The Puritan Dilemma

The Puritan Dilemma

Posted in Theologically Speaking

The early Puritan colonists in America of the 1600’s when formulating the types of government each colony should take, came up against what has been called the Puritan Dilemma. The “dilemma” question arose in the Puritan mind out of two fundamental tenets of theology.

First, the Biblical teaching that man was created in the “image of God,” and has been given a mandate from his Creator to advance God’s Kingdom and righteousness in every area of life (Gen 1:27-28; Matt 6:33). Thus liberty, peace, and security were seen as highly-prized preconditions for productive social and political life. (cf. II Tim 2:2-3).

Second, the equally important doctrine that man is a fallen creature, and as a sinner must be restrained from working out his evil intentions in society. This restraint is accomplished through several forms of Biblical “government”- -family, church, state but ultimately SELF-government. Yet (and here is the dilemma) these governments (and in particular the state) may, in the hands of sinful men, become dangerous enemies of righteousness and freedom.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sought to devise a political system that would adequately take account of both of these human realities–a political structure which would maximize freedom to admittedly sinful men while at the same time holding their evil tendencies in check. Winthrop uuderstood that the “Puritan dilemma” could not be solved in political terms alone. Two other items, a flourishing ministry on the part of the church a strong family structure would also be required to produce the desired social results. In many ways these latter two elements were the most important.

A century-and-a-half later, in a far less explicitly Puritan fashion, the U.S. Constitution sought to achieve the same balance between liberty for good purposes and the restraint of evildoing.

The Puritan “experiment” in North America succeeded for a time because it was supported by a cultural consensus which was rooted in the Bible. Despite many differences among the puritans on points of doctrine and church practice, they shared a common understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God, His providential dealings in history, the nature of man, and the role (and limitations) of humna institutions ordained by God to provide order in the affairs of society. Civil order was the fruit of this fundamental theological consensus.

Sadly, the “Puritan experiment” did not last. It was not overthrown by a foreign invader, or by domestic crises. It was by means of theological defection — a loss of Biblical faith.

Our social and political crisis is fundamentally a theological crisis. It will not admit of a quick fix. Our Puritan forefathers understood well that political liberty and social peace were fruit which grew on the tree of Biblical faith. To turn our nation back will require a restoration of a Biblical theological consensus which will support social and political reformation. As in Josiah’s day, the “Book of God’s Law” must be rediscovered, read, believed and obeyed.

A recovery of Biblical preaching, teaching and discipling is absolutely necessary. This includes Christian day- and home- school education and Christian publications which are true to the word of God. Those who profess Christ must become serious about radical and comprehensive obedience to the Word of God. Piety divorced from obedience plays into hands of the Enemy (cf. Col 2:20-23). Given the lack of self-government (“self-control,” Gal 5:23; “training in godliness,” I Tim 4:7) on the part of so many who claim to be Christians, it is small wonder that our civil rulers do not govern well. Lawless people cannot create and sustain a lawful political order.1

So where do we home schoolers go from here? What are we to do? We are already providing education and training far more thorough and consistently Biblical than we ourselves have seen. But this is no reason to relax. We can improve. For His sake we MUST improve. We parents must NOT ONLY continually seek a closer walk with the Lord, BUT ALSO a more conscious conformity to His Word in order to set the example for our children . We must NOT ONLY strive to see Christian politicians and Christian Political Parties in Parliament, we must ALSO encourage them to be ever more Biblical in their policies and public statements. We must NOT ONLY become serious about comprehensive obedience to the Word, we must ALSO know the Word intimately.

Now here I take my life in my hands and ask readers as sincerely and earnestly as I can: what do we perceive, what concepts came to our minds, when we say, “obey the Word”? I trust we will automatically answer, “The Bible, of course!” Amen! Now let me ask, “Do we mean ALL of the Bible?” Are we like some hyper-dispensationalists I have met who dispense with the Old Testament because it is, well ….you know… is OLD! OurLord said that man is to live by EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. (Matt 4:4). We must never treat the Bible like a smorgasbord.

Now, let me ask, for this is important, and what we believe in these areas we will pass on to our children and set the course for much of their lives, so we had better have it right. Do we believe the Bible ALONE to be the word Of God? Or do we allow for modern-day additions and alterations? What do I mean? Well, Jesus upheld and defended the Torah, God’s Word as delivered by Moses and the prophets. He constantly ridiculed and condemned the Pharisees because they taught as doctrine the traditions of men, that is, their book of additions and alterations often referred to as the Talmud. Do our prayer groups ever wait in silence for a “word” from God? Do the visions and bits of choruses that then come out get woven together as “a word from the Lord for us today”? Do such “words” or “prophesies” from the pulpit stand in our minds on an equal level with the eternal, life-giving Words of the Lord God Almighty? Are we moving toward the position of the Quakers who have dispensed with the Bible altogether because they have this “inner light”, claiming John 14:26 as their authority for doing so? Do not allow for additions or alterations to the Word of God! Read Revelation 22:18-19. “Sola Scriptura!” was the cry of the Reformation: “The Bible alone!

The Westminster Assembly of Puritans (called by the English Long Parliament of 1643 to 1652 to reform the Church of England) consisted of 20 laymen from the House of Commons, 10 laymen from the House of Lords , 121 English clergymen plus a delegation of Scottish Presbyterians. They met in 1,163 sessions to produce comprehensive and definitive answers to questions such as we have raised…. to avoid as many future dilemmas as they could. They wrote:

The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined , and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.

Notice Who we are to heed: the Holy Spirit of God, not the spirit or voice of mere men. Therefore are we told to test the spirits (I John 4:1). And also notice the medium through which we hear the Holy Spirit of God: the Scriptures. So let us make the Scriptures, the Written Word, first and last in our home education, just as our Saviour, the Living Word, is to be first and last, the Alpha and the Omega, in every area of our lives.


(1) Excerpted from article by Rev Roger Wagner in Penpoint, Southern California Center for Christian Studies, PO Box 328, Placentia, CA 92871, USA.

From Keystone Magazine
July 1996 , Vol. II No. 4
P O Box 9064
Palmerston North
Phone: (06) 357-4399
Fax: (06) 357-4389
email: craig