Overview of the Seventeenth Century

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The seventeenth century was one of the most intense, vivid, and impactful centuries in Christian history. It was as if all the issues raised by the sixteenth-century Reformation were poured out into the seventeenth century and shaken violently, and the resulting explosive blend tipped out again to ignite the following centuries, right up to the present. In this brief overview, we can only glance at some of the main themes that continue to resonate down to our own time.

SCHOLATICSM

The seventeenth century was the great era of Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism. The heirs of Martin Luther and John Calvin delighted in mapping out comprehensive systems of theology. The word system was their own: it stems from a Greek word meaning “an organized whole.” Among Lutherans, perhaps Johannes Quenstadt of Wittenberg (1617–88) was the ultimate systematic theologian; among the Reformed, it was Francis Turretin of Geneva (1623–87).

The word scholasticism sometimes has a bad connotation, but it shouldn’t. It refers to these scholars’ kinship with the medieval scholastic theologians in being committed to systematic exposition of doctrine, but this time with Reformational content. It also points to their sharing with Thomas Aquinas, the supreme systematician of the Middle Ages, an acceptance of Aristotelian methods of categorizing ideas as the safest guide in philosophy. The Protestant scholastics, however, were perfectly clear that they did not regard Aristotle as a theological authority. Here they looked above all to Scripture, and also to the best of the church’s theological tradition.

Protestant scholastics are sometimes accused of sacrificing biblical Christianity to an abstract metaphysics. It is hard, though, to actually read the Protestant scholastics and think one is breathing non-Christian air. They may have had faults, but ignoring the Bible was not one of them. Many a time the present writer has come away from reading Turretin with his heart strangely warmed.

The whole enterprise of Protestant systematic theology to this day rests on the shoulders (or heads) of our scholastic forefathers. They deserve better press than they have sometimes been given. If you are within the Reformed tradition, you could do worse than buy a copy of Turretin and read what he has to say.

CONFESSIONALISM

For the English-speaking world, the seventeenth century bequeathed another legacy: the documents of the Westminster Assembly, which met intermittently from 1643 to 1653. Among its products are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These were the finest fruits of British Reformed theology at that time, and they have molded the thinking and piety of Reformed English speakers ever since.

Nor has their influence been confined to Presbyterians. When English Congregationalists adopted their own confession of faith (the Savoy Declaration) in 1658, it was a slightly modified version of the Westminster Confession. Again, when English Reformed Baptists in 1689 set forth their confession it was likewise Westminster slightly modified. The Baptists even went so far as to attach a preface stating they had deliberately embraced Westminster as an act of Reformed ecumenism. To this day, these confessions live on.

PURITANISM

The mention of the Westminster Assembly alerts us to the fact that the seventeenth century was the “Puritan century.” Debates about the origin and nature of Puritanism are legion. Perhaps we can short-circuit them here by simply saying that there is a body of English Christians whom we today acknowledge as Puritans, and that from them has descended to us a remarkably rich spiritual literature, equally doctrinal and experiential. If you have ever read Richard Baxter, Thomas Watson, Thomas Brooks, Richard Sibbes, John Flavel, or their like, you will know what I mean.

The original aim of those nicknamed “Puritans” was to continue the Reformation within the Church of England, seeking to make it an ever more effectively Protestant and Reformed body. Few at first thought that this would mean getting rid of bishops. But by the mid-seventeenth century, the Anglican bishops had (in Puritan eyes) become such hopeless defenders of the status quo that many Puritans embraced Presbyterianism. Others, even more radically, passed into Congregationalism. Some even became Reformed Baptists (or, as they were known at the time, Particular Baptists—the “particular” referring to their belief in particular redemption, thus distinguishing them from Arminian or General Baptists).

Perhaps unfortunately, Puritanism became entangled with English political and constitutional struggles, culminating in the English Civil War of 1642–51. In this breakdown of relations between the English monarchy (in the person of King Charles I) and its Parliament, most Puritans rallied to the side of Parliament, seeing in it a better defender of their religious aspirations. Despite defeating Charles I on the battlefield, the Puritan–Parliament alliance ended in confusion and ruin; Parliament, dominated by Presbyterians, fell out with its own army, dominated by Congregationalists and Baptists, whose first priority was religious toleration for all Protestants.

