Monday, October 19, 2015

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Parables (part 3): The Debate with John Cotton


John Cotton

Williams’s theological and scriptural arguments for liberty of conscience are most evident in his ongoing debate with John Cotton, the eminent Puritan minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When one of Cotton’s letters to Williams was published without authorization while Williams was in London, Williams published a line-by-line refutation of that letter: Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered. When Cotton angrily wrote in reply, Williams then more fully responded in The Bloudy [Bloody] Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. Cotton responded with his The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and made white in the Bloud of the Lambe (1647), to which Williams responded with his The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652).

The parable of the Wheat and Tares plays a major role in their debates, because Williams believes this parable is central to Jesus’ advocacy of religious liberty. He also argues that it had been tragically misinterpreted over the centuries to justify the persecution of those believed to be heretics (Byrd 2002: 88), a misapplication which resulted in the “spilling of the blood of thousands” (Williams 2001: 55). 

Cotton argues that the field in the parable symbolizes the church. The wheat designates faithful Christians, the servants represent God’s ministers, and the tares, since they look so much like wheat, symbolize hypocrites within the church. Therefore, those tares should not be “rooted out”; Jesus commands toleration, since just as tares look similar to wheat so do these people look similar to faithful Christians. On the other hand, sinners and heretics are stubborn, prideful people who, even though they know better, rebel on purpose. They are easily discerned from Christians; Cotton compares them to “briars and thorns.” If these sinners are warned, given opportunities to repent, and still refuse to change their ways, they should be punished, either by the church by censure or excommunication or, if they corrupt others, then by the “Civil Sword” of the state (Byrd 2002: 106). Otherwise, these sinners would expose others in society to “a dangerous and damnable infection” (Williams 2001: xxxi). 


Williams responds that any such persecution is a perversion of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus clearly says that the field represents the world (Matt. 13:38), not the church, and the tares symbolize all sorts of dissenters, separatists, heretics, and even non-believers in society, not Cotton’s hypocritical sinners within the church. The wheat plants are “children of the kingdom” who must co-exist in society with the followers of Satan until the end of the world. The servants denote messengers or ministers of the church, and the crucial point is that Jesus’s parable commands Christians to advocate religious liberty and oppose any coercive policies of the state concerning religion, even when it concerns “heretics and pagans” (Byrd 2002: 117). Jesus warns against civil persecution of those deemed as heretics, because it is impossible in this fallen world always to distinguish between God’s people and those opposed to God. The “weeds” will be collected when Jesus returns, and then they will receive the punishment they deserve at the hands of God, not by human beings. Like Jesus commands, it is better to allow the wheat and tares to coexist in the world until he returns than to risk the damage that uprooting the sinful ones would do.

The analysis of this dialogue/debate will be continued in the next post.

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