Puritan Paralysis: Take 2
Last week, I wrote about the tendency of some in the gospel-centered movement to engage in “hyper-introspection,” a practice that leaves us paralyzed rather than empowered for the mission God has called us too. I gave the post a provocative title: “Beware the Puritan Paralysis.”
Over the holiday weekend, several scholars responded, most notably R. Scott Clark, Carl Trueman, and Jeremy Walker. I’m grateful for the vigorous response to my original post, especially from leaders and thinkers I respect.
In the interest of carrying on the discussion, I thought it might be helpful to elaborate on a few of the relevant points.
1. The Value of Generalization
Most of the responses to my post acknowledged and agreed with the larger point I was making. Some went so far as to quote specific examples of excessive introspection in Puritan writings.
Their critique centered on my treatment of the Puritans as a monolithic group. I did not distinguish between Puritans from different eras, different continents, etc.
The point of the post was admittedly a generalization. That’s why I said sometimes, some of the Puritans. Not all Puritans. Not all the time.
Had I been writing an academic paper about the Puritans, I would have cited examples, pointed out contrary evidence, and given a much more nuanced assessment of the situation. But I was writing as pastor, not professor.
Generalizations have shortcomings. It is important for certain statements to be qualified, nuanced, and put into detailed historical context.
But generalizations have value as well. Not everything must be said every time.
Pastors don’t have time to write five-paged reviews of every book they recommend. That’s why we commend books and authors generally and we critique books and authors generally. As long as we make it clear we are generalizing, this activity can be a helpful way of making sure a point doesn’t get lost in the weeds.
The people I am discipling are not going to read up on all the history of the Puritans. But when they pick up a book by Bunyan, or Baxter, or Sibbes, or Owen, I believe I have a duty as a pastor to say, “Enjoy this; you will see the benefit of that; see how beautifully he puts this; watch out though for that.”
2. The Difference Between Confession and Culture
Some commenters mentioned the grace-saturated language of Reformed confessions in regard to sanctification. I agree. In fact, one of the best ways to critique some of the Puritan excesses is by appealing to their own confessions (and writings!).
My post was not intended to question the helpfulness of much of the Puritans’ teaching. Neither did I intend to ignore the theological precision of the Westminster Confession of Faith. My concern was related to the kind of culture that developed in some Puritan circles, not the confession of faith they held.
A church can hold a confession that affirms the necessity of evangelism, and yet harbor a culture of evangelistic apathy. Likewise, the confessions of the Puritans may be solid (and I think they are when it comes to assurance), and yet problems can still appear in practice among some Puritans and among some of their descendants today.
The gospel-centered movement is rightly concerned about getting the gospel right, our doctrine right, and holding to our confessions. It is imperative that we do so.
At the same time, we ought to keep an eye out on the kind of culture we are creating in our churches. It is possible to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and yet miss the point. (Just ask the Pharisees.)
It is also possible to be so focused on getting the gospel right we fail to get the gospel out. (This, from the author of Counterfeit Gospels. Irony, I know.)
3. The Question of Motivation
I suppose what most surprised me about the responses is the idea that it has become “cool” and something of a trend to bash the Puritans nowadays. Really?
A month or two ago, I remember seeing the online conversations about Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans.” I chose not to engage that conversation, because I had already written something for Desiring God last year that deals with the Puritans and the issue of slavery.
Aside from the conversation on slavery and my post last week, I can’t think of a single blog, article or book written by anyone in the gospel-centered movement offering anything but unqualified praise for the Puritans.
A Puritan-bashing bandwagon? Hardly. And I hope I would be the last person who would try to appear “cool” by slighting our forebears.
Once again, the purpose of my post was to respond in a public forum the way I’ve counseled several people privately over the last year. Men who know the Scriptures and love Jesus, and who – through their inordinate reading of some Puritan literature – have been paralyzed by doubt of their fruitfulness and salvation.
I believe the readers of this blog would shudder at some of the emails I’ve received in the past week, emails from people who know first hand the kind of paralysis I was talking about in the post. I’ve heard from other pastors who have witnessed the same phenomenon.
Should we blame the Puritans for this unfortunate tendency? Perhaps not.
Instead, as church leaders, we should make sure we don’t enthusiastically hand out books and resources to Christians with sensitive, tender consciences without clearly assessing the needs of each individual.
It is not healthy to praise the Puritans and never point out the flaws you find here and there. Flaws that fester and sometimes lead to missional paralysis.
That said, I couldn’t agree more with the pastoral counsel Jeremy Walker gave in his response:
This is the battle that every shepherd of the sheep faces: to explain and apply the truth with that proper discrimination that brings needful truth to bear on needy souls, with prayer that the Holy Spirit will so make it plain as to accomplish the purposes of almighty God in his proper time.
May it be so. My caution was given with that same pastoral heart and aim.