The Political Philosophy of John Cotton Part 1 -- By: Stanley D. Starr

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 108:429 (Jan 1951)
Article: The Political Philosophy of John Cotton Part 1
Author: Stanley D. Starr


The Political Philosophy of John Cotton
Part 1

Stanley D. Starr

John Cotton, Puritan divine, minister of the gospel, teacher, thinker, writer, philosopher and controversialist came very near to being the last link in a chain—the end in a line of theistic-political thinkers. Although definitely a lesser light than such Christian political theorists as Augustine, Luther and Calvin, his mind was nonetheless the one which did the thinking for and swayed the opinions of the men who tried to operate the great American experiment in Puritan theocratic government, the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Of Cotton’s intellectual ancestors, Augustine was the one responsible for giving the world its first Christian political philosophy all based on the infallible Word of God. As the centuries passed, however, men began to lose sight of the fact it was inspired Scriptures that were inerrant and began rather to trust in the church for this same sort of infallibility. It was Martin Luther who first had the audacity to suggest that perhaps the church did not have a good hold on truth after all. He carried his impertinence further by declaring that the Bible, God’s special revelation, was the absolute foundation-stone of all truth and that people had been wrong for all of those years during which they had trusted in the church.

Such bold, well-meaning suppositions upset the world and split the church. In succeeding years the revolting side of this dismembered institution divided and redivided. It was the Geneva theologian, John Calvin, who used doctrine like predestination, a theory in which God elects certain ones to

eternal salvation, to make one of these church splinters into a theocratic church-state. Calvin’s practical success was rather nominal. But a group of his intellectual sons and daughters, known to history as Puritans, continued to believe in his thinking and decided to make a fresh start with the Calvinistic experiment in theocracy by taking his idea to America. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the result. It was here that John Cotton’s keen mind did its greatest work in the field of political philosophy. Though he was a little tardy in arriving on the scene (for he was not among the original settlers), his thinking after he did arrive dominated the Massachusetts social-science laboratory for the duration of his life. It is not without justification that V. L. Parrington writes that colonial “New England…bore upon it the marks of John Cotton’s shaping hand more clearly than those of any other minister.”1

But despite the power of John Cotton’s intellect, the idea of a theistic sanction for government ...

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