Friday, June 12, 2015

The Puritan Files: Guthrie and Winthrop

From the February 2012 E-Block.
For this round of the Puritan Files -- which will be our last, for now, since we're not digging out too many issues worthy of attention -- we'll have some comments on two works. 

The first is John Winthrop's A Model of Christian Charity, which I selected in hopes of finding something along the lines of a guide for Christian living. That is fairly well what it turned out to be, and I daresay it would make excellent reading for Christians even today -- especially in the modern world, where much of the collectivist mindset which Winthrop took for granted has disappeared. A small personal illustration will fit in here. 

Some years ago, Mrs H and I visited the Mayflower replica in Massachusetts where there were character actors dressed as Pilgrims, acting the part of people of that day. The character actor we spoke to had no doubt been ask several times that day already how the Pilgrims used the bathroom on the boat, so I think he was pleased when I asked something more substantive: "In your society, is the individual or the group more important?" He answered that the group was more important, and we can see that expressed well in this typical Q and A from Winthrop: 

Question: What rule must we observe in lending? 

Answer: Thou must observe whether thy brother hath present or probable or possible means of repaying thee, if there be none of those, thou must give him according to his necessity, rather then lend him as he requires (requests).

The inherent joint responsibility of this statement has not necessarily disappeared completely from the modern world, but many would think that the prospective lender was being cheap, or trying to avoid giving the loan. But in Winthrop's day, this reflected responsible stewardship and an eye towards not giving someone so much that they abandoned their own responsibilities.
Winthrop also showed a strong consciousness of the broader responsibility of the church within the world:

The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

There are two sides to this, of course: One is that sense of responsibility, but we can also see in here the seeds of a sort of manifest destiny -- one that could lead to the sort of erroneous excess expressed by Cotton Mather in our first article in this series.

The second work I selected was William Guthrie's A Christian's Great Interest -- thinking it might have been another moral guide. Instead it turned out to be a book on how to have assurance of salvation -- and in many ways it read little differently than would a book of the same nature by someone like John MacArthur. The objections Guthrie collected (like, "I'm too sinful for Christ") are very much familiar to the modern eye and ear. His answers, however, are overall a good deal more detailed and systematic, offering step by step considerations for the reader.

In that respect, Guthrie does represent what could be called a more "scientific" approach to salvation. One could imagine Paul or James reading Guthrie's work and shaking his head, saying, "Just live it out -- if you have faith, it will flow naturally from you." Paul advised self-examination, yes, but never gave more than a basic list of virtues expected of the believer. In contrast, Guthrie's minute examinations and recommendations have the bearing of a government tax code! In that, it is easy to see how legalism might unwittingly grow from such soil.

At some future date we may return to an examination of Puritan works, but for now, we conclude this side venture and move on.

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