Books

Why Read the Puritans?

As I've reflected on my reading regimen for the past year, I've realized that an area of reading I've largely neglected, especially in comparison with earlier years, is my reading of the Puritans. The Puritans, properly speaking, were the pastors in the Church of England from about 1550 - 1650 who sought to bring the Reformation to completion in the Church of England, most of whom were ejected from the pulpits as a result. But more loosely, the Puritans would include those who followed in their footsteps in the next couple of generations, both in England and New England (and even Baptists and other non-conformists of the same era). So, I have in mind names like William Perkins, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Manton, John Owen, Richard Baxter, Stephen Charnock, John Bunyan, William Gurnall, Matthew Henry, Thomas Brooks, Thomas Watson (lots of Thomases!), and even Jonathan Edwards.

But why read theology by men who were mostly from different church traditions than me (in the above list only Bunyan was a Baptist), who lived in a different country (only Edwards was an "American" and he died before the American Revolution), and in another century (16th or 17th as opposed to 20th or 21st)? To put an even finer point on it, why read men whose English is as cumbersome as the King James Version of the Bible (and sometimes more so) whose theology is thoroughly Calvinistic (and sometimes to a fault) and whose ethics and morals were . . . well . . . Puritanical (most if not all Puritans would have considered dancing, card-playing, and attendance of the theater to be sure signs of unregenerancy - I can only imagine what they would think of even the "cleanest" entertainment that is common fare in our lives today)? While I am substantially in agreement with a lot (not all) of Puritan theology, the fact of the matter is that there are contemporary scholars who are better exegetes of Scripture than were most Puritans. Their commentaries are solid, but not easily digestable and their idea of expository preaching would make even the most stalwart and Word-hungry congregation faint in weariness (Manton's sermons on Psalm 119 numbered 190 and Joseph Caryl's expositions of Job filled twelve volumes!). They are not really good models to follow in that regard. So, why read them?

As I've asked myself that question, the answer that has echoed in my own heart is this: I need to read the Puritans because of their pure and holy passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. Not for quotations to fill my sermons (too many of those will make any sermon a drag!). Not for their exegetical insights (D. A. Carson or Douglas Moo are more reliable). Not for their theology (After all, I can get Calvinism in its most attractive form from John Piper). And not even for their pastoral theology (CCEF with writers like David Powlison and Edward T. Welch are wonderfully filling that gap for our day). Of course I can still benefit from the Puritans in all of these ways, but that is not why I feel compelled to read them. The reason why I feel compelled to read the Puritans is just so that I can light my torch in their flames. I dipped into Thomas Brooks' Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices for ten minutes before lunch today - and I was reminded of just how much I am helped by these burning men. So, I'm aiming in 2006 to go back to the Puritans.

Maybe you should give them a try as well.

2 comments:

Dave K said...

Thanks for that, it provoked some good thought. I once read the puritans because I was under the impression there was no good theology still being done. Now I have realised how rubbish that is, and I'm horribly aware of all the problems you list so comprehensively. Your 'but' makes me think again though. Thanks for that.

I think I'll always like the Anglican evangelical contemporaries of Wesley, (like Henry Venn, Newton, and later Charles Simeon) more though.

Thanks again for the food for thought.

BTW I came here via Epangelical.

polemic turtle said...

I know Spurgeon profited from them greatly and so I'm inclined to check them out to see whether or not they're what I'm looking for in solid reading. I'm of the mind that the popular Calvinism of today is for the most part a hybrid of Arminianism and Calvinism proper. They might posess a purer form than we do today... I hope to see.