by J. I. Packer
Giving evidence in the recent lawsuit about D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Richard Hoggart startled the court by calling Lawrence a Puritan. Asked what he meant (a natural question), he replied that to him a Puritan was a man supremely concerned about conscience. This definition as it stands is either sophistical or stupid, for you could hardly have two more different things than the concern about conscience which Hoggart finds in Lawrence and that which marked the Puritans of history. Nevertheless, Hoggart’s formula is a pointer to an important truth. The concern which was really supreme in the minds and hearts of the people called Puritans was a concern about God—a concern to know Him truly, and serve Him rightly, and so to glorify Him and to enjoy Him. But, just because this was so, they were in fact very deeply concerned about conscience, for they held that conscience was the mental organ in men through which God brought His Word to bear on them. Nothing, therefore, in their estimation, was more important for any man than that his conscience should be enlightened, instructed, purged, and kept clean. To them, there could be no real spiritual understanding, or any genuine godliness, except as men exposed and enslaved their consciences to God’s Word.
In saying this, the Puritans were doing no more than maintain an emphasis which went back to the first days of the Reformation. One thinks, for example, of Luther’s momentous words at Worms—“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” One thinks, too, of the famous sentence about the doctrine of justification in chapter 20 of the Augsburg Confession of 1530—“This whole doctrine must be related to that conflict of a terrified conscience (illud certamen per terrfactae conscientiae), and without that conflict it cannot be understood.” Statements like this make plain the centrality of conscience in the Reformers’ understanding of what it meant to be a Christian.
Conscience, to them, signified a man’s knowledge of himself as standing in God’s presence (coram Deo, in Luther’s phrase), subject to God’s Word, and exposed to the judgment of God’s law, and yet—if a believer—justified and accepted nonetheless through divine grace. Conscience was the court (forum) in which God’s justifying sentence was spoken. Conscience was the soil in which alone true faith, hope, peace, and joy, could grow. Conscience was a facet of the much-defaced image of God in which man was made; and vital Christianity (the “Christian religion” of which Calvin wrote the Institutes) was rooted directly in the apprehensions and exercises of conscience under the searching address of God’s quick and powerful Word, and the enlightenment of His Holy Spirit. So the Reformers held; and the Puritans too.
But where do we find such an emphasis today? The frightening fact is that at the present time this note is scarcely ever struck. In Western society as a whole, conscience is in decay: apostasy has set in and hence, as always, moral standards are falling. Among intellectuals, conscience is on occasion perverted: one thinks again of D. H. Lawrence and of his camp-followers, and also of Isaiah’s curse—“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil!” (Isa. 5:20).
In the Christian Church, consciences should be sharp and alert; but are they? It is to be feared that we whom Christ calls to be the salt of the earth have lost much of our proper savor. Are evangelicals noted these days for goodness and integrity? Are we distinguished in society for sensitiveness to moral issues, and compassion towards those in need? Do our preachers, earnest and eloquent as they may be, win for themselves the name that God gave to Noah—“a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:3)?
Once the so-called “nonconformist conscience” meant something in national life; but does it mean anything now? Once, Christians were taught to commune with their consciences daily, in the regular discipline of self-examination under the Word of God; but how much of this remains today? Do we not constantly give evidence of our neglect of this secret discipline by unprin-cipled and irresponsible public conduct? We profess our anxiety to keep clear of legalistic bondage, but are we not in much greater danger of antinomian license?
We rightly repudiate the common view that doctrine does not matter so long as one is upright in life; but if we let our reaction drive us into the opposite extreme of supposing that one’s life does not matter so long as one is “sound” (“a good Calvinist,” we say), then the beam in our own eye will be worse than the mote in our brother’s. A study of the Puritan conscience, therefore, may well be bracing and salutary for us at the present time.
The Puritan Idea of Conscience
All Puritan theologians from Perkins are agreed in conceiving of conscience as a rational faculty, a power of moral self-knowledge and judgment, dealing with questions of right and wrong, duty and desert, and dealing with them authoritatively, as God’s voice. Often the Puritans appealed to the form of the word (con-science, from the Latin con-scientia) as pointing to the fact that the knowledge which conscience possesses is shared knowledge, joint knowledge, knowledge (scientia) held in common with (con-) another—namely God. The judgments of conscience thus express the deepest and finest self-knowledge that a man ever has—i.e., knowledge of himself as God knows him.
