Dr Alan C. Clifford

First-time students of English Puritanism soon discover Calvin’s profound influence on his ‘English sons’. The pioneer and leader Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603)provides very specific evidence in this respect in his presentation of the Gospel as well as his principles of presbyterian church order.

When asked for guidance in theological study, he predictably emphasised ‘the study of the Scripture itself’. After insisting that students should remember ‘the saying of our Saviour Christ, that you take no man to be your father or rabbi here upon earth [cf. Matt. 23: 7-10], he did not exclude the writings of ‘the friends and patrons of the Truth’. That said, Cartwright stresses that biblical theology must take priority over systematic theology. Thus, without questioning the use of biblical commentaries, he is careful to place such before theological treatises: ‘I would esteem also that the commentaries might be read before the other works, for that by them the Holy Scripture (from whence all sound knowledge is drawn to judge all other doctrine by) is made more familiar unto us’.

It is striking to see this criterion operating when Cartwright provides a list of worthy authors. His recommendations predictably include Greek and Latin ‘doctors’ among the ‘old writers’, and Augustine in particular. Among the ‘new writers’, he mentions Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr and other reformers. For works ‘wherein the whole body of the Doctrine of the Gospel is professed to be taught’, he unsurprisingly recommends ‘Mr Calvin’s Institutes’ and ‘Mr Beza’s Confession’. However, placing commentaries before treatises, Cartwright places Calvin at the top of the list: ‘I would content myself amongst the new writers with Mr Calvin’ because ‘for the shortness (brevity) he useth he departeth not far from the reading of the text itself’.

This crucial criterion probably explains the similarity between Cartwright’s and Calvin’s phraseology regarding the extent of the atonement. Just as Calvin generally preferred the New Testament’s universal language to even the ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’ formula (which he still occasionally affirmed), Cartwright seems happy to adopt Calvin’s universalism rather than Beza’s particularism:

A Christian [having] sinned never so oft (as who doth not daily offend God) yet whensoever he returneth unto God by true repentance (which consisteth of inward contrition and a sure faith in Christ Jesus) he is assured by the Word of God to recover and receive again the grace, favour and mercy of God (which through his disobedience he had worthily lost) and immediately to enjoy full, absolute and perfect remission and forgiveness of all his sins, through Jesus Christ, in whom he reposeth all his faith, trust and confidence of salvation. The Gospel assureth him no less saying:

So God loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life [John 3: 16, Cartwright’s version].
... What shall I say of Peter, Christ’s Apostle? Had not he a sure knowledge of Christ, endued with the Holy Ghost and grace from above? And yet after this, he had such a fall, [and] he did most cowardly and shamefully forsake and deny Christ, not without blasphemy. But he went forth and wept bitterly, ... and by faith he returned again unto Christ, knowing His mercy to be infinite and without measure; Christ appeared unto him (to his great comfort) after He rose again from death to life. ... And then Peter became a strong Champion, setting forth Christ to be the only Saviour of the whole world, preaching and openly confessing Him before all men, without any fear.

Such universal language is equally evident elsewhere:

It is no small bondage of Christian men’s consciences to compel them to number all their sins particularly [to the priest], with all due circumstances of time, person and place: and how many times every sin was committed... [the Papists] think that their confession is the cause of forgiveness of their sins: by reason whereof, they blot out the blessed benefit of the passion and death of Christ our only Saviour: which is the only obtainer of grace and mercy, for the sins of all mankind... For sure it is, that to God, no man is able to satisfy for sin: for that satisfaction hath only our Saviour Christ wrought in his painful passion and death.

Clearly then (on this evidence at least), Cartwright seems to be an ‘authentic Calvinist’, insisting on a ‘method’ which placed Holy Scripture before human systems. What a pity the Westminster Confession of Faith failed to reflect this!