Feasting on Perpession/Perpendicular/Perperous and Slaking our Thirst on Perpotation
When I was in divinity school in the mid-1970s, I became enamored of the Puritan writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps because the Puritan tradition is my own (my remote ancestor, one of the founding members of the Stratford, CT company in 1639, is described in the family genealogy as a "Puritan"), and because the divinity school I attended was a conservative Protestant school, I was taught to appreciate the Covenant theology of the 17th century, the simple (John Bunyan) and refined (John Owen) English expressions of the Puritan tradition and the American exemplification of it in the thought of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) and others.
I am finding, much to my surprise, that I am returning to the tradition now, 30 years later, through the study of words. That is, my theological interest in the tradition has waned, but I find myself being drawn into their words, the vehicles of their theology.
I have already said a word or two on plerophory, locating it in Puritan theology. Today we have the word perpession, meaning the "endurance of suffering" (OED) or "endurance of suffering to the end (Oxford Latin Dictionary)." The Latin verb is perpetior, which means to "undergo hardships or suffering to the full," and the noun perpession is derived from the last principle part of the verb. As we think about the word word a second, isn't this Latin word a "gift" to those who are theologically and intellectually inclined?
The word made it into English in the 17th century. One early usage is in 1628: "Yet was our Saviour both..terrified in the apprehension of Wrath; and in the perpession of Death, crucified." It is a wonderful word to express the full extent of Christ's suffering. Or, alternatively, if you wanted to consign people to Hell, which the Puritans delighted in doing, you could do so in a way that they might not understand through use of this word: "The eternity of destruction in the language of Scripture signifies a perpetual perpession." What does that mean? It means you might be going to hell. How wonderful--to send people to hell so elegantly. But the word can be revived today to express both our understanding of and sympathy for those who suffer. "Her graceful perpession in facing her final illness taught us not only how to live but also how to die."
17th Century England and Perpession
So far I have only introduced two distinctive "Puritan terms." Both of them express either the fulness of something (plerophory) or the completeness of something (perpession). I think that the Puritan invention of these words teaches us something significant about the words and the people who used them. They arose in a time of English history where the Bible was being "discovered" for the first time in England. In addition, the authors who used them were preaching/writing in a time of increasing social turmoil that would lead to the English Civil War in the 1640s and 1650s. They believed their faith was absolutely unique, chock full of insights derived not only from the 16th century Reformers but from the living text of the Scripture itself. In addition, England had "come of Age" in the Elizabethan time (1559-1603) and had stretched its mighty muscles against the Spanish Armada (1588) and were now exploring economic relations/exploitation of the Indies. A fulness and a fear was in the air, as was a sense of fresh discovery of the message and marrow of Scripture. I don't believe one really can understand the Puritan mindset without a sympathy for and understanding of how an internalized (memorized) text can revolutionize a life.
My Thesis on Perpession
Thus, my thesis. The Puritans invented these terms to try to express not only the uniqueness of their view of faith but also to indicate their confidence that faith propelled them into such new realities and realms of understanding that it gave assurance, security and stability in the wake of a rapidly changing society. These terms are terms of ambition, and they show the theological ambition of the Puritans to master the cartography of the heart and the inner springs of human motivation as much as their sailor brothers and fathers wanted to master the high seas in bringing back the treasures of the world for England.
The vast realms of undiscovered lands and untold riches in the terrestrial sphere could now be mirrored by the unexplored vistas of the spiritual life. I think this is the fundamental reason that the Puritan writers of the 17th century (and Edwards in the 18th in America) still have a more powerful grip on many American intellectuals than they may want to admit. For at the origin of our intellectual tradition, the fons et origo, stand people who invented the language to explore their ambition to master and understand the vast realms of the human mind and heart. Can all of this be teased out of plerophory and perpession?
And, just think, I didn't even make it to perperacute or perpotation or perperous. Let's turn to them now.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long