William Ames starts his textbook on conscience and casuistry by reproducing Aquinas’s definition of conscience as “a mans judgement of himselfe, according to the judgement of God of him,”1 and variants of this definition often appear in Puritan writings. Ames appeals to Isaiah 5:3 and 1 Corinthians 11:31 as affording its biblical basis. The Edinburgh professor, David Dickson, gives a fuller analysis along the same lines, as follows: “Conscience, as it doth respect ourselves, is . . . the understanding power of our souls examining how matters do stand betwixt God and us, comparing his will revealed, with our state, condition and carriage, in thoughts, words or deeds, done or omitted, and passing judgment thereupon as the case requires.”2
Conscience, says Thomas Goodwin, is “one part of practical reason,”3 and the Puritan theologians, still following Aquinas—for they never hesitated to borrow from medieval writers when they judged their teaching to be scriptural—all depict the reasonings of conscience as taking the form of a practical syllogism: that is, an inference from two premises, major and minor, concerning either our duty (what we should or should not do) or our state before God (obedient or disobedient, approved or under censure, justified or condemned). Dickson gives the following example of a syllogism about duty:
What God hath appointed to be the only rule of faith and maners, I must take heed to follow it as the rule.
But, the holy Scripture, God hath appointed to be the only rule of faith and maners.
Therefore, I must take heed to follow the Scripture as the only rule.4
Another illustration would be this: God forbids me to steal (major premise); to take this money would be stealing (minor premise); therefore I must not take this money (conclusion).
In a practical syllogism about one’s state, the major premise is a revealed truth, functioning as a rule for self-judgment, and the minor is an observed fact about oneself. Ames illustrates with two syllogisms, in the first of which conscience condemns, in the second of which it gives comfort. The first is: “He that lives in sinne, shall dye: I live in sinne; Therefore, I shall dye.” The second is “Whosoever believes in Christ, shall not dye but live. I believe in Christ; Therefore, I shall not dye but live.”5
Though in experience the reasonings of conscience, like most of our thinking processes, are so compressed that we are consciously aware only of the conclusion, anyone who reflects on the way his conscience functions will soon see that this doctrine of the practical syllogism is in fact a correct analysis.
It is a universal experience that conscience is largely autonomous in its operation; though sometimes we can suppress or stifle it, it normally speaks independently of our will, and sometimes, indeed, contrary to our will. And when it speaks, it is in a strange way distinct from us; it stands over us, addressing us with an absoluteness of authority which we did not give it and which we cannot take from it. To personify conscience and treat it as God’s watchman and spokesman in the soul is not, therefore, a mere flight of fancy; it is a necessity of human experience.
So then, when the Puritans call conscience “God’s deputy and vice-regent within us,”6 “God’s spy in our bosoms,”7 “God’s serjeant, which he employs to arrest the sinner,”8 we must not dismiss these ideas as just quaint fancies; they represent a serious attempt to do justice to the biblical conception of conscience, which every man’s experience reflects—namely, the conception of conscience as a witness, declaring facts (Rom. 2:15; 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:12); a mentor, prohibiting evil (Acts 24:16; Rom. 8:5); and a judge, assessing desert (Rom. 2:15; cf. 1 John 3:20–21). Such passages amply warrant the Puritan conception of conscience as the faculty which God put in man to be a sounding board for His Word in its application to our lives, or (changing the metaphor) a mirror to catch the light of moral and spiritual truth that shines forth from God and to reflect it in concentrated focus upon our deeds, desires, goals, and choices. The Puritans are simply following the Bible when they depict conscience in this fashion, as God’s monitor in the soul.
To amplify the last thought, we will now cite three typical and detailed Puritan presentations of conscience and its activity. Here, first, is Richard Sibbes’s picture of conscience as God’s court within us, where the last judgment is anticipated (a very common Puritan thought).
To clear this further concerning the nature of conscience [Sibbes is expounding 2 Cor. 1:12], know that God hath set up in a man a court, and there is in man all that are in a court.
1. There is a register to take notice of what we have done. . . . The conscience keeps diaries. It sets down everything. It is not forgotten, though we think it is . . . there is a register that writes it down. Conscience is the register.
2. And then there are witnesses. “The testimony of conscience.” Conscience doth witness, this have I done, this I have not done.
