The New England Antinomian Controversy

by Paul Schaefer

"I'm for free grace and you're just a legalist."... "No, I believe that growth in grace is a necessary consequence of true faith in Christ and you just want a license to sin." Such sentiments are common among evangelical Christians today. Indeed the debate over the relationship between free forgiveness and the call to discipleship has been a concern throughout much of Christian history. It also bears directly on the subject of "covenant," namely in what way is the covenant of grace unilateral ("one-sided" -- the focusing on sovereign grace) and in what way is it bilateral ("two-sided" -- the focusing on human responsibility under grace).

This issue is significant in a discussion of Covenant theology. It helped inform the debate between Luther and Agricola, John Calvin and the Libertines, and many others. It also finds expression today in the debate over the Lordship of Christ as related to salvation.1 For our purposes, we will examine the way in which John Cotton and Thomas Shepard, important New England Puritan preachers of the first generation of the New England Way, discussed this issue in what is termed the "Antinomian controversy." Such historical reflection should offer present implications for modern Reformation churches that hope to have a holistic Covenantal theology.

The New England Antinomian Controversy

By 1636, both John Cotton, teacher of Boston's First Church, and Thomas Shepard, pastor across the Charles River at Cambridge, had grave concerns about the future of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Over the next two years, and to some extent even after, the new colonial experiment, of which each was an integral part, was almost divided by what came to be known as the "Antinomian Controversy." Modern scholars have written numerous books that highlight this controversy.2 It has been looked at from a variety of angles and continues to intrigue students of early American history. While the different angles are vital if one wishes to understand New England Puritanism, the theological, ecclesiological, and pastoral contexts bear directly on the development and practice of a Covenant theology.

While much remained the same, some things changed for Puritan clergy seeking to apply a theology of the covenant once they arrived in the New World. They still preached to a society in which the members were expected, and even required, to hear the Word regularly, but the makeup of such congregations had altered. English Puritan theologians had worked under a "visible church" model in which all baptized English people, unless excommunicated, were members of the visible covenant communion. The New England Puritans advocated a "visible saints" Congregational model in which one had to give testimony of a work of grace in order to have full communicant membership.

In New England, however, one was not a member of the church covenant simply because one lived there. Even baptism, which was still administered to infants, needed a further testimony of grace once the child came of age for one to have full church membership and right to the sacrament of the supper. While the Church was still "visible," it now only included "visible saints." Although the New England divines developed a strong notion of the "judgment of charity" when asking young (or older) adults to give testimony of their faith in Christ, it nevertheless remained that New England congregations consisted of the "churched" and the "unchurched."

Given this, the teaching elders had to develop slightly different strategies to warn their people of the danger either of living by a "mere morality" or of "casual presumptuousness," based on their flight from old England and commitment to the "New England Way." And this proves problematic for their inherited Covenant theology, with the twin stress on God's sovereign grace in Christ and on the call for the elect to live godly lives under that grace could develop into either extreme antinomian excesses or legalistic proclivities.3 The fact that a number of New England settlers appear to have imported these tendencies only exacerbated the situation.

John Cotton, more than any other minister, found himself at the center of this controversy. His arrival in Boston and subsequent calling as teacher to the Boston congregation produced great excitement. Many professed faith and joined the Boston church: "In the six months following John Cotton's admission to membership in September 1633, sixty-three persons -- or nearly half the number of members acquired during the previous three years -- joined the church." Revival attended Mr. Cotton's preaching of the Word. The Colony's Governor, John Winthrop, exclaimed: "More were converted and added to [the Boston] church, than to all the other churches of the Bay.... Diverse profane and notorious evil persons came and confessed their sins, and were comfortably received into the bosom of the church."4

The religious fervor faded by 1635, however. In the meantime, Anne Hutchinson, who would in the years 1636 to 1638 come to be viewed as the leader of both the "opinionists" and "antinomians," arrived in Boston in 1634 and joined the Boston church. At her conventicle, or religious assembly, Hutchinson noticed with great distress that some women (and she surmised the colonists at large) based their relationship with God on their piety, religious duty, and good works. She blamed the clergy, excluding Cotton, for approaching the doctrine of covenantal assurance before God through a "legal" method.