This conflict between Parliament and the army resulted, from 1653 to 1658, in the “godly dictatorship” of Oliver Cromwell, the army’s brilliant military leader and an ardent devotee of religious liberty. The entanglement of Puritanism with politics meant that when the monarchy was finally restored in 1660, royalists had political reasons for fearing, distrusting, even detesting Puritans. From this flowed a long persecution of Puritans outside the national church, ending only in 1689, with the accession of King William III (William of Orange, a Dutch Calvinist) and Queen Mary II. A nation exhausted by religious conflict agreed at last that the whole idea of a single national church to which all must belong was unrealistic.

To the seventeenth century, therefore, flowing from the English Civil War and its aftermath, we owe the permanent division in England between Anglicans and Nonconformists (or Dissenters): those who accept a state church governed by the monarch through bishops, and those who do not. For the first time, a Protestant nation committed itself to Protestant diversity. Here were the first green shoots of religious liberty as we know it. Here too, in the English Nonconformist tradition, was a whole new vital force in the Christian life of English speakers, which would do great things for God. In England itself, the Congregational and Baptist branches of Nonconformity had an illustrious history. Think of John Bunyan, John Owen, Isaac Watts, William Carey, C.H. Spurgeon, and many others.

AMERICAN COLONIALISM

The seventeenth century also saw the first English Protestant settlers establish themselves in America. The earliest such colony was Jamestown in Virginia, founded in 1607. It was an Anglican merchants’ settlement, but tinged with Puritanism (shown in its strong laws on Sabbath observance).

More famously, a little later, came the Separatist colony of Plymouth in Massachusetts, founded in 1620. Separatists were Puritans who, unlike the majority of their Puritan brethren, had broken entirely with the Anglican Church, seeing no possibility of reforming it from within. The Separatists who arrived in November 1620 on the ship Mayflower went on to celebrate the first Thanksgiving in 1621 after a good harvest. Their community heralded the Great Migration of 1630–40, when some twenty thousand English Separatists left the mother country for America, founding “New England” on the American East Coast. New England, with its Puritan origins, was to have a profound formative influence on the new nation taking shape on the American continent.

JANSENISM

Protestants may not be so familiar with developments in the Roman Catholic Church in the seventeenth century, but these were significant. In fact, this century witnessed one of the most explosive conflicts ever experienced within Roman Catholicism: the Jansenist controversy. It was named after Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), who lectured in theology at Louvain University in the Spanish Netherlands (roughly modern-day Belgium). Although Roman Catholicism had in some measure reacted against the Augustinian doctrine of grace during the storms of the Reformation, Augustinianism was by no means dead within Catholicism, and Jansen sought to revive it. His chief instrument was a book titled Augustinus, a commentary on Augustine’s treatises concerning grace. Jansen died just before the book rolled off the presses in 1640, but his intimate friend Saint-Cyran (1581–1643), a distinguished French abbot, ensured that the book had a lively reception in France.

We cannot follow the dramatic twists and turns of the controversy here, but Jansenism became a powerful force within the French Catholic Church. The Jansenists have been called French Catholic Puritans, and they have always attracted the admiration of Protestants both then and now. William Cunningham, the prince of nineteenth-century Scottish Reformed theologians, described the Jansenists as “the best body of men that the Church of Rome ever produced.” Their foremost thinker was Blaise Pascal (1623–62), a genius-level scientist, philosopher, and theologian whose fame lives on undimmed to the present day. Pascal’s most enduring legacy is his apologetic work Pensées (Thoughts), which is leavened all through with an Augustinian sense of human frailty and the impotence of autonomous human reason to find the true and living God.

