Part 1: The Delights and Pains of Puritan study
Here begins a several part study on building (and using) a Puritan library of your own. Of all the areas of my library, the Puritan section is the most useful.
The “Puritans” are a group of people I (very) loosely define as faithful Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as those who carried on the Puritan tradition into the 18th and 19th centuries. My definition includes John Bunyan and John Owen (true Puritans), Jonathan Edwards (post-Puritan), and Charles Spurgeon (who carried the Puritan tradition). Other names you may not be familiar with include Brooks, Boston, Burgess, Sibbes, Flavel, Reynolds, Ames, Manton, Rutherford, Newton and Clarkson. You will become more familiar with the names as we continue on.
This series is based upon two fundamental convictions.
First, the church today benefits most from leaders and preachers who are burdened to present expositional messages – sermons drawn from principles clearly demonstrated in scripture. The preacher is to “preach the Word” by taking every precaution in the name of accuracy and then exhorting and encouraging by earnest application.
Secondly, an efficient and workable library of the best Puritan literature is a great way to faithfully preach and apply scripture to the hearts of your hearers. The Puritans are no substitute for careful exegesis and use of contemporary commentaries. But once the foundational research is complete, the Puritans will open up new threads of understanding and application on your text. Pastors and congregations today truly need the Puritans.
J.I. Packer once wrote, “the great Puritan pastor-theologians – Owen, Baxter, Goodwin, Howe, Perkins, Sibbes, Brooks, Watson, Gurnall, Flavel, Bunyan, Manton, and others like them – were men of outstanding intellectual power, as well as spiritual insight. In them 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 displays this unique fusion of gifts and graces. In thought and outlook they were radically God-centered. Their appreciation of God’s sovereign majesty was profound, and their reverence in handling his written word was deep and constant. They were patient, thorough, and methodical in searching the Scriptures, and their grasp of the various threads and linkages in the web of revealed truth was firm and clear. They understood most richly the ways of God with men, the glory of Christ the Mediator, and the work of the Spirit in the believer and the church. And their knowledge was no mere theoretical orthodoxy…”
The delights of Puritans
I would not be writing this series if I were not personally acquainted with the great fruitfulness of Puritan study. The Puritans have matured my understanding of God, the Christian life, the idols of my heart, marriage and parenting. I have a deeper appreciation for the Cross, grace and the resurrection because of their words.
And here are a few other delightful benefits from the Puritans…
1. Cohesive biblical wisdom. As you can already see, the Puritans are an incredible source of biblical insight and application. They were skilled at seeing the big picture of the Christian life and then breaking that picture down into its various facets and details. Each sermon and every detail was presented in light of the big biblical themes and tied back to God Himself. What you will see in the coming weeks is that (as Packer would say) we “need” the Puritans. Even to this day there are no substitutes for their wisdom and perception in drawing us back to the big picture of God.
2. Well outlined sermons. Typical Puritan sermons provide the greatest help in my expositional research. These sermons are well outlined and very easy to navigate. Typically the whole purpose of the sermon is summarized in one nifty sentence towards the beginning of the sermon. And because these sermons are so well-organized, you can sift through them fairly quickly.
The pains of the Puritans
I won’t mislead you, there are a few pains involved in Puritan research.
1. Old words and Roman numerals. Four hundred year old literature comes with difficulties. There are words that are no longer in use today. And don’t think you can get along without memorizing Roman numerals. These are critical when you are researching Psalm lxxiii and verse 25. Be prepared to read a few sentences two or three times. Patience is important.
2. Puritan sermon style. There are some great Puritan commentaries. But for me, the most useful Puritan literature are the printed sermons (this series will focus specifically on these sermons). A typical Puritan sermon covers just one verse and rarely in the context of a broader book study. So here is the rub: The contemporary researcher (preaching through an entire book like Ephesians, for example) will need to collect and have a proper index to find Puritan literature on a given verse or topic. This is no small challenge and thankfully there are researchers who have given us great resources here (and some for free!). But if you can master this problem, and I will show you how, a library of Puritan sermons will come alive.
3. Errors. We must be on guard against the error of thinking that the Puritans were infallible. The Puritans had their errors. But this is the glory of old books. As C.S. Lewis once said, the errors in old books are easier to see than the errors in new books. Old errors are less deceptive, just as hindsight is 20/20.
For the delights and the pains, there are no substitutes for the Puritans. For every sermon I consult my trusted Puritan friends and grow from their wealth of wisdom and unparalleled seriousness with the bible. They will stretch you, challenge you and keep you accountable. But most importantly, they will cast a stern eye when you feel the pressure to compromise the biblical message.
Next time… Part 2: The Rules of a Puritan Library
Click here to access all posts in the The Puritan Study series.