A feisty debate stirred the New England churches in 1636.
In an early exchange of letters between two of the pastors, Peter Bulkeley asked John Cotton whether he would agree that there must be “the work of faith in us to apprehend” a saving union with Christ—in other words, does a believer apply his or her will in the function of believing?
Cotton responded that a soul does nothing to initiate faith: “the soul receives Christ as an empty vessel receives oil—the receiving is not active but passive.” Cotton pressed his case by using the biblical analogies of faith being comparable to fruit production: the birth and growth of any fruit depends on the tree or the vine that bears it and not on the fruit itself.
In an allusion to John 15:5 Cotton wrote, “We must either be abiding in Christ, or else existing outside him (that is, without his abiding in us) or else we can do nothing.” For any other conclusion, Cotton went on, “we must look for it in Aristotle’s Ethics, for it is not revealed in the Gospel of Christ” [in D. Hall, ed.,Antinomian Controversy, 37 & 40].
In his response Cotton showed he was alert to Martin Luther’s key point in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology—a set of 97 theses Luther produced a few weeks before he posted his more famous 95 Theses.
In thesis 40 of the Disputation he made the point that we are not justified by doing just deeds, but having been made just [by God’s work in us] we do just deeds. Then in thesis 41 he made it clear that he was intentionally challenging Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the “worst enemy of grace” because in his book Aristotle presumed that virtues come about by practicing virtuous deeds.
This, of course, remains the major question in debate about how salvation is applied: is faith something we offer God in order to be saved, or is it a response God produces in us by his initiative? The church has long struggled with a straightforward reading of the texts that Luther and Cotton were using. Just as Cotton faced strong resistance from Bulkeley and Thomas Shepherd, Luther faced similar headwind from the Humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus.
As a sidebar, we need to push deeper into the controversy than many do these days. The language of “believe . . . and be saved” is offered in the Bible and it’s then read as an imperative or command we need to obey. Okay, but we still need to ask about the context in which such imperatives are properly read.
That is, too many Christians read such texts as unwitting disciples of Aristotle by presuming that everyone has a ‘freedom of the will’ that allows for moral choices. But the Bible actually teaches that we’re dead in our sins so that we have as much initiative to obey God as a cadaver has for breathing.
At a more sophisticated level, many try to mitigate the issue of spiritual death by holding that God has enabled sin-“damaged” wills to obey once someone is given a restorative grace (“enabling grace”); and this is granted just to some (the “elect”) and not to all—since the rest are assigned to be “reprobates.” But this is still not a compelling case to the degree that human effort is viewed as crucial to salvation: so that God helps us save ourselves.
Where Cotton differed from Bulkeley—who believed in enabling grace as a necessary precursor to exercising the saving act of faith—was in his view that the heart is dead towards God. There is nothing to “enable” until God, by the Spirit, comes and reveals Christ’s love to the unbelieving soul in a direct encounter.
In other words, in Cotton’s view, as Luther also believed, the problem of sin is that it operates through heartfelt disaffection and not as a moral and volitional disability. The problem of our souls is that we don’t really like God as he truly exists or want him to be God to us.
Bulkeley, by contrast, believed that everyone “wants” God but needs a boost of grace—God’s gracious assistance—to achieve a standard called “saving faith” that God demands of us. Cotton, against Bulkeley and like Luther, believed that our hearts are utterly deceptive and that we may want what God seems to offer—heavenly safety—but not God himself.
The result of this New England controversy was a lot of pejorative labeling. Cotton’s followers called their opponents “papists” because of their emphasis on human initiative—in treating faith as a human responsibility—which they viewed as the great error of Roman Catholics. Bulkeley and Shepherd’s followers in turn labeled Cotton’s clan as “antinomians” because they dismissed law-keeping as a legitimate basis for spiritual growth.
To measure the question more broadly let’s turn back now to an even earlier version of this debate: to the 5th century argument between Augustine and Pelagius. What triggered the sharpest disagreement was Augustine’s call to “Love and do whatever you want.” This horrified Pelagius, a British moralist who was trying to clean up the immoral tendencies of the Roman church in Italy.
In a nutshell Augustine also believed that God changes people from the inside-out. Luther believed that God changes people from the inside-out. And Cotton believed that God changes people from the inside out. All believed that when the Spirit of God pours out God’s love in our hearts we start to think and act in ways aligned with God’s heart. That leads to true godliness.
Pelagius, on the other hand, believed that moral change is something we need to offer God on our own initiative. So that spirituality is a change from the outside-in. Erasmus agreed and so did Bulkeley. We just need some help from God to pull it off.
In practice, then, the difference comes in the way we think. According to the Augustinian tradition we are captured by God’s love and it changes the way we think. It changes what and who we think about: Christ replaces self as the focus of our reflections. And we think of others in light of Christ’s love for them. And with that our conduct is changed.
Alternatively, we think about how we need to work harder in establishing our obedience of faith. Yet, ironically, the focus is still on ourselves: as long as we remain morally sound, we’re actually thinking about our own welfare and about God as our assistant.
So what do you think?
Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].