Randall J. Pederson, “Reformed orthodoxy in Puritanism,” Perichoresis 14:3 (2016), pp. 45-59. [This essay is available on open access.]

Focusing on Richard Baxter, John Goodwin, and John Owen (“who typifies a rigorous and eclectic Reformed orthodoxy,” p. 47), Randall Pederson’s new essay complicates older accounts of the theological formation of English puritanism by illustrating significant patterns of divergence in the construction of orthodoxy. Older generations of historians presented “a monolithic Puritanism that was synonymous with orthodox thought,” arguing that “the English Puritan was by definition ‘orthodox’.” Revisionists, he reports, have “questioned this view as naïve, simplistic, and untenable given the evidence, and have instead insisted that Puritanism should not be defined by its ‘mind’ or orthodoxy, but by its impulse for spiritual reform, or ‘in terms of a common outlook, ethos or culture’” (p. 47). Pederson moves beyond this debate by arguing for “a conglomerate of doctrine and manners that had a mainline expression, centered on a Reformed orthodox view of the Bible, its interpretation, and application to life, but which also, signaling its heterogeneity, embraced various doctrinal malcontents, who emerged from that tradition and challenged it, but who were nonetheless influenced and changed by it.” He suggests that scholarship should “distinguish between mainline Puritans who shared the doctrinal standards of Reformed orthodoxy and more marginal Puritans who deviated from (some of) these standards but nevertheless continued to be part of the Puritan movement because of their shared spirituality” (p. 47). Pederson proposes that we should see “Reformed orthodoxy as a refining and purifying process of the Puritan majority, which sought unity in an age of confessions, but did not necessarily expect uniformity” (p. 48).

Pederson argues this thesis in a survey of the doctrines of scripture and justification advanced by three key “puritans.” He notes the “resurgence” of interest in Owen in recent years, and argues that “through his rigorous affective piety and theological precision, Owen, perhaps more than any other Puritan, epitomizes mainstream Reformed belief, practice, and dogmatics in the seventeenth century” (p. 48). He observes that the “portrait of Richard Baxter portrayed in the literature is often distorted and does not give consideration to the overall tenor of his work and theology” (p. 50), though Paul Lim has described him as the father of Unitarianism. John Goodwin went much farther than Baxter in modifying the theology of the puritan mainstream: “theological influences, interpretations, and synergistic impulses pushed him into directions the Reformed orthodoxy vehemently opposed. Though he retained much of Puritanism’s ethos and culture, he abandoned its confession; though a Puritan, he was a Puritan of a different sort” (p. 54).

Thus the debate about the proper definition of “Puritan” shows no signs of being concluded. Pederson’s conclusion, that “the unity in diversity that can be seen at the center becomes blurred at the edges” (p. 55), certainly represents the theological competition that existed in the middle of the seventeenth century. But the category continues to be problematic. Why should we continue to associate John Owen and John Goodwin within a single movement or community when their work emphasised their  differences in the most emphatic manner? We can only assume that Owen, Baxter and Goodwin shared the same spirituality if we also assume that their spirituality can be divorced from their theology.







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