During her trial in November 1637 for inciting sedition, Hutchinson declared to the Magistrates that even before leaving England, she had learned to distinguish between godly and ungodly ministries:

He that denies the testament [of free grace] denies the testator, and this [the Lord] did open unto me to give me to see that those which did not teach the new covenant had the spirit of the antichrist.... Since that time I have been more choice and he hath let me to distinguish between the voice of my beloved and the voice of Moses, the voice of John Baptist, and the voice of antichrist.5
Even though she cautiously refused to accuse the other clergy as "voices of the antichrist,"6 she certainly thought that Mr. Cotton's words echoed "the voice of my beloved."

Hutchinson, who apparently had deep religious sensibilities and a strong grasp of the Scriptures, sought to abate the spiritual anxieties which flooded the colony in the aftermath of the revival of 1633 to 1634. At these conventicles, perfectly proper small group forums according to Puritan belief,7 she reviewed the previous week's sermon and tried to bring renewal to what was, by 1635, a spiritually depressed community. By the time the controversy became public, many from the Boston congregation, including the young Sir Henry Vane, John Winthrop's successor as governor, joined her meetings. A whispered undercurrent, positive toward what they were sure was Cotton's position and strongly censorious to the other clergy, swept through these gatherings.

By the time the controversy ended in 1638, Hutchinson and her followers had been tried civilly and found guilty of sedition, tried ecclesially and found guilty of antinomian heresy. They were subsequently banished as well. In the end, Cotton stood with the elders against Mistress Hutchinson and her followers (although Thomas Shepard privately ruminated that he was not so sure as he mused, "Mr. Cotton repents not, but is hid only").8 In the Way of Congregational Churches Cleared, an apologia of the New England Way, written in the controversy's aftermath, Cotton reflected upon his relationship with Hutchinson in light of the charge made by the Scot Robert Baillie that "Mistress Hutchinson was dear unto me ... ":

[I]f he speak of her as my dear friend, till she turned aside, I refuse it not. But yet thus much I must profess to him. That in the times of her best acceptance, she was not so dear unto me, but that (by the help of Christ) I dealt faithfully with her about her spiritual estate. Three things I told her made her spiritual estate unclear to me. 1. That her Faith was not begotten nor (by her relation) scarce at any time strengthened, by publicke Ministry, but by private Meditations, or Revelations, onely.... 2. That she clearly discerned her Justification (as she professed:) but little or nothing at all, her Sanctification: though (she said) she believed such a thing there was by plain Scripture.... 3. That she was more sharply censorious of other men's spiritual estates and hearts, then the servants of God are wont to be, who are more taken up with judging of themselves before the Lord, then of others.9

What was it about covenant teaching that helped make this into an ecclesial firestorm? Probably unbeknownst to Cotton and Shepard, it was the way in which each man focused on one side of the covenantal coin -- namely, the unilateral foundation in Cotton's case or the bilateral stipulations in Shepherd's.

A Controversial Sermon Series on the Covenant of Grace

Around 1636, Cotton began an extended sermon series on the covenant of grace. Based on Acts 7:8, the sermons explored the "order and manner of the giving and receiving of the covenant to the elect." In so doing, Cotton attacked the notion that a "creature" could do anything by nature "to purchase God" or God's favour. Rather, God gave the covenant to the elect "not [by] obedience first, nor faith first, nor anything else first, but [God] himselfe [gives] all goodnesse." Cotton explained that God dispensed this covenant of grace to his people by a "double act" whereby God "prepared" their hearts to receive the covenant and "invested" them "with the blessings of this covenant [of grace]."10

Superficially, this sermon was neither original nor even controversial. Indeed, it sounded similar to his spiritual father, English Puritan Richard Sibbes. As Cotton unfolded his thesis about the nature of the covenant of grace, however, one detects the seeds of what would later blossom into the supposedly antinomian leanings of his parishioners. For example, Cotton strongly inveighed against the idea that "preparation" brought with it any "saving qualifications" to the soul: "If the Lord doe give any saving qualification before Christ, then the soul may be in a state of salvation before Christ, and that would be prejudicial unto the grace and truth of Christ." Also, in treating whether the sanctification wrought within a person by grace could be used for consolation and proof of one's justification, Cotton replied: "Trulie it is hard to perceive [between a temporary believer and a true believer] when men differ, and therefore it is not an easie matter to make such use of sanctification, as by it to beare witnesse unto justification."11

