Can We Be Frank About the Puritans For a Minute?

I think the time has come to stop licking the Puritans’ boots and get real: they weren’t all that.

Yes; the Puritan movement was an important one. Yes, for one brief, shining moment it revitalized the life of the church in England, but that movement was not the high point of the church’s existence. I take it as a given that second to the church’s first generation, every subsequent era marks a high point in an unfolding, organic history that dialectically develops against the grain of worldly resistance. Every era is marked by resistance of some sort, and its uniqueness is what gives the theologizing of that period its own unique trajectory and flavor. This is why I wholeheartedly agree with J.I. Packer when he writes,

Theologians are called to be the church’s water engineers and sewage officers; it is their job to see that God’s pure truth flows abundantly where it is needed, and to filter out any intrusive pollution that might damage health. [1]

Amen and amen! There was an historical moment in which the Puritans were raised up to perform this very task. Therefore, hear me when I say I am not opposed to the Puritans as such (I named my son after John Owen, for crying out loud!). What I am definitely opposed to is their repristination by the Calvinist resurgence within evangelicalism who I suspect (if they’re anything like me, anyway) feel insecure about their pedigree and look to the Puritans as a way to get grandfathered into some sort of tradition. The astronomical sales of Banner of Truth reprints bears witness to this. Having found the heroes they (and I really mean we, because this has definitely been me- I’m not trying to dodge that fact) think they (we) can insinuate ourselves amongst they (we) inevitably feel the anxiety of staking their (our) identities on the practices of some dudes who blew it on a number of issues. You can see this in the brouhaha that flared up a year ago when Puritan groupies slammed Propaganda for his song “Precious Puritans” which criticized their powdered-wig homeboys for the ungodly, shameful views some of them had on race. Why the reflexive, zero hesitation impulse to defend them, like a mother bear protecting her young? Because who we are is bound up with this inviolable conception of who they were. Martin Luther, in Thesis 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation, states that a theology of the cross calls a thing what it actually is; a theology of glory, on the other hand calls evil good and good evil. When we find ourselves constitutionally unable to own up to the shortcomings and failures of those who have influenced us, rest assured those influences have become idols.

So what are some of these shortcomings, and how have they trickled down to us? Barry Liesch fairly brings them to task:

The Puritans of sixteenth-and-seventeenth-century England, reacting against the theological and liturgical excesses of Roman Catholicism, banned from worship all use of images, all musical instruments, and even all hymns. Their worship was characterized by a severe simplicity, and they sang- or rather chanted- only unaccompanied psalms.

Many Christians in the arts believe that the Puritan reaction was a mistake, that in their zeal for purity the movement severely restricted the legitimate uses of the arts in worship, a practice that had its precedents in the Old Testament.

Ralph P. Martin summarizes the outstanding features of the Puritan tradition in this way:

‘a) The sole citerion was the written Word, found almost exclusively in the New Testament. The Old Testament was treated as belonging to the Jewish people whose worship, centered in the tabernacle and temple, had given way to a more spiritualized mode [2]. Moreover, only those items of worship that were specifically mentioned in the New Testament could claim authority [3]. Musical instruments, for example, were treated as distracting from “pure” worship. No room was given to innovation or to a sense of a developing tradition. Indeed, on the contrary, a stifling literalism effectively blocked any notion of creative spontaneity in the forms of worship to be employed.

b) The sermon was made the climax and culmination of the service. This led inevitably to a devaluing of other forms of worship, for example, the eucharistic [the Lord’s Table]. Even those parts of the service that were not strictly “preaching” or exposition were made the vehicle of instruction. Pulpit prayers were chiefly didactic in content and tone; and Scripture readings were interspersed with the preacher’s homiletical comments on the text. Congregational participation was reduced to a minimum, especially to the ministry of hymns or psalms singing.

c) The freedom of the Spirit was seen in the cultivating of worship from the heart and the stress on personal religion. Written prayers were frowned on if not roundly condemned, since it appears that the Puritan objection was to the exclusive use of the Prayer Book [4], thus denying free prayer. Sole reliance on prearranged orders of service was regarded as a quenching of the Holy Spirit…

d) By strange quirk, while the priesthood of all believers was cherished as a theological conviction and the concept of the church as a “gathered community” prevailed in theory, a Protestant clericalism developed, with the minister occupying a central and determinative role as leader and chief performer in the service. The preaching of one man in a raised pulpit took pride of place, and this arrangement reduced the worshipers to the level of an inert body of passive auditors.’