3. There is an accuser with the witnesses. The conscience, it accuseth, or excuseth.
4. And then there is the judge. Conscience is the judge. There it doth judge, this is well done, this is ill done.
5. Then there is an executioner, and conscience is that too. Upon accusation and judgment, there is punishment. The first punishment is within a man alway before he come to hell. The punishment of conscience, it is a prejudice (i.e. a pre-judgment) of future judgment. There is a flash of hell presently (i.e. in the present) after an ill act. . . . If the understanding apprehend dolorous things, then the heart smites, as David’s “heart smote him,” 1 Sam. 24:5. . . . The heart smites with grief for the present, and fear for the time to come.
God hath set and planted in man this court of conscience, and it is God’s hall, as it were, where he keeps his first judgment . . . his assizes. And conscience doth all the parts. It registereth, it witnesseth, it accuseth, it judgeth, it executes, it doth all.”9
Here, second, from John Bunyan’s Holy War, is an account of the career of “Mr. Recorder” of the town of Mansoul, first under sin and then under grace.
Mr. Recorder . . . (was) . . . a man well read in the laws of his king, and also a man of courage and faithfulness, to speak truth at every occasion; and he had a tongue as bravely hung as he had a head filled with judgment. . . . (After Mansoul had fallen under Diabolus) he was much degenerated from his former king . . . but . . . he would now and then think upon Shaddai, and have dread of his law upon him, and then he would speak with a voice as great against Diabolus as when a lion roareth; yea, and would also at certain times when his fits were upon him—for you must know that sometimes he had terrible fits—make the whole town of Mansoul shake with his voice . . . his words . . . were like the rattling thunder, and also like thunder-claps. . . .10
In due course Emmanuel, the king’s son, broke through Eargate and sent Captains Boanerges, Conviction, and Judgment, to take possession of Mr. Recorder’s house, an event which shattered the old gentleman and drove him almost to despair; but in due course Emmanuel made him the messenger of “a large and general pardon” to the townspeople, and put him into office as a preacher, to inculcate the moral law, and with it all that he had learned, or in future might learn, from “the Lord Secretary” (the Holy Spirit) concerning the will of Emmanuel’s Father.
Here, finally, is William Fenner, in A Treatise of Conscience, elaborating this last thought of conscience as a preacher.
It is a preacher also to tell us our duty both towards God and towards man; yea, it is a powerful preacher; it exhorteth, urgeth, provoketh; yea, the most powerful preacher that can be; it will cause the stoutest and stubbornest heart under heaven to quake now and then. . . . Conscience is joyned in commission with God’s own spirit to be an instructor unto us in the way we should walk; so that the spirit and it are resisted or obeyed together, grieved or delighted together. We cannot sinne against conscience but we sinne also against God’s spirit; we cannot check our own conscience but we check and quench the holy spirit of God.11
Such then, was conscience as the Puritans conceived it.
The Place of Conscience in Puritan Christianity
To bring out the significance of conscience in the Puritan theological scheme, we shall now set it in relation to some of the other major topics on which the Puritans dwelt, and show how some of their most characteristic emphases were bound up with their view of conscience and reflected in their teaching about it.
1. This teaching reflects the Puritan view of Holy Scripture.
God, said the Puritans, must control our consciences absolutely. “The conscience . . . must be subjected to him, and to him alone; for he alone is Lord of the conscience. . . . Conscience is God’s deputy, and must in the exercise of this office confine itself to the orders and instructions of the sovereign Lord.”12 Hence follows an imperative need to get our consciences fully attuned to the mind and will of God. Otherwise, we cannot help going wrong, whatever we do; for flouting conscience, and following an erring conscience, are both sin. “If you follow it,” Baxter explains, “you break the law of God in doing that which he forbids you. If you forsake it, and go against it, you reject the authority of God, in doing that which you think he forbids you.”13
In his twenty-seventh direction “for faithful serving Christ, and doing good,” Baxter warns against the idea that conscience, as such, is an ultimate standard. “Make not your own judgments or consciences your law, or the maker of your duty; which is but the discerner of the law of God, and of the duty which he maketh you, and of your own obedience or disobedience to him. There is a dangerous error grown too common in the world” (it is commoner still today) “that a man is bound to do every thing which his conscience telleth him is the will of God; and that every man must obey his conscience, as if it were the lawgiver of the world; whereas, indeed, it is not ourselves, but God, that is our lawgiver. And conscience is . . . appointed . . . only to discern the law of God, and call upon us to observe it: and an erring conscience is not to be obeyed, but to be better informed. . . .”14
But how can God’s will be known? Can we tell His requirements with certainty and exactness? Is there any way out of the fogs of pious guesswork on this point into the clear light of certainty? Yes, said the Puritans, there is; the way out is to harness our consciences to the Holy Scriptures, in which the mind of God is fully revealed to us. To them, Scripture was more than the fallible and sometimes fallacious human witness to revelation which is all that some moderns allow it to be; it was revelation itself, the living Word of the living God, divine testimony to God’s own redemptive acts and plans, written by the Holy Ghost through human agents in order to give the Church of every age clear direction on all matters of faith and life that could possibly arise.
