Theologians who just won't die
Why Read the Puritans?
- Ron Frost is pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International and he is a mentor on the Cor Deo training programme , before which he taught historical theology and ethics at Multnomah Seminary in Portland, OR. View all resources by Ron Frost
Have you ever been pleasantly surprised? Can you recall enjoying something you initially expected to endure with grim determination? Maybe a university course that, against all odds, gripped you? Or a conversation with a mere acquaintance that suddenly made time disappear? With such moments in mind let me recommend the Puritans to you.
Who were the Puritans?
The Puritans? Yes! Their name—a pejorative label at the start—was applied to people who shared common concerns but who never became a formal movement. They were, instead, pastors and lay people who preferred the theology and practices of 16th century Geneva rather than the practices affirmed by church leaders under Tudor Queen Elizabeth and the later Stuart kings. They also considered themselves to be “godly”—the “hotter” sort of Christians—and they campaigned for the United Kingdom as a whole to embrace their convictions.
But even a hotter sort of Christian might not make a good coffee partner. You may even have been warned against them at some point in your studies. And, to be honest, Puritans often earned their unhappy reputations. One wit even tagged Puritans as those who were desperately afraid that someone somewhere might be having fun! It’s also true that reading some Puritans can be like swimming through sand. So there are challenges that come with this recommendation.
Yet only those who start to dig will find the diamonds in a mine. Treasures are waiting to be found in Puritan works. My own life was changed by a course on the Puritans in my days at theological college—and I can promise that it was wholly unexpected.
My greatest treasure was Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) and it was John Cotton who put me on to him. Sibbes’ winsome preaching converted Cotton and Richard Baxter. Cotton, in turn, preached a sermon God used to capture John Preston. Preston then drew Thomas Shepard and Thomas Goodwin to faith. Each invites a reading. Jeremiah Burroughs and Jonathan Edwards also came alive for me as additional members of my pantheon of Puritan favorites.
The ability of Puritan thinkers to speak across the centuries will be clear to anyone who asks big questions. The best of the Puritans will always be there ahead of us, asking for instance, who is God? How do we get to know him? And what difference does he make? The Puritans were especially devoted to knowing and experiencing God—and with that they offer an invitation to any of us who share the same ambitions.
Asking key questions
No questions in life are more important than those that lead us to know God—to discover who he is and what he’s about. The question was a Puritan specialty and though they may not have agreed on some specifics they all recognized the importance of the question.
In considering God Puritans treated him as the ultimate communicator. Jesus, as God the Son, explains God the Father in terms we can engage. Following the Son’s ascent to heaven the Bible then became the most tangible and accessible source of God’s self-disclosure. So Puritans were avid Bible readers, intent on discovering God’s heart. As such they stand as great guides for our own Bible explorations and theology building.
The basic question about God’s being—how he is one God, yet one who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit—was critical to them. Sibbes, for one, explored this bond and what it means for our life and salvation.
If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was. Apart from the fact that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation or redemption.
John Owen offered his own portrayal of God’s spreading goodness. Like Augustine in the 4th century Owen spoke of God’s triune communion being facilitated by the Spirit who then “is” the exchanged love between the Father and the Son—the very love he then shares with believers.
The mutual knowledge and love of the Father and the Son . . . are absolute, infinite, natural, and necessary unto the being and blessedness of God. So the Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son, knowing them as he is known, and “searching the deep things of God.”
John Preston also treated God’s communion as the basis for our communion with God in salvation. Like many of the Puritans he used the marital imagery of the Bible to explain spiritual union with Christ. Faith is the concurrence of two things: “that God the Father will give his Son, and freely offers righteousness, and we receive this righteousness, taking Christ for our husband, our King, and our Lord.” In other words, the mutual exchange of resources in a marriage explains how a believer, now one with the collective Bride of Christ, is granted Christ’s righteousness.
Sorting out answers
Puritans also differed on a host of issues. That means we can engage them today as friends and foils for our own questions. Temporal distance helps objectivity—our ability to see what the actual issues were in past debates. Those caught up in the emotions of the original fight may have had less clarity. A student today, for instance, may question William Ames’ moral casuistry without being worried about offending any close friends. Or someone might challenge John Cotton’s themes of free grace today without facing any pushback.
What kinds of differences existed among Puritans? There were questions over sin and grace. Some Puritans, for instance, treated sin as a violation of God’s covenantal requirements—so sin is essentially behavioral as seen in law breaking—and grace brings about divine order as expressed by law keeping. Yet others viewed sin more as a heart issue—as self-love—so that the critical feature of salvation is a new heart led by God’s love.
Some Puritans believed in Presbyterian polity for the church. Others argued in favor of Congregationalism. Some were Separatists—avoiding formal affiliations with other churches—while others were careful to maintain church connections, even when their Episcopalian leaders challenged or dismissed important beliefs.
Even questions about what constitutes basic orthodoxy were up for debate among the Puritans. Historian Janice Knight, for instance, wrote of competing versions of faith in Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Re-Reading American Puritanism. Her focus was on the Antinomian Controversy of New England (1636-38). She pointed to a group of pastors who elevated God’s laws while others elevated God’s love. The resulting debate roiled Massachusetts and beyond for years after, even after a superficial resolve was reached.
Many other questions stirred the Puritans. For one, how was the doctrine of predestination to be understood? On this question—asking how God’s sovereignty engages the presumed moral freedom of all humans—there were supralapsarians (William Perkins and Paul Bayne), infralapsarians (Richard Sibbes and Thomas Goodwin), and Arminians (John Goodwin). I’ll let you discover what the terms mean and what the proponents each argued! Despite the daunting jargon these were (and still are) very important matters.
Another tension was the question of Christ’s atonement—whether it is promised strictly to the elect—or whether it is offered to all humanity and then applied only in cases where faith is present.
Still another debate had to do with the meaning of grace: is it a “who” or a “what”? That is, does God’s saving grace come to believers by the Spirit who unites us to Christ in a marital union? Or is salvation more indirect, achieved by some only when God supplies the elect person with an infusion of enabling grace? Sibbes and Preston believed the former; Perkins and Owen held the latter. Years earlier, as a fascinating context, Thomas Aquinas insisted grace must be a “what” and Martin Luther was just as adamant that it must be a “who”.
Many readers, of course, may not care a whit about these questions. At least at the beginning. But over time it becomes clear that important issues were, and still are, at stake here. And it also becomes very apparent that the rigor of such important debates—what is needed to make the issues clear and sound decisions possible—is almost unheard of today. The Puritans, by contrast, were keen for clarity and ready to press their points. And the warp and woof of strong spirituality is only woven with threads provided by lively debates.
Where should a newcomer to the Puritans begin? Some fine suggestions are offered in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics (IVP, Kapic & Gleason, eds.). In this helpful guide a collection of nineteen Puritan writers are presented along with an introduction to one of each writer’s noted works. The book is compact because the featured writings themselves are not included. J. I. Packer, for instance, introduces John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress and readers are then expected to find their own copy of the book—which in most cases can be found as free or nearly free downloadable items on the Internet. If you have an e-reader you should be on your way in no time. Or in most cases print copies are also readily available at affordable prices.
At the very least, just go online or to your bookstore or local library and find any of the names we’ve mentioned already and start reading. Be patient and steady—learn the rhythm and then enjoy the substance. Again, any time invested in reading the best of the Puritans will satisfy the soul. Don’t wait to get started!