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Appreciating the Genius of Puritanism

Category Articles
Date July 5, 2005

Scanning through much of what has been written and said about the Puritans – even by evangelicals – it is plain to see they tend to get a pretty bad press. Indeed, the name ‘Puritan’ was originally intended as a smear from the start and it remains so for many to the present. In one sense it is not hard to pick out the faults, failings and inconsistencies in those who bore that name in the 16th and 17th centuries and also in those who are their spiritual descendants; however, to major on that would be to overlook the incredible achievements of this movement and the extent to which its theology and influence have long outlived these men in many ways.

J.I. Packer captures the significance and relevance of the Puritans by comparing them to the Giant Redwood trees of Northern California:

“As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age of crushing urban collectivism, when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants on an anthill and puppets on a string . . . In this situation the teaching and example of the Puritans has much to say to us.”

That leaves us wondering what, then, was the genius of Puritanism that gave it such far-reaching and enduring significance? We can single out five of its main characteristics that are worth noting:

1.Their View of God

Everything these men believed, were and stood for stemmed from their high view of God. (The same was true for their predecessors in the Reformation in Europe and England.) The point is well illustrated by the fact that the first derisory epithet attached to these men was ‘Precisians’ or, ‘Precisionists.’ When Richard Rogers (a minister in Wetherfield, Essex) was asked by a gentleman what made him so precise, he responded, ‘Oh, Sir, I serve a precise God.’

Straightaway see what is going wrong in so many churches today: they embrace a view of God that has been dumbed down in the name of popular Christianity. Even as far back as the 1950’s J.B Phillips could say in the title of a book, Your God is Too Small. The recovery of healthy, vibrant churches is bound up with the need to recover a high view of God.

2. Their Esteem of Scripture

The Puritan regard for Scripture is nowhere expressed more succinctly than in Question 2 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Q. What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

In making that formulation and locating it where they did in their catechism, these men were simply reiterating the principle of sola scriptura that lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and safeguarding the heart of both gospel and church. The problem in our day is not merely that the revelation of Holy Scripture is rivaled by many other forms of revelation; but that too often Scripture is subordinated to reason. If the spirit of Nonconformity is to survive, it must bow, neither to the temple of fresh revelation, nor to the academy, but to the Word of God alone.

3. Their Understanding of Salvation

It is commonplace in contemporary theology – at least at a popular level – to construe ‘salvation’ as ‘the point of conversion’; but that is to lose sight of its larger biblical horizons. Thomas Manton gives us a glimpse of the full-orbed understanding of salvation that was typical of his Puritan counterparts and which shaped their view of the gospel:

“The sum of the gospel is this, that all who, by repentance and faith do forsake the flesh, the world and the devil, and give themselves up to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as their creator, redeemer and sanctifier, shall find God as a father taking them for his reconciled children, and for Christ’s sake pardoning their sin, and by his Spirit giving them his grace; and if they persevere in this course, will finally glorify them, and bestow upon them everlasting happiness.”

This larger understanding of salvation explains the Puritan use of the term ‘regeneration’ and their richer understanding of evangelism. It also explains the disparity between expectations regarding conversion in our day and the way they are fulfilled that stems from too narrow an understanding of salvation.

4. Their Appreciation of the Church

If there is one thing that can be identified as the main catalyst for the emergence of the Puritans it was their concern for the reformation of the church. They had a high view of the church. This first began to come to the fore in their criticisms of the Elizabethan Settlement. Many of these young men were Cambridge graduates who entered the ministry of the Church of England in order to press for ongoing reform at a congregational level. The Post-Enlightenment individualism that has become the hallmark of the 21st century church has robbed us of that biblical view that sees the church as the glorious Body and radiant Bride of Christ – the doctrine of the church is really the Cinderella of theology.

5. Their Concern for the World as a Whole.

The fifth strand of Puritan distinctiveness worth highlighting is its view of life and community as an integrated whole – the Puritans believed that God has sanctioned the solidarity of society. This translated into their vigorous (however imperfect) efforts in the political sphere – reaching their zenith in the Glorious Revolution and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Even though Puritans differed among themselves as to the nature of the relationship between church and state, they held a generally shared conviction that the church has a God-given role in the life of the community at large that went beyond the need for evangelism. (This point is helpfully explored in relation to the influence of the so-called ‘High Calvinists’ of the Nineteenth Century by Ian Shaw and is illustrated also in 19th century Scotland in the ministries of Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow and Edinburgh.)

Reaction against the aberrations of what became known as the ‘Social Gospel’ in the early part of the 20th century led in many cases to a neglect of wider social responsibility by its end in many Nonconformist churches. Yet a significant part of their Puritan heritage lies in a concern for God’s truth to be applied to social and political concerns enabling Christians to function as salt and light in a dark and putrefying world.

The problem with much of the Puritan renaissance that swept through Britain in the last half-century is that it has embraced only a Reformed/Puritan soteriology – one that fails to grasp the grandeur and integrity of the world-life view of our spiritual forebears. (Interestingly, that stands in contrast to the corresponding renaissance that has taken place in American churches.) If there is to be a future under God for Nonconformity in Britain, we need to appreciate afresh the genius of this movement from its earliest days.

Mark Johnston is Pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. He will be preaching the closing sermon at this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01).
[An extract from Mark Johnston’s “The Future of Nonconformity” taken from the Foundations magazine Spring 2005, published by Affinity and reprinted with permission.]

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