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Reading the Puritans and A Puritan Theology

William B. Kessler

A Puritan Theology, by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, v + 1054

No matter how dark the night, the lamp of the Puritans remains bright, providing a beacon, shining down through the ages, even for our generation. The Puritans, heirs of the spiritualist communities of the Renaissance, animated by the spirit of Christian humanism, employing and building upon the vibrant theology of the Reformation, striving to reform church and nation, spending and being spent for Christ and his church, are part of our godly heritage. Truly, they are our fathers in the faith. Who, among us, is not familiar with some of the names of those stellar divines: William Ames, William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, John Bunyan, and John Owen? And who, among us, has not read their works with profit and delight: The Bruised Reed and the Smoking Flax; The Plague of Plagues; the Mortification of Sin; The Art of Prophesying; A Glimpse of Zion’s Glory; The Glory of Christ; The Fountain of Life Opened? The Puritans, bright lights, indeed.

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones have rendered rich service to the church in writing A Puritan Theology. The book is a summary of what the Puritans taught and preached; it is organized systematically, using the standard theological loci. There are nine main sections beginning with Prolegomena and continuing with Theology Proper, Anthropology and Covenant Theology, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, and Theology in Practice, with an afterword. This is a big book; 977 pages of text; over 1000 pages with works cited and index. The works cited covers forty-five pages; authors beginning with Thomas Adams and ending with Ulrich Zwingli are listed. I was impressed (really overwhelmed) with the amount of information given in the footnotes, information drawn from both classical works of the Reformation, including the Puritans themselves, and modern scholars, including many doctoral dissertations. Containing a wealth of scholarly observation and insight, clearly summarizing what the best of the Puritans wrote, addressing, to some degree, contemporary issues in theology, and giving, along the way (in faithful Puritan fashion), exhortations, admonitions, and applications, the book is a treasure chest filled with precious gems and rare jewels.

I have mentioned being overwhelmed when reading A Puritan Theology, not with the content of the book (which I found enriching) but with the feeling that there is a large, ongoing, scholarly discussion to which I have not been privy and in which I have little time to be involved. In our time, there has been much written about the Puritans (again, check out the footnotes), and, naturally, there have been various debates, issues, and disagreements that have arisen (i.e., the Calvin versus Calvinists controversy; the nature, influence, and benefit of scholasticism; the influence of Erasmus, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and the Zurich Reformers; the Calvinistic convictions with the recognition of the authority of the Bible among the Anglicans, etc.). For most fulltime pastors, it would be extremely difficult to devote the time necessary to be part of that scholarly conversation (another reason to be impressed with Beeke and Jones, both of whom are pastors). However, the “subtext” of the book (i.e., the assumptions underlying various debated issues discussed today) should not distract the reader from being informed and finding profit and delight by reading A Puritan Theology. And, there may be those assumptions and issues that may prove to be a fruitful vein of study for the pastor taking a study leave.

But there is another concern, a major concern, I would like to address, and that is the problem of historical context. I would like to divide the problem of history and historical context into two parts: the first part raises questions about the historical context of the Puritans themselves; and the second part raises questions about the historical context of Beeke and Jones’s book itself. In other words, the problem, as I see it, can come down to two questions: How do we read the Puritans? and, How do we read A Puritan Theology?

The danger in not raising these questions is to think that Puritan theology has simply fallen out of heaven and has become the standard of theology and life (I recognize that putting it this way is an overstatement, but hopefully it makes the point clear). A danger in reading the Puritans is to approach them with a “halo hermeneutic” in which theology before and, to some extent after, is deficient—the Puritans had it right, everyone else has it wrong, to a greater or lesser degree. Granted, there is a danger of judging the Puritans negatively on the basis of theological or intellectual perspectives which are valid today. Carl Trueman explains the danger of misreading past historical actions in this way:

