In the last post, to balance out the view that Puritans focused only on sin, I highlighted the godly delight that follows Puritan self-examination. I came across an article that concurs with this correction but makes another error; though the article focuses on an English (not American) Puritan, I’d like to address the critic’s viewpoint here. In “Puritan Self-Fashioning: The Diary of Samuel Ward,” Margo Todd recognizes the faulty view of those who negatively emphasize Puritan cataloguing of sins, but the alternative interpretation she offers is still unfaithful to Puritan thought.
Todd argues that Samuel Ward’s diary is misrepresented by current editors: undue attention is given to the guilt-ridden sections of his writing, in which he lists his sins. This negative selectiveness on the part of scholars furthers a common misconception—that Puritans are all constantly, morbidly focused on their sins. This is an unbalanced approach to Ward’s character.
She asserts, instead, that Ward was “defining himself, designing for himself an identity,” an activity inspired by Renaissance notions of the self. This alternative reading is a modern misreading. Certainly, the Protestant practice of self-examination is closely related to the self; Protestant reformers were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism. However, self-examination does not involve remaking oneself. Rather, it is about being transformed.
Note the active and passive voices: “Remake oneself” vs. “Be transformed.” What are the implications of this slight difference in terms? The former assumes that God is not real, while the latter assumes God’s existence. “Remake oneself” implies only one actor, the self-examining subject, whereas “be transformed” requires two actors: God transforms the believer.
To be historically honest, readers of Puritan religious texts must take full account of the authors’ strong faith in God. Self-examination in the Christian tradition is a process of being transformed, of allowing God to illumine the soul. Romans 12:2 reads, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” This transformation moves a person from desiring his own will to “proving” God’s will. Meditation on God, while revealing dark sins in the soul, fills the believer with God’s Spirit, so that he becomes more like Christ.
Todd interprets this God-performed inner transformation as self-performed self-creation. By taking this approach, Todd discounts Ward’s faith. In “self-fashioning,” there is no room for God.
In the Puritan view, the sinful self is not capable of change; justification and sanctification are the works of God alone. Perry Miller, in The New England Mind (1939), writes of Puritan theology: “The one bedrock certainty about the matter is that grace is a supernatural power and that no man can enact regeneration by his own exertions.” (27). Man, who brought on himself horrible anguish of sin, “could hardly expect to find within himself the power to master it. The force of this conclusion gave the Puritan cry for deliverance through the grace of God its urgency and its poignance” (25). Deliverance from the anguish of sinfulness could only come through God. Humbly, the believer approaches God to seek cleansing from sin, purification of heart, and a nearer likeness to Christ. The believer brings only himself to God, and God does the work through grace.
What did this look like in private devotions? It means that self-examination depended completely on God: Human ability played no role in devotional practices. God’s words provided the subject of meditation (the Bible), and He supplied the will to seek His ways (Hambrick-Stowe 45). In self-examination, people were to “be unbottomed of Self, to dye to Self-advancement, to Self-glorification, and to all Selfish joyes” (Corbet Self-Imployment in Secret, qtd Hambrick-Stowe 173). Quite the opposite of self-fashioning!