Political Theology - Our Puritan Political Heritage

OUR PURITAN POLITICAL HERITAGE:

The importance of history and heritage

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  • In Deuteronomy chapter 8, Moses is exhorting the people of Israel to look back upon their history, as they prepare to move forward with their mission to take the land of Canaan.

  • Keep that in mind as we read from Deuteronomy 8.

8 The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines His son, the LORD your God disciplines you. 6 So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in His ways and by fearing Him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land…[skip down to verse 10] 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land He has given you.

11 Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His rules and His statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness…[skip down to verse 17] 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may confirm His covenant that He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.

There are many observations that we could draw from this text, but certainly one of the primary observations to be made is that history is important. History is to be thought of as “His Story,” it is God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. As the people of God, we are part of a heritage that goes all the way back to Adam, and that will continue on until the return of Christ. And our generation has a role to play in this great heritage.

We are part of “His Story,” we have a role to play in advancing the kingdom of God, and if we are to do this well, it behooves us to look back at church history to see what God has already done for us, just as Israel was exhorted to do.
The Roman statesman, Cicero, once said, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” When a generation ceases to value and identify with the past (even if only to avoid past mistakes), there’s no ability to navigate forward responsibly.

As former president Woodrow Wilson once put it, “A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do.”

Here in the West, we are being taught to devalue the past, to ridicule and scorn the tradition, virtues, and experiences of previous generations, and to believe the fallacy that if something is recent or new, it must be best. This myth can only be believed by those who are ignorant of history. One cannot help but think that Cicero was right; we must know something of what happened before we arrived in the world, or we will never truly grow up. Adult-sized petulant children are a menace to society and are indicative of its collapse. History should matter to us because history matures us.

With that being said, what is our history and our heritage? More specifically, since we are in the middle of a series on political theology, what is our sociopolitical history as Christians living in the West? To answer these questions, we’re going to spend our time today (and next week) getting to know our Puritan forefathers, and the immeasurable sociopolitical impact that they had upon the Western world.

The vision of the Puritans helped stimulate, not only international missions and evangelism for 3 centuries, but nation-building and the establishment of free institutions in both the British Commonwealth and here in the United States.
Puritanism had a distinctly Bible-centered theology, anthropology, and view of history that gave it a tremendous vitality. The truth is, so much of what we enjoy here in the West—the rule of law, a free market, representative government, freedom of conscience and religion, and the freedom and self government of the Christian church and family—was given to us in large measure by the influence of our Puritan forefathers.

What is left of this heritage has been rapidly disappearing in the past few generations, and as a result, our culture is increasingly spiraling downward (in a Romans 1 fashion) into paganism and utter lawlessness. As Christians, how are we to move forward in this cultural crisis that we now find ourselves in? By looking back. I believe we need to look back to our Puritan forefathers, to that faithful “cloud of witness” in our history, to learn from them and recover what is of value.


As the saying goes, “those who do not learn from history, are destined to repeat it.”

With this in mind, let’s take a moment to briefly look at the history of Puritanism in England.
 
Who were the Puritans?
The term “Puritan” was coined in the early 1560s as a form of insult to a growing religious movement at the time, and became widely used as a slur against 17th century Protestant reformers in England by those who considered them to be anti-establishment perfectionists. These Englishmen, who considered the Church of England insufficiently reformed, heartily took up the term, regardless of the slander, and continued to flesh out the implications of the Reformation.
The great Scottish Christian leader John Knox (who trained under Calvin in Geneva) is usually identified as the spiritual father of Puritanism. He himself saw Scottland adopt a Calvinist Parliament which sought to uphold the gospel and law of God.

Oliver Cromwell is generally seen as the most important Puritan statesman in European history. His dream (and that of the English Puritans generally), was that the church and state in England should be brought into conformity with the Word of God and be a manifestation to the world of the character of Christ’s righteous kingdom. Queen Elizabeth was, for the most part, deaf to the pleas of the Puritans for reform, and when she died in 1603, during the subsequent reigns of James I and then Charles I, things began to go backwards for the Puritans in terms of their hopes for reformation and a godly England.

