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«By Gregory Allen Selmon Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University in partial fulfillment of the ...»

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Gregory Allen Selmon


Submitted to the Faculty of the

Graduate School of Vanderbilt University

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for

the degree of




May, 2008

Nashville, Tennessee


Professor James P. Byrd

Professor James Hudnut-Beumler

Professor Paul Dehart

Professor John S. McClure Professor Joel Harrington

To my supportive and loving family:

this dissertation is a testimony to God’s grace and your support ii


This work illustrates the faithful love and support I have received from my family.

While they often doubted the system, they never wavered in their support of me. I would like to thank my loving wife, Mary Elizabeth, for seeing me through this project. She had many days of being a graduate student widow. I also would like to thank my children- Preston, Geneva, Elijah, and Isaac- who have grown up knowing nothing but Dad working on some crazy dissertation project. I constantly try to teach them that perseverance is the most important trait in life. This work is an illustration of perseverance and not my brilliance!

I also would like to thank Dr. James Byrd for his advice and assistance with this project. His comments, particularly in the end of this process, were extremely helpful in clarifying and focusing my argument. Finally, I also want to thank President Terry Phillips of Grace Evangelical College and Seminary in Bangor, Maine for his support and proof-reading expertise. His comments and assistance only made this project better.






Why another work concerning Cotton: Historiography

Form and Structure


The Shared Foundations: Christ, The Holy Spirit, and Total Depravity........62 Covenants of Works and Grace



The Foundations of Soteriology: Repentance and Faith

Justification: Reconstruction of the Soul by the Spirit

Objections to Cotton’s Understanding of Soteriology

Conclusion to Cotton’s Soteriology


The Work of the Spirit: Sanctification

The Work of the Spirit: Assurance

Conclusion: Modern Objections


Was Cotton Heterodox?



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It could be easily argued that John Cotton was the most famous of all the first generation American Puritans. His reputation as a Puritan pastor and scholar was already well established by his successful pastorate in Boston, England. This ministry made him the envy of his fellow Puritan pastors and a household name in the Puritan community.

Upon his arrival in New England, he was quickly called as the teacher of First Church Boston. There, his ministry experienced the first significant revival in American history.

Cotton also quickly became the primary teacher for the colony when he continued his practice of holding a Thursday lecture that was attended by most of the clergy and prominent laity. The recent publication of Cotton’s voluminous correspondence also illustrated that he was the advisor to many within the Puritan community.1 His advice, opinions, and perspective on the Christian life were sought by both commoners and the nobility. In the past three hundred and fifty years, there has been no shortage of books that provide information concerning the basic details of his life and ministry, and many important scholarly works have affirmed that he was a significant leader within both English and American Puritanism. Yet, even with all of this acclaim, the reasons for Cotton’s ministerial success as well as the source of his personal magnetism have remained obscure. In other words, Cotton remained an enigma: important but extremely confusing. This dissertation seeks to assess Cotton’s importance for his day and today.

1 Sargent Bush, Jr. editor, The Correspondence of John Cotton (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

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theological and pastoral particularities, this dissertation seeks to illuminate the reasons for Cotton’s popularity as well as his importance for Puritanism.

This dissertation will argue that best way to understand Cotton’s significance is a renewed investigation into both Cotton’s life as well as his theology. In particular, this dissertation will present Cotton’s theology within the context of his life and ministry.

The goal of this exploration will be a renewed investigation of Cotton’s thought during his early years in New England. These years of ministry have proved troublesome for those seeking to understand Cotton’s true place and importance within Puritanism.

During this time, Cotton became embroiled in the Antinomianism controversy. This thought came under fire from his New England colleagues and this trend continues to today. In recent years, several influential scholars have described Cotton as a theological compromiser whose opinions and theology changed often throughout his life.2 This interpretation has guided several generations of scholars resulting in a distortion of Cotton’s thought. This dissertation will take a two-part approach to correcting the standard interpretation. First, each chapter will take the known basic facts concerning 2 As we will see, Larzer Ziff’s biography of Cotton began this direction within the scholarship. His research emphasized Cotton’s tendency toward compromise as central to understanding his place within Puritanism. Perhaps more influential in his critique of Cotton’s theology was William Stoever. Stoever argued that Cotton’s theology moved from the Puritan mainstream toward a rejection of the proper means in promoting assurance. He argued that this change directly led to the Antinomian controversy. Larzer Ziff, The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962) and William K.B. Stoever, A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1978). Several recent works have basically agreed with and augmented Stoever’s observations. These include, Brooks Hollifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) and Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisionist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

–  –  –

These short biographical sections will present Cotton as a defender of Reformed thought:

a man concerned with promoting God’s sovereign glory in election and other traditional Reformed doctrines. Cotton began his ministerial career by winning the day for classic Reformed thought in Lincolnshire against a rising Arminian movement.4 This victory shaped his self-understanding, and it prompted his responses to theological questions he faced throughout his life. Each chapter will begin with these short biographical sections to prepare the way for a new interpretation of Cotton’s thought before, during, and after the Antinomian controversy. In the process, these biographical sections comprise one

–  –  –

particular, they illustrate why Cotton’s theological trajectory emphasized divine grace in every aspect of salvation and sanctification. This theological trajectory was formed from his education and the early conflicts that he faced as a young pastor and theologian. They also build one element of the argument for understanding Cotton’s importance as a Reformed theologian in early America.