But, it might be said, such a formula is unrealistic and empty. The Bible is, after all, a very old book, the product of a now long-vanished culture. Most of it was written for people in an utterly different situation from our own. How can it throw clear and direct light on the problems of life today? It can do so, the Puritans would reply, because the God who wrote it remains the same, and His thoughts about man’s life do not change. If we can learn to see what principles He was inculcating and applying in His recorded dealings with Israel and the early Church, and to reapply them to our own situation, that will constitute the guidance that we need. And it is to help us to do this that the Holy Spirit has been given.
Certainly, seeing the relevant principles and applying them correctly in each case is in practice an arduous task; ignorance of Scripture, and misjudgment of situations, constantly lead us astray, and to be patient and humble enough to receive the Spirit’s help is not easy either. But it remains true nonetheless that in principle Scripture provides clear and exact guidance for every detail and department of life, and if we come to Scripture teachably and expectantly God Himself will seal on our minds and hearts a clear certainty as to how we should behave in each situation that faces us. “God hath appointed means for the cure of blindness and error,” wrote Baxter. “Come into the light, with due self-suspicion, and impartiality, and diligently use all God’s means, and avoid the causes of deceit and error, and the light of truth will at once show you the truth.”15
The Puritans themselves sought clear certainty as to God’s truth in its practical bearing, and believed that they had been given it. Their very quest sharpened both their moral sensibilities and their insight into the Bible. They would not have been interested in vague moral uplift; what they wanted was to grasp God’s truth with the same preciseness of application with which they held that He had revealed it. Because of their concern for preciseness in following out God’s revealed will in matters moral and ecclesiastical, the first Puritans were dubbed “precisians.” Though ill-meant and derisive, this was in fact a good name for them. Then as now, people explained their attitude as due to peevish cantankerousness and angularity or morbidity of temperament, but that was not how they themselves saw it.
Richard Rogers, the Puritan pastor of Wethersfield, Essex, at the turn of the sixteenth century, was riding one day with the local lord of the manor, who, after twitting him for some time about his “precisian” ways, asked him what it was that made him so precise. “O sir,” replied Rogers, “I serve a precise God.”
If there were such a thing as a Puritan crest, this would be its proper motto. A precise God—a God, that is, who has made a precise disclosure of His mind and will in Scripture, and who expects from His servants a corresponding preciseness of belief and behavior—it was this view of God that created and controlled the historic Puritan outlook. The Bible itself led them to it. And we who share the Puritan estimate of Holy Scripture cannot excuse ourselves if we fail to show a diligence and conscientiousness equal to theirs in ordering our going according to God’s written Word.
2. The Puritans’ teaching on conscience reflected their view of personal religion.
Godliness, to the Puritans, was essentially a matter of conscience, inasmuch as it consisted in a hearty, disciplined, “considerate” (thoughtful) response to known evangelical truth, and centered upon the getting and keeping of a good conscience. As long as a man is unregenerate, his conscience oscillates between being bad and being asleep. The first work of grace is to quicken his conscience and make it thoroughly bad, by forcing him to face God’s demands upon him and so making him aware of his guilt, impotence, rebelliousness, and alienation, in God’s sight. But the knowledge of pardon and peace through Christ makes his bad conscience good. A good conscience is God’s gift to those whom, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, He enables to look with understanding at the cross. It is maintained through life by seeking to do God’s will in all things, and by constantly keeping the cross in view. Let Fenner explain this.