Eventually, in 1643 Civil War broke out in England over the correct balance of power between Parliament and Charles I. Oliver Cromwell was a senior commander in the Parliamentary army and after defeating Charles II in 1651, he later ruled as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658 during the period known as the English Commonwealth. Under the leadership of Cromwell, new liberties were established; new colleges and universities for biblical education were founded; new charitable organizations to minister to the needs of the poor were flourishing; legal reforms for biblical justice were progressing; and the overall prosperity of England was increasing to the point that England was emerging for the first time as a major European power, and was respected throughout the world. However, with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, there came a vast persecution of the Puritans, with 25,000 Puritans spending time in prison over the next 25 years, which caused the work to falter. Nevertheless, the work that they had achieved under Cromwell would have lasting effects. Moreover, the political climate in England that ultimately led to the English Civil War sent tens of thousands of Puritans to the New World, which caused Puritanism to take root both in Canada and here in the United States.
 
What were the Puritans all about?
Alright, having given an abbreviated historical sketch of the origins of Puritanism in England, let’s now take a deeper look at what the Puritans were really all about. The well-respected English theologian, J.I. Packer, was an expert on the Puritans, and this is how he compares the Puritans with modern day Christianity in the West:
 The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t…Spiritual warfare made the Puritans what they were. They accepted conflict as their calling, seeing themselves as their Lord’s soldier-pilgrims,…not expecting to be able to advance a single step without opposition of one sort or another…Today, however, Christians in the West are found to be on the whole passionless, passive, and, one fears, prayerless. Cultivating an ethos that encloses personal piety in a pietistic cocoon, they leave public affairs to go their own way and neither expect, nor for the most part seek influence, beyond their own Christian circle…[But] the Puritans labored for a holy England and New England—sensing that where privilege is neglected and unfaithfulness reigns, national judgment threatens.[1] 

 Packer goes on to explain that:

 Puritanism was…a worldview, a total Christian philosophy…They applied their understanding of the mind of God to every branch of life, seeing the church, the family, the state, the arts and sciences, the world of commerce and industry, no less than the devotions of the individual, as so many spheres in which God must be served and honored. They saw life whole, for they saw its Creator as Lord of each department of it, and their purpose was that the “holiness to the Lord” might be written over it in its entirety.[2]

Sphere Sovereignty

Notice that the Puritans recognized that there were different spheres of life—family, church, state, business, etc.—and that each sphere is under the authority of God and His Word. The concept of Sphere Sovereignty, which we looked at in some detail last week, was developed in the last century by Dutch reformers looking back upon the Puritan vision for culture and society. Sphere Sovereignty is therefore not just a theoretical concept that has never really been tested or applied.

If we want to know what Sphere Sovereignty looks like in action, all we need to do is look back to the Puritans. The Puritans actually applied the concept of Sphere Sovereignty. That is the great legacy that they have left for us.
This is why we spent the time that we did last week introducing ourselves to the concept of Sphere Sovereignty, so that today and next week we can see how the Puritans applied it, and the wonderful results that their application of Sphere Sovereignty has produced.

Now, getting back to what the Puritans were all about. Central to all of their thinking was that the Bible was a complete revelation from God which is final, authoritative, infallible, and to be applied to all of life—to every sphere. Thus, they were Bible-believing evangelicals who were concerned, above all, with godliness in each area of life and were therefore also activists, because they believed that true Christians were the agents of Christ’s renewing activity in the family, church, state, and all of life in this world. While they saw themselves as pilgrims heading toward a new land, they focused their attention on the present world, knowing that they were called as God’s servants to bring about the renewal of a fallen realm.

The Puritans therefore had a warrior spirit—they were fighting Christians. Not in the sense of being combative and antagonistic, but rather as soldiers of truth who were committed to standing against what was wrong, and seeking by faith and perseverance to put it right. The ideal Puritan Christian was to honor God, honor his neighbor, and let God’s Word govern the entirety of his life. They believed that Christians were to be the best husbands and wives, the best children and parents, the best employees and employers, the best magistrates and citizens, the best musicians, artists, and scientists—diligent, dutiful, respectful, and honorable, so as to bring glory to God in all things.

This type of mentality did not lend itself to individualism or isolationism or retreatism from the culture. They believed in individuality within an accountable community, which led to the biblical conviction that they were a community before God. Therefore, society was not a sphere from which you could simply opt out.
You served God in the family, the church, and the community, wherever God placed you and to whatever state He had called you, for better or worse.
 
Family, church, and state were each seen as being subject to the blessings and cursings of God’s Word in accordance with obedience and disobedience. And since judgment in these contexts is corporate, what affects the community affects the individual. So, whether God is condemning the community or nation, or He’s blessing it, either way, the Christian must stand fast, be faithful to God, and intercede. There was no “get-out clause.”
 
