We need to wrestle with some key concepts in puritan theology, in order to understand the crises which arise in Massachusetts Bay, and give rise to changes in colonial culture. The key question of Christian theology is, of course, “what must a man do to be saved?” The key question in the organization of a Christian society is, unsurprisingly, “how are the saints to be recognized?” The leadership of the community–ministers and secular officials, operating in a context without church-state separation–naturally have a large stake in maintaining discipline and conformity. Toleration in the Bay was frequently understood as “toleration of error,” rather than openness to dissent.
The doctrinal difficulty arises from different understandings of God’s second covenant with humanity. The first covenant, with Adam, simply promised happiness for obedience. Adam and Eve broke that pact. Later, God made a new pact with Abraham, promising salvation through a gift of grace and human faith. This second covenant is generally understood in terms of a voluntary act of faith (in God’s grace, Christ’s divine mission and resurrection) by the believer which acknowledges the free gift of God. The believer’s act is a necessary part of this “federal theology.” The gift of salvation is not active until it is acknowledged and accepted.
The part of this process by which the gift is applied to human beings is known as justification. Justification is differentiated from sanctification, which refers to the appearance of outward signs of redemption. Justification is either secret or personal, depending on whether or not you accept the federal theology. Sanctification has a public aspect.
All of this is complicated by doctrines such as predestination, which holds that God knows who will be saved, and what good or bad acts they will commit, before they are committed. The Christian God is generally held to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Predestination makes free will a very difficult problem. If we have been chosen for salvation, then it can hardly be said that we choose. Even if we appear to choose, it must be God pulling the strings.
We don’t need to delve too deeply here, but we do need to get a general idea of what is at stake. The original covenant has been characterized as a Covenant of Works, where correct action and obedience to law are what is important. The alternative is a Covenant of Grace, where God’s gift becomes the inspiration for a different sort of moral economy. Protestants often accused Catholics, and each other, of emphasizing works over grace. This sort of accusation was at the heart of the Antinomian Controversy and the trial of Anne Hutchinson.
The New Englanders accused of antinomianism emphasized the perfect and irresistable power of God’s grace, suggesting that it would diminish that gift to make salvation conditional on any work, even if that was just the acknowledgement of the gift. Justification, on this model, might, at the limit, be secret even to the one saved, at least until it produced, through an indwelling of the holy spirit, conscious faith and the evidences of sanctification. This approach tends towards mysticism and the “inner light” heresies of the day. It is a very, very personal form of Christianity, ill-adapted to theocratic control. The most extreme expressions of this sort did away with the concern for sanctification at all, since once an individual was saved by irresistable grace, works were unimportant to the point where the “saint” could even commit acts that would be otherwise considered sinful. The Munster “commune” of John of Leydon and his followers was an example of this tendency taken to rather chaotic extremes.
The Antinomian Controversy is a fine case study for examining the practical consequences of these theological distinctions and disputes.