Once again, rather than marking a significant departure from his Reformation and Puritan theology, these beliefs actually accorded fairly well with his Reformed inheritance. The primary difference laid in the intensity with which Cotton treated these ideas. Cotton determined that if one stressed covenantal duty in the preaching of the covenant of grace, one might end up with "visible moralists" but not "visible saints." That his fellow elders' views were more tempered than he initially granted (Cotton indeed was involved in a pamphlet war with the neighboring clergy throughout the controversy) was not his primary concern here. Instead, he wanted to sound an alarm against the moralism he deemed all too rampant. Also, he did not completely reject the testimony of sanctification. While definitely repudiating comfort from sanctification as a "first" approach toward peace with God, he accepted it "as a witness of God unto our faith, [and as such] we may lawfully hear what it speaketh."12

Being ethically upright, Cotton exhorted, was never enough; what one needed was a radically new orientation altogether:

[H]erein standeth ... our coming to be in Christ, and in God the Father, by this Spirit of God that taketh possession of the heart and hath not only burnt up the root and branch of our legal righteousness but hath also melted us into a soft frame to yeeld up ourselves unto the Lord; and now we are fit for anie dutie, the Lord having possessed us with his powerful presence; herein lieth our effectual calling.... [This is] built not upon any conditional promise of Grace praeexistent in us.13

True grace precluded any leaning on a "reformation" of manners by the soul.

Cotton's The Covenant of Grace (TCG) reflected his pastoral concern that the people in his congregation also not use their spiritual growth as a measure of acceptance with a holy God: "[A] man's person must first be accepted, otherwise all his work will not go beyond the work of a legal Christian." Building on any foundation other than the free grace of God in Christ proved "unsafe" and produced a spirituality of "hay and stubble" rather than true godliness. True godliness, he claimed toward the end of the treatise, arose only as the Spirit applied the word of grace in the Bible to the elect for both justification and sanctification. He demanded that his listeners forsake any reliance on an "enlightened conscience ... which is but a creature." Instead, the Spirit must provide all grace and light to the soul or else one "build[s] castles in the air, which in the time of temptation will vanish away."14

Cotton probably never intended the result of emboldening a party of antinomians. He had a pastoral concern in mind. He preached "free grace" not to cause a disruption in the New England Way but to remind a people whom he believed were focusing on duties that God's grace must reign supreme in all discussion of Christian truth and indeed in the very lives of those who claimed to be saved. Moralism denuded the centrality of grace and only produced self-satisfied and legally righteous people.

Shepard's Parable as a Rejoinder

While space does not permit an extensive elaboration of the response by the other clergy, some remarks from Thomas Shepard's Parable of the Ten Virgins, preached in the same years as Cotton's TCG, show some of the concerns. Shepard's agenda differed from Cotton's. Cotton desired to show why one was redeemed in order to proclaim how one could know one was in Christ whereas Shepard wanted to show what the redeemed life looked like in order to mark how true believers could distinguish themselves from nonbelievers who might appear just as godly as they. The why of Cotton and the what of Shepard both demanded sola gratia but used the sola gratia refrain to achieve different purposes.

Shepard was just as concerned as Cotton with the danger of moralism. Warning against "build[ing] your assurance from a mingled covenant of works and grace," Shepard encouraged his listeners to "gather your evidence of God's love primarily and chiefly from your subjection to the second covenant ... for Adam's righteousness that did tie him to God [in the covenant of works], it brake; hence no life, no evidence from that; but faith is an everlasting, invincible grace, upheld by the mighty power of God, and hence here will be everlasting evidence and peace." He concluded: "[T]hough duties be never so good, yet not to advance Christ is to pull down Christ."15

Thus, both Shepard and Cotton warned against a creeping moralism that could easily invade the young colony. Yet, whereas Cotton sharply criticized those who looked to sanctification that such a glance might in reality be a legal righteousness and so they should cleave first and last to Christ alone, Shepard blasted those who felt secure because they now belonged to "virgin churches":