One of the greatest temptations for historians, particularly perhaps for historians studying the history of ideas, is to impose on the past, ideas, categories, or values that were simply nonexistent or that did not have the same function or significance during the times studied. The roots of the problem are obvious: we live in the present; the objects of historical study relate to the past; and as L. P. Hartley famously quipped at the beginning of The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’[1]

In part, Beeke and Jones’s purpose is to defend the witness of the Puritans from a misreading that would criticize the Puritans by a contemporary imposition. But can a misreading of the Puritans work the other way, reading the Puritans as a witness that supports the ideals and values of our contemporary authors, disregarding the distance between the Puritans and ourselves, and entertaining a more reminiscent and romantic idealization of the past, resulting in a skewed judgment of the present?

The historical context of the Puritans, which gives shape to their concerns, thoughts, writing, and lives, is complex. Consider the theological influences that were not so neatly categorized for them: John Calvin’s writings and reform; the Geneva Bible; the early place of William Tyndale, John Frith, and John Bale in developing ideas that were peculiarly English, and Puritan; Heinrich Bullinger’s influence (who had the highest reputation in England at the time of Henry VI); Martin Bucer’s influence (who spent two years in England at the end of his life and whose influential work De Regno Christi was dedicated to Edward VI); the place of Thomistic theology with a strong biblicistic conviction; not to mention the strong moralistic, anti-ceremonial, anti-clerical convictions that were voiced by spiritualist movements in the church beginning at, or possibly earlier than, the Renaissance; the Lollards; the typological, Christocentric (for some), or universal/political (for others), interpretation of the Old Testament; the logic of Peter Ramus; humanism with its rediscovering of ancient culture, its new convictions and tools for education, and its strong emphasis on moral behavior, etc. Consider the burdens these Puritans bore: bubonic plagues, and otherwise high mortality rates of their wives, children, and themselves, the London fire, revolutions, civil wars, persecutions, imprisonments, the fear of Roman Catholicism’s winning the day in England, and the burden they had for the nation and the church, with no separation of church and state, their ministry bearing the weight of national responsibilities. Since a strong secular humanist ethos in England did not exist as yet (as in our day), and since religion was not yet being defined as a separate compartment of life (although enlightenment challenges were on the horizon which have borne bitter fruit for us), and since the modern nation-state was unheard of, this was a culture that took the ministry seriously as a central component in all the spheres of life. How does all this shape the Puritans’ understanding of Scripture and theology? We have arrived in a “foreign country” where things are done differently.

Though reading A Puritan Theology with profit and delight, I find I am reading in page after page, chapter after chapter, and section after section, a fairly detailed summary of what some of the Puritans have written, with some discussion of current issues, but with little historical analysis. This book is a great summary of what the Puritans wrote, a great resource in citing the scholarship being done, with ample exhortations to the reader; but it can read like an encyclopedia. It is interesting to note that the book’s form is like a systematic theology, yet the authors mention throughout that the Puritan writings come mostly in sermonic form. How does this observation change the way the Puritans are understood? How did the various influences upon them shape their theology and life? Beeke and Jones do not answer these questions. Is there a danger, then, of thinking we really understand the Puritans when all we have is a detailed summary organized systematically? Is there not a further danger of making simplistic parallels between the Puritans and ourselves? A more difficult question to wrestle with is this: Can you synthesize in a historically meaningful way the writings of the Puritans in a book like this?

The second issue I would like to address is the context of Beeke and Jones’s book itself. One of their aims in writing the book was to show an overall consensus among the Puritans. To demonstrate unity of Puritan thought was a primary objective (5–6) (But can it be more fruitful understanding where the disunity lies?). They also desired to write “responsible, historical theology” (6). For them doing historical theology is giving, “an accurate picture of what the Puritans said” (6). Is this really doing historical theology? They concede some weaknesses in Puritan theology, using as an example Thomas Goodwin’s eschatology. They admit that while Puritans did not excel in eschatology, “Reformed theologians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have provided the church with a more exegetically sustainable account of how to understand, for example, the book of Revelation” (6). But does not eschatology today cover far more than accounting for the book of Revelation, specifically, seeing eschatology as a basic structure for the entire New Testament? Their purpose, however, is to vindicate the Puritans as theologians and honor them as faithful pastors:

We believe that the Puritans were not only correct but that they excel in most areas of theology. Few theologians prior to the Puritans could write with such theological precision while also applying theology to the hearts and minds of those who listened to their sermons and read their books. (6)

Is this evaluation overly hagiographic?

