The Worldly Poetry of the Puritans

To the Puritan, the world is packed with symbols and meaning to experience and contemplate

“The Puritans (as with Calvinists generally) affirmed the goodness and beauty of creation, believed in natural theology and natural law, recognized their evil as the problem in creation, and saw earthly desire as a foretaste of the ultimate good that Christ will one day fully satisfy.”

 

The common understanding of the Puritans, in both popular and academic circles, is that they were hostile to all art, despisers of human desire, and saw nothing redeemable or good in creation. According to this view, their religious fervor was more than world-denying; it was earth-denying; it was desire-denying; it was sense-denying; and it was beauty-denying.

One recent commentator, Gregory Wolfe, in his book Beauty Will Save the World, writes that the “gnosticism of the Puritans…posited nature as an evil, hostile force.” He criticizes the Puritans for “putting evil in the natural sphere [and] miss the evil in themselves.” Wolfe follows others, notably Michael Walzer (a major influence on Charles Taylor’s account of Reformed Protestantism), who presented Calvinism as a precursor to Hobbes, calling the Calvinist man “solitary and powerless,” a “terrified animal” amidst nature, even one who called “into question the naturalness of nature.” Nature was not a realm of eternal order “anciently established,” but a meaningless world of brute fact and subject to change by the radical politics of the elect. The Puritans, who are exalted as the exemplars of Calvinism, are hostile to nature, since nature (not simply wilderness) is nothing but red in tooth and claw.

The perpetuation of this interpretation, despite its serious problems, continues. Taylor reaffirmed this view in his recent book The Secular Age, first presented in Sources of the Self, and both books have influenced many commentators in various fields. Wolfe’s book, no doubt relying on the Walzerian view of Calvinism, derides the Puritan poets for their alleged nature-denying Gnosticism and, as with others, blames the Puritans and their natura deleta for our exploitive, consumerist modern world.

Those who study the nuances of Calvinist thought find this quite frustrating, for the Puritans (as with Calvinists generally) affirmed the goodness and beauty of creation, believed in natural theology and natural law, recognized their evil as the problem in creation, and saw earthly desire as a foretaste of the ultimate good that Christ will one day fully satisfy. The English colonial Puritan poets and Puritans generally, contrary to Wolfe, were suspicious of creation only because it was so ravishing and good, not because it was evil. Knowing that all fallen men’s hearts are factories for idols, they sought to remain fixed on the eternal joys of the world to come while and through enjoying rightly the goodness and joys of the present world.  In their work we find the following themes: creation as a source for knowledge of God’s character, creation as a source of delight, and a weaning from the world that does not deny the goodness of creation.

Creation as a source for knowledge of God’s Character

Creation as a source for knowledge of God’s character was an important part of early Reformed thought. The Belgic Confession states, the “universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity.” Calvin argued that “the world was founded for this purpose, that it should be the sphere of the divine glory” and that “the very beautiful fabric of the world [is the place] in which he wishes to be seen by us.”

The knowledge of God innate and acquired through experiencing God’s world was sufficient for pre-fallen man to have a complete creaturely knowledge of God. And this knowledge is not knowledge via negativa, but via analogia. Our knowledge of God is not univocal knowledge. As Francis Turretin said, “Thus there is not granted a similitude between God and his creatures because those things which are said concerning God and concerning creatures are not said univocally, but analogically” God is analogized to man via creation, communicating sufficient knowledge of God. Due to the Fall, however, creation is no longer sufficient, necessitating the addition of the Word of God. Scripture provides the “spectacles,” says, Calvin, through or with which one sees the glory of God in creation. Scripture does not replace nature; it reveals what was lost and points us back to creation—to the complete revelation of God as Creator.

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