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Christian History Home > 1994 > Issue 41 > Theology On Fire

Theology On Fire
Puritans were not lukewarm about anything, let alone what they believed about God.
Dr. J. I. Packer is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of numerous books, including A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990). | posted 1/01/1994 12:00AM

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An English Puritan preacher once exhorted his people about their neglect of the Bible. One hearer reported how the preacher “personates God to the people, telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it, it lies … covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.’

“And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’

“And then he personates God again to the people: ‘Say you so? Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more … observe it more … practice it more, and live more according to it.’ ”

In response, the people broke down and were “deluged with their own tears.”

This anecdote takes us to the very heart of Puritanism—a passionate movement, and above all else, a Bible movement.

Guide to Holiness

America’s Puritans were English Puritans who had moved to “New England” in hope of achieving the corporate holiness in church and community that seemed unattainable in old England. For half a century, English Puritanism had sought further purging of England’s national church, plus spiritual renewal for all Englishmen. The Puritans desired that every person, activity, and relationship might become “holiness to the Lord.”

In this quest the Bible was both charter and chart.

Puritans, in their Christ-centered reading of Scripture, stressed the unity of the two testaments. They placed special significance on the Old Testament as giving God’s blueprint (apart from changes of detail) for a godly church-state. Christians were to order every part of their lives according to biblical principles.

The Bible was the Creator’s personal instruction to every reader, the recorded speech of the Holy Spirit. So all preaching had to be expository, with teaching and application. All sermons were to be memorized, with note-taking if necessary; “repeated” (gone over) at home; and meditated on thereafter.

Also, Christians should brood on Scripture constantly, applying all it says about relations between God and man. “I never yet observed any part of a Scripture … ” wrote John Cotton, that could not “be applied both with power and profit and delight to an honest heart.”

Most Puritans saw the sufficiency of Scripture as applying to church order. Typically, the New England clergyman had gotten into trouble in old England for requiring that all ceremonies in public worship have scriptural sanction, and for refusing to conform to some Prayer Book ceremonies because they lacked it. The New England congregations were thought of as Anglican at first, but this “regulative principle”—limiting church order to what Scripture directly sanctioned—changed things. The Prayer Book was not imposed, there were no bishops, and congregational church government became the pattern.

Good and Severe God

Puritans saw God scripturally as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished … ” (Ex. 34:6–7). Puritans found this combination of goodness and severity, love and holiness, judgment and mercy, both awesome and adorable.

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