Monday, October 16, 2017

A Plea for Puritans

Note: Today’s post was written by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri, a church he started over twenty years ago. We have known each other a long time. He has a depth to his ministry rare to find in this day and age. I am pleased to offer you his thoughts on the wisdom of reading the Puritans.In 1558, Elizabeth I became queen, and with her reign came the Golden Age of England which saw such history-altering events as the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the unsurpassed literary contributions of William Shakespeare. Elizabeth also continued the Protestant-leaning political reforms that her father Henry VIII had begun.

But for many Englishmen, the reforms didn’t go far enough – more work had to be done, more of the pope’s cobwebs needed pulling down from the corners of English churches. A new group, known as the Puritans, sought to purge all remnants of Roman worship from the English Church.

These Puritans were men whose spiritual convictions were descended from flint-faced martyrs like Wycliffe, Ridley, Latimer, Cranmer, Tyndale, and others. The Puritans, like their spiritual mentors before them, had faced such challenges as death, plague, war, imprisonment and banishment. The persecution they endured was not a Twitter maelstrom in cyberspace, but real death, real imprisonment, and real torture at the hands of real enemies.

But like any religious movement, the Puritans came in different flavors. Some favored a Presbyterian form of government while others championed congregationalism (the Independents). Many wanted to remain in the Church of England, but another similar group known as the Separatists sought for complete separation of church and state. The Puritans didn’t always agree with one another, they weren’t infallible in their opinions, and some of them retained the spirit of persecution – the state church goblin of the Old World that haunted English life even in the American colonies. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that the Puritans’ writings are a cut-above anything the English language has to offer in the area of theology and spirituality.

For the sake of simplicity, I won’t distinguish between Separatists, Puritans, Independents, etc. in the remainder of this essay. Although it isn’t as technically precise as some would require, I will use the term “Puritan” to refer to any author who was sympathetic to the core principles of Puritanism and wrote from the early 17th to mid 18th centuries – whether he be the Baptist John Bunyan or the New England Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards.

The purpose of this article is to answer the question “why should I read the Puritans?”
But answering that question begins by addressing the reverse: why aren’t more people (especially pastors and preachers) reading the Puritans today? It seems to me, from my conversations with others about this matter, that there are two reasons the Puritans go unread.

The first reason that the Puritans are largely ignored today is that many people simply are unaware of them. Most folks have never heard of John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, John Flavel, et al. When folks look for Christian books to read, often their first stop is the Christian bookstore. Other than a modernized version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Puritan pickings are slim at best – at times completely nonexistent. Self-help drivel, B-list celebrity Christian bios, and Amish fiction fill the shelves, but nary a copy of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ or The Privy Key of Heaven is to be found. Christian book stores are retail businesses, so they are servants to the master of supply-and-demand. The average American Christian would rather read Tim Tebow than Thomas Brooks. Christian retailers know this, and the typical inventory of a Christian bookstore is proof. So the Puritans will remain hidden from the view of the average Joe Schmoe Christian whose reading list is mostly dictated by popular culture.

The second reason the fruit of the Puritan field goes ungleaned is that, frankly, they are hard to understand. The modern-day reader struggles with 17th century English. The Puritans used more words than we do – and sometimes the same words differently. Even the updated versions of Puritan works can leave modern readers flummoxed. We are a hyper-distracted, over-stimulated, entertainment-saturated society – and one sentence by a Puritan writer feels like The Tale of Two Cities for many who can’t even sit still for a 2 minute cat video. For some, sitting down and reading Jonathan Edwards evokes the legal torture they endured in the Shakespeare unit of their 8th grade English class.
So, understandably, the Puritans go largely ignored. And I believe this is a tragic course that needs reversing. Why?

Because if we forget where we came from, we will make the same mistakes of the past. George Santayana, in his book Reason in Common Sense, famously put it this way: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And whatever your view of Baptist history may be, we can agree on this truth: modern Baptists, fundamentalists, and evangelicals are downstream of the Puritans. The same theological controversies we find ourselves embroiled in today have probably been addressed by the Puritans in some fashion, whether specifically and in detail or in generalities and raw principle. But we are forgetting our past, and so we are tragically condemned to repeat it. The great pendulum swing of this generation is to jump from the frying pan of their parents’ legalism and into the fire of liberal antinomianism. I can’t help but wonder if this gaping wound of the American Christian conscience, which seems to drain holiness from our pulpits and pews, could not be stymied if more preachers, pastors, and Bible college

students were familiar with Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity; or if maybe (just maybe!) this idolatry of church growth and this prevalent seeker-sensitive hogwash that has saturated nearly every denomination, Bible college, and seminary might be checked if Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor was more popular than Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church.

Read the rest of this essay at  Brennan’s Pen.

This essay is posted with the permission of the author.