Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Vincent Cheung and 18th century English Hyper-Calvinism: Social religious contexts

First, we may note that after the Restoration in 1660 orthodox Calvinism became, as it were, a cause under siege. The majority of Puritans who were orthodox Calvinists left the Church of England in 1662 to become Noncomformists. Thus the religious leadership of the nation was lodged firmly in the hands of men who were either Arminian or moderately Calvinistic in theology. The ejected ministers, being Noncomformists, were placed under harsh and cruel restrictions until 1688 and this severely curtailed their influence upon the religious thought of the nation. As the older men died their places were taken by younger men who had been educated under liberalizing influences in Holland and so a Moderated Calvinism gradually became popular, especially amongst the Presbyterian Dissenters. As the years passed by High Calvinism became more and more the sole preserve of the Independents and the Particular Baptists. The Antinomian controversy of the 1690s served to widen the gap between High Calvinism and Moderated Calvinism, and as the eighteenth century passed by, High Calvinism became in the main, the faith of the poorly-educated Independents and Baptists. These men who clung to the doctrines of High Calvinism saw themselves as a group preserved by God in an apostate age to defend “the faith once delivered to the saints”. Their time was taken up by the defence of their faith and it was in this atmosphere of a cause under siege that Hyper-Calvinism was born and nurtured. [Peter Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689-1765 (London, UK: The Olive Tree, 1967), 146]

England in the late 17th and early 18th century was a time of moderation of religion. It was the Augustan era, which was followed by the Victorian era. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 had deposed the last Roman Catholic Stuart Monarch James II. James II had presided over the continued persecution of Nonconformity and the killing fields of Scotland, where he tried to impose Prelacy upon the Scots. After all the inter-confessional strife, the terrible 30-years war (1619-1648) on the continent and both the English Civil war (1642-1651) and the ruthless persecution and bloodletting following the Restoration of 1660, European Christianity entered into the deconfessional and nascent Enlightenment era. People desired peace and toleration, even within the churches. What was the point of continued strife, as if killing everyone who disagreed with you was an answer to anything? In 1689, the Act of Toleration was signed into law allowing for the meeting of Protestant Dissenters, but not Roman Catholics, as long as they register with the government.

The times were changing. This was the period preceding the Industrial Revolution. Descartes had kick-started modern thought as he tried to come up with a third way (tertia via), as a reaction to the terrible massacres of the wars of religion. The turn to reason or empirical inquiry sought to ground knowledge on something more objective that can be argued for, instead of the confessional impasse between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Contrary to modern rationalism, non-French Enlightenment was not trying to supplant religion altogether, but rather Anglo-American Enlightenment thought desired to use reason to explicate the truths of religion. The Enlightenment in its three main forms (French, Anglo-American, German) can be seen as the bitter reaction against the Constantinian captivity of the Church in both its Roman and Protestant forms.

It is not surprising, though sad, that people were abandoning the Christian faith for the new teachings. Socinianism came into England where it was embraced by members within the Church of England, and it provoked controversy within the Anglican Communion (Toon, 36-7). Samuel Clarke, a rationalist and biblicist, published his Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity in 1712 which examined the doctrine of the Trinity and denied it as being taught in Scripture (ibid., 37). We must remember that Clarke was not denying the Trinity because of any denial of the authority of Scripture. Rather, he was claiming that precisely because He follows Scripture only (biblicistically), the doctrine of the Trinity should be denied. Within the establishment, the eruption of Socinianism and Arianism caused much controversy

Among the Calvinistic Dissenters, many were influenced by the "moderate Calvinism" of the school of Saumur (most famous for its "4-point Calvinism or Amyraldism). Others followed Richard Baxter's Neonomian thought. The "moderate Calvinism" proved to be a Trojan Horse for many errors. In the continent, "moderate Calvinism" resulted in deconfessionalism and the toleration of errors in the days of Jean-Alphonse Turretin in the early 18th century. In England, "moderate Calvinism" became the vehicle for rationalism in religion resulting in many dissenters, particularly Presbyterians, denying the doctrine of the Trinity and becoming Arians (ibid., 39). In both establishment and dissenting circles, apostasy from the faith was rife. It was truly a sad time for orthodoxy.

The orthodox party among the dissenters consists mostly of less learned laymen, and increasingly, many of them were Baptists. (ibid., 146). Faced with the assault upon orthodoxy, they felt obliged to defend the faith. Many of them were self-taught and sought to defend the Calvinistic faith as best as they could. Being less learned, there was a tendency to veer towards the opposite error of what they were opposing, and this led to the various controversies that will plague Noncomformity in the early 18th century.

The relevance this has for today can be seen in the similar environment we find ourselves in. Mainstream Christianity, both mainline and evangelical, are riddled with all manner of errors, many of them serious. There is a need to defend the faith and affirm the truths taught in Scripture. More particularly, there is much soft-pedaling of Calvinism even within the so-called "New Calvinist" circles, in which their "Calvinism" has more in common with Amyraldism than true orthodox Calvinism. The social religious contexts of both early 18th century England and our times are very similar. In both situations, there is a dire need for sound teaching, and in both situations, catastrophe strikes even within orthodoxy.

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