Why Read the Theology of the Puritans?
October 11 marked a milestone in my life. After five decades of reading the Puritans, I am quite excited about the publication of A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, co-authored by Mark Jones and myself. I’ve read a lot of books, and written several as well, that explore certain themes or persons in the Puritan movement. But never before has any book attempted to lay out the theology of the Puritans on all the major topics of systematic theology: God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and the end of the age.
Why read the theology of men who died 300 to 400 years ago? Who were they anyway? The word “Puritan” was originally an insult, suggesting that these people were a self-righteous sect who thought they were better than everybody else. To this day, people associate Puritanism with a legalistic, controlling attitude that won’t let anyone have any fun. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The people labeled Puritans were sincere Christians who wanted to apply the Holy Scriptures to every part of life. They believed that the purpose of life was knowing God, living for Him, and enjoying Him. They found joy and peace in the glory of God shining in Christ. During the period from about 1560 to 1700, they preached prolifically and published thousands of books to help people. Their works bring together bright, shining truth from the Word with warm, burning love from the Spirit. That’s why their books are still read and cherished today. Over eight hundred Puritan books have been reprinted in the last sixty years.
The Puritans sought to shape all of life by the Scriptures. They read the Bible, preached the Bible, prayed the Bible, and sang the Bible (particularly the Psalms). Their knowledge of the Scriptures was amazing. You could prick them anywhere and they would bleed Bible. They wanted their churches to follow exactly what the Bible said in their worship and leadership. They did not want to add to it or subtract from it. They married doctrine and practice, addressing the mind, confronting the conscience, engaging the heart, and directing the whole life.
The Puritans focused everything on Jesus Christ, believing that the Bible revolved around Him as the only Mediator between God and man. They loved Christ more than anyone or anything in the world. Samuel Rutherford said that if you combined all the beauty and sweetness of all flowers and foods and friends in the world, it would be like a drop in the ocean compared to Christ. That’s why the Puritans worked very hard to understand Christ in His eternal divine Sonship; His covenant with the Father to save sinners; His incarnation as the God-man; His offices of prophet, priest, and king; and His states of humiliation unto death and exaltation unto God’s right hand. They wanted to know Christ with all their hearts.
Their Christ-centered religion was not reductionistic however; on the contrary, they investigated and taught the whole counsel of God. They believed that the Bible contains a wealth of doctrines that God gave us for our good. For example, they preached and wrote extensively about the doctrine of divine providence. William Ames said, “God has a fixed providence by which He cares for all things and directs them to His own glory.”
Edward Corbet wrote, “We cannot utter one word, think one thought, turn our eye, or move a finger, without the concurrence of his power who gives life and breath, and all things.”
This means that even our family relationships are gifts from God. Therefore, John Flavel said, we must use them so as “to be mutual blessings to each other,” recognizing that the same providence that gave them will one day take them away through death.
The Puritans wrestled with hard questions about divine providence. They argued against the Roman Catholic teaching that God delegates aspects of His providence to heavenly saints, insisting that we all deal directly with God. They fought against the false teachings of a group called the Socinians who, like some today, denied that God knows our choices before we make them and so constantly changes His plans. The Puritans did not treat men like stocks and blocks without a will, but embraced the biblical teachings that God’s will rules over man’s will.
They wrestled with questions like: How does God’s providence relate to the laws of nature? How does God’s providence relate to the sins of men? How can God’s providence permit the prosperity of the wicked? Why do the righteous suffer and die alongside the wicked? How does God’s providence help us to know God’s will? How does God’s providence relate to our efforts? In all things they advocated submission to divine providence, coupled with an energetic doing of His commandments because God will hold us accountable for our actions.
The Puritans also show us how to handle trials. They suffered a great deal in an age of persecution, immigration across an ocean to a foreign wilderness, with no modern medicine, frequent death of mother and child in birth, war and plague and fire. They learned to submit quietly to afflictions as children to the discipline of a wise and loving Father who makes us like Him. They taught that affliction is the “diamond dust” God uses to polish His jewels. They help us to hold loosely to the things of this world, a lesson our materialistic age desperately needs to learn. Thomas Watson said that the world should be like a very loose tooth that can easily be pulled away without troubling us much. They lift our eyes off of our present lives to seek an eternal kingdom. Just like John Bunyan’s pilgrim, we learn from them that this world is not our home but we are travelers headed for the Celestial City.
The Puritans help us to remain balanced in our Christianity. They avoided the extremes of cold orthodoxy and mystical subjectivism, and combined biblical truth with spiritual experience. They believed in both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, resulting in a faith that humbly gives God all the glory for any good thing, yet works, labors, and strives to seek God’s kingdom. They highly esteemed the preaching of the Bible in public worship yet also pressed the duty of each family to read the Bible and pray together. They wrote profound theological treatises, but also catechisms designed for children to memorize the fundamentals of the faith. They taught that real religion must start in the heart, but also taught that real religion moves us to keep God’s commandments.
The Puritans were also a people of much prayer. They did not have the sophisticated methods and technology we have today. But they spent hours in prayer. Robert Traill said that some ministers of lesser abilities are more successful than those with more skill, not because they preach better so much as because they pray more.
Prayer does not fit well with pride, and the Puritans wrestled and prayed for more humility. In an age of easy believism and casual worship, the Puritans help us to listen to Christ when He says,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Matt. 5:3-4
They realized that Spirit-worked humility and brokenness over our sin is often the gateway to salvation, and also an important part of the very road to heaven. The fear of the Lord is foreign to many churches today, but the Puritans realized that the fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Only when we see the awe-inspiring majesty of God will we treasure grace.
God was pleased to give the Puritans both much sorrow and great spiritual power. George Whitefield, a great evangelist of the eighteenth century, said,
Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans ... such burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew-act [the 1662 Act of Uniformity] and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction (spiritual anointing of power) attends them to this very hour.
So you can understand why I would be excited about the publication of A Puritan Theology. With sixty chapters touching nearly all the major topics of systematic theology, this book will help you to explore the riches of Reformed experiential doctrine and practice. Some chapters contain fairly deep theology, such as “Thomas Goodwin’s Christological Supralapsarianism.” Other chapters are refreshingly practical, such as “The Puritans on Living in Christ.” Many chapters combine elements of theology and practice, “The Puritans on Walking Godly in the Home.” That’s why we subtitled the book Doctrine for Life.
It’s our hope that this book will help ministers and lay people alike to take in the biblical doctrines of the Puritans, embrace them in their heart’s experience, and live them out in practical ways.