Review of J. I. Packer, Puritan Portraits

Inasmuch, as it is intended to introduce the uninitiated to “the Puritans” some cautions are in order

If to be a “Puritan” it was not necessary to be orthodox on justification, to agree on the nature of the church and her sacraments and any number of other related issues one is hard pressed to see how Packer could, nevertheless, claim that the “Puritans” were “theologically homogeneous” (p. 23) and that they had a “connected view of God, of the Bible, of the world, of ourselves, of salvation, of the church, of history and of the future” (p. 72). The “Puritans” as Packer himself describes them in this volume do not quite display that sort of unity.

 

J. I. Packer is a significant figure in a variety of circles. He is one of the last voices representing that generation of British evangelicalism hat had roots in the Reformation, that was articulate, warm, and evangelical in the best sense of the word. This 2012 invitation to the evangelical community to join him in appreciating and learning from the older English Reformed piety and theology comes as a series of introductions to British Reformed writers from the 17th and 18th centuries and an epilogue on the value of the Puritans as models for pastoral ministry.

Inasmuch, however, as it is intended to introduce the uninitiated to “the Puritans” some cautions are in order. First, the very designation “the Puritans” is a better marketing catch phrase than historical denominator. This is illustrated by Packer’s own conflicting account of the term. For example he notes that it was originally intended as an epithet and thus “the Puritans” did not use it of themselves (p. 12) but Richard Baxter, one of Packer’s favorites, thought of himself as a Puritan (p. 158). This is the problem of the writing about “the Puritans.”

Like modern “evangelicals” the more closely one looks at them the more they seem to disappear. Under one cover Packer presents Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Congregationalists as Puritans. So, they were not united by church polity. They were not united in their view of the sacraments, hermeneutics, or reading of redemptive history. As they say on Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the others.”

Richard Baxter (1615–91) does not belong in a collection of otherwise orthodox Reformed writers. He was decidedly heterodox on the doctrine of justification and was regarded so by John Owen (1616–83), whom Packer describes as one of the three greatest Reformed theologians (p. 81). Thus, apparently “the Puritans” were not united on that article that is of the “standing or falling of the church” (J. H. Alsted, 1618).

If to be a “Puritan” it was not necessary to be orthodox on justification, to agree on the nature of the church and her sacraments and any number of other related issues one is hard pressed to see how Packer could, nevertheless, claim that the “Puritans” were “theologically homogeneous” (p. 23) and that they had a “connected view of God, of the Bible, of the world, of ourselves, of salvation, of the church, of history and of the future” (p. 72). The “Puritans” as Packer himself describes them in this volume do not quite display that sort of unity. What is it, then, according to Packer that really unifies them? It was their “close communion” with God (p. 12) and their “deep sense of the reality of the holy God who impacts every life…” (p. 13).  There was, he argues, a “Puritan mind-set” (p. 26) that consisted in a commitment to doctrinal and ethical precision and thoroughness in their exposition of Scripture (pp. 23–26).

A volume entitled, A Variety of English Pastors with Varying Sympathies with the Reformation and United by Similar Method and Passion for Holiness would not be nearly as marketable as a volume on “The Puritans” but it would be more accurate. That it may be method as much as theology, piety, and practice that united these authors may explain why American evangelicals of diverse theological persuasions identify with “the Puritans” in one way or another.

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