Friday, October 29, 2010

Some Puritan Social Theory

I just started reading A Theological Interpretation of American History by C. Gregg Singer and found his succinct summary of Puritan political thought in the first chapter stimulating. He shows that the early American Puritans self-consciously based their social and political theory on Calvinism, which emphasizes the sufficiency and supreme authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, divine creation, the depravity of man, and God's redeeming grace.

The Puritans affirmed that the Sovereign God of the Bible created the whole universe, rules it in His providence, and reveals laws to order it in His Word. Human beings are therefore to submit self-consciously to God's kingly (sovereign) rule, not only in their individual and church lives, but also in their political, economic, and social lives.

Government Theory

Puritans believed that the Scriptures alone reveal the divine origin, proper scope, and responsibilities of government. Because human beings are totally depraved sinners by nature, government must have checks and balances and must rule according to God's revealed moral law. The government derives its power from God, not from the people, though magistrates were elected by the people. In Puritan thought, both the voters and the magistrates were to look to the Scriptures as the guide to the conduct of the government. Both the rulers and the people were therefore subject to God's revealed Word, and the will of the people could never take precedence over Scripture.

At the same time, there was a separation of church and state. Though the responsibilities of church and state are both rooted in the Bible's theology, the church is an instrument of special grace, while the state is an instrument of common grace. The state is to exercise authority over temporal life, while the church is to preach the gospel for eternal life. Because of the doctrine of effectual calling and unconditional election, the Puritans did not believe that the government could require men to trust in Christ. Thus, their Calvinism formed the foundation of liberty of conscience. The government's role was only to enforce the outward aspect of the Ten Commandments in society, though it must never coerce the human conscience or require men to believe. In contrast to the government, the church's role was to preach the gospel, administer the ordinances, and maintain church discipline. In practice, the Puritans sometimes did a poor job maintaining the separation of church and state because they lost sight of the fact that the connection between the two is theological, not structural or institutional. The church and state did not always keep to their separate institutional callings.

Thus, in the area of political thought, Puritanism left us with a government of law, rather than a government of men (democracy or monarchy). This is seen in our constitutional-republic form of government, which rightly understands law to transcend both the masses and elected officials.

Economic Theory

The Puritan concept of economics differed from the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith. American Puritan John Cotton, for example, denounced the idea that people should sell as high as they can and buy as cheap as they can. Instead, the goal in economics should always be a “just price,” never a “deal” or a “steal.” As a result, Puritans believed in some government regulation of prices in commerce and industry, though they saw this as a restraint on human sin and greed, not as an effort to usher in a utopain dream (as in Marxism). Neither Socialism nor Communism had any place in their thinking. Those systems would have been viewed as a violation of the 8th commandment (do not steal). The government has no right to take money from the rich and give it to the poor, simply because they are poor. Puritans also strongly recognized the right of property and private ownership, contra Communism.

Working in one's vocation was a valued virtue in Puritanism. Human beings were to work in their callings in an “other-centered” way, for the good of their neighbors to the glory of God. Puritans promoted hard work, but not for personal prosperity. They said men are to work hard out of love to God and love to others in obedience to the first and second great commandments and in conformity to the Ten Commandments. As such, labor was a form of service and devotion to God and thus a form of worship. Since work is other-centered, they believed that the poor and sick and all those unable to earn a living should be cared for by those who are able to work. The government was to provide some assistance in this, but the welfare state was foreign to the Puritans. Cotton Matther rightly predicted result of this Puritan work ethic in his famous saying, “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.” The hard work that flowed from the diligent devotion of the Puritans produced incredible weath and created a society that valued hard work. But, the material prosperity that flowed from the social work ethic became a cultural idol that led us away from the truth over time.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I especially liked the bit on their economics. The successful Puritans become a helpful model to examine as the country plunges further into economic ruin.

    Thanks for writing :)