3 This will not be a complete new biography of Cotton’s life. Many of the basic events within Cotton’s life and ministry are not in debate. As a prominent first generation American Puritan leader, the basic scope of his life and ministry has been well researched and explained. The purpose of these biographical sections will be to take known instances in Cotton’s life to offer a new interpretation of his character and thought.

To date, the best presentation of Cotton’s life is found in Larzer Ziff’s The Career of John Cotton. This dissertation’s biographical sections are indebted to Ziff’s research. Yet, they will go beyond his research by augmenting his presentation of Cotton’s life with recent scholarship concerning Cotton’s educational situation at Cambridge as well as several recently discovered elements of Cotton’s life that have been unearthed with the recent publication of Cotton’s correspondence. The result will be a new perspective on

Cotton’s life and thought. Sargent Bush, Jr. editor, The Correspondence of John Cotton (Chapel Hill, NC:

University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

4 See pages 56 ff. Years later, Cotton explained that a Mr. Doctor Baron had “leavened many of the chief men of the town with Arminianism.” John Cotton, The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared (London, 1648), found in John Cotton, John Cotton on the Churches in New England, edited by Larzer Ziff (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 215.

–  –  –

While Cotton’s life explains the reasons for his theological particularities, the second half of each chapter provides insight into the substance of Cotton’s thought. This dissertation is the first sustained scholarly work to explore how his theological system impacted the debates surrounding the Antinomian controversy. Taking the perspective that Cotton’s early education and ministry shaped his thought, each chapter will build a case for understanding Cotton’s theology as an attempt to defend Reformed thought against any hint of Arminianism. In the process, this dissertation will present Cotton’s affinities to the Reformed tradition in regard to the work of each person of the Trinity in bringing redemption. Chapter two will present Cotton’s understanding of the work of God the creator in his understanding of the doctrine of God, creation, and covenant theology. In each of these areas, Cotton was unwaveringly within the Puritan and Reformed mainstream.5 While his understanding of the character of God, creation, and covenant theology were not novel, they provided the basis for his reflections upon the importance of person and work of Christ and the work of the Spirit to the life of the believer.

Chapter three will then explore Cotton’s understanding of the importance of Jesus for every dimension of the Christian life. Within his theological system, Cotton sought to give all the glory and credit in salvation to the person and work of God the Son. We will see that such a desire led him to overemphasize the doctrine of justification. Both the reasons and the consequences of this inflation of justification will be explored and 5 In his recent work concerning Antinomianism in England and America, Theodore Bozeman focused much of his time on Cotton’s thought. In these sections, he confessed that Cotton never abandoned the Puritan mainstream on these core issues even as he took a different path concerning God’s work in salvation, assurance, and the Christian life. Bozeman, The Precisionist Strain, 257-262. This is a reoccurring theme in Bozeman’s research.

–  –  –

the Holy Spirit. At the heart of the Antinomian debate was the charge that Cotton’s teaching concerning the Spirit approached the teaching of the Familist sect. Chapter four will explain Cotton’s theology concerning the Spirit. It will also explore Cotton’s teaching concerning the Spirit’s work in bringing assurance. In the process, it will illustrate Cotton’s place within the Reformed tradition as well as explain the particularities of Cotton’s thought regarding the Spirit.

In the midst of this two-part investigation into Cotton’s life, this dissertation will clarify Cotton’s place within transcontinental Puritanism. It will argue that Cotton’s central significance for Puritanism was his ability to articulate a vision for the Christian life that emphasized the centrality of objective assurance through the witness of the Spirit without abandoning the need to grow in one’s subjective godliness.6 While the terms objective and subjective are imposed upon the Puritan literature, this dissertation will illustrate that the concepts were clearly derived from many Puritan sources. In this dissertation and within Puritan thought, objective assurance referred to the work of the Holy Spirit in confirming the promises of the gospel to the life of a believer through an inward witness of faith and adoption. For example, The Westminster Confession of Faith Article XVIII.2 On Assurance of Salvation stated, This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption 6 This dissertation is indebted to Mark Dever for the objective and subjective terminology. The concept is clearly within Puritanism, but the terminology assists in understanding the issues surrounding the Antinomian controversy. Mark E. Dever, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000), 163.

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