Essentials and Nonessentials – What Did the Puritans Think?

By | November 26, 2012

From “Puritan Papers, Volume Three”
Chapter 2 – Scripture and Things Indifferent
By Iain Murray, pages 26-31, 49- 50

Before we leave these observations one further question must be raised. It will be seen that if the Puritan teaching on the regulative principle is given prominence, then inevitably the question of our practice in church order, government, and worship assumes an importance which it has not been customary for evangelicals to give to it. We may therefore be predisposed to conclude, with Whitgift, that the Puritans, by calling attention to external matters and to issues not “essential to salvation,” were not rightly distinguishing between fundamentals (the Gospel and the doctrines of the faith) and secondary issues. Whitgift told Cartwright that the tendency of the Puritan policy was to bring about “the overthrow of the gospel through contention about external things. . . . Surely, if they be matters ‘necessary to salvation,’ then is there some just cause of breaking the peace of the church for them; but, if they be matters of no such weight, then can you not excuse either yourself or them.” In similar vein Bishop Hall declared that it was “a thousand times better to swallow a ceremony than to rend a church.”

Richard Hooker used this same distinction between essentials and nonessentials in replying to the Puritan charge that the Elizabethan Church settlement did not accept the authority of Scripture in its entirety. He claimed that to reject the Puritan view of biblical authority in no way denied “the absolute perfection of Scripture,” because God designed Scripture to be “a full instruction in all things unto salvation necessary. . .so the Scripture, yea, every sentence thereof, is perfect, and wanteth nothing requisite unto that purpose for which God delivered the same.” Such things as ceremonies, order, discipline, and government, Whitgift and Hooker asserted, are distinct from the Gospel and matters of faith, and by alleging the need of scriptural authority on issues not necessary for salvation the Puritans were guilty of “racking and stretching” the Bible to cover areas over which God never intended it to give definite instruction.

We can only briefly indicate the nature of the Puritan reply to this charge. They held that the one foundation upon which a sinner’s salvation depends is the truth concerning the Person and Work of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). Yet there are also a number of other truths plainly revealed in Scripture which cannot strictly be said to be “necessary for salvation,” for a man may misapprehend them or be misled over them and yet be saved. “I doubt not but divers of the fathers of the Greek church,” says Cartwright, “which were great patrons of free-will (at least as their words pretend) are saved, holding the foundation of the faith, which is Christ.” Whitgift struggles to avoid this (chiding Cartwright for “speaking so dangerously”) because the argument breaks down his premise that the Scriptures only speak clearly on what is “necessary for salvation.” As an orthodox Elizabethan Protestant he has to agree that the Scripture is decisive against free-will. And so, if Cartwright is correct, the Bible speaks authoritatively on what is a “nonessential” – nonessential, that is according to Whitgift’s definition, namely, not necessary for salvation. Whitgift cannot accept this conclusion and instead replies that if a person dies in the opinion of free-will he cannot be saved.

To the Puritans, Whitgift was trying to maintain a distinction which could not be maintained. And they regarded their opponents’ habit of discriminating between essentials and nonessentials as a dangerous procedure. Dangerous, not because it claimed to exalt Christ and the Gospel to the supreme place, but because it failed to emphasize that the New Testament offers no safety to those who knowingly neglect the least of Christ’s commandments. Samuel Rutherford says:

“We urge the immutability of Christ’s laws, as well in the smallest as greatest things, though the commandments of Christ be greater or less in regard to the intrinsical matter, as to use water in baptism, or to baptise is less than to preach Christ, and believe in him, 1 Cor. l:17. Yet they are both alike great, in regard of the authority of Christ the Commander Matt. 28:18-19. And it’s too great boldness to alter any commandment of Christ for the smallness of the matter, for it lieth upon our conscience not because it is a greater or a lesser thing . . . but it tieth us for the authority of the law-giver: Now God’s authority is the same when he saith, You shall not worship false gods, and when he saith, You shall not add of your own one ring or pin to the Ark, Tabernacle, Temple, yea, either to break or teach others to break one of the least of the commandments of God, maketh men the least in the Kingdom of God, Matt. 5:18.”

