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Two Biblical Models of Conversion: An Example of Puritan Hermeneutics

  • Charles L. Cohen (a1)


Puritan religious experience centered around conversion, the soul's new birth in faith. Entry into the realm of the Spirit, the path to salvation, involved a protracted emotional confrontation with grace borne in God's Word. The injunction to begin life anew in grace is as old as John 3:3, which declares that one “cannot see the kingdom of God” without being “born again” but does not associate the event with any particular psychological experience; what one undergoes in becoming a child of the Spirit the gospel does not relate. Into this gap of possibility Puritan preachers insinuated their vision of holy passions; well known as physicians of the soul, they pieced together a compelling model of how the Spirit moves a human being as it translates individuals from the estate of damnation to that of grace.



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1. Cohen, Charles L., God's Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience (New York, 1986), pp. 75110.

2. Hailer, William, The Rise of Puritanism (New York, 1957), pp. 2728;Greenham, Richard, The Workes of… Richard Greenhorn (London, 1612), p. 447.

3. Runia, Klaas, “The Hermeneutics of the Reformers,” Calvin Theological Journal 19 (1984): 121152;Knott, John R. Jr, The Sword of the Spirit: Puritan Responses to the Bible (Chicago, 1980), PP. 3435;Davidson, Edward H., “John Cotton's Biblical Exegesis: Method and Purpose,” Early American Literature 17 (1982): 119121.

4. Knott, , Sword of the Spirit, p. 32;Stein, Stephen J., “The Quest for the Spiritual Sense: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards,” Harvard Theological Review 70 (1977): 101, 105;New, John F. H., Anglican and Puritan: The Basis of Their Opposition, 1558–1640(Stanford, 1964), pp. 2627;Davies, Horton, Worship and Theology in England, volume 2, From Andrewes to Baxter and Fox, 1603–1690 (Princeton, 1975), pp. 114, 529530.

5. Gane, Erwin R., “The Exegetical Methods of Some Sixteenth-Century Puritan Preachers: Hooper, Cartwright, and Perkins,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 19 (1981): 23, 29,36; 109, 111,112, 114, uses the term “in the sense that they were not satisfied to give Bible passages their obvious meanings in context, but, to a greater degree than did the Anglicans, sought to see their own era, as well as their own biases, as the subjects of the scriptural message” (p. 109). Gane's terminology is misleading—“presentist” better conveys his intentions than does “ultra-literal”—but his point that Puritans took liberties with the text in serving their religious agendas despite (indeed because of) their insistence on adhering strictly to it is most insightful. Compare Levy, Babette May, Preaching in the First Half Century of New England History (1945; reprint, New York, 1967), p. 91.

6. Frei, Hans W., The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, 1974), pp. 1, 19, 25;Blench, J. W., Preaching in England in the late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: A Study of English Sermons 1450-c. 1600 (New York, 1964), pp. 5758, 6061;Runia, , “Hermeneutics of the Reformers,” pp. 122, 135136, 143;Toulouse, Theresa, The Art of Prophesying: New England Sermons and the Shaping of Belief (Athens Ga., 1987), p. 16;Stein, , “Quest for the Spiritual Sense,” p. 106.

7. Coughenour, Robert A., “The Shape and Vehicle of Puritan Hermeneutics,” Reformed Review 30 (1976): 30, hints that ministers expounded more than just the bare literal meaning. Working from traditional Protestant hermeneutic principles, Jonathan Edwards also took the literal meaning variously but went further by identifying a spiritual sense that comes only to those regenerated through the Spirit and that allows for typological and allegorical interpretations freed from the confines of the literal text. He even evoked anagogic and tropologic meanings. See Stein, , “Quest for the Spiritual Sense,” pp. 107113;idem, “Jonathan Edwards and the Rainbow: Biblical Exegesis and Poetic Imagination,” New England Quarterly 47 (1974): 441, 453–456.

8. Morgan, John, Godly Learning: Puritan Attitudes towards Reason, Learning and Education, 1560–1640 (New York, 1986);Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York, 1939), pp. 111235;Todd, Margo, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (Cambridge, 1987);Reventlow, Henning Graf, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, trans. Bowden, John (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 9499;Levy, , Preaching in the First Half Century, pp. 1524, 102, 116122.

9. Toulouse, , Art of Prophesying, pp. 1618;Knott, , Sword of the Spirit, pp. 36–37.

10. Lewaiski, Barbara Kiefer, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton, 1979), pp. 111140;Blench, , Preaching in England, pp. 6162;Frei, , Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, pp.2, 1920, 2731, 3334;Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed., Typology and Early American Literature ([Amherst, Mass.], 1972);Elliott, Emory, “From Father to Son: The Evolution of Typology in Puritan New England,” in Literary Uses of Typology From the Late Middle Ages to the Present, ed. Miner, Earl (Princeton, 1977), pp. 204227.

11. Reventlow, , Authority of the Bible, pp. 114118;Coolidge, John, The Pauline Renaissance in England (Oxford, 1970), pp. 112, 2022; Cane, “Exegetical Methods,” pp. 22–23, 29; 112–113.

