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They Did Not See The Same God?

One of the things that is said to put people off Christianity is the way we disagree with one another. It's part of having the freedom to engage our texts,  partly because Christianity is so different and good that men and women struggle to accept it as it is and so easily let a little yeast corrupt the batch, whether from Greek Philosophy, Consumerism, or whatever. There are challenges but finding Christ is by no means impossible, since he comes to us.

Some disputes are famous - such as that at Nicea and subsequently over Arianism (an early version of Jehovah's Witness theology that prefers god to be lonely rather than a community). Or, the East-West divide over aspects of the Trinity. Or that of Luther vs. The Scholastics (aka The Reformation) and so on.

Another is,  The Antinomian Controversy in New England. Don't switch off. Janice Knight's book Orthodoxies in Massachussets is a study into this falling out among New England puritans in the 17th Century. The debate isn't new and in many ways is a rerun of the Reformation... it is also not an obsolete debate. Knight's study is a comparison between two camps which (she openly acknowledges) inevitably highlights differences and polarises categories rather than stressing similarities. There was much common ground, and yet real difference.

What's at stake: God and the gospel.

The first party were The Preparationists or The Intellectual Fathers, Hooker and Shepherd, leaning on the English ministry of William Ames and William Perkins. The other, The Spiritual Brethren, led by John Cotton and others, following the lead of Richard Sibbes and others back in England. In England the Spiritual Brethen 'triumphed' but in New England it was the reverse...

In the opening chapter Knight lays out the ground.
[Intellectual Father] Thomas Shepherd would say to his listeners "wonder then at God's patience that thou livest one day longer, who hast all thy lifetime, like a filthy toad spit thy venom in the face of God"... Knight comments: "for the preparationists sin was an active presence, a blot on the human heart that had to be removed before Christ could consent to enter. Conviction of sin under Law was an essential prerequisite to reception of the 'good news' of grace under the Gospel." (Knight, p20)

By contrast, [Spiritual Brother] John Cotton said to his listeners to "wait like an eager bride for the moment when Christ would 'be-sprinkle you with the blessing of his grace' to attend to the moment when this gentle Bridegroom would come to 'the bed of loves' and shed ' the seeds of his grace.. abroad in your hearts'. Cotton's listener 'resembled no lowly washerwoman scrubbing a filthy rag of a heart. Instead, like the Shulamite, Cotton's saint was the comely bride waiting for the pleasures of union.' More mundanely stated, Cotton believed there are no 'steps to the altar', that the soul was passive until the moment that grace was infused... insisting that the ignorance and scornfulness of carnal hearts does not and cannot hinder the Lord, from piercing or pricking them." (Knight, p21)
It's a dispute about how people become Christians, and then what that Christianity is like... a dispute in the church that inevitably effected society and polictics. Knight highlights (p33) the consequences:
"Though men like Cotton and Hooker read the same Bible, they did not see the same God; when they looked inward they did not see the same creature. Covenant, grace, telos, communitas, had a different taste on the tongue, a different claim on the heart of these first preparationists and pietists."
What's that going to feel like? Two churches in the same area, both 'Christian', both 'Bible-based' and yet something feels very different.
If Shepherd is your pastor what will the preaching feel like? What songs will you sing? What will be the atmosphere in the room?
How about if Cotton is your pastor - what will his preaching be like? What songs would he inspire you to sing? What will it feel like to be a part of Cotton's church? How do we get there? Could my home group have that feel? My team? My church?


  1. Where does Edwards' theology fit into these categories? I know he showed up in the next century, but how was he influenced by one side or the other?

    The quote from Shepherd sounds like it could come right from 'Sinners in the hands of an angry God,' but my (limited) impression of him fits far easier into the Spiritual Brothers.

  2. Knight writes an Epilogue on Edwards suggesting he'd very much be with Sibbes, or at least that this should be considered. People are of course complex. And Sinners' wasn't Edwards only sermon...

    Knight argues that the Spiritual Brethren were largely blotted out of the record in New England having lost the Antinomian Controversy there... so Edwards has been assumed to follow on from the Intellectual Fathers, she appeals that when you read Sibbes and Cotton and others, you see their influence showing up all over Edwards.

  3. Ok, i'm totally with your second paragraph. History belongs to the winners after all! You can see the seeds of southern moralism/legalism in the intellectual fathers quote.

    Is there ever a time for presenting the Gospel in that way? And when is it? Our whole view of the Gospel seems so coloured by the 'filthy toad' approach, it almost seems strange to ask!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Oh, and second question, as Amazon only lets me see a bit and you've done the reading. Is the context preaching addressed to Christians, or to those not yet Christians?

    "Cotton's saint was the comely bride waiting" seems to suggest he was talking to Christians ('saints', 'waiting' - I wouldn't think non-Christians couldn't be described as waiting).

    Perhaps the question is less did they see the same God, but how did they see their hearers?

    Preparationists: only sinners.
    Spiritual Brethern: only saints.

    Shouldn't we be addressing both? Even when speaking to Christians who are caught between the ages?

    Also do they both have inadequate views of the power of God's word to change, and his amazng grace in coming to terrible sinners? The preparationists seem to think you have to clean up a bit first, and then Christ can enter. The Spiritual Brethern seemed to think you weren't that bad in the first place so Christ could enter anyway (Knight says Cotton thought we are just 'minor felon[s] or disobedient child[ren]', p.20).

    But that is just from reading a few pages, so please put me right if I'm getting it wrong.

