Debates in 17th Century British Puritanism

Rev. Dr. Mark Jones joins us to speak about diversity and debates within Puritanism. A healthy view of polemics has fallen on hard times, and Dr. Jones reminds us of several fruitful discussions over several issues related to the covenants. Our conversation focuses on the book Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth Century British Puritanism (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2011), which Mark co-edited with Michael Haykin.

Mark is the minister of Faith Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Mark’s Ph.D. is from Leiden Universiteit (Oct. 2009) and his doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Why Heaven Kissed Earth: The Christology of the Puritan Reformed Orthodox theologian, Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680).”


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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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Rev Michael M. Rico

8 years ago

Dear Forum,

I thought this morning’s program was excellent. I thought it was motivating. Jones is simply unwavering to the task of his delight.

Hermonta Godwin

8 years ago

I hope RHB considers publishing their book on Puritan Theology in kindle format. I just don’t have the space for a 1200 page hardcover book.

Benjamin P. Glaser

8 years ago

Thanks as always for the great program. Really appreciate the work y’all do to put these together.

I know you have limited time to discuss these things, but I’d love you to bring back Rev. Dr. Jones to speak on Puritan casuistry and its role in shaping our current discussions regarding not only preaching and pastoral care but also the continuing discussion regarding the American revisions of WCF 23 and the relations between “church” and “state” as well as the Escondido 2K.


8 years ago

Thanks for this discussion. It was interesting!

I must admit, though, that having seen some of Mark’s contributions to other internet discussions on the topic, I’m surprised he talked about puritanISM, THE puritans, antinomianISM and THE antinomians. Certain parts of the discussion seemed to helpfully qualify that “puritans” and “reformed” are not necessarily synonymous, but other parts made assumptions that I’m not convinced are warranted.

For example: which “antinomians” are we talking about? Are we talking about those whom David Como would categorize as “imputationist”? Or those Como would categorize as “inherentist/perfectionist”? Which 17th century antinomians actually and unequivocally denied the third use of the law? Unless the primary source documents of an accused antinomian are being quoted in context, I’m becoming very wary of taking other puritans’ word for the accuracy of the charge. Which puritan definition should we use? Baxter’s? Rutherford’s? Burgess’? Thomas Edwards’? Baxter accused Owen of antinomianism because of Owen’s doctrine of justification. Thomas Edwards thinks “baptist” equals “antinomian.”

I’ll have to go back and listen to the previous interview with Mark, as well.

Mark J.

8 years ago


Since you are using Como, it is fairly obvious to me that he agrees on a set of shared characteristics, even if there are different variations. Yes, defining “Antinomianism” is tricky, especially since it was a hostile epithet, and occasionally even opponents of the Antinomians may have been not so careful. Add to that, the Antinomians themselves rarely accepted their designation and things become tricky, but not impossible.

But I’m not really sure what your comment aims to prove or disprove. Como affirms that the big dividing line between the orthodox and the Antinomians was over the commanding power of the moral law. But, in the previous episode, I noted that it would be far too simplistic to look at Antinomianism that way.

FYI, I take serious issue with Como’s theological abilities to understand the debate. Some of his claims depend upon his own systematic and exegetical attempt to understand Jesus and Paul, which I’m sure you will admit leaves a lot to be desired. But that’s another issue for another time. Of course, I’d be happy to quote the documents from men like Saltmarsh and Crisp, but this is a radio interview, after all, and not really about the precise nuances of 17thC Antinomianism.



8 years ago

Thanks for the response, Mark.

I wasn’t really trying to prove or disprove anything – just surprised by the talk of puritanism after having read some of what you’ve written about it online. If I understood those previous online comments correctly, I agree that talking about puritans in general can be tricky.

As I read back over my previous comment, I think I may not have worded it that well (my apologies if it came off snarky or rude). I’m just trying to work through some of the same things, and while I reject antinomianism, I’m finding that much of the time, the adjective was not helpfully used by “mainstream” puritans. In other words, I’m having trouble finding many people who truly and unequivocally denied the third use of the law.

I agree that Como has missed the boat when it comes to understanding Jesus and Paul. His exegetical/theological commitments end up causing problems for the way he understands the history fo the church and its theology. I have to admit that I am not satisfied by his categories or set of shared characteristics for antinomians, either. I would call his “imputationists,” simply “puritans” – and his “inherentists/perfectionists” I see as bearing a striking resemblance to the sixteenth century anabaptists. Sure, Crisp had his problems, but I think anyone who reads Crisp realizes that apart from eternal justification and a unique take on covenant theology, he was simply trying to point his congregation to Christ, and not inward. He treats Scripture as the final authority, he sees the necessity of good works, but he wants his hearers to find their assurance in what Christ has done.

That brings me to someone I have found particularly helpful: T.D. Bozeman. Seeing antinomianism as a backlash against a pietistic turn makes a lot of sense to me. Kendall, Torrance, et al, are wrong about the Calvin against the Calvinists thesis, but puritan piety represented a significant move beyond continental piety – and I think the “antinomians” (especially those who were reading Luther) were reacting against that move.

