Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England.
Antinomians are familiar protagonists in accounts of mid-seventeenth-century English radicalism. Little considered have been questions of provenance and motivation. Whence emerged those who either diminished or utterly repudiated the law of God and, with it, the many "legal" austerities administered by puritan pastors? What prompted aversion to the law and to its penitential correlates? Having mastered a breathtakingly rich archival and printed deposit, David Como offers carefully considered answers to such questions. He maps a broadly spread (though London-centered) religious ambience--a network of ideas and practices configured in the 1620s, dispersed in the early 1630s, and resuscitated in more propitious circumstances and locales later in the decade and in the 1640s. Importantly, Como situates the pre-Civil-War antinomians within a generative puritan culture, enabling him to explicate the differences--both profound and
subtle--that exercised the energies of like-minded souls. Blown by the Spirit is an immense, meticulously researched, enlightening, and challenging study of the social and intellectual terrain of early Stuart puritanism, and in particular of the convulsive relations among brethren that spawned an "antinomian movement" of explosive potential and transatlantic reach. Digging into the culture of puritan practical divinity, Como excavates a "dimly lit world" of religious disputation, teasing out the complex dynamics that informed a contest for the "contours of godly religiosity" (89, 394). This is a story of how puritans came to be menaced by the spiritualizing and law-renouncing excesses of their confessional colleagues. The story is captivating. Learnedly and elegantly, Como establishes connections between individuals and groups (while registering differences of emphasis and orientation), reconstructs intellectual predilections and systems, and formulates some daring conjectures about appropriations and amplifications.
Early chapters address historiography; the structure of the antinomian "subculture"; the politics and process of controversy; and the theological context in which disputants operated. The core of the book (chapters 5-9) investigates antinomian responses to the realization that mainstream puritans were "the product of miscegenation between Law and Gospel" (195). Como, here, isolates two discrete though partially interlocking strains of antinomianism, the "imputative" or "Eatonist" and the "perfectionist" or "inherentist." The former offered means of insulating the evangelical message against the blight of legalism by showing how Christ's substitutionary obedience had rendered believers free from sin in the sight of God, and the latter so stressed the transformative efficacy of Christ or Spirit as to obviate the need for conventional forms and protocols of devotion. Both strains evoked offerings of God's unilateral beneficence in order to propagate a "joyful," liberating (though not a licentious) alternative to a puritan predicament described, not entirely fairly, as "the extorted, slavish obedience of the godly, who acted not out of love for God, but out of fear for their own souls" (215, 258-60, 377).
Como speaks of "streams" and "flows"; difficulties follow upon questions of depth. Sectarians operate in the deeps; a Familist "current," for example, flows "quietly beneath the waters of London puritanism" (7). What does the deep sectarian current have to do with the "puritan mainstream" that it flows beneath? Is the traffic between mainstream and deep current merely adventitious, or is there more interpenetration going on than might be suggested by metaphors of surface and depth? If Como's story relates the disintegration of a nonseparating "godly community," at what point does it make sense to speak of a "sectarian" dimension? Como's book is very much an inquiry into "intra-puritan" controversy, a drama of "puritan fragmentation and the related issue of radical puritan origins," of which "the process of sectarian fragmentation" is an important component (22-23, 439). Edward Fisher embodies the problem of depth. Fisher consorts with "sectaries" and distributes their literature, facilitating the flow of a deep current--one whose depth ensures distance from puritan hooks--and yet Fisher's "passage out of pharisaical legalism" had, by his own avowal, been prompted by a disabusing engagement with the puritan Thomas Hooker (3, 6). More problematic are John Everarde and "perfectionist" hybrids, who swim in currents so deeply numinous or so "private" (346, 356) as scarcely to mingle with puritan waters.
