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Recovering the Reformation we have lost

Monday, October 31, 2016 5:06
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This Reformation Day, we will hear once again all about Martin Luther, the 95 Theses, maybe John Calvin, and maybe a bit about the five solas. It’s all good stuff, but it’s just a small portion of the legacy of the Reformation, and by focusing on the same old smidgen that is all about personal salvation, American Christians will once again let pietism push out the greater breadth and depth of the Reformed heritage. Before you get too far into the second verse of “A Mighty Fortress,” or carve Luther’s face into your pumpkin, let’s stop and think for a moment about the Reformation we have lost.

If I asked you to give me a list of the great Puritans—the direct heirs of the Reformation—your list would almost certainly include famous names such as John Owen, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, maybe Jeremiah Burroughs, William Perkins, William Ames, and one of several Thomases: Boston, Watson, or Brooks. Some who have read further may provide some of the more obscure names reprinted in the twentieth century: Richard Sibbes, Samuel Bolton, Robert Bolton, Obadiah Sedgwick, Ralph Venning. Others will come up—Samuel Rutherford, James Buchanan, and maybe the literary figures, John Milton and John Donne—but then we begin to run out. There are many others, however, and others that are perhaps even more important than these great figures.

Allow me to list some of the most influential Puritan writers of their time along with their impactful writings (see how many you have heard of):

  • Thomas Becon, “The news from heaven” (1541), “A pleasant new nosegay” (1542), “The fortresse of the faithful” (1550), and hundreds of sermons.
  • William Conway, An exortation to charitie (1550)
  • Thomas Lupset, A treatise on charitie (1533)
  • Thomas Starkley, (1533–36)
  • Henry Brinkelow, The lamentation of a Christian against the citie of London (1542), The complaint of Roderyck Mors (1550)
  • Thomas Lever, A fruitful sermon… in Poules churche (1550), and other sermons
  • Thomas Drant, A fruitfull and necessary sermon (1572), and many other sermons
  • Thomas White, preacher and founder of Sion College (1570s–90s)
  • Richard Turnbull, An exposition upon… St. James (1591)
  • Samuel Bird, Lectures (1598)
  • William Harrison, Deaths advantage (1602)
  • Henry Smith, Sermons (1599)
  • Richard Curteys, The care of the conscience (1600)
  • Robert Allen, The oderifferous garden of charitie (1603)
  • William Fulbecke, A book of Christian ethics (1587)
  • Thomas Twyne, The garland of godly flowers (1574)
  • George Whetstone, A mirour for magestrates of cities (1584)
  • Andreas Gerardus, The regiment of the pouertie (1572)
  • Henry Tripp, preacher of Gerardus’ ideas

Never heard of a single one of these men or their works? I had not either, at least not until I read the magnificent work by W. K. Jordan, Philanthropy in England, 1480–1660.[1] Jordan shows how the Protestant Reformation, through preaching and social application of the Gospel, led to an unprecedented outpouring of private charitable giving in society. From fortunes amassed through international trade and businesses fueled by new technology (often funded and advanced by Puritans), Puritans turned to improve society through founding schools and colleges, training workers, relieving and training the poor, and improvements in public works.

The wealthy businessmen in many cases did not merely create these ideas on their own: preachers beginning as early as the reign of Edward VI preached on social improvement from the pulpit. Jordan notes why the money flowed:

These gifts were principally made by men moved by the stirring pleas of the great preachers of the Edwardian Reformation, Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, and the rest, who were warm in their confidence, resolute in their demands on the reformed conscience, and fresh and humane in their view of the social obligations of the Christian conscience.[2]

Examining what we can of the works of such gentlemen we find exactly what Jordan notes. Hugh Latimer, for example, preached his then-famous “Sermon of the Plough” (1548), decrying the nobles and lords who busied themselves with luxurious living and excuses while the poor died in the streets:

In times past men were full of pity and compassion but now there is no pity, for in London their brother shall die in the streets for cold, he shall lie sick at their door between stock and stock. I cannot tell what to call it, and perish there for hunger, was there any more unmercifulness in Nebo [Jer. 48:1]? I think not. . . . Repent therefore repent London and remember that the same God lives now that punished Nebo, even the same God and none other, and he will punish sin as well now as he did then, and he will punish the iniquity of London as well as he did then of Nebo.[3]

We find the same Latimer preaching on very specifics social issues like “Inflation of Prices and Decay of Standards” (1549)—a sermon preached to the face of the King. Latimer said,

