On a narrow strip of the northern California coastline grow the giant redwoods, the biggest living things on Earth. Some are over 360 feet tall, and some trunks are more than 60 feet around. Some have actually been burned, but are still alive and growing. Many hundreds of years old, over a thousand in some cases, the redwoods are (to use a much-cheapened word in its old, strict, strong sense) awesome. They dwarf you, making you feel your smallness as scarcely anything else does. Thoughtlessly felled in California’s logging days, the redwoods have recently come to be appreciated and preserved, and redwood parks are today invested with a kind of sanctity. A 33-mile road winding through the redwood groves is fittingly called the Avenue of the Giants.
California’s redwoods make me think of England’s Puritans, another breed of giants who in our time have begun to be newly appreciated. Between 1550 and 1700 they too lived unfrilled lives in which, speaking spiritually, strong growth and resistance to fire and storm were what counted. As redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine as a kind of beacon, 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 in an anthill and puppets on a string. In Britain and America, the parts of the world that I know best, affluence seems to have been making dwarfs and deadheads of us all. In this situation, the teaching and example of the Puritan giants has much to say.
The ecclesiology and politics of the Puritans have often been studied, but only recently have Puritan theology and spirituality (that is, to use their own word, godliness) begun to receive serious scholarly attention. Only recently has it been noted that a devotional quickening occurred throughout the divided Western church during the century after the Reformation, and that Puritanism was a foremost expression (the foremost expression, I would contend) of this stirring. My interest in the Puritans is not merely academic (though it is not, I hope, less than academic), for the Puritan giants have shaped me in at least seven ways.
First, at something of a crisis time soon after my conversion, Nonconformist leader John Owen helped me to be realistic (that is, neither myopic nor despairing) about my continuing sinfulness and the discipline of self-suspicion and mortification to which, with all Christians, I am called. Without Owen I might well have gone off my head or got bogged down in mystical fanaticism, and certainly my view of the Christian life would not be what it is today.
Second, some years after that, Owen, under God, enabled me to see how consistent and unambiguous is the biblical witness to the sovereignty and particularity of Christ’s redeeming love. The theological implications of “he loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), and many other passages came clear to me, after some years of dalliance with what I now know to call Amyraldism, through a study of Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. I could have learned the same lesson in substance from Spurgeon’s sermons or Toplady’s hymns or Bernard of Clairvaux’s discourses on Canticles; but in fact, it was Owen who taught it to me, and it has marked my Christianity ever since. To get the love of Christ in focus changes one’s whole existence.
Third, the eminently practical theologian Richard Baxter convinced me that regular discursive meditation, in which, as he quaintly put it, you “imitate the most powerful preacher you ever heard” in applying spiritual truth to yourself, as well as turning that truth into praise, is a vital discipline for spiritual health. This was the unanimous Puritan view, and it is now mine, too. God knows, I am a poor practitioner of this wisdom, but when my heart is cold I do at least know what I need. In much current teaching about prayer, contemplation is “in” and talking to yourself before God is “out.” I am Puritan enough to think that this contemplative fashion is largely a reaction against devotional formalism, and that it owes as much to twentieth-century anti-intellectualism and interest in non-Christian mysticism as it does to Scripture, and that in cutting loose from the meditative manner of the Psalms, the Fathers, and the Augustinian heritage of which the Puritans are part, it loses without gaining. The contemplative style is not the whole of biblical prayer. At this point Puritan influence puts me out of step with my time, but much, I think, to my advantage.
Fourth, Baxter also focused my vision of the ordained minister’s pastoral office. As Warfield said of Luther’s Bondage of the Will, so do I say of Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor: Its words have hands and feet. They climb all over you; they work their way into your heart and conscience, and will not be dislodged. My sense of being called to preach the gospel, teach the Bible, and shepherd souls could have been learned from the Anglican ordinal that was used to ordain me, but, in fact, it crystallized out through my study of Baxter’s own ministry and his Reformed (we would say, Revived) Pastor. From student days I have known that I was called to be a pastor according to Baxter’s specifications, and my subsequent lecturing and writing have simply become for me ways in which I should fulfill that role.
Fifth, the Puritans have taught me to see and feel the transitoriness of this life, to think of it, with all its richness, as essentially the gymnasium and dressing room where we are prepared for heaven, and to regard readiness to die as the first step in learning to live. Here again is a historic Christian emphasis—patristic, medieval, Reformational, Puritan, evangelical—with which the Protestantism that I know has largely lost touch. The Puritans experienced systematic persecution for their faith; what we today think of as the comforts of home were unknown to them; their medicine and surgery were rudimentary; they had no social security or insurance; it was a world in which more than half the adult population died young and more than half the children born died in infancy, and where disease, distress, discomfort, pain, and death were their constant companions. They would have been lost had they not kept their eyes on heaven and known themselves as pilgrims traveling home to the Celestial City.
