It’s not every day you hear accomplished scholars gush. But, then again, it’s not every day you encounter a 1,000-page tome of unprecedented scope, either.
In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (effusive endorsements here), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer a substantial gift to the church. An “overview of Puritan thought concerning Scripture’s major doctrines, historically and systematically considered,” this groundbreaking volume covers 50 areas of doctrine, highlights the work of numerous theologians, and concludes with eight chapters exploring Puritan “theology in practice.” After all, the authors write, the “distinctive character of Puritanism was its quest for a life reformed by the Word of God.”
Given that no previous work has ever woven the threads of Puritan teaching into a unified tapestry of systematic theology, A Puritan Theology is a truly remarkable achievement.
I corresponded with Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Jones, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, about where the Puritans are most and least helpful, where we might be more prudish than they were, whether they’re good preaching models, and more.
Puritanism was first and foremost about the church. All of their efforts, whether in writing, preaching, or lecturing, aimed to reform the Church of England in a manner more consistent with God’s Word and Reformed principles of worship and piety.
Here are a few areas where the Puritans are very helpful to the contemporary church:
1. The Glory of God. The Puritans had a robust doctrine of God. Many of the problems in today’s church stem from losing sight of who God is. Both their writings and their prayers evince a view of God who brings to mind his majesty.
2. The Centrality of the Mediator. The Puritans constantly pointed to Christ, not merely as an example or teacher but as priest and king. Man-centered preaching is so popular today. Even expository preaching can also go astray if it loses sight of Christ as the center of all biblical truth and Christian experience.
3. The Evil of Sin. The Puritans reflected deeply on the Bible’s witness to the horror of rebellion against a righteous and loving God. Sin rests lightly on the contemporary church. We need to hear the Puritan call to humble ourselves and repent of our sins.
4. The Obedience of Worship. The Puritans understood that true worship is always an echo of the Word created in the heart by the Spirit. The contemporary church has wandered dangerously far into the territory of worship based on man’s will and ideas.
5. The Necessity of Personal Sacrifice. Many Puritans made great sacrifices in order to worship according to their conscience. Thomas Goodwin, for example, gave up fame—he was quickly advancing in theological circles—and moved to Holland, where he ministered with other Puritan divines in Arnhem.
Where do the Puritans speak least helpfully to the contemporary church?
1. Eschatology. In the area of eschatology the Puritans, particularly the millennialists, seem to have gotten things very wrong. Their historicist interpretation of Revelation proved incorrect, at least in terms of specific timetables.
2. Apologetics. The Puritans don’t contribute much to specific questions in contemporary apologetics. Certain concerns that figure prominently in today’s debates weren’t controversial issues in the time of the Puritans, so they didn’t say much about them. The church didn’t face the challenges of Marxism, atheistic Darwinism, and liberal feminism, to name a few. Yet even in such areas the Puritans’ expositions of biblical themes often have relevance.
3. Political Liberty and Equality. The concepts of liberty and equality now dear to us in the Western world hadn’t yet matured during the Puritan era. Civil powers had established the church for more than a thousand years. Full liberty of conscience was untested, and the disestablishment of religion seemed foolhardy in the context of multiplying heresies and sects. Sensitivity to racism and sexism simply didn’t exist in any developed form in the British and European mindset as it does today. We’d argue, however, that the seeds of truth that would blossom and bear fruit in contemporary freedoms are found in Puritan theology.
We need to read the Puritans realizing that, while the Reformation had transformed much of their thinking by the Scriptures, in some ways they were more like medieval Christians in their cultural viewpoint than modern Christians. Yet even here they are helpful, since they enable us to step outside our modern cultural box.
Puritans were known as prudes. But what do modern evangelicals seem to be prudish about that Puritans didn’t emphasize?
Ironically, the Puritans are known as sexual prudes, but they were quite healthy—even enthusiastic—about sexual love. Books like Domestical Duties by William Gouge demonstrate a very healthy view of sex between husband and wife. Prior to the Reformation, England was steeped in medieval views of sex as a necessary evil. The Reformers’ return to the Bible moved the Puritans to view sex and romantic friendship as important—delightful duties and not just means of procreation. They didn’t isolate sex from committed relationship the way many do today, nor turn sex into some kind of ultimate experience. But the Puritans did teach men and women the God-ordained goodness of enjoying each other sexually in marriage. They also celebrated the blessings of food, drink, and enjoying the beauties of nature as gifts from God.
Puritans are commonly accused of proof-texting. Are the Puritans a good model for expositional preaching?
