Paradigm-shifting books are not always received well. After all, the author usually needs to take apart a lot of current historiography in order explain why his/her case is more compelling than the arguments that have hitherto been advanced. Sometimes the shift is small; sometimes the shift is large. Good books receive good reviews; bad books receive bad reviews; and great books receive both. For that reason, I fully expect Hunter Powell’s book to ignite a much-needed debate. It is hard to find a book that has taken such a close look at the ecclesiological debates, writings, and beliefs of some of Protestantism’s most influential Puritan divines.
In the book, Powell shows that besides emerging in an intensely political context, Puritan ecclesiology was a highly theologized affair involving sophisticated Protestant scholastic distinctions used by Reformed theologians in an attempt to clarify the precise nature of power within the visible church. These distinctions ended up proving, among other things, that there were varieties of Presbyterianism as well as varieties of Congregationalism in England during the Puritan era.
As Powell notes, historians have continued to reappraise the ecclesiastical landscape of the English Revolution, building on longstanding, reductionist assumptions. This leads Powell to make the somewhat controversial, but important, contention that the “axiomatic binary conflict model of ‘presbyterian versus independent’” (p. 4) has led to monolithic and static categories, which unfortunately fail to do justice to the variety of ecclesiologies that emerged during the seventeenth century, even within the Presbyterian camp. Ironically, by creating theological heroes (and enemies!) modern Protestants have actually failed to do justice to just how brilliant, and flawed, the Puritans were. Powell’s work shows that as important as Puritan divines were to modern Protestantism, they were nonetheless human actors, who could (and did) change their minds, based on the situation and when presented with compelling biblical arguments.
He rightly critiques previous work on the topic, such as J. R. De Witt, who did not believe that there was much diversity among English and Scottish Presbyterians (p. 200). Too often, theological historians have been led astray by “sensational” propaganda written by contemporary controversialists outside the assembly, or they read modern denominational or confessional assumptions back on their ecclesiastical forefathers.
Powell’s book is the first to take a careful look at the Minutes of the Assembly alongside the understudied (and long) ecclesiological books written by the Assembly members. He untangles the exceedingly complex and erudite debates that took place between the Westminster divines. Powell gives us a framework for how to understand the Minutes and the men who wrote them. Robert Paul attempted to do this with a blow-by-blow account of the Minutes, but in doing so he introduced a whole host of false assumptions that still impact the way we think about the church. Powell’s survey of how scholastic argumentation took place—something largely foreign to the modern reader—uncovers how many of our assumptions and beliefs of particular Puritans have been either wrong, or underdeveloped. Powell shows that there are moments in the Assembly that reveal the beliefs of Puritan divines, and there are moments that reveal the debate has moved so far into scholastic dispute, that one must be exceedingly cautious in building a theological framework out of the complex, and well orchestrated, argumentative dance. For example, quite often a Puritan would argue his opponents’ position in order to trick him into conceding an inconsistency. In the Minutes, this happens quite a bit, and it is not always clear when. Thus we see the importance of reading their personal diaries and writings alongside the Minutes of the assembly.
In order to shift the historiographical landscape to something more reliable, Powell discusses some highly specific theological debates in order to show just how intricate the topic of ecclesiology was for the Westminster divines in the 1640s. So, for example, regarding the keys given to Peter in Matthew 16:19 (“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven”), whom did Peter represent? The views on this question in England during the seventeenth century were many, with even Presbyterians and Congregationalists disagreeing among themselves. A topic so fraught with confusion and complexity, the great Presbyterian historian Bannerman self-admittedly avoided it altogether.
Even so, Powell shows that some of the English Presbyterians were horrified by any power belonging to the people. Yet the Apologists (i.e., Congregationalists) “found sympathizers in men like Charles Herle who warned the assembly against the danger of pushing the denial of Peter’s representing the faithful too far” (p. 74). As a result, some were caught between two extremes whereby if power does not belong to the people in some sense then the officers cannot represent the church, but on the other side lurked the Anabaptist danger (“member rule”). What we find is that these divines had beliefs that ran across this spectrum and changed depending on the particular topic at hand.
There was also the thorny question debated among Presbyterians and Congregationalists concerning the universal church. So insistent upon the primacy of the universal church were some English Presbyterians that they held that the universal church was the first subject of the power of the keys. Even Samuel Rutherford rejects this view, but it was current in England, according to Powell. As Powell notes, the English Presbyterians saw “all power as derivative from the Universal visible church, and therefore whether power trickled down to the particular congregation was not vital, in their mind, to a functioning Presbyterian government” (p. 80). This exposes a fascinating and overlooked notion that many English Presbyterians believe local churches did not need to have elders provided there was a presbytery overseeing those churches. In this way, many influential English Presbyterians retained their Prelatic tendencies and thus, from the perspective of the divines with foreign (i.e. continental) experience like the Scottish Presbyterians and Apologists, were standing outside the Reformed tradition.
In relation to the keys, the Presbyterians affirmed that the keys were given to the universal, visible church, which is represented in its officers. That explains their emphasis on the church as a national, political body, with the elders exercising authority over believers via synods.
By drawing in the transatlantic context, Powell reveals the massive influence the New England divine, John Cotton, had on both Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and indeed, continental divines. Turning received wisdom on its head, Powell shows that Cotton was not the radical separatist represented in modern historiographies, but someone who was regularly cited and praised by men like Gillespie, Rutherford, Calamy and a number of divines on the continent and was a central influence for Voetius’s massive ecclesiastical tome, Politicae Ecclesiasticae.
Something needs to be said about the overall way in which the book reads. There is a lot of information offered by Powell. One gets the impression that he has mastered the sources, offers strong arguments, and does not simply rely on “block quotes” to prove his case. His analysis is acute, and budding scholars can learn a lot from the flow of the argument in this book as they attempt to distinguish between a bona fide thesis and a simple summary of the facts.
In terms of criticism, there is no bibliography, which makes it more difficult for research, though, for those keen to dig a little, the footnotes are filled with all of the information one would need. Also, it would have been nice had the author drawn some wider connections to the 1650s. The influence on Owen, which is obviously there, for example, is not discussed. Thus the long-term implication of Powell’s thesis is now a desideratum in Puritan studies.
In conclusion, Powell shows how seriously the Puritans—particularly the Westminster divines—took the church, and how carefully they thought about it. With the little regard our seminaries and churches give to this topic, it would be good for us to learn something more about ecclesiology in history. Personally, I would recommend spending the $100 on the book mentioned above, especially for those Presbyterian ministers who take the Westminster Confession seriously. Others who wish to come to a better understanding on the robust theology embedded in the ecclesiology of the Puritans will find treasure upon treasure in this excellent volume.