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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.

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Where do the Puritans speak most helpfully to the contemporary church? 

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 MediatorI learned more about my Savior from this book than any other I've ever read. More recently, Anthony Burgess's Spiritual Refiningespecially 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.

Several other Puritan works are available in the Puritan Paperback series. We'd especially commend Jeremiah Burroughs's The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

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.


Comments:

“Doctrine for Life” « The Wanderer

November 19, 2012 at 06:59 AM

[...] Smethurst interviews Joel Beeke about A Puritan Theology. Rate this:Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

Riley

November 16, 2012 at 12:50 PM

I think the answer is that they did indeed recognize the typology, and that it is reflected in their covenant theology.

John Dunn

November 16, 2012 at 10:05 AM

What was the Puritan view of the New Covenant administration with respect to it being the eschatological fulfillment of the fleshly Old Covenant types and shadows?

In particular, did the Puritans recognize that the Passover-Exodus-Sinai event was gloriously recapitulated and fulfilled in the death, burrial, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ?

And if they would have recognized these Christological patterns, how would this have changed the construct of their covenantal formulations?

A fuller exploration of these themes can be found at takeacopy.com.

Latest Links | blog of dan

November 16, 2012 at 06:53 AM

[...] Scholars Gush Over Inaugural Puritan Systematic Theology [...]

John Dunn

November 16, 2012 at 05:03 PM

The puritans and their posterity only recognized Christological typology in part. Instead of recognizing the ultimate eschatological finality and Spirit-wrought newness of the New Covenant age they conflated the two administrations. They brought the blessings of the New into the Old and thereby synthesized the two administrations into a single over-arching covenantal structure (Covenant of Grace).

Covenant theology has left the Church with "christianized" Old Testament saints who confess Christ, but submit themselves under the shadows of Old Covenant Law and wet circumcision for their natural offspring.

Trevor Minyard

November 16, 2012 at 02:51 PM

But why didn't The Valley of Vision compel them to knock on their neighbor's doors and tell them, "You can't own people."?

[...] It’s not every day you hear accomplished scholars gush. But, then again, it’s not every ... Categories : Uncategorized [...]

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November 15, 2012 at 05:32 AM

[...] Interview with Joel Beeke and Mark Jones about the first systematic Puritan Theology Touches on the “Precious Puritans” slave controversy too. [...]

Steve Cornell

November 15, 2012 at 02:26 PM

Ordered! Thanks!

Matthias

November 14, 2012 at 10:26 AM

Rick, that looks like 41,000 examples of exactly that.

CG

November 14, 2012 at 09:27 AM

A lot of these sort of studies claiming thousands of Christian sects are dubious, as they seem to be counting a lot of non-profits and independent/nondenominational churches to be separate "sects". One study out there counted each congregationalist church as a different "sect", on the grounds that they had their own constitution and no higher denominational authority.

To be sure, there is a lot of division in the church, but it is not so bad as those sort of studies make it appear. There are encouraging examples of unity all around us... The Gospel Coalition itself is an example of presbyterians, baptists, dutch reformed, etc serving alongside one another.

Likewise with the Puritans, they were not some separate denomination or sect. "Puritan" was just a label (originally applied to them by their critics) that described an entire movement. The Puritan movement crossed over denominational boundaries... there were Puritan ministers in presbyterian churches, in congregationalist churches, in anglican churches, etc.

Riley

November 14, 2012 at 08:27 PM

"Full liberty of conscience was untested," OK, now that it's been tested we can unequivocally state that it is a miserable failure.

Simon

November 14, 2012 at 08:12 PM

Drake, I wish the Celtic Orthodox would join either the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Communions. I'm afraid that as it stands they, it is another sect. I know the British Orthodox Church is in communion with the Coptic Church and, therefore, the other Oriental Orthodox Churches. Do you think the Celtic Orthodox will eventually go into Communion with the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox? What are the obstacles to this?

Rick

November 14, 2012 at 07:56 AM

Today there are 41,000 Christian sects according to the Gordon-Conwell Center for the Study of Global Christianity

Not what Christ had in mind when he prayed:

Father, may they be one with one another, as I am one with You, so that the world will know that Thou dids't send Me (John 17).

How did the Puritans address not just invisible church unity, but visible unity so the world may know that the Father sent Christ to us?

[...] A Puritan Systematic Theology [...]

drake

November 14, 2012 at 05:21 PM

Rick, is it love when your Jesuit brethren vow, "You have been taught to plant insidiously the seeds of jealousy and hatred between communities, provinces, states that were at peace, and to incite them to deeds of blood, involving them in war with each other, and to create revolutions and civil wars in countries that were independent and prosperous, cultivating the arts and the sciences and enjoying the blessings of peace; to take sides with the combatants and to act secretly with your brother Jesuit, who might be engaged on the other side, but openly opposed to that with which you might be connected, only that the Church might be the gainer in the end"

which they have done in dozens of countries and were suppressed by your own church for doing so much of it in 1773 Dominus ac Redemptor Noster?

Rick

November 14, 2012 at 04:56 PM

drake - There are 10,000 ways to articulate an idea. About five are the best. Many times we select the most combative ways to communicate, especially when it comes to faith and practice. I am guilty of this. From my experience in the Reformed tradition, the one glaring omission is Sola Caritas, the Sixth Sola: Love Alone. This is a critical need on the Reformed side of the aisle. I Cor 13:1-8.

drake

November 14, 2012 at 04:09 PM

Rick,

You are delusional. My forefathers came from the British Isles. We had Christianity for centuries before your beast stepped foot on my ancestor's lands. We worshiped the one God, the person of the Father. We did not worship your Neoplatonic monad that resides inside of three names that you think in the dark recesses of your mind really refer to persons. This was solidified in your Papal Filiqoue heresy which my ancestors in the Celtic Orthodox Tradition never believed. Your religion is the worst thing that has ever happened to the world.

Rick

November 14, 2012 at 03:41 PM

drake - Precisely: Too much liberty has created cultural chaos. It's because of the 'mass confusion' in denominations like the SBC, CRC and PCA that led me back into the Roman Catholic Church -- the Christian Church of all of our forefathers (circa > 500 years ago). I'm what you'd call a TR. Totally Reformed and finally back home.

drake

November 14, 2012 at 03:29 PM

Matt, you say that the puritans were wrong on Historicist Eschatology and "3. Political Liberty and Equality.". Can you prove your case? What did the puritans get wrong here? Is the office of Papacy then not the anti-christ? Are we then to follow the Jesuit theories?

As for political liberty and equality, can you provide a single passage form the bible that teaches freedom of religion or universal equality? The so called Political Liberty and Equality has produced mass confusion and has destroyed the relations between men and women.

drake

November 14, 2012 at 03:24 PM

They warned us about the Jesuits whose prerogative it was to infiltrate Protestant churches and start doctrinal divisions. If you have a problem with the schisms blame your own church. They are the ones who created them.