What made the Puritan vision so successful? 
With this general understanding of what Puritanism was all about, let’s now consider what made the Puritan vision so successful. The secret to their success, in my opinion, is what I have dubbed, “The inside-out approach to cultural transformation.” Let me explain what I mean by this phrase.

The starting point for the Puritan vision of cultural transformation was not political or social reform; it was the gospel. The number one priority for the Puritans was self-government. In other words, when an individual was regenerated by the preaching of the gospel, that individual was to grow in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to submit every aspect of his or her life to the commands of Christ. In this way, the Puritan vision was an inside-out approach; it started with the fullness of the gospel being faithfully preached (the gospel as it pertains to every sphere of life), which would effectively change the “inside” of the individual—the heart.

As individuals were regenerated, families would be reformed, and the Puritan’s recognized that God’s basic institution throughout Scripture—starting from the Garden of Eden—was the family. Thus, in order to transform the culture, one must first reform the family. This was essential to Puritan thinking.

All modern forms of government are variations of a monarchy, of rule from the top down. However, in Scripture, the family is the central social government. The most basic institution in Scripture is neither the church nor the state. It’s the family. And because the family is God’s basic institution, it’s the most protected by God’s law (we’ll consider this point more in the next sermon).

The family is man’s first basic government, church, school, and vocation. It’s man’s first basic “polis” or city, where he learns how to obey authority, how to be a citizen, how to worship God, how to develop and apply his talents and skills for the benefit of a community, etc. What we learn from the Puritans is that the church and the state are of equal importance to the family in their own spheres, but in the economy of life, the family is the most basic or foundational. This does not mean that the sphere of the family is superior to the spheres of the church and the state. Remember, there is no hierarchical structure in the concept of Sphere Sovereignty.

What it means is that you cannot have a spiritually healthy church or state without spiritually healthy families. It is simply to say that in the economy of human life, the family lays the foundation for human society, both for the believer and the non-believer alike. The family is the nursery of knowledge, worship, government, and all social order. Thus, when the family collapses, all of society breaks down.
For this reason, the covenantal family was at the core of the Puritan vision for cultural transformation, for without healthy and godly Christian families, all of society moves toward ruin; there is no social substitute for the family.

Thus, the church must labor to train, protect, and equip the family. The Puritans held that one of the central duties of the church was to support and strengthen its families (including all non-married persons), and to equip them to serve Christ and make known the gospel in every area of life. This was the starting point for cultural transformation—evangelism and discipleship of the family.

Moving beyond this, the Puritan mindset recognized that the kingdom of God is not limited in jurisdiction to families and churches; rather, it speaks to every form of authority as being under God’s rule, whether in heaven or on earth—including the authority of the state. We see, then, that the Puritan vision for cultural transformation was an inside-out approach. For the Puritans, cultural transformation begins with individuals, families, and churches. It begins theologically with Sphere Sovereignty—all of the sovereign spheres of life being subject to the absolute sovereignty of God.

As the family, its individuals, and then the churches (gathered families) are faithful to God in all of the various areas that God’s Word requires, living and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to those who don’t know Christ, the reign of God progressively extends outward, as His kingdom is made manifest in every sphere—including the civil/political sphere.
 
Applying the Puritan vision to the present
In the time that remains, by way of observation/application, let’s consider some ways that we can apply the Puritan vision to our own day and age.
In the first place, let us learn from our Puritan forefathers that:

As the family goes, so goes the culture.

A nation is only as strong and secure as its marriages and families. As was said just a moment ago, when the sphere of the family collapses, all societal spheres break down. And Satan is no fool. He knows that going after marriages and families is the surest way to wreak havoc in a society. Attacking the family is the surest way to destroy Christianity in a culture or nation, and it’s for this reason that the family must be protected and fought for.

Without the Christian family, the church is destroyed, and our spiritual enemy is well aware of this. It’s Satan who inspires ideologies of hatred toward the family in order to destroy both it and the church, and thus degrade human society with a descent into sexual anarchy. We need to recognize this and adopt that Puritan warrior spirit. We need to be soldiers of truth who are committed to combating the attacks of the enemy against marriage and family. We need to understand that in Scripture, marriage is God’s norm for forming a family unit, that marriage is a serious covenant that impacts the whole community.

So significant is the marriage relationship that it is seen as the only lawful place for sexual activity— everything else is destructive deviancy. This bond of faithfulness and love is an expression of God’s love for His covenant people, the church, which is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-23). So important is this to God, that sexual immorality or deviance “must not even be named among you.” (Eph. 5:3) Adultery is a menace to society; it’s a metastatic cancer to the body politic; it’s a spiritual termite that eats away at the load bearing support beams of society.
Husbands—be faithful to your wives. Stop looking at porn, stop with the wandering eyes, stop having lustful thoughts towards other women.
Wives—be faithful to your husbands. Respect them, honor them, and submit to them as unto the Lord.