But a further aim, and it seems a primary aim, is to apply Puritan theology and spirituality to the churches today. The concluding eight chapters show “a variety of ways in which the Puritans put their theology into practice” (7). There is a strong emphasis from beginning to end to “emulate Puritan spirituality” (971). One of the authors calls us to self-examination, attempting to penetrate the conscience, with a barrage of questions.

Let us ask ourselves questions like these: Are we, like the Puritans, thirsting to glorify the triune God? Are we motivated by biblical truth and biblical fire? Do we share the Puritan view of the vital necessity of conversion and of being clothed with the righteousness of Christ? It is not enough to just read the Puritans. A stirring interest in the Puritans is not the same thing as a revival of Puritanism. We need the inward disposition of the Puritans—the authentic, biblical, intelligent piety they showed in our hearts, lives, and churches.

Will you live godly in Christ Jesus like the Puritans? Will you go beyond studying their theology, discussing their ideas, recalling their achievements, and berating their failures? Will you practice the degree of obedience to God’s Word for which they strove? Will you serve God as they served Him? Will you live with one eye on eternity as they did? (971)

If that inquiry was not challenging enough, immediately following is the section entitled “Afterword” with Chapter 60 entitled “A Final Word.” Describing the difficult conditions the Puritans had to live through, the final word “is really a reflection upon the various strengths of Puritan theologians that should characterize today’s theologians and ministers in the church” (977). And so the Puritans are described as committed to the great truths as preachers, pastors, and theologians; well-educated men who had a deep knowledge of the Scriptures; and men motivated “to reform the church in the direction of true godliness and practical righteousness” (975–76). This emphasis is consistent with the full title of the book, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

Clearly, the writers have a burden for the spiritual well-being of the present church. Using the Puritans’ writings (their writings being mostly sermonic material for their sixteenth- and seventeenth- century congregations), and presenting Puritan theology and life as a rule, Beeke and Jones judge the contemporary church as wanting. Furthermore, according to Beeke and Jones, the church’s hope is found in conformity to the Puritan norm. Though sympathetic with their concerns for the church’s faith and life, I would question whether “asking for the old paths” (971, quoting from Jeremiah 6:16, the “old paths” referring to the Puritans) can serve as the remedy for the church’s ills. Are the Puritans and their writings essential to our ministering effectively in the church? I believe they are; we need to study the Puritans’ writings if we would be knowledgeable and effective ministers on behalf of Christ. Historical theology is important. But simply evaluating and applying the Puritans as a rule of faith and life would be counterproductive. By becoming so “Puritan” our ability to communicate and relate to our time, our community, our people will be stunted, provincial, stilted. We must recognize that we no longer live in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Our concerns and burdens, though similar in many ways to the Puritans’ concerns and burdens, are also radically different from theirs.

Geerhardus Vos, in a review article covering Herman Bavinck’s first volume of systematic theology, published in 1895, describes advancements made by Abraham Kuyper and Bavinck as having a historic sense, which is keeping continuity with the old Calvinism without merely reproducing seventeenth century theology, and in shaping Reformed theology to communicate to their present age. Vos writes:

In the first place it [the advancing movement] has displayed a high degree of historic sense. The break in the theological history of Calvinism was keenly felt, and it was recognized that only historical study could restore the continuity. In the second place this historical enthusiasm for the old Calvinism did not blind men to the fact that with a mere reproduction of the seventeenth century theology little would be gained. There has been a conscious effort to develop further the Calvinistic principles and to shape the Reformed dogma to a form suitable and congenial to the consciousness of the present age.[2]

Beeke and Jones serve us well in keeping our continuity with the Puritans. However, are they advocating a reproduction of seventeenth theology and life? If so, little is gained.

