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Is the Puritan Movement Dead-Ended? by Erroll Hulse

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Puritans & Puritanism

In a volume called ’77 Notts Untied’ Michael Smout draws attention to the absence of evangelical Anglican theologians. The National Evangelical Anglican Congress proved to be a very lightweight affair as far as theology was concerned. Their most accomplished theologian was little to the fore. Michael Smout describes J. I. Packer as the ‘lost leader sitting uneasily among the wreckage of the dead-ended Puritan movement’

In his letter published in this issue of Reformation Today Herbert Carson refers to that huge tract of land dividing Anglican evangelicals from their Nonconformist counterparts. It may be due to my inability to see clearly at such distances that I have not been able to notice that there had ever been a Puritan movement among present day evangelical Anglicans. If a train crashes to become a wreck it was because there was both a train and momentum. There may be isolated Puritans among the evangelical Anglicans but certainly not enough to form a carriage let alone a train.

Perhaps Michael Smout is thinking of the Puritan movement in general. If so we would neither think of it as a wreck or as dead-ended. Nowadays the term Puritan is used in a general sense to describe those who have rediscovered the biblical doctrines and practices of the Puritans and who seek to exemplify these in the reality of today’s world. While he did not follow the Puritan practice of preaching systematically through the books of Scripture, C. H. Spurgeon is esteemed a Puritan-one born out of time.

Nobody in our generation seems to be able to match J. I. Packer in the art of advocating and pronouncing with enthusiasm the advantages of learning from the Puritans. Ironically he himself has lacked the advantages of a pastoral charge. The Puritan values become alive in the living situation of the pastorate. Puritanism is a reality in weekly pastoral preaching and care. Many will testify to the wonderful help that has been afforded them through the rediscovery of the values exemplified by the Puritans. The strengths imparted are innumerable.

Dr. Packer wrote a foreword to the Puritan Conference papers when they were first printed for distribution to booksellers during 1959. What he said then of the 1958 Conference he has repeated almost word for word in the foreword of the recently published book, Introduction to Puritan Theology. In this volume the word ‘Puritan’ is employed in its broadest sense. The book includes the writings of archbishop Usher and bishop Jewell. The point of interest however is that Dr. Packer has not moved in his convictions from 1959 to 1977 as to the value of Puritan literature. What did he say in 1959 that he has repeated today? We will include the modern version.

It does not seem possible to deny that the Puritans (using the word in the broad and inclusive sense) were strongest just where evangelical Christians today are weakest, and their writings can give evangelicals more real help than those of any other body of Christian teachers, past or present, since the days of the apostles. This is a large claim, but there is a solid basis for it. Consider the characteristics of Puritan Christianity.

Here were men of outstanding intellectual power, in whom the mental habits fostered by sober scholarship were linked with a flaming zeal for God and a minute acquaintance with the human heart. All their work reveals this unique fusion of gifts and graces. Their appreciation of God’s sovereign majesty was profound; their reverence in handling His Word was deep. They understood the ways of God with men, the glory of Christ the Mediator, and the work of the Spirit in the believer and the church, as richly and fully as any since their day. Nor was their knowledge a mere theoretical orthodoxy. They sought to ‘reduce to practice’ (their own phrase) all that God taught them. They yoked their consciences to Scripture, disciplining themselves to demand a theological, as distinct from a merely pragmatic, justification for everything they did. They saw the church, the family, the state, the arts and sciences, the world of commerce and industry, along with the personal world and involvements of each individual, as so many spheres in which the Creator and Lord of all things must be served and glorified.

Then, too, knowing God, they also knew man. They saw him as essentially a noble being, made in God’s image to rule God’s world, but now tragically brutified and brutalised by sin. In the light of God’s law, lordship, and holiness, they saw sin in its threefold character: as transgression and guilt; as rebellion and usurpation; and as uncleanness, corruption, and inability for good. Seeing these things and knowing as they did the ways and means whereby the Spirit brings sinners to faith and new life in Christ, and leads saints to grow up into their Saviour’s image by growing downwards into humility and an increasing dependence on grace, the Puritans became superb pastors in their own day. By the same token, they can, though dead, yet speak to us for our guidance and direction.

For we evangelicals need help. Where the Puritans called for order, discipline, depth, and thoroughness, our temper is one of casual haphazardness and restless impatience. We crave for stunts, novelties, entertainments; we have lost our taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in our callings and in our prayers. Again, where Puritanism had God and his glory as its unifying centre, our thinking revolves round ourselves as if we were the hub of the universe. The hollowness of our vaunted biblicism becomes apparent as again and again we put asunder things God has joined. Thus, we concern ourselves about the individual but not the church, and about witness but not worship. In evangelising, we preach the gospel without the law and faith without repentance, stressing the gift of salvation and glossing over the cost of discipleship. No wonder so many who profess conversion fall away!