  6. This is clearer version of coment I deleted:

    Reading your quotes, and looking up a little bit of the context in the Orthodoxies book on Amazon look-inside, is it fair to describe the two parties view of humanity is as follows?

    The Preperationists: humanity in active rebellion, loving other things and hating God.

    The Spiritual Brethern: humanity as empty of good, 'passive' with no attitude to God (p.21: 'sin was an absence of good rather than an active malignancy').

    Thanks for Ron's talks. In them he described Augustine's early view of sin as the Greek concept of an absence of good, but that it moved to a more Biblical concept of being curved in on himself. Ron explains that the early view of sin did not take into account that we are always loving and worshipping something.

    But now I'm confused because it seems that the earlier Augustinian view of sin which Ron dismisses as inadequate is exactly what the Spiritual Brethern were expounding.

  7. @Ed - personally I think there is room for a sermon like Sinners, it's ultimate appeal is to Mercy. I'd think a Sibbesian rich in love has lots of room to speak of wrath. But, Knight draws out in third chapter that: "The Cambridge ministers preached the gaze upward, not inward; the vision of Christ, not the true sight of sin. This was the marrow of their version of Puritan divinity."

  8. @DaveK - Knight says of the Spiritual Brethren that "their conception of evil is mild indeed.". (p86) In her chapter on sin and God's love the impression is that Ames loved to talk about sin, using all his greatest imagery for that, while Cotton & co. saved their strongest images for the love of God.

    I do have questions about some aspects of Cotton which don't seem as well developed as Sibbes. But, then I'm only working on what Knight draws out.

    Later (p119) she speaks of "the first sin or self-love. And that Sibbes would say "God is glorified in making us happy... so we enjoying happiness must glorify God". Thus to love self instead of God would be sinful. And Cotton sees self-interest as sin, when it is interest in things of God rather than God.

    On the kind of audience... it seems that the Spiritual Brethren may have preached to a mixed audience but tended to portray what it would be like to be 'inside' more than 'how to get there' - so they describe the delight of spiritual marriage, for example.

  9. Thanks for that Dave, it is much clearer to me now.

    It is depressing when people love to talk of sin. We're in the ministry of reconcilliation I guess. If we think how we deal with that in human relations when 2 friends are alienated but one has asked you to approach the other on their behalf, if we go up to the offending party and just criticise then you are betraying both friends.

    I think we instictively know the attitude we should have if we are friends of both parties We plead with them not just to be reconcilled, but to realise the wrong they have done. That is not a fun conversation, it is serious but necessary out of love for both the wronged and the person who wronged.

    I think Sibbes gets it just right from the little I've read. His love for both our God and for the people he addressed shines through.

    I got my copies Sunshine of the Gospel through the post recently. Thanks for the work that went into it. It is very nicely produced. I noticed, slightly mischieviously, that on p.14 Sibbes draws the connection between the broken heart in Jer 23:9 and the hammer of 23:29. But, importantly, he goes on to say that "it is not enough for the heart to be broken...hearts must melt...apprehending judgment is a preparation for tenderness but it is not is a kind of fire to melt the heart" on pp.14-16 he has images of breaking and melting, judgment and love for us, hammer and fire. But it is obvious that his joy is in the love of God, and his ultimate desire is for melted hearts not broken ones. I'd love to have a heart like his.

    As an aside, we have a lovely elderly lady in our church, and she went into raptures when I mentioned Sibbes once. Do you find you often want to read books because you meet lovely or thoughtful people, you hear that they love an author etc, and you want to become like them so try reading what they read? That's what often puts me onto books anyway.

    Sorry, I've gone into proper rambling mode... best return to revision.

  10. The Intellectual Fathers vs. Spiritual Brethren's focus is a really interesting thing. Where have we invested most in penetrating communication... we need to speak of sin well, but the adage holds, for every one look at self, ten at Christ! Yet, we'll be accused of being Antinomist and Sin-lite...

    You got "copies"? Nice!

    Yeah I'm often inspired by a person to read. Mike Reeves got me into Sibbes... he's sort of old, a good five years older than me! But I know what you mean, I have the privilege of knowing a few saints from John Stott's generation at Cambridge, I could listen to them for days.

    I'm valuing Knight's work, she clearly leans to the Spiritual Brethren, both as curious losers of history (winners in England), but I don't know much more about her and where she's coming from. I'm keen to read some Cotton to see where he goes, and I've plenty more Sibbes to read - and a second volume of sermons to publish, just working on the footnotes at the moment.

  11. Got three copies as two guys in church (one of whom heard Mike at NWA talk about the publication of the Tender Heart by Banner of Truth) wanted to read and discuss it as a group. I said I'd order copies for us all and came to you.

    High up on my to-read list at the moment is Communion with (the Triune) God by Owen. I'm not a big puritan guy, but far too many people whose character I love (young and old, people I've met and people I haven't) love that book so I don't think I can put it off any longer.

  12. Enjoy. If you can write a book review when you're done and stick it on your blog I'd really appreciate that.

    Communion with the Triune God is harder work but very good.

  13. For Communion with God, you could always go for the Banner 'puritan paperback' series edition - abridged and made easy to read by J K Law, to whom I'm much indebted!

  14. I'll write a review if you'd like. May take a couple of months though.

    I've already got the big pink Christian Focus version looking down on me in an intimidatingly pink way. The trouble with me Rosemary, is that I'm the kind of person who stays to the end of the party. I can't read just a chapter of a book, but have to start at the beginning and finish at the end. If I read the abridged version I'd always be wondering what I was missing out on, and my pride would be hurt as well!


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