Nowhere is the expression of theology and life more relevant than in preaching. Preaching, as a means of grace, is central to the life and health of the church. If the church is in a deplorable state, preaching will be a primary means of addressing the sick and sad problems within the church. Beeke and Jones believe that “no group of preachers in church history has matched their [the Puritans’] comprehensively and powerfully biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical preaching” (681). They call upon us to emulate the Puritans in their love for preaching: “If we could cultivate half of the love for preaching that the Puritan preachers had, the church would soon know better days” (682). The church has become anti-intellectual:

The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel spawns an irrelevant gospel that does not get beyond felt needs. We fear that is happening in our churches today: we have lost our intellectual understanding of faith, and for the most part we don’t see the necessity of recovering it. We do not understand that when we are no different from non-Christians in what we think and believe, we will soon be no different from unbelievers in how we live. (687–88)

Furthermore, the conscience needs to be confronted, which was an essential task for the Puritans but is neglected today, “Today, many preachers are reticent to confront the conscience. We need to learn from the Puritans that a friend who loves you most will tell you the most truth about yourself” (688). But a follow-up concern needs to be raised which is relevant for our discussion with Beeke and Jones; not only do we need a friend to tell us the truth about ourselves, but we need a friend who is humble, discerning, and gracious in telling us the truth about ourselves. So for preachers preaching to the conscience, care must be taken not only in what they preach but in how they preach.

In the history of preaching, the Puritans are master preachers; we need to study them and learn from them. But care needs to be taken in emulating Puritan preachers, lest we become dramatically and oddly dressed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garb while walking down twenty-first-century streets. We will gain attention but not a hearing. William Still, in his The Work of the Pastor, commenting upon contemporary ministers, says:

It is striking that we find far more preachers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than in the first. But whether our one scholarly foot is in the first or sixteenth century AD, or the sixth or tenth century BC, our other dynamical foot must be firmly planted in our own day.[3]

He continues:

Perhaps your temptation is not to live in the sixteenth century, or in the world of its discoveries or impacts: you prefer the seventeenth century. It may be that even now you are in the process of absorbing not only the solid teaching of Puritan writers, and therefore acquiring the stable character those teachings inculcate. But you may be seeing the Word of God through their eyes in such a way that you are really living three hundred years ago, and have acquired a detachment from the present day, and even a cold disdainful attitude toward it that makes you excessively unattractive and forbidding. What a pity.[4]

Admittedly, on the one hand, there is a danger of dismissing historical sense which loses the essential continuity with the Puritans. But, on the other hand, there can be a romantic, irresponsible adoption of Puritan preaching that distracts, or worse, results in the disdain of our own generation, exhibiting an ugly self-righteousness. We need the Puritans to give us insight into how good preachers ministered to their congregations in their age with their concerns so that we might minister to our own congregations in our own age with our own concerns.

And so the Puritans burn on, shining brightly for our generation. We are not called to stare into their light, a burning, splendid, light. But we are called to use their light, illuminating our own work and age. Learning what it takes to minister God’s Word faithfully; being committed to uncompromising biblical orthodoxy; adopting language that addresses the hearts and consciences of our people, and our generation; sacrificing in spending and being spent for the sake of the gospel, in our time; understanding the unique season and spirit God has ordered for this time and place; advancing his rule and reign through the church—these all call us to prudent communion with our fathers, the Puritans.

Endnotes

[1] Carl R. Trueman, Histories and Fallacies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 109.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 475.

[3] William Still, The Work of the Pastor (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scot: Christian Focus, 2010), 64.

[4] Ibid., 69.

William B. Kessler is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Columbus, Ohio. Ordained Servant Online, April 2014.

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