So now you have double too much which is too too much. But let the preacher preach until his tongue be worn to stumps, nothing is amended. We have good statutes made for the commonwealth as touching commoners, enclosers, many meetings and Sessions, but in the end of the matter there comes nothing forth. Well, well, this is one thing I will say unto you, from where it comes I know, even from the devil. I know his intent in it. For if you bring it to pass, that the yeomanry be not able to put their sons to school (as indeed universities do wondrously decay already) and that they be not able to marry [off] their daughters to the avoiding of whoredom, I say you pluck salvation from the people and utterly destroy the realm.[4]

These guys obviously had a greater and broader understanding of “salvation” than the pietistic Puritanism that has been presented to us up until now. I wish we could begin to recover it.

Several years ago, many in the evangelical and Reformed community made a push to dig up the works of the Puritans. The great heritage of the English Reformation held many treasures, and some Christians determined to find these lost nuggets and present them to the Christian public. As a result, up-and-coming Calvinists like me walked into a plethora of “Puritan Paperbacks” and the great publications of Soli Deo Gloria (now subsumed under Reformation Heritage Books).

As I grew further in the faith and had more questions, however, I ran across a very sad phenomenon: our treasure hunters have only given us a fraction of the works of the Puritans, and worse, the fraction they have given only deals with a fraction of that for which these great Reformers believed and worked. As a result, our understanding of the Puritans (and thus of the breadth of the Reformation as a whole) has suffered from a certain myopia. We have come to see those great Reformers as churchmen concerned mainly with doctrine, personal conscience, and piety. In short, we have been presented with a pietistic Puritanism. A pietistic market has cherry-picked the Puritans, and stripped them of half their contribution, and perhaps the most important half at that.

I don’t know of any seminary, Christian college, or publishing house (aside from American Vision, anyway) that very much acknowledges, let alone emphasizes, the great social work of our Reformation heritage. There are liberals like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider who would acknowledge it, but only leverage it to lean toward their leftist solutions. Since, to most Christians, social action in general smacks of “Social Gospel”—generally perceived as denuded Gospel and liberal utopianism—conservatives face enormous opposition to returning to this aspect of our own heritage. To bring it up is to risk being tarred-and-feathered with “Social Gospel” or “worldliness” of some sort (which, I can assure you, regularly happens). Evangelicals and most modern Reformed believers therefore retreat inwardly to “personal Jesus” pietism and “don’t-rock-the-boat” church life. Our seminaries and colleges then train pastors and believers to preach and teach to this market alone. Modern Reformed believers ought to add to their five solas, soli pietati, for to think of the Word of God applying to anything outside of your personal salvation and prayer closet is almost treated as something outside the faith. With the exception of Leland Ryken’s book Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were,[5] I don’t know of many conservative Christian books that remind us of the forgotten part of the Reformation: law, government, education, psychology, economics, entrepreneurship, private charities, social activism, criminal justice reform, justice, and more.

This Reformation Day, let’s appreciate what Luther did, but let’s appreciate it for the greater Reformation he helped open up: a broad, comprehensive social Reformation. Let’s return to the type of Reformation that touches every area of life. Let’s not settle for one set of theses on one issue nailed on one church door. Let’s go on to recover the Reformation we have lost. Let’s not stop until every every area of life is thoroughly Reformed, every church door is hounded with the whole Gospel, and there’s a Thomas Gresham on every pumpkin.

[The original of this essay and others like it are available in Inglorious Kingdoms: Saving the Public Square from the Tyrannies of Bad Theology.]

Notes:

[1] All of the sources listed above I have taken from Jordan’s book (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1964 [1959]), 155–179. My list stops with Elizabeth I, and doesn’t even cover the Stuart era and beyond which Jordan goes on to cover. The actual list is much longer.

[2] Jordan, 243–244.

[3] Hugh Latimer, “Sermon of the Plough,” In God’s Name: Examples of Preaching in England from the Act of Supremacy to the Act of Uniformity, 1534–1662, ed. John Chandos (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971), 13. I have modernized the language.

[4] Latimer, “Inflation of Prices and Decay of Standards,” In God’s Name, 16, modernized language.

[5] Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1986. See in particular the chapter “Social Action” on pp. 173–185.

American Vision’s mission is to Restore America to its Biblical Foundation—from Genesis to Revelation. American Vision (AV) has been at the heart of worldview study since 1978, providing resources to exhort Christian families and individuals to live by a Biblically based worldview. Visit www.AmericanVision.org for more information, content and resources

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