A Puritan View of Logic

The following is from Perry Miller’s “The New England Mind” (1939). Miller was an authority on American Purtianism, though some of his understanding of their theology was deficient.




In the Puritan view of man, the fall had wrought many melancholy effects, but none so terrible as upon his intellect: “O Grief! that most efficacious instrument for arriving at deeply hidden truth, for asserting it, vindicating it and eliminating all confusion” — that instrument was warped and twisted. Adam had been created in the image of God, possessed of perfect holiness and an intuitive grasp of the principles of right reason, but after the fall he was no longer able to tell what should follow upon what, or to perceive the interconnections of things. Had the race been left in the plight to which he reduced it, surely it would have perished. Fortunately, however, God is merciful as well as just, and He did not utterly forsake His creatures. Knowing that men now desperately required guidance from outside themselves, God gave them explicit commands through the Prophets and through revelation; in order that all aspiration might not be extinguished among them He regenerated the wills of His chosen, and in addition, out of the superfluity of His bounty, He enabled several mortals to reconstruct, to some degree, the method which Adam had possessed in his integrity of drawing conclusions from given premises. In the Puritan conception of the human saga, the art of logic was a particular gift of God, bestowed upon fallen and hapless humanity, in order that they might not collapse in the ineptitude they had brought upon themselves.

Considered therefore in the light of logic, the fall of man had amounted in effect to a lapse from dialectic; the loss of God’s image, reduced to the most concrete terms, was simply the loss of an ability to use the syllogism, and innate depravity might most accurately be defined as a congenital incapacity for discursive reasoning. Regarded in this light, whatever mastery of logical methods the heathens, Plato and Aristotle, had achieved resulted simply from God’s being graciously willing that a few individuals should recover certain elements of the pristine rectitude in order that the whole race might not be devastated. By the same token it followed that a return to God through His grace involved also a simultaneous return to Him through logic. Grace brought men through the direct intervention of the Holy Ghost to will the truth, but the most gracious would also stand in need of logic, which had been devised “to helpe us the rather, by a naturall order, to finde out the truthe.” Both grace and logic were divine gifts, though the logic had been formulated by heathens and could be learned by the unregenerate. Pagans could not have discovered it without some divine help, as they themselves realized: their myth of Prometheus was their allegory of logic, and the fire stolen from heaven was really dialectic. Therefore Christian schools could use the texts of Greeks and Romans, and all students, elect or reprobate, could be made to learn the rules in the class-room, for the authority of logic was divine no matter who employed it. The art was not man-made, though men had written it down; it was a portion of heavenly wisdom, a replica, however faint, of the divine intelligence. Whosoever learned it approximated once more the image of God. By logic “(in some sort) is healed the wound we received in our reason by Adams fall: and this daily tryall teacheth, because by the precepts of Logicke, things hidden and darke, are clearly objected to our judgement.*”

Since we have for the purposes of this study created an issue where the Puritans themselves would have denied that one existed, in the opposition or at least in the latent tension between their piety and their learning, we are compelled to ask, in accordance with the terms of our inquiry, how in Puritan thought the piety and the intellectual heritage were reconciled, how dogma and rationality were joined, how the concepts of man as fallen and the saint as regenerated by irresistible grace were made compatible with the Puritan passion for learning, for argumentation and demonstration.

No Puritan ever believed that logic of itself could redeem. Many learned doctors were obviously outside the Covenant of Grace, and many who were uninstructed in dialectic were clearly sanctified. But since logic was a fragment of the divine mind, the saints, being joined to the divinity, must become logical. According to the doctrine of imperfect regeneration they would no more achieve perfect logicality than they would come to flawless holiness; nevertheless, by receiving grace they regained something of Adam’s original power to reason correctly. They learned the rules and methods of study, and they were given an ability to use them by conversion. God demands that men judge between truth and falsehood, and Scripture is not addressed to irrational beings. Puritan piety was formulated in logic and encased in dialectic; it was vindicated by demonstration and united to knowledge. “Logic does not teach fallacies,” said a Harvard thesis. It did not teach fallacies because it was instituted by God Himself, and what could be proved by logic was sanctioned from on high.


This veneration of logic was in part an inheritance from the past and in part a characteristic of the epoch. Neither humanism nor Protestantism had diminished the prestige with which medieval theologians invested the art. The study of antiquity generally enhanced it, and Protestantism was, in one sense, an appeal to logic for the arbitration of belief, since logic alone could interpret the Bible. Keckermann declared truly at the end of the sixteenth century that no other era in the world’s history had been so devoted to logic, produced more books, or studied it more assiduously. The necessity for logic in theology was no less than in other disciplines: “so necessary and useful to the study of theology,” said Henry Diest, “that without it there is absolutely no theology, or one maimed in body and imperfect in many respects.” Had we not logic we could not analyze texts, clear up controversies, defend ourselves against sophistry, protect ourselves against heresy. English Puritans swelled the Protestant chorus; in 1621 Richard Bernard wrote in his manual of pastoral care. The Faithfull Shepherd, that by logic are doctrines collected, confirmed, and proved; a sermon without logic, he said, “is but an ignorant discourse,” and logic therefore must be “the sterne, to guide the course of our speech, that the sudden and stormie blasts of violent affections ouerwhelme it not.”


New Englanders contributed freely to the glorification of logic. Charles Chauncy said that without logic the milk of Scripture would be soured:

Yea how shall a man know when a Scripture is wrested, or falsly applyed, or a false use is made of it, or a false consequence is drawn out of it, or a true, without some principles of logick, especially to hold forth these things to others he must needs be a shamefull workman, and many times ridiculous, neither rightly apprehending, nor dividing the word of trueth, that hath no knowledg how to interpret the Scripture.

John Eliot considered logic so important a part of Christian knowledge that he translated into Algonquin a short treatise, “to initiate the Indians in the knowledge of the Rule of Reason,” wherein he taught them that as soon as they could read the Word they must learn to analyze it. Davenport exhorted his congregation to exercise their “understanding . . . the dianoetical, discoursing faculty, whch is the seat of conclusions.” Samuel Willard told young scholars that they must know grammar and rhetoric to read Scripture, and logic “for the analysing of the Text, and finding out the Method of it, and the Arguments contained in it.” He explained to the people that “logical Analysing of the Scripture” was absolutely prerequisite to understanding it, “and do require a great deal of Time and study righdy to perform it; yea and whereof is one great reason why the Scriptures are often quoted impertinendy, and besides the genuine intention of them.”


At Harvard College, by the laws of 1646, the study of Scripture was specifically declared to involve “observations of Language and Logicke”; the laws of 1655 required that Scripture be read at morning and evening prayers and that one of the Bachelors or Sophisters “Logically analyse that which is read.” The B. A. was bestowed upon those able to read the Testaments and “to Resolve them Logically.” Samuel Mather of the class of 1643 showed nine years later how well he had studied his lessons when he wrote in the preface to Samuel Stone’s defense of Hooker, “There is no art but useth the help of Logick; nothing can shew itself to the eye of the mind of man, but in this light.”


The reign of logic in the New England mentality was an inheritance from the seventeenth century, and the rule continued unbroken until the Transcendentalists consigned consistency to the sphere of hobgoblins and Dr. Holmes wrote its epitaph in the supremely logical construction of a one-hoss shay.


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