Dr. Johnson is credited with the remark that when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully. In the same way, the Puritans’ awareness that in the midst of life we are in death, just one step from eternity, gave them a deep seriousness, calm yet passionate, with regard to the business of living that Christians in today’s opulent, mollycoddled, earth-bound Western world rarely manage to match. Few of us live daily on the edge of eternity in the conscious way that the Puritans did, and we lose out as a result. For the extraordinary vivacity, even hilarity (yes, hilarity), with which the Puritans lived stemmed directly, I believe, from the unflinching, matter-of-fact realism with which they prepared themselves for death, so as always to be found, as it were, packed up and ready to go. The knowledge that God would eventually decide, without consulting them, when their work on earth was done brought energy for the work itself while they were still being given time to get on with it.
As I move through my own seventh decade, I am more glad than I can say for what Puritans like Bunyan and Baxter have taught me about dying. I needed it; the preachers I hear these days never get to it, and modern Christian writers seem quite clueless about it—save for C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, whose insight on this as on so much else is surely unique in the twentieth century.
Sixth, the Puritans shaped my churchly identity by imparting to me their vision of the wholeness of the work of God, which they called reformation (what we would more likely nowadays call renewal). Today, some conservative Anglicans (I speak as one of them) care about orthodoxy, some about liturgy and corporate life, some about individual conversion and nurture, some about aspects of personal sanctity, some about central and congregational structures, some about national moral standards, some about compassionate social witness, some about the reviving of piety amid Laodiceanism. But each of these concerns gets undermined and ultimately trivialized if it is not linked with all the others. Divided, they fall. The Puritans gave me a concern for all these things together, as all sustaining each other, and all bearing on the honor and glory of God in his church.
I could have learned this ideal of overall evangelical renewal from England’s still unappreciated reforming genius Thomas Cranmer or from the nineteenth-century colossus J. C. Ryle; but, in fact, I got most of it from the Puritans, and principally from the would-be Anglican and reluctant Nonconformist Richard Baxter. Following this gleam as a reforming Anglican has sometimes put me in places where I seemed not to be in step with anyone, and I do not suppose that my judgment on specific questions was always faultless; but looking back, I am sure that the comprehensive, nonsectarian lead that Baxter gave me was the right one.
Seventh, the Puritans made me aware that all theology is also spirituality, in the sense that it has an influence, good or bad, on its recipients’ relationship or lack of relationship to God. If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both. If it does not encourage the commitment of faith, it reinforces the detachment of unbelief. If it fails to promote humility, it inevitably feeds pride. So one who theologizes in public, whether formally in the pulpit, on the podium, or in print, or informally from the armchair, must think hard about the effect his thoughts will have on God’s people and other people.
Theologians are called to be the church’s water engineers and sewage officers; it is their job to see that God’s pure truth flows abundantly where it is needed, and to filter out any pollution that might damage health. The sociological remoteness of theological seminaries and university faculties of theology from the true life of the church makes it easy to forget this, and the track record of professional teachers in these units has in my time been distinctly spotty so far as concerns their responsibility to the church and the world. In fact, anyone could learn the nature of this responsibility from the Fathers, or Luther, or Calvin, or even, in his own funny fashion, Karl Barth; but it was given to me to learn it through watching the Puritans put every “doctrine” (truth) they knew to its proper “use” (application). It seems to me that by virtue of this Puritan influence, all my theological utterances from the start, on whatever theme, have really been spirituality (i.e., teaching for Christian living), and that I cannot now speak or write any other way. Am I glad? Frankly, yes. It is a happy inability to suffer from.
What Makes Them Giants?
I have compared the great Puritans to giant trees; I have implied that they were saints of great stature, showing up the characteristic pygmyhood of present-day believers in the West. What was so outstandingly grand scale about them to merit this verdict? Here are four specifics, stated in general terms.
First, these Puritans were great thinkers. The Puritan movement was led mainly by ministers, and most of the leaders among the ministers were brilliant and articulate polymaths from the universities. (Baxter and Bunyan are the significant exceptions, and Baxter became a polymath beyond most, even though he was not a university man.) The age was one of intellectual ferment, and Puritan teachers had to be abreast of many things—biblical exegesis, which was being practiced at a much higher level of competence than is usually recognized; the ins and outs of Reformed theology as it was debated and written about, usually in Latin, in the large volumes that continental divines produced so prolifically; the Roman, Arminian, and Socinian controversies, plus the aberrations of the sects; and, above all, the heritage of practical, pastoral, devotional theology that Greenham, Perkins, and their followers had begun to develop.