Brethren, we must honor the Lord in our marriages and in our families; for as the family goes, so goes the culture.
 
Teaching a biblical worldview is essential—both in the church and in the home.
The simple genius of the Puritans was that they applied the Word of God to every area of life, to every sphere—politics, economics, law, the arts, education, etc.
In today’s vernacular we refer to this as having a biblical worldview. The Puritans believed that the gospel was not just about preaching the way of salvation to the lost; it was about walking worthily of our call as citizens of the kingdom in every aspect of life. Thus, Puritan pastors used the Scriptures to teach the people a biblical worldview—how to apply the Word of God to any issue, whether it had to do with politics, economics, law, education, the arts, etc. No subject was off limits or deemed “secular” and therefore unworthy of the pulpit.

But not only did the Puritans expect pastors to teach their congregation how to apply the Scriptures to all of life, they also expected parents to be teaching their children how to apply the Scriptures to all of life. Therefore, in the spirit of the Puritans, I would encourage you parents who are here today to teach your children diligently. Teach them how to apply the Bible to every area of life, teach them a biblical worldview.
To this end, we at GTI have put together a biblical worldview curriculum that is designed for this very purpose. The Ezra Institute is another excellent resource that I would highly recommend for biblical worldview training. Parents, teach your children how to apply the Word of God to all of life. It’s your duty.

To give you an idea of how serious the Puritans regarded this sacred duty of parents, consider what the Puritan John Flavel has to say to those parents who might be negligent in this weighty responsibility:
 
"How may families are there, though not profane, who yet train up their children vainly and sensually, and take no care for their souls? It is no matter to them that the devil seeks their souls. If they can but leave them lands or money, they think they have fully discharged their duty. O with what language will such parents and children greet each other in hell! Parents, I beseech you to consider your duty. Consider your close relationship and concern for their happiness. They give you joy and you highly value them. You sympathize in all their troubles, and sorrow at parting with them. Shall all of this be to no purpose? You value them, yet in the meantime shall you take no care of them for eternity? God has entrusted their souls to you as well as their bodies. What can comfort you if they die without Christ through your neglect? O this is a grievous consideration; my child is in hell, and I did nothing to prevent it, and I helped him there! If you neglect to instruct them in the ways of holiness, the devil will not neglect to instruct them in the ways of wickedness. If you do not teach them the truth, the devil will teach them to curse and lie. Weeds will spring up in uncultivated ground. A twig may bend to any form, but a grown limb will not bend. No one is as likely to do good to them as you. You have their natural affection, and daily opportunity. You know their temperaments. If you neglect them, who shall help them? O remember that text: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne.” (Rev. 20:12) What a sad thing it would be to see your dear children at Christ’s left hand! O friends, do your utmost to prevent this misery!"[3]
 
As parents, the greatest resource that God has given to us to invest for His kingdom, is the minds of our children. Parents, you must teach your children diligently, and this leads us to the next observation/application.
 
There is no neutrality in the sphere of education.

The Puritans believed that education is a fundamentally religious task and is the surest way to transform the values of the culture. As a result, many of our nations earliest and most prestigious universities were founded by the Puritans—Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, to name only a few. Furthermore, the Puritans believed that one of the ways of defeating Satan was through a Christ-centered education. Thus, the idea of sending one’s children to an educational institution whose instruction was not Christ-centered was unthinkable, let alone sending one’s children to an educational institution whose instruction was anti-Christian and pagan.

Since the sphere of education was considered to be a realm of intense spiritual warfare (a battleground for the minds of the next generation), there was to be no neutrality. The term “neutral” comes from the Latin word neuter, which means “neither one nor the other.” A neutered man, for example, is called a eunuch because in the full sense of the term he is no longer fully male, yet he is also not female. The term “neutral” has since come to mean an unbiased position, or an unwillingness to take sides.

Now, it should be quite clear from the origin of the concept, that an allegedly “neutral” position concerning education logically entails important beliefs about reality that are anything but religiously non-committed. For the Christian, there cannot be a sphere within reality that is “neither one thing nor another” if every sphere of reality has been created by God and is governed by God. Thus, a so-called “neutral” or unbiased education is an illusion—although it’s a very useful illusion for the state.