When William Perkins wrote his manual on preaching (The Art of Prophesying), he included instructions on careful exegesis of the text based on grammatical and contextual factors. The Puritans were concerned to interpret and apply Scripture rightly. However, the Puritan preacher often started with a particular text, drew out a doctrine, then spent most of his time developing this doctrine from many Scriptures and offering several applications. So their preaching tended to be more doctrinal and applicational than expositional. It all depends on whom you read, however. We doubt very much that one would come away thinking they were guilty of ripping texts out of context if one read carefully the sermons of Thomas Manton, for example.
Typically, the proof-texting charge comes as a result of the “Scripture proofs” found in the Westminster documents (WCF, WLC, WSC). But the divines had resisted giving proof-texts precisely because they believed their answers were based on the whole counsel of God. Parliament had their way eventually, however, and the texts were inserted. Of course, one should also read the English Annotations (first ed., 1645) alongside the Westminster documents. The Annotations are made up of 2,400 folio pages of exegesis of the entire Bible. A cursory glance at documents such as these will reveal that the Puritans were continuing in an exegetical tradition developed in the Reformation. Any critique that the Puritans were slavish in their proof-texting will necessarily be a critique of Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed theology.
In addition, a careful reading of Puritan texts shows they were highly sophisticated theologians. As Protestant scholastics, they were trained in several languages. They almost invariably read Latin in addition to English. Proof-texting tends to ignore the context of a particular verse; however, as Goodwin put it, “context is half the interpretation.” They typically interacted not only with the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, but also with the Aramaic Targums (“Chaldee paraphrasts”) and several other languages (e.g., Coptic).
Perhaps Charles Spurgeon is a better example of proof-texting gone wrong, notwithstanding his obvious genius!
How should we think about the fact that the Puritans by and large were theologically careful, devotionally vibrant slaveowners?
One of us has written on this here. Let us just reinforce from this, and add to it, that there are a number of issues that should be addressed in relation to this particular question. We should welcome the point that we mustn’t put our spiritual heroes on pedestals. But the historical point is less tenable than some think. After having checked with some of the best Puritan historians from both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that we have no record of an English Puritan owning a slave. Richard Baxter, for example, saw a difference between slavery due to debt or conquest (regardless of race) and slavery in the way we think of it today. Not that any of the former examples are commendable. Yet Baxter did unequivocally denounce the slave trade, and he was a Puritan, unlike some of the names bandied around as evidence the Puritans were slaveowners.
To condemn the Puritans, then, as slaveowners is largely anachronistic historically (though, of course, there are exceptions). Sadly, many later Calvinists manipulated the Bible to validate and promote slavery. But they weren’t Puritans. It is primarily in post-Reformation Calvinism we find slave owners and slave abolitionists.
It’s also noteworthy that, contrary to popular suggestion, Jonathan Edwards wasn’t technically a Puritan, even if he was deeply sympathetic to their theology and for that reason is sometimes included as such. There are debates about when Puritanism ended, some arguing for as early as 1662 with the Act of Uniformity and the Great Ejection. But few deny the transition from Puritanism to Dissent typically comes around 1689 with the Act of Toleration. After 1689 we normally talk about Protestant Nonconformity. Edwards wasn’t even born then.
These points are important because there is considerable difference between Puritans such as John Owen and 18th-century New England Reformed theologians like Edwards. And we should note that the rise of Puritanism began somewhere around the 1570s. In other words, to move into 18th century in New England and still use the term “Puritan” is highly problematic. So to suggest many Puritans were slaveowners implicates generations of men who had nothing to do with slavery.
What Puritan works have influenced you most and why?
Mark Jones: Three works have influenced me a lot. First, volume 4 in Thomas Goodwin’s Works, which includes “The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth” (see this reprint), hugely influenced how I understood the person of Christ. Second, John Owen’s work on the Holy Spirit (vol. 3 in his Works) discusses the role of the Spirit in relation to Christ. That is the finest work on Christology I’ve read. What Goodwin did for my heart, Owen did for my mind! Finally, Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God gave me a far greater sense of God’s essential being than any other book I’ve read on the topic.
Joel Beeke: I grew up in a family where my father read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to us every Sunday evening. In my teen years, I literally asked my dad hundreds of questions about the Spirit’s saving work in relation to dozens of characters in this classic. When I was 17, I drank deeply from Thomas Goodwin’s Christ Our Mediator. I learned more about my Savior from this book than any other I’ve ever read. More recently, Anthony Burgess’s Spiritual Refining, especially the first part on the doctrine of assurance, has ministered to my mind and soul. I’m presently working on a popular paperback version of his section on assurance of faith.
For the person interested in dipping into Puritan writing, where would be a good place to start?
Some short, practical, and sweet Puritan books have been put into contemporary English in the Puritan Treasures for Today series, such as George Swinnock, The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith, John Flavel’s Triumphing over Sinful Fear, and William Greenhill’s Stop Loving the World.
Finally, if one wants to get a Puritan “body of divinity” (their term for systematic theology), a good place to start would be Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity.