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An Interview on ‘A Puritan Theology’

Category Book Reviews
Date March 1, 2013

Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst.

In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer a substantial gift to the church. An ‘overview of Puritan thought concerning Scripture’s major doctrines, historically and systematically considered,’ this ground-breaking volume covers fifty areas of doctrine, highlights the work of numerous theologians, and concludes with eight chapters exploring Puritan ‘theology in practice.’ After all, the authors write, the ‘distinctive character of Puritanism was its quest for a life reformed by the Word of God.’

Given that no previous work has ever woven the threads of Puritan teaching into a unified tapestry of systematic theology, A Puritan Theology is a remarkable achievement.

I corresponded with Beeke and Jones about where the Puritans are most and least helpful, where we might be more prudish than they were, whether they’re good preaching models, and more.

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-centred preaching is so popular today. Even expository preaching can also go astray if it loses sight of Christ as the centre 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 co¬science. Thomas Goodwin, for example, gave up fame — he was quickly advancing in theological circles — and moved to the Netherlands, 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 got 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.

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 Prophesying1), 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 (Westminster Confession of Faith,2Westminster Larger Catechism, Westminster Shorter Catechism3). 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).

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,’4 hugely influenced how I understood the person of Christ. Second, John Owen’s work on the Holy Spirit (vol. 3 in his Works5) 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’sThe Existence and Attributes of God6 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 Progress7 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’sChrist Our Mediator. I learned more about my Saviour 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 books, 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,8 John Flavel’s Triumphing over Sinful Fear,9 and William Greenhill’s Stop Loving the World.

Several other Puritan works are available in the ‘Puritan Paperbacks’ series [Banner of Truth]. We’d especially commend Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.10

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.11

Notes

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      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]

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      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]

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      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]

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      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]


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      Avg. Rating

      Description

      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]


    • price $9.00 $8.10
      Avg. Rating

      Description

      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]

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      Avg. Rating

      Description

      Matt Smethurst, who serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewed Dr. Joel Beeke and Dr. Mark Jones on their newly published A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. The three introductory paragraphs are also written by Smethurst. In A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage Books), Joel Beeke and Mark Jones offer […]

Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Mark Jones is pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Reprinted with permission from the February 2013 issue of The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth. Notes added.

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