2. Archetypal error: the great heresies.
We must consider the other side of this coin. Not only did the Puritans employ the writings of the Fathers as an aid in support of their orthodoxy, so also they viewed the errors of the patristic era as archetypal heresies: i.e. many of their own battles were simply repeat skirmishes of ancient fights in the church.
Take for example, William Perkins’ The Art of Prophesying
Out of Othodoxicall writings, we must get aid . . . from the more ancient Church. Because Sathan hath raised up from the dead the old Heretiques, that he might hinder the restoration of the Church, which is begun to be made in our time. For the Antitrinitaries have newly varnished that opinion of Arius and Sabellius. The Anabaptists renew the doctrines or sects of the Essees, Catharists, Enthusiats, and Donatists. The Swenckfeldians revive the opinions of the Eutychians, Enthusiasts, &c. Menon followeth Ebion: and the Papists resemble the Pharisees, Encratites, Tatians, Pelagians. The Libertines renew the opinions of the Gnosticks and Carpocratians. Servetushath revived the heresies of Samosatenus, Arrius, Eutyches, Marcion, and Appolonaris. Lastly, the Schismatiques, that separate themselves from evangelical Churches, receive the opinions, facts, and fashions of Pupianus in Cyprian, of the Audians, and Donatists. Therefore in like manner, wee must not so much seeke for new repealings and confutations of these heresies, as wee are for our use to fetch those ancient ones out of Councils and Fathers, and to accompt them as approved and firme. [See page 27-28 of the 1607 edition].
Perkins makes the point exactly: new errors are usually simply the retreaded versions of old errors. His language is quaint, but his advice is sound—you don’t need new rebuttals when the old ones will do.
These authors think in these terms:
Pelagianism reappears as Arminianism
Arianism and Sabellianism (Modalism) recur as Anti-trinitarianism (think Servetus, or Fausto & Lelio Sozzini)
Donatism returns in the form of Separatism
Eutychianism revives in Germany among those who deny the true humanity of Jesus (Schwenkfelders; Hoffmanites)
Libertines are the new antinomians
Pharisees and Judaizers find a home in Rome, Etc.
There is an arc to these archetypal errors. They appear early in the life of the church, and revivify (or perhaps better re-mortify) again and again. For the puritans, then, the study of the Fathers provided an historical polemic against error. Let me give you an example of this. In 1652 the Presbyterian minister Thomas Hall, wrote an exposé of the doctrines of a somewhat obscure figure named Thomas Collier. The title of his pamphlet is The Collier in his Colours: or, The Picture of a Collier. Where you have the filthy, false, heretical Blasphemous Tenents of one Collier, an Arrian, Arminian, Socinian, Samosatenian, Antinomian, Anabaptist, Familist, Donatist, Separatist, Anti-Scripturist, etc. An open enemy to God, to Christ, to the Holy Ghost, to Scripture, Law, Gospel, Church, Commonwealth, Magistracy, Minsitery, Army etc. This is not just theological name-calling. Rather it is an attempt to demonstrate (and I think quite successfully, having read both Hall and Collier) that Collier’s ideas, which were simplistic examples of a naïve Biblicism, were nothing more than ancient errors redivivus.
You see the importance of this continuity.