Martin adds:

‘The preacher’s rostrum became the church’s sounding board and the minister’s throne. This led to a style of worship that was heavily intellectualized and notional… When worship became excessively devoted to the ministry of the word [5], thus ignoring the human being’s many-sided personality which includes appreciation of visual art in architecture, painting, sculpture, and drama, something was lost.’

What Martin catalogs is zealotry gone awry. Roughly speaking, in the Reformation the Catholics took art and the Reformers took music. That is, the Protestants removed art and embraced a participatory form of musical expression while the Catholic Counter-Reformation embraced the art the Protestants negated. We even see signs of overreaction in the way the Protestants responded to music: in the Cromwellian era in England, the reformers took axes to the organs! [6]

What are we to make of all of this? Is it wrong to value a preaching ministry as the Puritans did? Absolutely not! Many churches sorely need a solid pulpit ministry with expositional teaching. In fairness to those who trace their roots to the Puritan tradition (or feel close to it, as I do), we want to express appreciation for their immense contribution to many aspects of church life and society- their intellectual vitality and sense of the transcendent in their sermons, and their outstanding efforts in systematic theology, for example. We would not want to fix blame for all that is “bad” about traditional evangelical worship on them or on the other Reformation movements. But we do want to encourage a strong congregational response. It should stand on a more equal footing with the preaching of the Word.

And what about the removal of art from worship? In the Puritans’ desire for a New Testament purity in worship did they not also throw out a rich heritage of Old Testament worship patterns? It seems so. What we are fundamentally questioning here is the Puritans’ position that simply worship (without the accoutrements of art) is necessarily better or more scriptural rather than a heartfelt option using the arts…

If we are to develop a complete philosophy of worship we must consult all of Scripture… There is more to Old Testament worship than the mere slaughtering of animals. There is genuine worship! There is more continuity in the underlying principles of biblical worship from Genesis to Revelation, more of a sense of a developing tradition than we Evangelicals in particular have previously appreciated. [7]

Does this all sound familiar? Most of our church practice anymore springs out of the Puritans’ severe austerity in style and the supreme importance they placed upon the sermon, the preacher, and the intellect. This has become ossified in the Evangelical tradition even where no obvious threads connect individual congregations to the Puritans. This stultifying vision of corporate worship is by and large the norm now, and no amount of haranguing from preachers to “enjoy worshiping the Lord!” will change the fact that this vision of what worship is blunts the dynamic power of what we see described in the Bible.

Packer admits that institutionalism was a pernicious consequence of Puritan practice: “Clericalism, with its damming up of lay initiative, was doubtless a Puritan limitation” [8], but hand waves it as superior to the “boiling up of lay zeal” with the Cromwellian Independents and Quakers (right as he no doubt is about the Quakers [9]) and leaves it at that, since, you know, “the Puritans’ ideals and goals for church life, which were unquestionably and abidingly right…” [10]. No, back up: I can’t sign on with that. The Puritan insistence on something close to theonomy [11], on the keeping of the Law, on heart preparation before turning to Christ in faith, and clericalism demonstrate that we shouldn’t let them dictate our theology or our ministries today.

Make no mistake: there are things we can learn from them- we just shouldn’t pretend that everything they wrote is something we need to learn. If you discover something valid in your reading of them, excellent- praise God. But we should not feel an incumbent indebtedness towards them, as though they were a school that needed to be learned in order for us to be good churchmen and women. The Puritan era was not a bottling up of heaven on earth or the ultimate revelation of God’s will for His church. We haven’t “fallen” from a Puritan state of innocence that needs to be recovered. They are not the standard we need to return to if we want to experience reformation and revival today. We’ve taken C.S. Lewis’ warning about chronological snobbery to heart in such a way that many of us reverse gears and pronounce anything from 1920 on as inherently inferior and irrelevant. Let’s not congratulate ourselves for ignoring what God is doing in the church right now. Heed Karl Barth’s admonition to his Gottingen students:

We can none of us simply reverse the change that came about in Protestant theology around 1600 and act like a Thomas or a Calvin. We are not allowed to imagine that we are at another point in history, and inevitably such imaginings can never be more than that. We adjust under protest, but we still adjust. [12]

Hero worship doesn’t translate into effective gospel communication in the present. Instead, let’s do theology and ministry here and now, appropriating the insights of those who preceded us, but never in an uncritical fashion. The legacy of the Puritans is not sacrosanct- lots of chaff needs separating before we can legitimately draw upon them. If we want to be faithful both to Scripture and the historical moment we find ourselves a part of, that is.