Suppose a man have peace of conscience, what must he do to keep and maintain it? I answer,
First, We must labour to prevent troubles of conscience by taking heed that we do nothing contrarie to conscience. . . . Nothing that we get in any evil way will chear and comfort us in a time of need. . . . Wretched is he that alloweth himself in any course which his conscience findeth fault with. It is a good rule the Apostle giveth. Blessed is he that condemneth not himself in that which he alloweth (Rom. 14:22): that is, Blessed is he that hath not a condemning conscience. . . .
Secondly, If we will maintain our peace, we must labour to have our hearts grounded in the assurance of the love of God. . . .
Thirdly, We must use the assurance of faith in applying the blood of Christ; we must labour to purge and cleanse our consciences with it. If we find that we have sinned, we must runne presently (i.e., at once) to the blood of Christ to wash away our sinne. We must not let the wound fester or exulcerate, but presently get it healed. . . . As we sinne dayly, so he justifieth dayly, and we must dayly go to him for it. . . . We must every day eye the brazen serpent. Justification is an everrunning fountain, and therefore we cannot look to have all the water at once. . . . O let us sue out every day a dayly pardon. . . . Let us not sleep one night without a new pardon. Better sleep in a house full of adders and venomous beasts than sleep in one sinne. O then be sure with the day to clear the sinnes of the day: Then shall our consciences have true peace.”16
A good conscience, said the Puritans, is the greatest blessing that there is. “Conscience,” declared Sibbes, “is either the greatest friend or the greatest enemy in the world.”17 There is no better friend than a conscience which knows peace with God; for, says Fenner,
“First . . . it is the very head of all comforts. A worthy divine calls it Abrahams bosome to the soule. . . .
Secondly, A quiet conscience maketh a man to tast(e) the sweetness of things heavenly and spirituall: It maketh the word to be to him, as to David, Sweeter than hony. . . . I have not departed from thy judgment, O Lord, saith he (thus saith his conscience) now what followeth next? How sweet are thy words unto my tast! yea, sweeter than hony unto my mouth (Ps. 119:103). A good conscience maketh a man tast sweetnesse in prayer . . . in a Sabbath . . . in the Sacraments. . . . What is the reason so few of you tast sweetnesse in these things? The reason is this: Because ye have not the peace of a good conscience. . . .
Thirdly, A good quiet conscience maketh a man tast sweetnesse in all outward things, in meat, in drink, in sleep, in the company of friends. . . . The healthy man onely can take pleasure in recreations, walks, meats, sports, and the like: they yield no comfort to those that are bedrid, or half-dead. But when the conscience is at peace, the soul is all in good health; and so all things are enjoyed with sweetness and comfort.
Fourthly, It sweetneth evils to a man, as trouble, crosses, sorrows, afflictions. If a man have true peace in his conscience, it comforteth him in them all. When things abroad do disquiet us, how comfortable it is to have something at home to chear us? so when troubles and afflictions without turmoil and vex us and adde sorrow to sorrow, then to have peace within, the peace of conscience, to allay all and quiet all, what a happiness is this? When sicknesse and death cometh, what will a good conscience be worth then? Sure, more than all the world besides. . . . The conscience is God’s echo of peace to the soul: in life, in death, in judgement it is unspeakable comfort.”18
A man with a good conscience can face death with equanimity. In his famous account of the crossing of Jordan, Bunyan tells us how “Mr. Honest in his life time had spoken to one Good-conscience to meet him there, the which he also did, and lent him his hand, and so helped him over.”19 It is through the gift of a good conscience that God answers the prayer, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29).
A good conscience is a tender conscience. The consciences of the godless may be so calloused that they scarcely ever act at all; but the healthy Christian conscience (said the Puritans) is constantly in operation, listening for God’s voice in His Word, seeking to discern His will in everything, active in self-watch and self-judgment. The healthy Christian knows his frailty and always suspects and distrusts himself, lest sin and Satan should be ensnaring him unawares; therefore he regularly grills himself before God, scrutinizing his deeds and motives and ruthlessly condemning himself when he finds within himself moral deficiency and dishonesty. This was the kind of self-judging that Paul urged upon the Corinthians at Communion time (1 Cor. 11:31).