It is true that a person may be saved by grace who through the influence of circumstances and wrong teaching has not been able to see all that Scripture requires concerning the Church; the Puritans never made correct views on Church polity the test of saving grace. But their recognition that not all revealed truths are foundation-truths without which none is saved, does not mean, as Henry Barrow points out, that we may make “some doctrines and some part of Christ’s Testament fundamental and substantial, others accidental and such as may be altered and violate without any prejudice or danger to the soul.” The fact that a man may be defective in knowledge and practice, and yet be saved through being on the foundation which is Christ, provides no warrant for dividing up Scripture into essentials and nonessentials – placing rules concerning the visible church in the second category, as though they could be safely left unkept.

John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers, makes the following observations on this distinction about essential truths:

“Howsoever I do acknowledge a difference of truths, and that some are more, and some less principal, yet do I wish more conscience in the application of this distinction. For although the ministers and people in the English Church are limited in their obedience to the New Testament by civil and ecclesiastical laws, this is made a salve for every sore, that they have the substance of the gospel, the doctrine of faith, all fundamental truths and whatsoever is necessary to salvation. In which defence (as it is made) there are these evils.

1. In it men not only endeavour, which is too much, the curing of Babel [i.e., the established Church], but indeed to make Babel believe she stands in no great need of curing: and that her wounds are neither deadly, nor dangerous.

2. It tends to vilify and make of small moment many of the Lord’s truths, and ordinances. . . .

3. This pleading by the ministers that they hold and enjoy every fundamental truth, and whatsoever is of necessity to salvation, considering the end of it, which is, the stopping of the people from pressing unto further obedience and profession of the will of God and ordinances of Christ, is injurious both to the growth and sincerity of the obedience of God’s people . . . it insinuates that it is sufficient if men so serve God as they can obtain salvation, though with disobedience of a great part of the revealed will of God: occasioning them thereby to serve him only, or chiefly for wages as hypocrites do. As if a child should be taught so far to honour and please his father as he might get his inheritance, but not much to trouble himself about giving or doing any further honour or service.”

It was a travesty of the Puritans’ position for Whitgift to say that Cartwright counted “external government more precious than the doctrine of faith.” The history of Elizabethan Puritan evangelism makes such a charge ludicrous. What the Puritans did say was that the right ordering of the Church cannot be disconnected from the Gospel: “God hath not only ordained that the word should be preached, but hath ordained also in what order and by whom it should be preached.” They were convinced that when God’s order is violated the Gospel itself will soon be perverted. Thus Tyndale asserts that it was when bishops and hierarchy arose in the Church that “the plough went awry; the Scripture waxed dark; Christ was no more seen.” On the other hand, it is when the Church keeps close to the Word that the Gospel shines forth in its purity and power. Rutherford, looking back on seventy years of struggle in England to secure a better ordering of the visible Church, did not scruple to write in 1646, “Consider if thousands more would not have been converted if Christ’s government had been set up for which Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Udal, Mr. Deering, and the godliest did supplicate the Parliament.”

…From the time when in the 1570s John Whitgift accused Thomas Cartwright, the Elizabethan Puritan leader, of starting a “fire of discord,” the standard official line against the Puritans was that they were innovators guilty of disturbing the Church with novel opinions.

…Man’s life is not, says Cartwright, “as the days of an oak,” it is but a mere mortal span shut in by the narrow boundaries of birth and death. We are not here then to spend our brief lives in a strife of words; but if we profess this principle, we must look to God alone, stand in awe at His Word, serve Him in obedience to His statutes, and pray that as His “commandment is exceeding broad” so may we by Christ’s Word dwelling richly in us, be taught an increasing conformity to all His revealed will. For “Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments” (Ps. 119:6). This was the essential spirit of Puritanism: may God restore such grace to His Church today!