[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), p. 15

[2] This is so bizarre! The Puritans (and the tradition they inherited) tended to overemphasize continuity between Israel and the church while simultaneously holding Israel’s worship in contempt, often describing it as fit for children but not for heirs come to their majority. Here are some examples of this train of thought:

It was only permitted to the Jews as sacrifice was, for the heaviness and grossness of their souls. God condescended to their weakness, because they were lately drawn off from idols; but now, instead of organs, we may use our own bodies to praise him withal. Instruments appertain not to Christians.
-John Chrysostom, Homily on Psalm 149.

If God allowed bloody sacrifices on account of the childhood of men, why do you marvel if also the music of the kithara and psalterion was played?
-Isidore of Pelusium, Epistles.

Simply singing is not agreeable to children, but singing with lifeless instruments and with dancing and clapping; on which account the use of this kind of instruments and of others agreeable to children is removed from the songs in the churches, and there is left remaining simply singing.
-Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Questions and Answers to the Orthodox.

But our Church does not make use of musical instruments such as harps and psalteries, in the divine praises, for fear of seeming to Judaize. As the Philosopher says (Polit. viii, 6), “Teaching should not be accompanied with a flute or any artificial instrument such as the harp or anything else of this kind: but only with such things as make good hearers.” For such like musical instruments move the soul to pleasure rather than create a good disposition within it. In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal- so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises– and because these material instruments were figures of something else.
-Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Sheesh! These are further examples of men who contributed many good things to the church yet could still reach some pretty brain dead conclusions on important matters.

[3] As per that perennial bugbear of mine, the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship, which (ready for the delicious irony?) nowhere finds articulation in the New Testament. In fact, its basis was found 1) in the deaths of Nahab and Abihu for offering unprescribed fire and 2) an overzealous piety to root out everything that seemed even remotely Popish. The Regulative Principle claims that only those elements which are prescribed by Scripture (by command or example [a] (or “good and necessary consequence ” from the same)) are permitted for corporate worship and anything not so commanded etc. is prohibited [b]. Most churches (Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, and nondescript evangelical) adopt the Normative Principle more or less consciously (explicitly so in the first two; evangelical churches aren’t exactly renowned for their scrupulously thought out methodology [c]) which claims that whatever isn’t prohibited by Scripture is permitted in public worship so long as it promotes peace, unity, and edification.

[a] If you’re sharp you’ll notice a loose thread in this factor which undoes the principle’s own principle! More on that in a future post.

[b] So much Puritan zeal sprang out of John Knox’s simplistic fanaticism which decried anything without explicit New Testament warrant as idolatry (“All worshipping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry” [Works, Vol. III, pg. 34]). Knox’s infantile interpretation and brutal implementation aren’t good models for anyone, anywhere, period. Many Puritans thought otherwise, and we ought to bear that in mind when we make claims about “needing” the Puritans these days- they could be dimwitted bullies sometimes, just like their hero.

[c] Sorry guys, I’m not trying to rub it in your face, I swear! I’m one of you, but generally speaking that’s just the way it is. So by grace let’s take bruise on our egos and do something about it!

[4] i.e., the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer

[5] Martin here identifies “the ministry of the word” exclusively with the act of preaching, which I don’t agree with.

[6] Ponder that, organ only-ists out there! Your favorite instrument was denounced as carnal and unfit for the worship of God at one point in time!

[7] Barry Liesch, People in the Presence of God: Models and Directions For Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), pp. 122-125

[8] Packer, A Quest For Godliness, p. 27

[9] But seriously, Congregationalists and Baptists and Quakers together??? What the deuce-???

[10] Packer, ibid.

[11] The idea that the Mosaic Law ought to be the law of the land even now, meaning, cf. if I miss church on Sunday- off with my head, I guess. Or maybe just forty lashes save one… Either way, no flippin’ thanks! Oh, on top of that pragmatic reasoning is the fact that, you know, there isn’t a scrap of biblical warrant for it at all. But hey, whatevs.

[12] Karl Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), I:19


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