The degree of sharp-sightedness which our consciences show in detecting our own real sins (as distinct from the imaginary ones on which Satan encourages us to concentrate) is an index of how well we really know God and how close to Him we really walk—an index, in other words, of the real quality of our spiritual life. The sluggish conscience of a “sleepy,” “drowsy” saint is a sign of spiritual malaise. The healthy Christian is not necessarily the extrovert, ebullient Christian, but the Christian who has a sense of God’s presence stamped deep on his soul, who trembles at God’s Word, who lets it dwell in him richly by constant meditation upon it, and who tests and reforms his life daily in response to it. We can begin to assess our real state in God’s sight by asking ourselves how much exercise of conscience along these lines goes into our own daily living.
3. The Puritans’ teaching on conscience was reflected in their view of preaching.
The most characteristic feature in the Puritan ideal of preaching was the great stress laid on the need for searching applications of truth to the hearers’ consciences. One mark of a “spiritual,” “powerful” preacher, in the Puritan estimation, was the closeness and faithfulness of application whereby he would “rip up” men’s consciences and make them face themselves as God saw them. The Puritans knew that sinful men are slow to apply truth to themselves, quick though they may be to see how it bears on others. Hence unapplied general statements of evangelical truth were unlikely to do much good. Therefore (said the Puritans) the preacher must see it as an essential part of his job to work out applications in detail, leading the minds of his hearers step by step down those avenues of practical syllogisms which will bring the Word right home to their hearts, to do its judging, wounding, healing, comforting, and guiding work. “Because of (this) slownesse in men to . . . apply,” declared Ames, “there is a necessity laid on all Ministers, not only to declare God’s will generally, but likewise so farre as they are able, to helpe, and further both publicly, and in private, the application of it.”20
Application is the preacher’s highway from the head to the heart. This applicatory part of preaching, says the Westminster Directory, “albeit it prove a work of great difficulty . . . requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he (the preacher) is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.” The Word must thus cut into the conscience if it is ever to do men good.
Effective application presupposes that the truth applied has first been shown to be a genuine word from God, and not just a bright idea of the preacher’s. This means that it must have been drawn out of the preacher’s text, in such a way that “the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence” (Westminster Directory), and thus be forced to realize that it comes to them with the authority of God Himself. Fenner stresses this in connection with his point that “God’s law is the absolute and supreme bond of conscience.”21
Whence comes the skill to apply God’s truth appropriately in preaching? From the experience of having God apply His truth powerfully to oneself. Ordinarily, said the Puritans, it is those whose own consciences are most deeply exercised by God’s truth who have most power to awaken the consciences of others by prudent and piercing applications. This was part of what John Owen meant when he laid it down that “if the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”22 And the Puritans would no doubt have said that this was part of the true meaning of Anselm’s assertion, that it is the heart (pectus) that makes the theologian.
It may be asked, Does not this stress on the searching of conscience produce a morbid and introspective type of piety? Does not this emphasis on constant self-suspicion and self-examination actually weaken faith, by diverting our gaze from Christ in His fullness to ourselves in our emptiness, so leading us to spiritual despondency and depression? No doubt it would if it were made an end in itself; but, of course, it never was. The Puritans ripped up consciences in the pulpit and urged self-trial in the closet only in order to drive sinners to Christ and to teach them to live by faith in Him. They plied the law only to make way for the gospel, and for the life of dependence on the grace of God. Morbidity and introspectiveness, the gloomy self-absorption of the man who can never look away from himself, is bad Puritanism; the Puritans themselves condemned it repeatedly. A study of Puritan sermons will show that the preachers’ constant concern, in all their detailed detecting of sins, was to lead their hearers into the life of faith and a good conscience; which, they said, is the most joyous life that man can know in this world.
The Puritan Conscience in Action
The Puritan concern for a good conscience lent great ethical strength to their teaching. Of all English evangelicals from the Reformation to the present day, the Puritans were undoubtedly the most conspicuous as preachers of righteousness. They were in truth the salt of society in their time, and on many points they created a national conscience which has only recently begun to be eroded. A demand for the sanctification of the Sabbath; plain speaking against demoralizing amusements (bawdy plays, promiscuous dancing, gluttony and drunkenness, salacious fiction); abhorrence of profanity; insistence on a faithful discharge of one’s calling and station in life—these were emphases which are still remembered (sometimes applauded, sometimes ridiculed) as “Puritan.” Just as Laud had a policy of “thorough” in ecclesiastical affairs, so the Puritans had a policy of “thorough” in the ethical realm; and they went to great pains to give detailed guidance on the duties involved in the various relationships to God and man in which the Christian stood. Among the memorials of their work in this field are the many printed expositions of the ten commandments; major works like Richard Rogers’s Seven Treatises . . . the Practice of Christianity (1603), Perkins’s and Ames’s volumes on conscience and casuistry, and Baxter’s Christian Directory (1670); and countless small vade-mecums on the Christian life, from Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven (1601); to Thomas Gouge’s Christian Directions Shewing how to walk with God All the Day long (1688).