12. Williams, Charles Stephen Conway, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 2d ed. (London, 1964), p. 194;Ernest, Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, A Commentary, trans. Noble, Bernard and Shinn, Gerald (Oxford, 1971), p. 494;Neil, William, The Acts of the Apostles (London, 1973), p. 182;Hooker, Thomas, The Vnbeleevers Preparing for Christ (London, 1638), 1st pagination, p. 193.

13. Bruce, F. F., Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1954), pp. 64, 216, 331.

14. Sibbes, Richard, The Complete Works, ed. Grosart, Alexander B., 7 vols. (Edinburgh, 1862–1864), 6:520522.

15. Ibid., pp. 523–529.

16. Rogers, John, The Doctrine of Faith, 3d ed. (London, 1629), p. 61, and see Mather, Richard, The Summe of Certain Sermons Upon Genes: 15.6 (Cambridge, 1652), p. 4;Dent, Arthur, The Flame Mans Path-way to Heauen (London, 1623), p. 23, and see John, Preston, Remaines of that Reverend and Learned Divine, John Preston (London, 1634), p.227.

17. Ames, William, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity (London, 1642), 28.8;Perkins, William, The Whole Works… William Perkins, 3 vols. (London, 16261631), 1:86;Cotton, John, Gods Mercie Mixed with His Ivstice (London, 1641), p. 3.

18. Sibbes, , Works, 6:524525, 522.

19. Bulkeley, Peter, The Gospel-Covenant, 2d ed. (London, 1651), p. 335;Rogers, Richard, Seven Treatises (London, 1603), pp. 2223.

20. Hooker, Thomas, The Soules Preparation for Christ (London, 1632), pp. 178, 180;Perkins, , Works, 1:364365;Hildersam, Arthur, The Doctrine of Fasting and Praier (London, 1633), p. 89.

21. Shepard, Thomas, The Works, ed. Albro, John Adams, 3 vols. (1853; reprint, Hildesheim, 1971), 1:39.

22. Shepard's contention that certain figures like Lydia were converted before they believed in the Messiah leads to a confusing analysis of her progression to faith. When he alleges that the centurion was a proselyte (like Lydia and the eunuch) “who feared God, and whose prayers were accepted, (ver. 4) (which can not be without faith) yet did not know that this Jesus crucified was the Messiah, until Peter came unto him,” he is saying that the centurion had faith before he believed in Christ (Works, 1:1410). Did Shepard seriously advance a thesis so repugnant to the Puritans' most basic theological instincts? Undoubtedly not, since he always adhered to Reformed conventions. It would seem that in sewing up the argument that all converts undergo compunction whether the Bible illustrates it or not, the orthodox minister left a few heterodox threads unraveled.

23. Ibid., 1:140.

24. Ibid., 1:141.

25. Shepard makes a stronger case when he maintains that “Scripture usually sets down matters very briefly; it oftentimes supposeth many things, and refers us to judge of some by other places.” For instance, although I Timothy 1:13–14 do not mention if Paul had any “castings down,” if one looks to the “fuller example” of Acts 9, “we shall see it otherwise” (ibid.). The practice of trying to understand one biblical passage by referring to another—standard Puritan practice—is reasonable enough, and the essential gospel command “repent and believe” lends some credence to Shepard's view. The point remains, however, that he (and other ministers) read more into Acts 16:14 than it can bear as far as Lydia is concerned.

26. Sibbes, , Works, 6:520.

27. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill, John T., trans. Battles, Ford Lewis, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1960), 3..24.13.

28. Daigleish, Edward R., Psalm Fifty-One in the Light of Ancient Near East Patternism (Leiden, 1962), pp. 277, and see pp. 1–7, 209–248; Oxtoby, Gurdon Corning, “Conscience and Confession: A Study of the Fifty-First Psalm,” Interpretation 3 (1949): 415426.

29. Perkins, , Works, 1:366.

30. Thomas, Hooker, Soules Preparation, p. 163, but see idem, The Soules Exaltation (London, 1638), p. 187, where he portrays David as a Saint. Shepard also showed the king as a sinner and a Saint; Works, 1:152, compared with 2:270.

31. Perkins, , Works, 1:454;Mather, , Summe, p. 34;Dent, Arthur, A Sermon of Repentaunc (London, 1583), A5v.

32. Sibbes, , Works, 1:44;Rogers, , Doctrine of Faith, p. 253.

33. Cotton, John, The way of Life (London, 1641), p. 47;Hildersam, , Doctrine of Fasting, pp. 139, 142;Sibbes, , Works, 1:171.

34. Hooker, Thomas, The Soules Implantation(London, 1637), p. .128;Sibbes, , Works, 5:365.

35. Preston, John, The Breast-Plate of Faith and Love, 2d ed. (London, 1630), 3:67.

36. Sibbes, , Works, 3:223.

37. Greenham, , Works, pp. 450, 449, 447, 450.

38. Hooker, , Soules Exaltation, p. 188;Hildersam, , Doctrine of Fasting, pp. 120121.

39. Davenport, John, The Saints Anchor-Hold in All Storms and Tempests (London, 1661), p. 107;Rogers, , Doctrine of Faith, pp. 340341.

40. Pietersz, David. Dc Vries, “Korte Historiael endejournaels aenteydeninge,” in Narratives of New Netherland, 1609–1664, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (New York, 1909), p. 204.

41. Frei, , Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, pp. 1750 and passim.


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