[W]e have all our beds and lodgings provided, the Lord hath made them easy to us; we never looked for such days in New England; the Lord hath freed us from the pain and anguish of our consciences; we have ordinances to the full, sermons too long, and lectures too many, and private meetings too frequent; a large profession many have made; but are you not weary? if weary not sleeping, not slumbering? Š Let me knock again: is it not so? Š Have you not forgot your God and forgot your work also? the business for which you made this great undertaking.16

Shepard refused to allow those who immigrated to the New World for the sake of conscience to content themselves that all was now well because of this. Although he wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of a "visible saints" model for the New England churches, Shepard also recognized that even in such "virgin churches," wise and foolish virgins would coexist. While wanting to combat the danger of moralism as much as Cotton, it seems that Shepard thought the greatest danger arose from those who had no change in life but nevertheless felt themselves to be Christians. While he demanded that "all men living nakedly, considered in themselves, have lost all power to do anything that is good" and that "whatever work is not done by virtue of the Lord Jesus is a dead work, which a living God, and a living Christ, and a living Spirit loathe,"17 he nevertheless strongly believed that sight of the change wrought by Christ through the Holy Spirit served as the best way to distinguish "visible saints" from "visible moralists" or, even worse, "visible spiritists":

If it be replied, the Lord Jesus makes the difference -- it is very true, those that are in covenant, they have God to be their God; that makes one difference; but if there be not some peculiar workmanship of the Spirit in them, though they have God their God, yet the second part of the covenant is destroyed; i.e., they are not the Lord's peculiar people that have more than a common wash-work. For we are not only the Lord's people by choice and purchase, but by new creation also.18

Election in Christ meant both justification and sanctification.

Even with the emphasis on godly living, Shepard seemed aware that one might think one had somehow deserved God's blessing. He retorted against such that through "contenting themselves with their common graces and gifts," they had in actuality "shut out" the Holy Spirit. Working from a true "inward principle" meant something different: "[The inward principle] consists of two parts: 1. Our life in Christ by faith. 2. Christ's life in us by his Spirit. Faith empties the soul, and looks upon it as dead, and sees its life laid up in Christ; and hence forsakes itself, and embraces the Lord of glory. Secondly, the Spirit comes and possesseth a forsaken, empty house, and there lives and dwells."19

Within TCG, moreover, Cotton made other points that tempered what some might have deemed the radicality of his views. For one, he actually began the treatise by speaking of the necessity of preparation of people by a "spirit of bondage" before "the same Spirit worketh faith in the soul, to yeeld himselfe unto the Lord, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ." While he further contended that such a "spirit of bondage" might be aborted by the nonregenerate, and thus no one should find any comfort from such a preparation, the elect themselves were almost always brought into the covenant of grace "by a double work of [God's] Spirit, which are manifest in all the seed of Abraham."

Cotton, therefore, never repudiated the idea of a preparationism, but rather contextualized it as first being God's preparation and not the human agent's, and secondly, by stressing the absolute necessity and the sheer gracious character of the "spirit of adoption" as that to which one should cling:

[T]his is truly a saving work; the person [by the grace of the Spirit working faith in the soul] now submitteth unto the will of God; so that the Spirit of God becometh unto the soul not only as a spirit of burning, to consume all that is stubble; but doth also melt the iron stone of the heart and formeth it into flesh that the word may take deep impression in it ... he seeth there is no former safe hold of his covenant that he can plead nor any righteousness of his own.20

Also, Cotton never abandoned the call that the elect see the importance of the Moral Law as a guide for godliness. What he rejected was any idea in which people counted themselves worthy for fulfilling it. He denied, nonetheless, that the law was "utterly antiquated." Since God had "given it, we take ourselves bound to be subject to it." Cotton rejected any perfectionism in this life, of course, since glorification was reserved for heaven, yet he also noted that while one could not keep the law "perfectly" one should live by grace "sincerely" and thus listen to God's ways. "The Law should be the rule of holinesse and righteousnese unto [God's] people: hence it is, that the children of God, though they be not under the covenant of the Law, yet [they] take themselves to be bound to the obedience of it." Indeed, the free justification of the free covenant of grace "doth establish the obedience of the Law."21

Cotton indeed scorned any who took the free covenant as an excuse for lawlessness: "If any shall accuse the doctrine of the covenant of free grace of Antinomianism, and say it teacheth now freedom from the Law of Moses; and if they commit any sin, they plead they are not bound unto the Law; we see how false such an aspersion would be." He retorted against such "antinomians" that while most certainly true that true believers had forsaken the law as a "covenant," that same law was still a "commandment" to them:

There is none under the covenant of grace that dare allow himselfe in any sin, for if a man should negligently commit any sin, the Lord will schoole him thoroughly and make him sadly to apprehend how he hath made bold with the treasures of the grace of God.22

Cotton's Unilateral Stress in the Covenant

Remarkably, these points seemed unheeded in the midst of the controversy. Perhaps because Cotton so stressed the unilateral and free side of the covenant, those holding more radical views, i.e., the "opinionists," simply may have bypassed these warnings in favor of Cotton's more forthright denunciations of conditions, works, etc. In the pamphlet war with the other elders, Cotton¹s beliefs seem to have been obscured as the elders pressed him about other issues.

The elders never denied the Christocentric nature of the covenant and Cotton never denied, although he may have come close, the believer's responsibility under the grace of God. Instead, they focused upon differing truths within a common covenantal framework. Without reflection, the remarks might make Cotton sound like a crypto-antinomian (who seemingly forgot that God's covenant of grace in Christ brought both declarative justification and renewing progressive sanctification) or the elders sound like crypto-Arminians (who seemingly brought human ability into the picture "through the back door"). Neither seems to be the case however; in reality they seemed to be looking at their agreements through different lenses. They also seemed incapable, at least for a time, of granting the viability of the others' lens.

Even though Shepard demanded that his hearers be committed to Christian growth in godliness, he pointed his hearers to Christ in Word and Sacrament as the basis for such growth in grace: "Repair to the fountain of life, for a principle of life from him, and fetch it from him." He further warned that such "fetching" arose "not from a man's own striving" or from "the law." No, spiritual life, the life necessary to live godly, "is in the blood and death of the Lord of life.... Many a man feels a blind, dead heart, and all duties dead; and hence uses many persuasions to himself, yet they continue still, because he never looks to the blood. There is this excellency in Christ's blood, not only to cleanse from guilt [justification] and power of sin, but from dead works, and none else can."23

To the further question of how one "repaired to the blood," Shepard answered that first one must "prize" it and "rest in it" because "the Lord himself [is] sufficient." Without Christ, no one ever strived for godliness. But in and through Christ, Christ gave to his people both pardon from sin and power to act in a godly way: "Without Christ a Christian can do nothing; but how doth Christ do all by his Spirit without graces (I speak not of conversion where it is without graces as causes.) No truly, as he acts, we act in part.Š whereas before conversion [we are] stark dead to act, now [we are] alive, and [are] not dead." Therefore, Shepard exhorted: "O put it forth. I know all strength is from Christ, but there is a permanent strength in you. You are not dead to act; you wrong the Lord and his grace if you think so." In such acts of faith, one was to "famish the contrary principle" (mortification) and "put on the Lord Jesus,... his righteousness, his life, his graces, [making] 'no provision for the flesh'" (vivification).24

Shepard's Bilateral Stress in the Covenant

Shepard focused on the "bilateral" side of the covenantal coin because he wanted believers to recognize the twin blessings of the covenant of grace, namely justification and sanctification. Nevertheless, within the demand for a life of ever-increasing godliness, Shepard laid down certain rules that set boundaries and priorities on what it meant for a heart to grow in the habits of grace -- boundaries and priorities moreover that reminded the saints that sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo formed the necessary focus of one's Christian life:

And, therefore, a man may know his blessed estate by a work; only let me put in three cautions. 1. Take heed you do not in your judgment, or in your practice, go about to move the Lord to love you by your works, though it be of his making. For all works are fruits, no causes of the Lord's love; for this is Popery, indeed, and hypocris.... 2. Take heed you do not sit contented with the work, and quiet yourselves with that, never looking to behold his face that gave it, that wrought it.... 3. Do not look to see the work or promise yours, nor receive any consolation from either, unless the Lord appear in both.... But, O, fetch it from heaven.... You reason, and others tell you, and yet you are full of fears and doubts; and thou criest, Lord persuade me...; yea, hold you here, now you are where you ought to be. Do you think Christ is filled with grace and life for you, and not with consolation for you too? Only use means [i.e., Word and Sacrament] and look up to him.25 •

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