Towards the end of The World Turned Upside Down (see previous post), Christopher Hill considers “one of the most fascinating problems in the intellectual history of seventeenth-century England”: the “collapse of Calvinism”. He writes:
We are all such Arminians now that it requires a great imaginative effort to think oneself back into the pre-revolutionary period which Calvinism dominated.
For Hill, the main social function of Calvinism before the 1640s was to provide a means of countering what were perceived as the socially harmful consequences of justification by faith. Justification by faith taught the equality of all believers before God, and this belief lay at the root of the radicals’ claim for the equality of all people within society. Calvinism’s doctrine of election helped ensure that “the elect were respectable bourgeois Puritans”.
The problem was that it failed in this purpose. In the chaos of the English Revolution, it “proved unable to maintain its defences against Antinomianism”, leading to the growth of groups such as the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters and the Quakers, who all (in different ways) threatened the social order by taking seriously the concept of equality before God. In addition, the disciplining of society by Presbyterian clerics proved unpopular and unworkable.
This failure, Hill argues, “drove the men of property back to works – by their fruits ye shall know them”. However, this was “a very different theology of works from that of Catholics or Laudians”, being a secular, non-sacramental discipline exercised by J.P.s rather than ministers of the church.
Hence Hill’s observation on how the social effects of Puritanism outlived the popularity of Calvinism itself:
It was as though it had performed its historic task with the establishment of a society in which the protestant ethic prevailed.
Hill draws an interesting parallel between the Reformation’s proclamation of justification by faith and the French Revolution’s secular proclamation of human rights:
Middle-class revolutionaries proclaimed the Rights of Man, and seem to have been genuinely taken aback when the Fourth Estate claimed that they too were men.
Hill’s argument is that this led in both cases to a need to find ways to re-establish social order in the face of the democratising, even chaotic, forces of spiritual or human equality. As he puts it:
The “bourgeois” doctrine of equality always has the suppressed premise that some are more equal than others.
Hill’s Marxism is clearly showing through here (see also his reference above to Calvinism’s “historical task”!), and there was more to Puritanism – and certainly more to justification by faith – than just putting a religious gloss on a bourgeois revolution in property relations and social values. Indeed, it is precisely Puritanism’s refusal to restrict itself to this function that helped encourage its eclipse.
But I still found this an interesting analysis of how the content of Puritan (and reformational) doctrines could come into conflict with the role which many expected those doctrines to fulfil. One of many occasions where Christian doctrines have been used to justify a social order which, taken more seriously, they fundamentally question.