Was all this detailed teaching on Christian conduct a lapse into a new legalism, and curtailing of Christian liberty? Does it mark a decline into Pharisaic ways? No; for, first, all this ethical teaching was evangelically based, as that of the New Testament is. The supreme ethical motives in Puritanism were gratitude for grace received, and a sense of responsibility to walk worthy of one’s calling, and there was not the least room in Puritan teaching for self-righteousness; for not only was it constantly stressed that the Christian works from life, not for life, but it was also repeatedly emphasized that our best works are shot through with sin, and contain something that needs to be forgiven.
Then, second, this ethical teaching was all given (again, just as in the New Testament) not as a code of routine motions to go through with mechanical exactness, but in the form of attitudes to be maintained and principles to be applied, so that however much teaching and advice a man received, he was always left to make the final decisions and determinations (whether to follow his pastor’s advice; how to apply the given principles in this or that case; etc.) on his own initiative, as spontaneous, responsible acts of his own conscience in the sight of God.
Third, Puritan ethical teaching was not authoritarian; it was offered as exposition and application of Scripture, and was to be checked against Scripture by those who received it, according to the Protestant principle of the duty of private judgment. The Puritans did not wish men’s consciences to be bound to their own teaching, as such, but to the Word of God only, and to Puritan teaching only so far as it was demonstrably in accord with the Word of God.
Fourth, Puritan ethical teaching took the form of a positive ideal of zealous and wise godliness, at which Christians must always be aiming even though they never fully reach it in this world; and unattained positive ideals are the death of the legalistic spirit, which can only flourish in an atmosphere of negative restriction where abstinence is regarded as the essence of virtue. In reality, nothing less legalistic in spirit and content than the ethical teaching of the Puritans can well be imagined.
But, it may be said, did not their habitual attention to the minutiae of righteousness, however evangelically motivated, impair their sense of proportion, and make them scrupulous about small matters in which no issues of principle were involved, and which therefore they should have taken in their stride? This was a constant accusation in the Puritans’ own day, especially with regard to their insistence that the worship of the Church of England needed to be purified further than had been done in the Elizabethan settlement. The Puritan objections to the surplice, the wedding-ring, the cross in baptism, and kneeling at commun-ion were put down to a “peevish humour” rationalizing itself in an adverse judgment. Again, in 1662, it seemed to many that Richard Baxter and those clergy who shared his views (the majority, it seems, of the ejected) had really no sufficient reason for taking exception to the terms of the Act of Uniformity. In the present tercentenary year of the Great Ejection, it is worth looking at this suggestion to see if there is any substance in it.
Of the poignancy of the choice which Baxter and his friends made there can be no question. They believed in the idea of a national Protestant Church of England; they regarded themselves as already ministers of that Church, and only wanted to continue as such. They were not divine-right Presbyterians; they had no objection to a fixed liturgy (provided it was scriptural), nor to episcopacy (provided it was not prelatical); they accepted the ideal of a national uniformity of religion. Yet they felt bound to refuse the Caroline settlement, and to withdraw, either into silence, or into surreptitious, sectarian forms of church life—two alternatives both of which were to them intensely undesirable, quite apart from the persecution to which the second would expose them. It was a terribly painful decision. Why did they feel bound to take it?