The leading Puritan theologians all achieve a massive, adoring simplicity when speaking of God that argues intense reflective study, deep and prayerful Christian experience, and a sharp sense of responsibility to the church corporately, to their hearers and readers individually, and to the truth itself. Luther’s dictum that the three things that make the theologians are prayer, thinking in God’s presence, and conflict, outward and inward, seems to find verification in the great Puritans. As you read, you feel a power of thought and a spiritual authenticity in their writings that is matched by very few. By comparison, a great deal of Christian communication in our own day is made to appear shallow, simplistic, and sloppy.
Second, these Puritans were great worshipers. The Puritans served a great God, the God of the Bible, unshrunk by any of the diminishing and demeaning lines of thought about him that press upon us today. The only forms of God-shrinking in the Protestant theology of the Puritan age were Arminianism, which limited God’s sovereignty, and Socinianism, which in addition to doing that denied the Trinity and internal grace; and the Puritans repudiated both these views quite violently. For Scripture had given them a vision of the transcendent Creator who rules and speaks, the God from whom, and through whom, and for whom are all things, in whom we live and move and exist, the holy God who hates sin and judges it, and yet out of incomprehensible love has sent his Son to bear sin’s curse on the cross so that guilty sinners might be justly justified and saved.
Also, Scripture had shown them Christ the Mediator now glorified and reigning, and effectually calling blind, deaf, spiritually dead souls to himself by his Spirit’s secret agency, as God’s human messengers—pastors, parents, friends, and neighbors—labored to instill in them the message of law and gospel.
Finally, Scripture had told them of God’s everlasting covenant relation ship with believers—that total commitment on his part that guarantees blessing for eternity and entitles Christians to call on their Creator as “my God, my Father,” just as each of them calls on Jesus as “my Savior, my Lord, and my God.” The Westminster Confession is a Puritan statement of faith, and it is no accident that it is a classic embodiment of covenant theology. The Puritans’ perception of the glory and greatness of God, of Christ, and of the covenant of grace thrilled their hearts, and produced in them an ardent, overflowing spirit of worship that, when time did not press, led pastors to pray extempore in their services for up to an hour at a time.
It is a fact of Christian history that those who are consciously worshiping a great God do not find that worship services lasting two or three hours are a bore; on the contrary, they are experienced as a joy. That was true in the seventeenth century, as it is true today. By comparison, the modern Western passion for services lasting not more than 60 minutes raises the suspicion that both our God and our own spiritual statures are rather small.
Third, these Puritans were great hopers. One strength of the Puritans, setting them apart from Western Christians today, was the firmness of their grip on the biblical teaching about the hope of heaven. Basic to their pastoral care was their understanding of the Christian’s present life as a journey home, and they made much of encouraging God’s people to look ahead and feast their hearts on what is to come.
The Classic works here are Richard Baxter’s massive The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, written to show how the hope of glory, analyzed by biblical study and internalized by meditation, should give believers energy and direction for present living, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, both parts of which reach their climax with triumphant passages through Jordan to the Celestial City. The vividness of the vision of heaven in both Baxter and Bunyan is remarkable by any standards; sanctified imagination gives concreteness and color to theological perception, resulting in extraordinary power to convey the flow of glory to the Christian heart. The Puritan point was that Christians should know what their hope is and draw from it power to resist whatever discouragements and distractions present circumstances may produce. The unreadiness for pain and death that Western Christians too often reveal today contrasts unhappily with the realism and joyful hope that the Puritan masters inculcated in order to prepare the saints to leave this world in peace.
Fourth, these Puritans were great warriors. The Puritans saw the Christian calling as, from one standpoint, an unending fight against the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and programmed themselves accordingly. “His whole life he accounted a warfare,” said Geree of the old English Puritan, “wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears.”
One of the classics of Puritan literature is William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour; A Treatise of the Saints’ War against the Devil: Wherein a Discovery is made of that grand Enemy of God and his People, in his Policies, Power, Seat of his Empire, Wickedness, and the chief design he hath against the Saints. A Magazine Opened, From when the Christian is furnished with Spiritual Arms for the Battle, helped on with his Armour, and taught the use of his Weapon: together with the happy issues of the whole War. Spurgeon described this 800,000-word work as “peerless and priceless,” and John Newton said he would choose it if he could only read one book beside the Bible.
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a story of almost constant fighting, and the ideal Puritan pastor, Mr. Great-heart, who acts as guide, instructor, and protector to Christiana’s party, is cast for the role of giant killer as well, fighting and destroying giants Grim, Maul, Slay-good, and Despair.
The Puritans fought for truth against error, for personal holiness against temptations to sin, for ordered wisdom against chaotic folly, for church purity and national righteousness against corruption and hostility in both areas.
What can Christian people today learn from the Puritans? Much in every way. I believe that in the providence of God some ages have special messages for other ages. I thus affirm that as the New Testament era provides a model for the life of all churches and Christians everywhere, so the Puritan era has many particular lessons to teach today’s Western Christian world, even as it has taught me. Those who taste will see.
J. I. Packer is Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He is the author of many books, including Knowing God. His newest book, published in September, is A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.
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