The ultimate defeat of Jansenism in the eighteenth century dealt a virtually fatal blow to the survival of Augustinianism within the Roman Catholic Church. The legacy of Augustine’s doctrine of grace would instead live on within the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

ARMINIANISM

The Reformed faith itself, however, had its own defining controversy about grace in the seventeenth century, in the shape of the Arminian controversy. Named after the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), the controversy brought the Dutch Republic to the brink of civil war (religion, as usual in the seventeenth century, was interwoven with politics). Arminius and his followers questioned the Augustinian understanding of grace that had been the reigning orthodoxy up till then within the Dutch Reformed Church. They were perhaps not so much innovators as representatives of an alternative tradition of Erasmian humanism that had always been present within Dutch Protestantism. If we remember Erasmus’ dispute with Luther summed up in Luther’s Bondage of the Will, we get a taste of the Arminian challenge to Calvinism.

Arminians set forth their distinctive positions in a manifesto known as the Remonstrance (in 1610, the year after Arminius’ death). Here they affirmed that divine election was conditional on God’s foreknowledge of who would believe, and that divine grace, while necessary to empower the sin-deadened human will, can always be resisted. The Remonstrance had five points, and it prompted the defenders of Augustinian theology to counter them with five points of their own in the Counter-Remonstrance (1611).

At length, political factors conspired to facilitate a gathering of Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians at the city of Dort (or Dordrecht) in 1618–19, to which representatives of other Reformed churches outside the Netherlands were invited. Here the Canons of Dort were crafted, re-affirming an Augustinian perspective on the disputed points, although in moderate language—the Canons are far from being an anti-Arminian rant. Here was a new gold standard of orthodoxy for the Reformed faith concerning the proper understanding of God’s grace in salvation. The five points of Calvinism derive from the Canons and the earlier Counter-Re-monstrance. It should be noted, however, that these five points are by no means a summary of Calvinism as a whole; they summarize only its understanding of grace in response to the Arminian challenge. There is much more to the Reformed faith than the five points.

AMYRALDIANISM

The debate about grace within the Reformed faith was not yet over. In 1634, the French Reformed thinker Moise Amyraut (1596–1664) published his Brief Treatise on Predestination. To borrow some famous words about Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, it landed like a bomb in the playground of the theologians. The Reformed world, especially in France, was convulsed by controversy almost to the end of the century by Amyraut’s ideas.

In essence, it was a controversy about the best way to state the universal dimensions of the atonement. Probably all Reformed theologians at the time would have consented that Christ’s death was sufficient for all. Amyraut wanted to place this sufficiency within the context of God’s saving intention. His view was that in His eternal purpose, God sent Christ to save all humanity, with the effect of this mission being conditional on faith. Then God purposed to give faith to some (the elect) so that Christ’s death would actually bear saving fruit in their case. Many found this attractive and acceptable, but just as many did not. Opponents regarded Amyraut’s thesis as a watering-down of Reformed orthodoxy in an Arminian direction. The views of Amyraut became known as Amyraldianism, after the Latinized form of his name.

The internal conflict within the Reformed faith over Amyraldianism was never fully resolved; there was no international synod like that of Dort to debate and settle the issue. In France itself, Amyraldianism eventually won over most French pastors and theologians. Outside France, it fared much worse. The foremost giant of Reformed scholasticism, Francis Turretin, although conceding that Amyraldians were Reformed men, argued strongly against their views, and his critique became the majority report. In the divine order of decrees in eternity, God’s choice to save the elect took logical priority over His decree to provide a Savior in Christ. The Amyraldian way of stating the universal aspect of the atonement was therefore invalid, since it reversed this order.

PIETISM

The seventeenth century also saw the birth of Pietism. This began as a movement for the spiritual renewal of the German Lutheran churches. Its grandfather was Lutheran pastor Johann Arndt (1553–1621), whose influential treatise True Christianity, published in four volumes between 1605 and 1610, set forth eloquently the place of sanctification in the life of authentic faith.

Its impact spilled out well beyond the frontiers of Lutheranism. For instance, it became the favorite spiritual reading of the great Russian Orthodox bishop and saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724–83). Tikhon, in advising a young Russian on his religious reading, said of Arndt’s True Christianity: “Always, morning and night, study the Bible and Arndt; you should only skim other books.”

