I just finished listening to an iTunes U Course by J.I. Packer titled History and Theology of the Puritans (iTunes link). It’s one of the best and most impactful courses I’ve ever taken, as you might imagine, given the topic and the presenter. I can’t believe it’s available for free! I recommend it without reservation.
Here are my top takeaways from it. These aren’t necessarily the most important points, but they’re the ones that had the most impact on me personally. (Incidentally, my full notes on the course are available on my theology wiki.)
- The important thing in ministry is faithfulness, not measurable success. Packer describes Richard Greenham, a Puritan pastor whose model for counseling and personal ministry was very influential. Ministerial candidates came from all over England to learn from him. All of the visitors who came to learn from him were deeply impacted – but almost nobody in the church he pastored was impacted themselves. This hit home for me because I’ve always had a desire to pass on leadership skills I learn to others. I assumed, why would anyone want to learn from me if I’m not having measurable success in my own ministry? So this reinforced my tendency to see myself as a failure if I didn’t have measurable success. But, now, I realize that God can still use me to impact others’ ministries even if the people I’m ministering to aren’t affected. Now, it’s true that people can be impacted without my knowing about it – but this is more deeply encouraging to my fears. Even if the people aren’t impacted at all, God can still use me to help other ministers. And, realizing this, I also realized that, even if God doesn’t use me to help other ministers either, there is still value in doing ministry in a Godly way in and of itself – God enjoys it and is glorified by it.
- “Ripping up the conscience.” In the Puritan view, the conscience is a part of your own reason (not some mystical being or anything) – but the strange thing about it is that it seems to operate independently of you. It stands as judge over you. They believed that it was appointed by God, and that you needed to obey it. The problem is that a wrongly instructed conscience will make wrong judgments. So obeying a wrong conscience is sin, because you disobey God’s Word, but disobeying a wrong conscience is also sin, because God appointed your conscience for you to obey it. The only way out of this catch-22 is to train your conscience by the Word, so that it will make right judgments. So, in other words, sanctification is not just about forcing yourself to not do the sins your conscience says is OK, but also training your conscience so that it will start saying they’re wrong! The way you do this, in Puritan thinking, is by what they call “ripping up the conscience:” by studying and meditating and thinking through applications, increasing your conviction of the sin you approve, to sensitize your conscience to the truth of scripture. This is incredibly helpful to me because, as a Christian hedonist, I don’t want to just obey God’s commands – I want to love them (and to love all the things of God). Ripping up the conscience gives me a practical way to move beyond willpower in obeying, in order to really work on my heart (and ask God to work on it).
- Supralapsarianism did not cause the Puritans’ problematic views on salvation. Packer listed a number of problems with the Puritans’ view of salvation, including a denial of the “whosoever will” promises, no assurance upon believing but only upon seeing fruit, a denial of the fact that God is essentially love, and a sense of God’s election as arbitrary, frightening, and chilling. He attributed these problems to the fact that most Puritans were supralapsarian, and he asserted that infralapsarianism addresses all of them. However, I wasn’t convinced by this. Having come from a non-Calvinist background, I’d come across most of these issues as difficulties with Calvinism as a whole, regardless of your lapsarian view – and the solutions (whether the ones I found myself, or the ones Packer suggested) seem to apply equally well to supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. So I can be confident that, whatever problems I see with the Puritans’ view of salvation, changing my lapsarian view does not seem necessary or helpful.
- The Puritans were a unified movement that included views we now call Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist. This is helpful for me to understand my heritage as an English-speaking Christian who is both Reformed and Baptist. The Puritans had remarkable unity on most points of theology, and some of the only few they differed on are church structure and baptism. That’s why, after the Westminster Standards (confession, catechism, and directory) were written to try to encompass as many Puritan views as possible, the Congregationalists happily took the majority of the confession and only changed a few parts to create the Savoy Declaration, and the Baptists did the same to create the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Although I don’t agree with everything in these documents, I find the 1689 Confession to be probably the confession to which I can find the most agreement. It’s exciting to learn just how much Presbyterians share with that, and the unity the Puritans felt despite these real differences is a challenge to me to do the same.