Biblical faith, first of all, begins with the sovereign God Who, in His grace and mercy, redeems man through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Because God is sovereign, His work of salvation is an act of sovereign grace. Anything short of this is not scriptural: it is another religion, whatever its ostensibly Christian form. Jesus Christ cannot be our Savior if He is not Lord.
Second, because God is the total and sovereign God, our faith cannot be only a spiritual concern. The totally sovereign God is Lord over every aspect of life. All things are created, predestined, governed, and judged by Him. As a result, the Bible legislates concerning every area of life, church, state, school, family, science, the arts, economics, vocations, things spiritual, and things material. Neoplatonism, however, regarded the material world as low and irrelevant to religion. As a result, wherever neoplatonism is in evidence, Christian faith is reduced to a spiritual religion.
Neoplatonism in the Church
St. Augustine, to whom the church owes so much for his emphasis on God's predestination, was inconsistent as he turned from God to the world. His neoplatonism took over, and he surrendered the world and history to the enemy. The work of the Christian was substantially reduced to soul-saving. As Tuveson wrote of Augustine, "He viewed religion as essentially an individual experience, an immediate transforming contact of the soul with divine truth and grace."1 This emphasis, in Augustine and in all his successors to the present, led to a re-reading of the Bible as a book of spiritual comfort for the soul. Whether interpreting the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, or the Book of Revelation, everything was spiritualized and made a message for the soul. The colors used in the tabernacle, and the numbers cited in prophecies, came to have spiritual messages of great import, whereas the very obvious meanings were by-passed as carnal, and intended for a carnal generation.
Augustine, by his emphasis on God's predestination, was a major influence on the Reformation and a father thereof. However, because of his neoplatonic elements, he was also the father of the Roman Catholic Church, and of fundamentalism, Lutheranism, and amillennial Calvinism. Because the material world was only a vale of darkness for the soul to pass through, the church came to be the only truly Christian institution and was exalted even as the state, family, and much else were downgraded. We fail to remember that very early the church, under the influence of neoplatonism, came to regard the family with distrust as a law and carnal domain.
Augustine's influence on eschatology prevailed for a thousand years, and is again with us. With the decline of neoplatonism, there was a revival of postmillennialism. One of its consequences was the great age of exploration. There are many indications that the Americas were repeatedly "discovered" over the centuries, by Europeans and Asiatics, by Phoenicians and Arabs from the Middle East, by Chinese, Norsemen, and perhaps other Europeans. Nothing came of these "discoveries." The thinking of the times did not make a new land significant. Only as postmillennialism began to emerge, and with it a new sense of the Great Commission, did men set out to explore and to exercise dominion. Most of the explorers, from Columbus on, whatever their faults, did have a postmillennial and missionary motivation as well as an economic one. The economic concern, in fact, was an aspect of a renewed sense of the creation mandate to exercise dominion and to subdue the earth.
Every area of life began to be viewed in Biblical terms. Early in church history, the very strongly Hellenic Origen had castrated himself to escape the flesh, only to find that lust begins in the mind and heart of man. In the Middle Ages, the Song of Solomon was spiritualized and turned into nonsense. Puritan divines like William Gouge and others referred to it as a source of instruction in perfect married love. A favorite Puritan text was Genesis 26:8, which tells of Isaac "sporting" with his wife Rebekah. The Puritans used this text to attack stoical abstinence and sacerdotal celibacy, of which Gouge said that it was, "A disposition no way warranted by the Word." Thomas Gataker, in a marriage sermon of 1620, attacked the idea that Biblical faith is indifferent to things physical or disinterested in marital joys. This false picture of Biblical faith, he declared is:
An illusion of Sathan, whereby he usually perswades the merry Greekes of the world; That if they should once devote themselves to the Service of Jesus Christ, that then they must bid an everlasting farewell to all mirth and delight; that then all their merry dayes are gone; that in the kingdome of Christ, there is nothing, but sighing and groning, and fasting and prayer. But see here the contrary: even in the kingdome of Christ, and in his House, there is marrying and giving in marriage, drinking of wine, feasting, and rejoicing even in the very face of Christ.2
Erasmus had spoken of marriage as being perfected in abstinence from sexual intercourse. The prominent Elizabethan Puritan Henry Smith declared that 1 Corinthians 7:3 is "[A] commandment to yield this duty [sexual intercourse], that which is commanded is lawful; and not to doe it, is a breach of the commandment." William Whately said that neither husband nor wife can "without grievous sinne deny it" when the other wishes intercourse. Gouge spoke of marital sex as "one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage." In Massachusetts, in the Middlesex County Court in 1666, Edmund Pinson complained that Richard Dexter had slandered him by stating that Pinson had broken his wife's heart with grief because "that he wold be absent from her 3 weeks together when he was at home, and wold never come nere her, and such like."3
Only a few generations previously, it was a mark of saintliness to be abstinent in marriage; now it was slander to be charged with it! The change was great and dramatic. The change, however, was not limited to marriage. In every area of life, man was to delight himself in God's salvation, the joys of covenant life, physical and spiritual, and to move forward confidently to exercise dominion and to subdue the earth. The material world was now important because God created it, and because God required man to subdue it, exercise dominion over it, and to rejoice therein before the Lord.