Then, in teaching the Christian life our habit is to depict it as a path of thrilling feelings rather than of working faith, and of supernatural interruptions rather than of rational righteousness; and in dealing with Christian experience we dwell constantly on joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction, and rest of soul with no balancing reference to the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or any of the burdens of responsibility and providential chastenings that fall to the lot of a child of God. The spontaneous jollity of the carefree extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, and jolly extroverts in our churches are encouraged to become complacent in carnality, while saintly souls of less sanguine temperament are driven almost crazy because they cannot bubble over in the prescribed manner. Whereupon they consult their pastor, and he perhaps has no better remedy than to refer them to a psychiatrist! Truly, we need help, and the Puritan tradition can give it.

If the values and advantages just cited are lost sight of today then we can well envisage the wreckage of a non-theological train at the end of the line somewhere in a wilderness! There was precious little theological content at NEAC. As Nonconformist enthusiasts we have every intention of learning every thing we can from the Puritans. We see no dead-end and we do not anticipate wreckage.

Let us turn now to another viewpoint, that of Charles D. Alexander. He writes in The Researcher (September 1977) under a heading-‘The Eclipse of the Puritan Hope’. Typical of his style he uses his bow to play a doleful yet impressive piece on deep bass. For brother Alexander the demise of Western Culture is synonymous with the demise of Christianity. He seems to think that the whole issue of future prosperity is impeded by drug-abuse, Soho, sodomy and the like. The presence of such abominations leads him to think that this is the time of the great and final falling away. The Antichrist is about to appear. Catastrophe is imminent. To talk about the latter day glory therefore is absurd.

While not wishing to minimise the degeneration of Western culture we will do well to keep a sense of proportion. The influence of the humanists in Britain has been out of all proportion to their real number. The Humanist magazine has a circulation considerably less than Reformation Today which is only one of countless journals devoted to the Gospel. We may not be typical but the power of the humanists in this part of the country is quite pathetic. There is one female voice, very voluble, but quite incomprehensible to the average person.

The steady increase of churches throughout the country where an expository ministry can be recommended seems to have missed the attention of Mr. Alexander. He also seems to be out of touch with the universities where the percentage of evangelical students is very encouraging indeed.

Not for one moment would we suggest that we are on the threshold of the millennium. (Any views we hold of that rest on Scripture alone and not on impressions received from the mass media.) Let us maintain a balanced outlook. Mr. Alexander at one time expressed great horror that a certain professor at a ministers’ conference should apparently have been addicted to that most obnoxious weed called tobacco! As far as we know the good professor did not quit the dreadful habit! With gratitude we observe too that Christianity has not collapsed as a consequence!

Furthermore we must avoid the notion that the future of the Gospel depends solely on its Western/English speaking constituency. Countries like South Korea have enjoyed a tremendous Gospel prosperity which, it would seem, outstrips us completely. And what about nations in the Communist bloc? Did not Christianity in its first expression thrive when everything was pitted against it? Did not the early Christians triumph in spite of all the Sohos referred to in Romans one, and in spite of the wrath of the Caesars? Fred Catherwood has expressed his views about the Gospel in Marxist countries. He said recently,

‘Of course Christians are particularly worried about Marxism because it happens to be an atheistic creed and therefore we know perfectly well that we couldn’t adhere to it and that if there were a Marxist State then we would be in difficulties. However, I think we’ve got to notice that Christianity is flourishing more strongly probably in Marxist countries now than it is almost anywhere else. Just incidentally, for instance, I talked to a Christian student who had a scholarship to an Eastern European country and I asked him how many people went to his Church and he said 800. So I said ‘You mean 800 members?’ so he said, ‘No, 800 people are there on a Sunday morning.’ And this was a provincial town, not a capital. I said, ‘Is that a particularly full church?’ and he said, ‘No, there is another Church where there are 600 and there is a Lutheran Church where there are 200, and of course there are the Catholic Churches as well’. So I said, ‘Who goes?’ and he said, ‘Well, it is said to be, of course, only for the working classes because intellectuals aren’t Christians.

But we do get intellectuals in as well. We had a doctor who looked after me and she is a very good doctor and we have other people like engineers’.

Sir Fred is speaking here of his impressions which can possibly be on the optimistic side. Careful surveys however have been made and these reveal that, far from dying, the Kingdom of Christ is very much alive in some Communistic countries, such as Russia where persecution and oppression have been rife.

We freely acknowledge that it is not Puritanism that will fill the earth. Biblical truth is destined to fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. Since Puritanism, as the term is used in a wide and popular sense, is pretty close to biblical truth, we should not be talking so pessimistically about its wreckage. Spurgeon referred in his early days to those who were intent on daubing up the windows of truth and who mocked Puritanism. But the day would come, said Spurgeon, when they would be confounded to see Heaven’s light breaking through once more. It has!

This article is taken from Reformation Today Magazine, no. 40, Nov-Dec 1977. The fact that it was written 20 years ago should make it all the more interesting as one compares his comments, and those of J.I. Packer, with the evangelical and Reformed scene today.