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The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century

By Perry Miller | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
NATURE

The God of Puritanism was both sovereign and wise. His attributes were so balanced that He could be at one and the same time the object of worship and the source of knowledge. The same balance was therefore thought to be extended into the realm of nature, for God's works must reflect His perfections, and the created universe must be at once the result of His decree and of His thought. It must incarnate His will and also embody the platform of His ideas. Religious doctrine and the vast accumulated store of the intellectual heritage met again in the Puritan theory of nature as they did in the theory of reason. The fusion created still further difficulties, for the New England parson was required to maintain a unified theory that would meet the requirements of both his piety and his logic; he had to force the natural universe to disclose God's supremacy in the wonderful disposition and control of all its affairs, and yet to hold it faithful to some settled order of ideas so that a consistent system of arguments might be collected from it. In the first years of the century Puritans studied physics from such textbooks as that of Alsted, in which were inextricably mingled the conceptions of arbitrary rule and rational order. "Nature is order and the connection of causes with effects in the world, which is perfect, made by the perfect, best, and most wise," declared Alsted; and then added in the next breath, with what seemed the essence of logic to the Puritan mind, that therefore, by the very fact that it is order, nature is the "ordinary power of God." At the end of the century Samuel Willard said, "When God wrought the works of Creation, he had a Design in every Creature"; He displayed His infinite wisdom in this design by adapting one creature to another, and His omnipotence by making all subserve His own intent. Puritan thought, in short, presupposed a natural framework in which arbitrary power was

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