Thanks for the interaction,

Mark J.

8 years ago


Thanks. Two things I would briefly note regarding Crisp:

1. I do not believe he held to eternal justification; or, better, justification from eternity. The essay in the book (Drawn into Controversie) by McKelvey is helpful on this question, esp. his last sentence. I also deal with justification from eternity in “A Puritan Theology”, looking at Goodwin and Maccovius. Crisp held to justification from birth and all that that implies.

2. In my reading of Crisp, he rejects the phrase (common among the orthodox) that good works are the way to salvation. The divines picked up on this and the WLC reflects that. Incidentally, Michael Horton has argued that Reformed theologians held that good works are the way of life, not the way to life; but I disagree with him.

My own issues with the 17thC Antinomians has not so much to do with whether they affirmed the moral law or not for the Christian, but other related issues (e.g., can a Christian fall under fatherly displeasure; is an elect person ever under God’s wrath; assurance; conditions; etc.).

I do think the Antinomians, who loved Luther, were definitely reacting against mainstream Puritan piety – the million dollar question is whether they were right or wrong; and these are issues that are still very much with us today even in the Reformed community.



8 years ago

I have a number of thoughts about what you’ve said, Mark.

First, I wonder why WCF 11:4 is concerned about justification from eternity and not justification from birth.

Second, Tobias Crisp does clearly affirm justification from eternity. He also seems to affirm justification from conception, and I’m confident that you can demonstrate how he affirmed justification from birth. I think this only illustrates that theologians – especially pastors who preach on a weekly basis – often say different things at different times, and sometimes even change their minds.

Third, I hope it is not (at least theologically) controversial when I say that the Westminster divines were sinners like you and I. Part of the evidence of that is that both Rutherford and Burgess misrepresent Crisp by putting words in his mouth when they quoted him on the law. Best case scenario, they were simply repeating pre-approved, presbyterian “talking points” about Crisp. But that does not absolve them from their responsibility to verify the veracity of statements about others before violating the 8th commandment. Worst case scenario, they intentionally distorted Crisp’s words to condemn him in their readers’ eyes.

If words mean things, perhaps we should use another term to refer to 17th century “antinomians,” because the etymology of the term manifestly does not accurately describe most of the figures I am aware of. While the doctrine of the law is related to the doctrine of justification, an error regarding the time of justification does not equal what the term “antinomian” implies.

Furthermore, I would argue that there are a variety of ways of being “antinomian” in the 17th century. Some argued that believers were free from sin (entire sanctification?); others argued that in light of justification, God could no longer see sin in believers; others claimed to have received private, direct revelations from the Holy Spirit; others wanted to place justification some time before faith (eternal decree, conception, birth); others were unwilling to take sanctification as evidence of justification; others argued that Christ bore the identical punishment we deserved; others saw the Mosaic covenant as the covenant of works; still others were guilty by association.

I’m sure you know all of that. But my point is simply that it is irresponsible to say that “THE antinomians believed (anything)” – for the same reason that it is irresponsible to say that “THE puritans believed (anything),” or that “contemporary evangelicals believe (anything).” Even Crisp, Saltmarsh and Eaton, while on the saner side of the antinomian spectrum, still have enough differences between them that they must be treated individually.


8 years ago


I must confess to being a little confused by some of your points. Initially, you quoted Como, I think approvingly (or, at least to make a point). Do you agree with Como that the “Antinomians” (sorry) shared a set of certain theological characteristics?

I assume you’ve read Gert van den Brink’s thoughts on Crisp and his relation of the decree to justification? Herman Witsius en het Antinomianisme (Apeldoorn: PIRef 2008), 66–86.

Moreover, it is not just a couple of Westminster divines who were adamantly anti-Antinomian, but the entire assembly. I think Chad van Dixhoorn makes a pretty compelling case that the Antinomian threat was something that can be seen throughout all the Westminster documents. It was not just Rutherford and Burgess, but you can find Goodwin commenting on the “Antinomian” view of interpreting scripture (all “righteousness” language is viewed through a justification lense). I could add literally dozens of well-known Reformed divines in England who were constantly polemicizing against the Antinomians. Were they all wrong? In other words, it is hard not to read the Westminster documents as thoroughly anti-Antinomian.

I also happen to think the term is itself accurate. When Crisp denies that good works are the way to salvation – and the WLC clearly affirms they are – and Reformed divines are pretty unanimous on this point, then he is “in some sense” (credit to TLNF) “Antinomian”.

Finally, I think the Westminster documents are also pretty clear about regarding “justification from birth” – and 11.4 is quite to the point.

Anyway, I am thankful for the interaction – I hope you are too – but I have to refrain from saying too much because I am writing a book on this topic and it wouldn’t be too smart for me to write my book on this forum 😉



8 years ago

That’s great! I’m writing a book on this, too! I look forward to reading yours.



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