The Mission of American Puritans
American Puritanism thus self-consciously set out to establish God's New Zion on earth, and to make America the base from whence the world was to be conquered. The great missionary movement of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was one result. In 1654, Captain Edward Johnson published in London his A History of New England, or Wonder-Working Providence of Sion's Saviour in order to enlist Christians to colonize the new world, declaring:
Christ Jesus intending to manifest his Kingly Office toward his Churches far more fully than every yet the Sons of men saw stirres up his servants as the Heralds of a King to make this Proclamation for Voluntiers as followeth.
Oh yes! Oh yes! All you the people of Christ that are here Oppressed, imprisoned and scurrilously derided, gather yourselves together, your wives and little ones, in answer to your several Names as you shall be shipped for his service, in the Westerne World, and more especially for planting the united Collonies of new England; Where you are to attend the service of the King of Kings, upon the divulging of this Proclamation by his Heralds at Armes.
Could Casar so suddenly fetch over fresh forces from Europe to Asia, Pumpy to foyle? How much more shall Christ who created all power, call over this 900 league Ocean at his pleasure, such instruments as he thinks meete to make use of this place. Know this is the place where the Lord will create a new Heaven, and a new Earth, in new Churches, and a new Commonwealth together.4
The Puritans had a blueprint for the "new Heaven, and a New Earth, in new Churches, and a new Commonwealth" which the Lord planned to build in America. This blueprint was the Bible. Tuveson has observed:
The English, it has been truly said, are the people of a book the Bible. Not the least important result of their pre-occupation with the Word was that they, as well as their fellow Protestants in other countries, came into close contact with a philosophy of history far more sophisticated, far more universal and yet more flexible than any the great classical tradition provided.5
Even more, Americans became the people of the book, and the tremendous expansive energy of both English and Americans. The eschatological vitality of both came from the postmillennial faith which for a time dominated thinking in both countries.
The New Model
It was not surprising, therefore, in view of the Puritan dedication to Scripture, that they looked to the Bible not only for a new model for the church but also for the state. From the very beginning, the colonies, especially in New England, looked to the Bible for their laws. Because of the royal over-lordship where colonial charters were concerned, a certain amount of English royal law was also retained to avoid conflicts with the crown. But the Puritans essentially wanted a new model, one based on Scripture, for every area of life; we have Cromwell's New Model Army; we have new model churches; in one case after another, things were refashioned in terms of Scripture.
According to a modern fallacy, begotten of antinomianism, Scripture is only partially law, and that law can be divided into ceremonial, civil, and moral. Such a distinction, first of all, leaves very little of the Bible as law. Second, the division is artificial. The so-called ceremonial law is intensely moral: it deals with the fact of sin and God's plan of atonement; civil law is as moral as any law can be, since it deals with theft, murder, false witness, adultery, crime, and punishment in every form.
This fallacy does have roots in some antinomian Puritans, but the more common view of the Puritans was to view all of Scripture as the law of God. The only kind of word the sovereign God can speak, they assumed rightly, is a sovereign word, a law-word because it is a binding word. A sovereign God cannot speak an uncertain or a tentative word. As a result, Puritans searched Scripture for guidance in every area of life, because Scripture to them was indeed God's binding and infallible word.
It should thus not surprise us that they turned to and used Biblical law. Not until the Cambridge Platonists introduced neoplatonism into Puritanism, and thereby hamstrung it, did they cease to show an interest in Biblical law. It was God's ordained means of building His New Zion in America and using America as a means of conquering the whole world.
The medieval preacher looked for allegories in Scripture and for non-historical and spiritual meanings. The Puritan looked for laws of living, for mandates in personal, family, church, school, state, vocational, and social living. His purpose was both practical and theological, to establish God's New Zion in America.
As a result, a characteristic complaint began to mark the American pulpit from the second generation in New England to all of America today, the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a lamentation that the nation is faithless to its covenant God. It assumes a particular responsibility by the American people to be faithful to the Lord because they have been particularly blessed by Him. Whereas in France the appeal to national renewal is humanistic and cites "the glory of France" as the impetus, in America the impetus is religious very commonly, and is theological in its concern and emphasis.
The framework of American life, thus, has been theological. We may find fault with the developments of that theology, and the departures from it, but America's theological context is very real. Thus, whatever else we may say about The Battle Hymn of the Republic, it clearly sees America's mission, even with, if not emphatically with, its armies to be a manifestation of God's justice and judgment. The coming of the Armies is identified with the coming of the Lord in judgment. Its chorus is a triumphant hymn of praise, a doxology: "Glory, glory, Hallelujah, Our God is marching on!" In the twentieth century, even non-Christians spoke readily and freely on "the mission of America." The Puritan current is still strong, even among those who reject it.
1. Ernest Lee Tuveson, Millennium and Utopia (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith , 1972), 15.
2. Thomas Gataker and William Bradshaw, Two Marriage Sermons (London, 1620), 14, cited by Roland M. Frye, "The Teaching of Classical Puritanism on Conjugal Love," in Arnold Stein, ed., On Milton's Poetry (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1970), 104.
3. ibid., 105f.
4. Albert Bushnell Hart, American History Told by Contemporaries, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1897), 366f.
5. Tuveson, op. cit., 4.