Deconstructing Puritanism

In “Beware the Puritan Paralysis” Trevin Wax cautions us about a tendency to introspection. He makes a very important point:

Too many times, we dress up our introspection with flowery terms like “accountability” and “mortification” and “gospel-centered change.” Even if all these terms and concepts are good and needed, if our gaze is constantly inward-focused, then we are as self-centered as the Christian who is consumed with seeking personal pleasure apart from God.

To this we should all say “Amen!” Where we should dissent, however, is the broad brush with which British Reformed theology of the 16th and 17th centuries is painted.

The first problem is terminological. It was one thing for British Reformed writers to speak of themselves as “Puritans” and another for us to do it. Consider how difficult it is for us to define the noun “evangelical.” In Deconstructing Evangelicalism Darryl Hart has argued that there isn’t any such thing as “evangelicalism,” that there isn’t a sufficient number of commonalities to add up to a unified thing “evangelicalism.” If one wants to start an argument at the Evangelical Theological Society just give a paper reading popular “evangelicals” out of “the evangelical movement.” It was controversial to say that Clark Pinnock (who taught, among other things, that the future is genuinely open to God) is not an “evangelical.”

In a similar way, the universal “Puritan” may be deconstructed so that we need to be cautious about speaking about “the Puritans.” It was a more diverse movement than the expression “the Puritan” suggests. I don’t think it’s possible to speak about “the Puritan” view of very many things. Perhaps the one thing that united them all was a desire for sanctification but how many medieval monks were also deeply concerned about piety, sanctification, moral conformity to Christ, or even a mystical encounter with the risen Christ?

More particularly, there are historical problems in speaking about “the Puritan” tendency to unhealthy introspection. The claim that “the Puritans” were guilty of such has been challenged decisively by

Were there writers, in the British Isles, who identified with the Reformed tradition, in the 16th and 17th centuries who were excessively introspective? Sure. Were there writers in the same time and place who taught the faith in a way that was indistinguishable from the earlier Protestants? Yes. Is the picture so clear that one can safely write of “the Puritan” denial of assurance or introspection and the like? No.

Maybe we would do better in analyzing and speaking of the British Reformed writers of the 16th and 17th centuries as “confessional” and “non-confessional”? Wouldn’t this help us distinguish between the neonomianism of Richard Baxter and the truly evangelical theology of John Owen? The problem of unhealthy introspection has been a problem throughout the history of the church. Contrary to expectations, the early Protestants battled it. The moral crisis fostered by the English Civil War helped to facilitate both antinomianism in some quarters (which probably needs to be described more carefully than it usually is) and neonomianism (which often gets overlooked) in reaction.

One of the assumptions embedded in writing about “the Puritans” on introspection and assurance is that British Reformed writers were isolated from the continent and that simply isn’t the case. The fathers of English Reformed theology, e.g., William Perkins and William Ames were well read in the European Reformed writers of their period and they, in turn, were widely read by the Europeans. They all wrote in Latin, the universal academic language of the period. Dutch Reformed theology was deeply influenced by Perkins and Ames and I don’t think it’s possible to read them fairly and denounce them as unduly introspective and we don’t read much about the unhealthy introspection of the Dutch Reformed writers of the same period. The British and European Reformed writers in the period had no idea that there was any great theological chasm between them—because there was none.

The point of this post is not that we shouldn’t criticize British Reformed writers of the 16th and 17th centuries but rather than invoking dated, unhelpful, and misleading generalizations as if “everyone knows” about “the Puritans” let us speak about “this writer” or “that writer.” That will slow down our writing by making us go back to sources and to distinguish between this one and that one but that’s a good thing.

We should shun unhealthy introspection, any introspection that causes us to turn our eyes away from Christ to ourselves, that causes us to look to our sanctity rather than to Christ and his promises for assurance but we don’t need to invoke misleading caricatures in order to get that job done.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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    • Seems so, after all YRR should be YRr, since they are really only calvinistic/reformed in soteriology.

