Archives for December 6, 2012

Interview on the Puritans (I)

Following the publication of A Puritan Theology, Matt Smethurst at The Gospel Coalition interviewed Mark Jones and myself about Puritans. He graciously gave me permission to post the interview here on my blog. The first part appears below, and the second will appear, God willing, on my blog tomorrow.

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.