Communitarian Puritan

Communitarian Puritan February 26, 2015

William Perkins is known mainly among Reformed Christians with an affinity for the Puritans. It’s refreshing to have now W.B. Patterson’s substantial monograph on Perkins’s life and theology, published last year by Oxford.

After setting the stage with a chapter on the Elizabethan religious settlement, Patterson examines Perkins as “apologist for the church of England,” his soteriological views in conversation with the 39 Articles (especially as expressed in Perkins’s best-known work, The Golden Chain), his pastoral advice, preaching, and the various controversies in which his work entangled him (for instance, the Catholic response to his Reformed Catholicke).

In one chapter, Patterson raises the Weberian questions about Puritanism’s contribution to the formation of modern social and economic patterns, questions that have been raised in relation to Perkins by Christopher Hill among others. Hill doesn’t come off well in Patterson’s analysis, and, more substantively, Patterson makes it clear that Perkins’s Puritanism had little connection with the rise of modern individualism.

Communitarianism rather. Patterson: “Perkins was deeply committed to fostering the idea of community. Not only does he fail to champion an individualism that focuses largely on one’s own advancement, he decries it as a blight on the nation. His proposed solution to England’s economic and social problems is to define and strengthen the ties within the family, the Church, and the commonwealth—the triad of institutions he stresses repeatedly throughout his writings on social ethics—and to see to direct the energies of the country towards realizing the common good. This is not a new capitalist ethic but a new stress on a traditional idea of community that was a marked feature of late medieval and early modern English life” (163-4).

There’s a theological principle at work: “Community at the level of the household is evident in every relationship Perkins treats within the family and between the family and those who are employed there. Perkins characterizes these relationships as held together and made effective by love. This love is not simply an emotion likely to grow stronger or weaker as circumstances change. It is based on a recognition of the worth, dignity, and humanity of every member of the household, from the greatest to the least of its members” (164). There is a hierarchical structure within the family, and Perkins stresses the obligations and responsibilities of each to the other, which are also to be reflected in other institutions. But throughout the bond that keeps the hierarchy in place is love, expressed in faithful fulfillment of obligations, in service.

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