Puritan Ethics, or Casuistry

Part 8 - Theology in Practice
Chapter 57 - Puritan Casuistry

    The Lord GOD has given Me
    The tongue of the learned,
    That I should know how to speak
    A word in season to him who is weary.   Isaiah 50:4

Casuistry is usually taken as caviling with words to get out of something, but in Protestant theology casuistry is the area of applied ethics in counseling and discipline/discipleship in daily living and in sticky situations.

Much was written to guide daily living, out of a pastoral desire to counsel folks, and out of criticism from the Catholic Jesuits that the Puritans had no such literature.

Three basic categories:

  1. Personal - how am I saved, or assured of my salvation.  How can I be comforted when distressed in affliction?  How can I be restored when I have fallen into sin?
  2. Apologetic/Public - How can I know the Bible is God's Word?  How do I apply Old Testament law to myself?  How should I worship God?
  3. Social - How do I love my neighbor?

Perkins was a forerunner of this.  They saw it not just as ethics - how to live - but as cases of conscience, since if you lived wrongly your relationship with God would go awry.  The emphasis became relieving distressed consciences, but they also delved into policy, such as asserting that the king could abolish episcopacy without breaking any law or oath.

Puritans sought full-time faculty in universities/seminaries, devoted to this topic of "practical divinity," but were largely unsuccessful.  They did write lots of books on it, including Baxter's Christian Directory, probably the best (and longest) of the type.  This genre faded with the fading of Puritanism generally, upon the rise of Deism, Arminianism, and the attacks on Christianity by Hobbes and Locke.

This body of "counseling" work

  • helps pastors be competent soul doctors
  • focuses the person on their relationship with God more than their self-esteem
  • promotes sanctification
  • allows for counseling from the pulpit, and then follow up in visitation
  • gave direction after tenderly listening, often with firmness and urgency
  • preached the Word instead of probing feelings endlessly

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