentiating characteristics, and this is fair enough. The context in which he chooses to place his theologians is largely intellectual, though he includes political events that intruded on church life, and the argument that the five types represent five responses to intellectual challenges offers a helpful angle of vision, though the theologians also had pastoral and pedagogical intentions, and Wallace could also have outlined the options by viewing them in the context of pastoral work, catechesis, and the teaching of youth. Wallace is not oblivious to these motives, but he finds the encounter with early modernity more pertinent.
Some Calvinists, then and now, would argue that the transformations subverted the persistence, especially in the case of Sperry, whose unpublished manuscripts defended universal salvation, but Wallace's theologians considered themselves Calvinists, insisted on divine election, viewed the atonement as the satisfaction of divine wrath, insisted on justification by grace (even if, in Baxter's case, its meaning changed somewhat), and adhered to the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer. Wallace's wider point is that innovation did not mean deviation and, therefore, that Calvinism was simply far more flexible than some of the orthodox in the seventeenth century and some historians in the twentieth--the ones who were intent on finding evidence of decline whenever they saw evidence of change--were prone to depict.
Wallace's book is not for the reader impatient with seventeenth-century theology, for it consists chiefly of almost two hundred pages analyzing the writings of five theologians, but it raises questions of historical interpretation that even social and cultural historians, as well as historians interested in popular religion, have to consider. How does one assess change? Wallace has not only provided insights into seventeenth-century English Calvinism but also prompted us to think once more about that question.