Como contends, in dissent from T. D. Bozeman, that London's antinomian controversy occurred within the "fractured landscape" of puritanism. Antinomians were "inextricably embedded" in that landscape, forming "an underground within an underground." They intensified the inherent volatility of puritanism in cultivating a distinctive and provocative--yet, at root, decidedly puritan--religiosity (29-31). Como strives to portray the lineaments of a single, heterogeneous culture. He makes the important point that consensus-seeking means were frequently pursued and that differences became irreconcilable only over the passage of time. A puritan controversy became increasingly acrimonious and self-destructive once positions hardened and political imperatives intervened. Thus, puritanism accommodated a considerable diversity of thought and action before seams were burst open in the latter 1620s. Antinomianism "represented an evolutionary trend within puritanism, rather than a separate and discrete stream flowing from a distinct source" (28). Itself a multiplicity of strains, however, antinomianism boasts a compounded lineage, appearing later in the book as a convergence of "several separate streams, each emanating from a distinct source" (138). To say, then, that antinomianism wore a puritan provenance is to credit the complexity of a puritanism that maintained "permeable boundaries," whose "margins" blended into a "separatist fringe" or "sectarian frontier" transporting influences exotic, esoteric, enthusiastic (172, 347). Such fluidity may not please those who prefer puritans and sectarians in separate packages; and the locational metaphors cause occasional confusion, as when London's antinomians, to whose constitutive "underground" sinews much detailed attention is paid in chapter 2, are described at the beginning of the following chapter as having been "driven underground" only by 1633 (74). But this is a book of substance, and its stimulating theses are pursued with tenacity and integrity.
Puritan divinity represents a crucial explanatory phenomenon. Como's antinomians "emerged" from a "deep internal fissure" that opened up within puritanism in consequence of a Pauline legacy of unresolved tensions and contradictions concerning the persistence and remit of the Mosaic Law (131). Chapter 4 offers a sophisticated reading of the mainstream against which the antinomian counterflow contended. Here and elsewhere the tendency is to stress the generative culture's austere complexion, to emphasize the puritan exploitation of the rigorist vein of the Pauline bequest: puritanism provides "spiritual succor"--though only eventually, as a final payoff for prolonged and fastidious compliance with regulation (136). Como's approach is legitimate, given the heat that was radiated by disagreements about divine law; and he has done a splendid job of specifying his protagonists' discontents with puritan soteriology and pastoral practice. But, by Como's lights, the antinomians constituted a puritan subculture; and what is not sufficiently delineated is the breadth of commonality between the mainstream and its rebellious issue. To be sure, Como provides a fine anatomization of the puritan forms of antinomian sociability, and he rightly stresses the Eatonists' indebtedness to Reformed conceptions of divine-human relations that structured the thinking of the mainstream. But more could have been said about what the antinomians assimilated from puritan theology--from that without which antinomianism "could not have existed" (137).
Thus, as Como is aware, the pharisee was a cautionary trope for the puritan as well as for the antinomian (133, 245), but what also needs to be acknowledged is that anxiety about empty legalism could turn puritan attentions to the divine underpinnings of sanctification, stimulating pronouncements concerning the unconditioned efficacy of grace and the transformative and testamentary offices of the Spirit. Prevenient grace anchored the discipline of law-based obedience. Puritans theologized heroically in order to inject into the ordo salutis the duties of the law, and to show how the latter could be discharged not slavishly but--by virtue of grace--lovingly and voluntarily and joyfully. Ultimately, salvation was contingent on unmerited favor, and there is reason to suppose that the puritan discourse of grace offered resources for undoing its own carefully articulated integration of divine and human--or gracious and legalistic--inputs into the journey to salvation. Were antinomian notions born of the appropriation of such resources? Other scholars have approached this question, and Como might have profited from areas of scholarship not represented in his bibliography. John von Rohr and Michael McGiffert have seen in covenant theology a fertile construct, a means of managing impulses both shared and disputed--able, at once, starkly to manifest points of disagreement between mainstream and antinomian minds while channeling the latent antinomian dispositions of the mainstream. So conceived, antinomians belong within the puritan continuum, and the puritan outrage at antinomian excess becomes intelligible in the context of the spoliation of a common provenance. Como constricts his purview of covenant theology to the antinomian side, depriving himself of an avenue into development of the "evolutionary trend" thesis. Charles Lloyd Cohen has shown us a puritan conversionary sensibility enriched by love and joy and other gifts of the Spirit, revealing a grace that could both stimulate pietistic effort and dispense an "easing" of the consciousness of sin. Here, too, are significant implications for a rendering of puritan-antinomian commonality.
David Como has composed a thoroughly engaging account of ideological mutation. He depicts an ebullient scene, full of passionate intellectual exchanges and treacherous political machinations; he identifies strains and hybridizations, and tells of the porous cultural boundaries that enabled their emergence. Blown by the Spirit is an important book, and Como deserves warm congratulations for having written it.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
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