Auctoritas Patrum?: The Reception of the Church Fathers in Puritanism

By Wilken, Robert Louis | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June/July 2013 | Go to article overview

Auctoritas Patrum?: The Reception of the Church Fathers in Puritanism


Wilken, Robert Louis, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Auctoritas Patrum?: The Reception of the Church Fathers in Puritanism BY ANN-STEPHANE SCHÄFER PETER LANG, 449 PAGES, $109. 95

It is well known that the New England Puritan divines took great pride in their libraries. John Winthrop was reported to have one thousand volumes, and the Mather family-Richard, Increase, Cotton, and Samuel-put together a collection so large that one contemporary called it the "Glory of New England." What is less known is that these early American libraries were well stocked with writings from the Church Fathers and the medieval schoolmen.

In this learned and original study, Ann-Stephane Schä fer shows in great detail how much Puritan thinkers owe to early Christian writings. Though the Puritans believed in the primacy of Scripture, they were not narrow biblicists and drew widely on early Christian writings in polemical, homiletical, and exegetical works.

Schä fer, who teaches English at two universities in Mainz, draws on many thinkers to make her case, but two examples can illustrate her argument. One is Cotton Mather, the other John Leverett, president of Harvard College. Mather wrote a huge commentary on the Bible, Biblia Americana, in which he marshaled such patristic writers as Origen, Basil, and Augustine in support of a "spiritual" as well as "literal" interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis.

This set his commentary against the more conventional "literal" interpretation of his day. He even singled out John Calvin as using only the "literal sense," which, he added, "is a great fault in this learned and worthy reformer. …

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