Archive Eric Parker Nota Bene

Dissertation on Puritanism and Natural Theology

Speaking of natural theology in the Reformed tradition, a friend directed me to a fairly recent dissertation on the subject by Wallace W. Marshall, entitled “Puritanism and Natural Theology.” Rarely does a dissertation threaten to upend long-standing historical narratives. Marshall’s dissertation does exactly that, adding much needed clarification to this very important issue. Marshall sets out to disprove the widespread belief that Puritan religion was not a rational religion and  states his case quite convincingly. His dissertation is available on ProQuest. Here is the abstract:

It is generally believed that natural theology had a sharply diminished if not nonexistent role in Puritanism. Indeed, insofar as the history of Protestantism in the English-speaking world is concerned, both natural theology and evidentialism are usually represented as having arisen during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, being triggered by the rise of modern science and especially the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason. Puritanism, moreover, often functions as the contrasting background against which the rise of natural theology and evidentialism are related.

The overwhelming majority of Puritan theologians, however, were firm believers in the legitimacy of natural theology and evidentialism. Even the small minority of dissenters did not reject natural theology but merely expressed reservations about its usefulness. These arguments were employed by Puritans in pastoral, apologetic, and evangelical contexts, and they played a vital role in Puritan missions to the Indians of New England. Some English Puritans even asserted that those who had never heard of Christianity could be saved through the knowledge afforded by natural theology-though not, of course, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit.

Although the Puritans were rational theologians, they were emphatically not rationalistic. They relished the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility and considered it to be the apex of rational natural theology. Similarly, while they maintained that the inspiration of the Bible could be proved by rational arguments and that nothing in the Bible could be “contrary” to reason, they insisted that it was eminently reasonable to expect that a divine revelation would contain doctrines “above” human reason. In terms of the systemic function of reason within Puritan theology and apologetics, there is little difference between English and American Puritanism or between the early and later stages of the movement. However, a comparison of the early seventeenth century to the period after roughly 1640 does reveal a noticeable shift in the rhetoric of reason in certain types of Puritan sermonic discourse. The evidence for this shift is fragmentary, but it seems sufficient for a tentative conclusion (Wallace, PhD. Diss., Boston College, 2007).

Marshall boldly states, contrary to much of the popular literature, that as for Aquinas, “Grace renewing and perfecting nature was the Puritan missionary paradigm. As Increase Mather declared, “except men give Credit to the principles of natural, they will never believe the Principles of revealed Religion” (Ibid., p. 14).

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.