Why we need the Puritans, by J.I.Packer (Part 3 of 4)

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The foregoing celebration of Puritan greatness may leave some readers skeptical. It is, however, as was hinted earlier, wholly in line with the major reassessment of Puritanism that has taken place in historical scholarship. Fifty years ago the academic study of Puritanism went over a watershed with the discovery that there was such a thing as Puritan culture, and a rich culture at that, over and above Puritan reactions against certain facets of medieval and Renaissance culture. The common assumption of earlier days, that Puritans both sides of the Atlantic were characteristically morbid, obsessive, uncouth and unintelligent, was left behind. Satirical aloofness towards Puritan thought-life gave way to sympathetic attentiveness, and the exploring of Puritan beliefs and ideals became an academic cottage industry of impressive vigour, as it still is. North America led the way with four books published over two years which between them ensured that Puritan studies could never be the same again. These were: William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism*; A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty** (Woodhouse taught at Toronto); M.M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism***; and Perry Miller, The New England Mind Vol I; The Seventeenth Century****. Many books from the thirties and later have confirmed the view of Puritanism which these four volumes yielded, and the overall picture that has emerged is as follows.

Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement, passionately concerned with God and godliness. It began in England with William Tyndale the Bible translator, Luther’s contemporary, a generation before the word ‘Puritan’ was coined, and it continued till the latter years of the seventeenth century, some decades after ‘Puritan’ had fallen out of use. Into its making went Tyndale’s reforming biblicism; John Bradford’s piety of the heart and conscience; John Knox’s zeal for God’s honor in national churches; the passion for evangelical pastoral competence that is seen in John Hooper, Edward Dering and Richard Greenham; the view of Holy Scripture as the ‘regulative principle’ of church worship and order that fired Thomas Cartwright; the anti-Roman, anti-Arminian, anti-Socinian, anti-Antinomian Calvinism that John Owen and the Westminster standards set forth; the comprehensive ethical interest that reached its apogee in Richard Baxter’s monumental ‘Christian Directory’; and the purpose of popularising and making practical the teaching of the Bible that gripped Perkins and Bunyan, with many more. Puritanism was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival; and in addition – indeed, as a direct expression of its zeal for God’s honor – it was a world-view, a total Christian philosophy, in intellectual terms a Protestantised and updated medievalism, and in terms of spirituality a reformed monasticism outside the cloister and away from monkish vows.

The Puritan goal was to complete what England’s Reformation began: to finish reshaping Anglican worship, to introduce effective church discipline into Anglican parishes, to establish righteousness in the political, domestic, and socio-economic fields, and to convert all Englishmen to a vigorous evangelical faith. Through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and the sanctifying of all arts, sciences, and skills, England was to become a land of saints, a model and paragon of corporate godliness, and as such a means of blessing to the world.

Such was the Puritan dream as it developed under Elizabeth, James, and Charles, and blossomed in the Interregnum, before it withered in the dark tunnel of persecution between 1660 (Restoration) and 1689 (Toleration). This dream bred the giants with whom this book is concerned.

Notes

* William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (Columbia University Press: New York, 1938)

**A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty (Macmillan: London, 1938)

***M.M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago University Press: Chicago, 1939)

****Perry Miller, The New England Mind, Vol I; The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1939)

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