  1. Thank you for this post, it’s a great help in thinking through this. A couple of years back I was a bit wearied with reading some Puritans, particularly after reading sermons that included parts that read “sixteenthly thou may not be a Christian if…” I was thinking, dude, who in the world wouldn’t come away doubting their interest in Christ. However, as you mention many of these pastors were confessionally committed to preaching and I believe rightly apply Law and Gospel. Thomas Goodwin’s work on Christ Set Forth,etc comes to mind. I will say , in Christ the Lord Michael Horton makes a compelling case that many New England puritan types were very introspective often sounding more like they agreed with Trent rather than the reformers in their ministering to their congregation.

    • Hi James,

      No question that some British and Dutch (and German) Reformed writers, in their zeal to see believers grow in godliness, were perhaps overly precise and detailed in their moral theology. My point here isn’t to defend all “Puritans” everywhere but to urge us to be a little more precise. Thus we should speak about “this writer” and “that writer” without indicting the whole tradition.

  2. Anymore people love to make straw of the Puritans! Especially with Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, as modern American ‘evangelicalism’ (Should I use that word since there is no commonality as mentioned?) does not like the uses of sin, hell, and the like. Instead they are looked down upon as nothing but self-righteous legalists; and all this comes from people who’ve only been told what to think about them.

  3. Well said – there is far too much talk of “the” puritan view of this, that and the next thing, when historians can’t even define the term “puritan” to everyone’s satisfaction.

    That said, there is a biblical mandate to engage in self-scrutiny (“examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith”), which we need to distinguish from morbid introspection. 1 John is certainly recommending self-examination – but of a kind that takes us to the cross.

    Hart’s book on evangelicalism is brilliant. But I might add, for very similar arguments to his, that we may also need to deconstruct “Reformed”!

    • Crawford,

      I appreciate this.

      I quite agree re 1John.

      On deconstructing “Reformed,” Isn’t there a material difference between confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice on the one hand and “evangelical” on the other? The latter is not substantially unified around a set of ecclesiastically sanctioned documents that represent a genuine unity.

      • Thanks Scott.

        I’m just thinking out loud: but isn’t any attempt to deconstruct “Puritan” also necessarily trying to deconstruct “Reformed,” as the former is (at least partly) a subset of the latter?

        • Crawford,

          I might reverse the relations but it all goes back to definitions. If we define “Puritan” as “A Protestant who identifies with at least some aspect of the Reformed wing of the Reformation who desires a greater degree of piety and holiness among Christians” then it would be a broader movement than “Reformed” if the latter is defined as “A member of a church that confesses the same faith confessed in the great Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries” (e.g., Scots, 2nd Helvetic, Anglican Articles, Belgic, Heidelberg, Dort, Westminster).

          If we define “Puritan” more narrowly then everything changes. The problem with “Puritan” like “Evangelical” in our time is that it has no objective defining documents. That’s not true of “Reformed.”

          • Thanks Scott.

            Does your point here depend on the assumption that those who wrote these confessions believed themselves to be part of the same movement?

            The interesting thing is that the confessions you mention mostly take their point of departure from the early creeds, and not from each other. In fact, when the divines were called to Westminster, they were asked to revise the 39 Articles, but gave up and wrote their own confession instead.

            It’s also interesting that commentators on this thread identify the WCF as the epitome of English puritanism, when it was so quickly superseded and improved upon by the Savoy Declaration. (I dare not mention a later, and even better, revision!)

    • Crawford,

      FWIW, Dr. Clark has written a book called “Recovering the Reformed Confession” that talks quite a bit about what it means to be “Reformed”. You might say that Dr. Clark ‘deconstructs’ popular (mis)understandings of “Reformed” and then ‘contructs’ a definition that accords with scripture, history, and the Reformed Confessions. It is well worth reading.

      Peace in Christ.

      • Thanks, Tim. I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve read of it and look forward to completing it soon.

