Puritanism’s Legacy

rookmaakerI’ve been dipping in and out of Rookmaaker’s classic Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. The commentary on various pieces of art is fascinating (I’m sure more so for an artist), but Rookmaaker’s diagnosis of the malaise in Western society and in the church stands out. Although now 40 years old, it doesn’t feel anything but timely. What struck me particularly was something I read in chapter 2 (The Roots of Contemporary Culture).

Rookmaaker highlights the influence of mysticism in Puritanism, tracing this back to the Reformation Anabaptists. He mentions some of the features of this mysticism: scepticism about outward forms of religion; a strong antipathy towards dogmatism in church order; and, a tendency to antinomianism. This interests me because I grew up in an evangelicalism powerfully influenced by the revival of interest in Puritanism in the mid-20th century. The features of that evangelicalism have been something I’ve reflected on often over the last few years. I recognise the features that Rookmaaker highlights, but it’s his focus on the dualistic view of life that arose from this mysticism that particularly interests me. This dualism depreciates everything outside of the ‘spiritual’.

[Puritanism] took from the Reformation its profound reverence for the Scriptures as a base for all theological thinking and daily living. But through mystical streams it was often tinged by a kind of subjectivism and a tendency to look for holiness in a legalistic and spiritualized way in an effort to keep clear of all worldly and fleshly pursuits. 30

Rookmaaker goes on to argue (and I’m sure he’s right) that this is the reason why the Reformed tradition has had little interest, in general, in the arts or in culture. In contrast , the expansive vision that ought to be embraced by Calvinism is beautifully expressed…

It is basic to thinking about culture in the tradition of the Calvinist Reformation that there is no duality between a higher and a lower, between grace and nature. This world is God’s world. He created it, He sustains it, He is interested in it. He called the work of His hands good in the very beginning. Nothing is excluded. Everything, from the lowest atom or animal life to the highest doxology, everything belongs to Him. Nothing can exist outside of Him, and all things have a meaning only in relation to Him. 36

And so, a Christian response to national culture follows…

Where things are loving, good, right and true, where things are according to God’s law and His will for creation, there is no problem. The Christian will appreciate and actively enjoy and enter into all the good things God has made. But where they have been spoilt or warped by sin, then the Christian must show by his life, his words, his action, his creativity what God really intended them to be. He has been made new in Christ, been given a new quality of life which is in harmony with God’s original intention for man. He has been given the power of God Himself by the Holy Spirit, who will help him to work out his new life into the world around him. 38

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