They had four main reasons. First, they could not conscientiously declare “unfeigned assent and consent” to the 1662 Prayer Book, as the Act of Uniformity required them to do. Not only did that book still retain the ceremonies to which Puritans had been objecting for a century, on the grounds that (a) being tainted with superstitious associations, they were undesirable, and (b) not being scriptural, they should not be made obligatory; it also retained phraseology to which the Puritan spokesmen at the Savoy Conference had definitely objected, such as the declaratory assertion of regeneration in the baptism service, the strong absolution in the Visitation of the Sick, and the reference to the dead man as a brother in the Lord in the funeral service. Even so, had they merely been asked by the Act to assent to the book in the sense of accepting it for regular use, they might have felt free to do so (after all, it was virtually the same book that earlier Puritans had used, many of them without any deviations, up to 1640). But what the Act required was a public declaration of “unfeigned assent and consent”; and this seemed to them to imply a degree of approval which they dare not undertake to give, lest they involve themselves in the guilt of perjury.
Second, the Act required them to abjure the Solemn League and Covenant of 1645 (an undertaking to further the work of reforming the English Church so as to bring it closer into line with other Reformed churches, especially the Church of Scotland, and to extirpate the traditional Anglican ecclesiastical hiearchy). But many of the Puritans, even those who did not believe that the New Testament prescribes a thorough-going Presbyterianism, felt unable to renounce the Covenant as an “unlawful oath”: neither constitutionally nor theologically could they see anything that was demonstrably unlawful about it. Again, therefore, rather than risk perjury, they declined the abjuration.
Third, they objected to the demand that English clergy who had not hitherto received episcopal orders should be episcopally ordained forthwith. To accept this demand, they held, would be not merely to condemn as invalid their own previous ministrations, but also to condemn by implication all the non-episcopal ministries of Protestant Christendom throughout the world; and this they could not do.
Fourth, these Puritan clergy were prevented from trying to stretch their consciences by the sense that the eyes of their own flocks—indeed, of all Englishmen—were upon them, and that they could not even appear to compromise principles for which they had stood in the past without discrediting themselves, their calling, and their previous teaching. Calamy records a contemporary comment which focuses their fear—“had the ministers conformed, people would have thought there was nothing in religion.” The Puritan clergy held that they should be ready to confirm what they had publicly maintained as truth by suffering, if need be, rather than risk undermining their whole previous ministry by what would look like time-serving abandonment of principle. Therefore, once they had become clear that the terms of the Act of Uniformity were prima facie intolerable, they did not expend any energy on trying to find ways and means of wriggling around them. Rather than appear to be trifling with truth, they withdrew into the wilderness.
Was this scrupulosity? Was their attitude one of a mere rationalized peevishness? Surely not. It is, rather, the supreme illustration of the Puritan conscience in action. Two ruling axioms of Puritan casuistry were (a) that no known truth must be compromised or denied in practice and (b) that no avoidable sin must be committed, however great the good to which such compromise and sin might lead. Expediency is no warrant for unprin-cipled action; the end does not justify the means. Whether Baxter and his friends were right in their verdict on the Restoration settlement we need not now discuss, any more than we need pass judgment on the action of men like Gurnall and Trapp, who conformed; Reynolds, who became Bishop of Norwich; and Leighton, who received both episcopal ordination and consecration to become a Bishop in Scotland. All we wish to do here is to display the action of Baxter and his friends as an instance of costly conscientiousness. The suggestion that—to put it bluntly—the root of their nonconformity was cussedness, wounded pride, and an obstinate refusal to climb down, is simply ridiculous. Perjury, and reformation, and the sufficiency of Scripture, and the dispensability of bishops, were matters of theological principle as far as they were concerned; and they kept a good conscience in the only way open to them, or to any Christian—by following truth as it appears from Scripture, and refusing to sell it, or betray it, for any consideration in the world.
So the conclusion I would draw is simply this: that such conscientiousness as marked all Puritan religion, and was supremely manifested in the ejection of 1662, is a necessary Christian virtue at all times. It is man’s proper response to God’s immutable revealed truth. It may be costly, as it was in 1662; but without it, churchmanship becomes irreligion, a Christian profession becomes an insult to God. These are compromising days in the Church’s life; that, perhaps, is only to be expected when the very existence of revealed Truth is so widely doubted or denied. But if we believe that God has spoken in His Son, and the Bible is His own Word of testimony to that revelation—if, in other words, we hold the Puritan view of Scripture—then, as we said earlier, the uncompromising fidelity to Bible truth which marked the Puritans should mark us also. May God give us light to see His truth, consciences to apply it and live by it, and conscientiousness to hold it fast, whatever the cost, in these Laodicean days.
From The Puritan Papers Volume 2 by J. I. Packer and the Committee of the Westminster Conference