The reason that the modern state has insisted on the “neutrality” of its education is because to admit that education is not neutral is to concede that all education is inescapably religious. All educational philosophy presupposes a purpose and direction for education, and whatever that purpose and direction is, it is anything but neutral. There is always a worldview that is sitting behind the steering wheel of the bus—steering education in a particular direction and for a particular purpose.

It is obvious that education, as a vision within society, cannot be to no purpose (i.e., neutral; neither one thing nor another). Thus, as someone once said, “whoever controls the schools, controls the world.” The Puritans understood this, and so should we. There is no neutrality in the sphere of education.

Social and political reformation comes gradually through revelation, not suddenly through revolution. Winning back the culture requires a long-term investment strategy. The Puritan vision was successful because it was anchored in multigenerational faithfulness. The Puritans were not shortsighted, and neither should we be.

We live in a day of instant gratification, where everything moves at the speed of light, where if we don’t get instant results, we tend to want to immediately give up.
But biblical social and political reformation doesn’t happen overnight. Slow and steady wins the culture and the state. That’s how the political left has gained control of the culture and the state—through a slow and steady onslaught of attack on marriage and the family, and through multigenerational faithfulness of educating children according to anti-Christian worldview in the public schools.

The left took the “inside-out” approach to cultural transformation right out of the Puritan playbook. And if we are to reverse course again, we must have the same slow and steady outlook of multigenerational faithfulness that aims at reclaiming marriage and the family and education through gospel proclamation.
We need to remember that until the Lord returns, other generations will follow after us, and we want to leave those generations a legacy that they can continue to build upon, just as the Puritans did for us.

The Puritan precedent that has been set for us is that social and political reformation comes gradually through revelation, not suddenly through revolution.
A renaissance of biblical liberty over against the tyranny of humanism will not be accomplished quickly by voting in some political savior, or by violent protest, or by the barrel of the gun, or by top-down statist measures. Rather, it will come as individuals, families, and churches are faithful to God’s Word in every sphere of life (the “inside-out” approach to cultural transformation).

Through multigenerational faithfulness, the reign of God will progressively extend outward, as His kingdom is made manifest in every sphere—including the civil/political sphere.
 
A renewed call for cultural transformation
To conclude this sermon, I shall leave you with a renewed call for cultural transformation. The transformation of culture, the potential for the rebuilding of Christian civilization here in the West, is immeasurable. And it all starts with that simple “inside-out” approach.

As the great Puritan, Richard Greenham wrote, “Surely if men were careful to reform themselves first, and then their own families, they should see God’s manifold blessing in our land and upon church and commonwealth. For of particular persons come families; of families towns; of towns provinces; of provinces, whole realms.”


The key to godly cultural transformation, the key to the future, is in our homes, as individuals living in humble obedience to Christ, and as families saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh. 24:14-5) This is the key to the flourishing of the kingdom of God. In order for freedom to flourish and the kingdom of God to grow, statism must be resisted, and eventually the state must be reduced back to the limits of its biblical sphere sovereignty.

Again, cultural transformation will not happen by political revolution, but by the power of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of God’s Word; by faith and repentance that leads to personal and familial obedience to God’s revealed law in each area of life.

CONCLUSION

We’ve been given an incredible historical heritage. Just as God brought Israel out of the bondage of Egypt and brought them into a land of milk and honey, so too did He deliver the Puritans from the tyranny of the kings of Europe, and brought them to the New World—a land of milk and honey. The Puritans were faithful to remember God in all things, and therefore God blessed their efforts, and we are still reaping much of the fruit of their labors. Yet, the reality is that we have not heeded Moses’ warning to the Israelites that we read at the beginning of this sermon.
 
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His rules and His statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.
 
As a nation, we have not remembered the Lord who delivered us out of the bonds of tyranny. We’ve become fat and sassy, and in our great wealth and luxury we have abandoned our first love. And like all of the other nations of the earth that have perished before the Lord, so too shall our nation perish if it does not repent and once more obey His voice.

Our nation is at a point of crisis. And as Christians, we can either seek to rebuild upon the historic foundation that was laid for us through the blood, sweat, and tears of the Puritans, or we can sit back and continue to watch our nation sink into the sands of statism and godlessness. If we would honor and serve Christ, if we cherish our freedom, if we love liberty now and for our children, then we must call our nation to humble itself before the King of kings and Lord of lords.
We must stand with the glorious promise of Scripture that assures us:
 
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. (Rev. 11:15)

 

[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990), 22 and 25.

[2] Ibid, 28-29.

[3] John Flavel, Works, IV:373-375.


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