Arndt was the supreme influence on the father of Pietism, Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), a Lutheran pastor serving at various points in Frankfurt, Dresden, and Berlin. From Arndt, Spener conceived a method for revitalizing German Lutheranism, which he felt had become unduly obsessed with head knowledge at the expense of the heart. He published his method in 1675 in the treatise Pia Desideria (Holy desires). Spener made six proposals for Lutheran renewal:


(1)The committed practice of Bible study by all church members, for example, in small discussion groups
(2)The active involvement of the laity in church life—there must be no one-man ministry
(3)An emphasis on the living practice of Christian love as more import-ant than a mere head knowledge of doctrine
(4)An emphasis on what unites Christians across denominational divides as against theological quarrels, for example, between Lutherans and Calvinists
(5)The reform of pastoral training so that spiritual formation of soul and character are the main focus, not the mere transmission of scholarship
(6)An emphasis on preaching as simple and edifying, not mere rehearsals of Lutheran orthodoxy with denunciations of all who disagree (Arndt would be a model of good preaching)

Soon Lutherans all over Germany were reading Pia Desideria. An instant best seller, it went through four editions over the next three decades and was translated into Latin for the international scholarly market. Some Lutherans condemned it as having a disparaging attitude to theology, overemphasizing the religious role of emotion, and being soft on Calvinists, but others, including Lutheran scholastics, commended the book. By the close of the seventeenth century, Pia Desideria had unloosed a river of Pietist influence that flowed not only in Germany but in Lutheran Scandinavia too, and which crossed religious barriers to find a friendly reception in Reformed Switzerland and the Reformed Dutch Republic.

The other great Pietist figure was August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), a disciple of Spener. He was principal of a new university at Halle, funded by Prince Frederick III of Brandenburg-Prussia (himself an admirer of Spener). The university was established specifically as a nursery of Pietism, combining academic pursuits with spiritual formation of students. Alongside his work in the university, Francke also founded orphanages and schools for street children and a Bible institute for printing and distributing Bibles and Christian literature at cheap prices. He also helped to make Pietist Lutheranism into the first effective force for Protestant missions outside Europe.

Francke himself possessed a sense of the necessity of world missions as an integral part of the coming of Christ’s kingdom. He did everything in his power to implant this conviction in his students at Halle. There remained, however, the practical problem of how to get missionaries into non-Christian countries and support them while they worked there. Roman Catholic missionaries had the vast overseas empires of Spain and Portugal to ferry them abroad and protect them. What could Protestants do?

The answer came in the shape of a Protestant king: Frederick IV of Denmark (1699–1730). Frederick had a German Pietist chaplain, Franz Julius Liitkins (1650–1712), who imparted to Frederick the Pietist enthusiasm for mission. The Danish king resolved to imitate the zeal of Catholic monarchs in promoting overseas evangelism. There was a Danish colony in Tranquebar, on the coast of southeast India, where the Danes ruled over native Indians whose religion was Hinduism. Frederick decided to send missionaries to work among these Hindu natives. Where would he find people prepared to surrender their lives to such a calling? He consulted Francke in Halle; Francke immediately recommended two of his students, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) and Henry Plütschau (1676–1747). They accepted King Frederick’s offer, sailed at the close of 1705, and set foot in Tranquebar on July 9, 1706.

Ziegenbalg and Plütschau were the first Protestant missionaries to India. The Danish Pietist mission they founded at Tranquebar would have a 130-year history (1707–1837), during which fifty-four missionaries worked in the area. Since Ziegenbalg wrote regularly to his sponsors back in Europe, we know a lot about the early mission, its trials and triumphs. Certainly, it enjoyed significant success; when Ziegenbalg died in 1719, he and Plütschau had established a 350-strong Lutheran congregation in Tranquebar. Not all its members were Hindu converts (some were slaves of colonists, some were ex-Catholics), but many were.

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