Interview on the Puritans (II)

This is the second part of Matt Smethurst’s interview of Mark Jones and myself about the Puritans. He graciously gave me permission to post the interview here on my blog.

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 slave-owners?

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 slave-owners.

To condemn the Puritans, then, as slave-owners 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 slave-owners 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, 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 Mediator. I learned more about my Savior from this book than any other I’ve ever read. More recently, Anthony Burgess’s Spiritual Refining, especially 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.