The Puritans, God's Law, and Political Action

by Kevin Swanson

For Christians in seventeenth-century England, it seemed as if it was the worst of times. To those without a long-term view of God's advancing Kingdom, this must have seemed like the end of times! King Charles had abolished the Puritan-dominated Parliament in March of 1629, after it had condemned Arminianism in the State Church and taxation without representation. Richelieu had taken La Rochelle, and the French Huguenots (Protestants) had nowhere to run. The Roman Catholic Wallensteing was clobbering the Protestant armies in Germany.

There were two forces in England that opposed the tyranny of the King and the State Church. The Separatists (Pilgrims) had separated themselves from the State Church and the Puritans remained in the system attempting to reform it. The Puritans were much more influential in England than were the Separatists. This may have been due in part to their unwillingness to separate from the State system. But it was also because of a strong emphasis on the importance of the Law of God in the 1689 WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH, or the seven uses given by Samuel Bolton in his work, THE TRUE BOUNDS OF CHRISTIAN FREEDOM.

True to their traditions, the Anabaptists refused to consider the Law of God as part of their 1646 CONFESSION OF FAITH. This antinomian element in Separatist theology has plagued Christians and worked to their deprivation for many centuries. Without God's Law, Christianity becomes powerless to radically sanctify individual lives and thereby change cultures. When we relieve ourselves of any concrete absolutes and embrace pure abstracts, we quickly become irrelevant to human institutions and law-systems. The Law of God provides Christians with a clear and workable standard for the governing of human experience.

Certainly there were Antinomians in the 1600s who felt that Christ had abolished God's Law, replacing it with a "new law." But John Calvin, commenting on Matthew 5:17, insisted that Christ had "confirmed and ratified" God's Law. Concerning the continuing validity of the Law of God, John Crandon wrote in 1634, that "Christ hath expunged no part of it." Much of Christ's ministry was dedicated to expanding on the application of the Law of God particularly as applied to interpersonal relationships. Thomas Taylor wrote in 1631:

"A man may break the princes Law, and not violate his Person; but not Gods.... Every Believer... is answerable to the obedience of the whole Law." (1)

Ralph Venning likewise certified the same: "To find fault with the Law, were to find fault with God."

This healthy acceptance of God's Law as the standard for human ethics gave the Puritans a concrete agenda for political action. It would serve not only to bind the tyrant's arms, but also to form the foundation of a biblically-based system of law in New England. Thomas Hooker preached a sermon on May 31, 1638, in which he admonished his parishioners not to elect magistrates according to their "humours" but according to the "blessed will and Law of God." John Cotton was perhaps the most influential of the Puritan pastors of New England and his work, MOSES AND HIS JUDICIALS (1635), influenced the laws of Massachusetts Bay, New Haven, and Southampton, Long Island. The 1641 ABSTRACT OF THE LAWS OF NEW ENGLAND, published by John Cotton, was replete with Bible texts, showing the basis for each law:

"The positive attitude of the Puritans toward every stroke of God's Law led them to oppose antinomianism in both theology and politics.... The New England Puritans sought a government which would enforce God's commandments, knowing that the sure word of the sovereign Lord required, endorsed, and undergirded this project." (2)

The Puritans insisted that the king must be bound by God's Law. King James I flew into a rage when Sir Edward Coke told him that he was "under God and his law." James claimed that "the King is above the law.... [for] even by God himself [we] are called God." John Knox would write:

"Kings then have not an absolute power in their regiment to do what pleases them; but their power is limited by God's word."

In 1644, Samuel Rutherford of Scotland wrote LEX REX, meaning that the Law is king. Francis Schaeffer summarized the powerful thrust of this Reformed work when he wrote:

"If the king and the government disobey the law they are to be disobeyed.... The state... is to be administered according the principles of God's Law." (3)

This powerful challenge made by the Puritans that the king must be subservient to God's Law was a key causal element to the gradual collapse of the monarchy in England as a highly concentrated form of governmental power.

The Puritans would therefore set out with a greater resolve to impress God's Law on a society that wanted nothing to do with the God of the Bible. Although recognizing that man by nature rejects God and His Law, the Puritans would attempt to reform the world around them, encouraged on by faith in the sovereign God who blesses those who are faithful to Him. Many were stirred on by a recognition of the progressive victory of God's Kingdom on earth. It had not been many years since the radical spiritual and socio-political changes of the Reformation had swept across Europe. Some had parents and grandparents who had experienced the effects of William Tyndale in England, John Knox in Scotland, John Calvin in Switzerland, and Martin Luther in Germany. They had seen what great things God could do with institutions, churches, and nations, even though all of those were made up of fallible men.


2. Greg L. Bahnsen, THEONOMY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 551, 553.
3. Francis Schaeffer, A CHRISTIAN MANIFESTO (Crossway Books, 1981), pp. 99, 100.

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