  4. Thanks Scott. I’m not sure I’m as optimistic as you would be about the possibility of locating objective defining documents for the “Reformed” identity – but I’m writing about this so won’t spoil the surprise!

    I would find aspects of the “Reformed” definition above too broad – eg it allows a member of the Church of England to claim the identity simply because they are a member of the Church of England – and too narrow – in that it bypasses those “Calvinistic” baptists who might also want to assume the identity. But you might have expected that!

    • Crawford,

      Nominalism is always a problem—for all traditions but it’s not a good reason for re-defining “Reformed.” I’ve never argued that polity is essential to being Reformed. Three polities were represented at Westminster and Dort.

      I realize that there was diversity within Reformed theology but if we compare the confessions created or sanctioned by the churches from the 16th century through the 17th century it’s very easy to see the tremendous degree of unity in theology, piety, and practice. In this regard it’s essential to distinguish between confessions as public, ecclesiastical documents and the the personal writings of various theologians that do not have ecclesiastical authority or sanction.

      There was little doubt in the classical period as to what the adjective “Reformed” meant. Certainly all the documents were saying essentially the same things about Scripture/revelation, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and sacraments.

      Question: is there an objective, stable definition of “Baptist”?

      • Thanks Scott.

        I think there is a stable, coherent definition of “baptist,” and it’s likely to be along the lines of someone who believes that baptism should be reserved for those making a profession of Christian faith.

        Would you be arguing that any c21st Christian whose convictions on any topic put them outside the consensus of the c16th and c17th Reformed confessions cannot legitimately claim the title “Reformed”?

  5. Dr. Clark,

    You wrote, “We should shun unhealthy introspection, any introspection that causes us to turn our eyes away from Christ to ourselves, that causes us to look to our sanctity rather than to Christ and his promises for assurance…” Could you help me understand how your statement coheres with 2 Peter 1:2-11. I don’t doubt that one should keep his eyes focused on the Lord Jesus, but I see Scripture texts that tell me that my sanctification is a barometer of the sincerity of my faith. Isn’t Peter telling us that by adding these virtues to our faith, we make our calling and election sure? If you could help me sort this out, I would be deeply grateful.

    • Hi Jim,

      By unhealthy introspection I had in mind Calvin’s instruction (Institutes 3.24.5):

      But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.

      By unhealthy introspection I mean trying to determine whether one is elect by examining the degree of sanctity. The Reformed confession never wants us to ask that question. We always ask, “Do I believe?” or better we start with the affirmation, “I believe” and from that we say “because I’m elect.”

      The rest of the answer is in the passage to which you refer:

      His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him fwho called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control kwith steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness lwith brotherly affection, and brotherly affection mwith love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you san entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

      Where does Peter start? With the divine power and promises. Flowing from God’s grace to us in Christ are virtues, which Peter describes. I take Peter to be warning the congregation against presumption. He is certainly not asking to determine whether we are elect by measuring the degree of our sanctity.

      If we get on that treadmill of misery, we shall never get off. How much sanctity is enough? Who says? On what basis? If we get on that that path then we should give up the Reformation altogether.

  6. Dr. Clark, wouldn’t it be correct to say that the Westminster Standards are the objective defining documents of Puritanism? It seems to me that they are the quintessential expression of Puritanism. They embody the Puritan belief, as expressed by Perkins and Ames, among others, that theology is the science of living unto God. The Confession and Catechisms teach Puritan theology and its application to heart and life.

    • Jim,

      It might but then we should have to persuade a lot of people to exclude a fair number of people from the category “Puritan” (e.g., Richard Baxter, who was a neonomian on justification) but that’s not the way the word is typically used.

      The Westminster Standards are the epitome of confessional, orthodox Reformed theology in the British Isles. Can we make “Puritan” = only those who identify with the Standards?

    • Dr. Clark is right.

      I don’t think many people want to argue that John Owen was not a Puritan, or that the Dissenting Brethren at the Westminster Assembly were outside Puritanism. If “Puritan” is restricted to those who can give strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, we’ve also rejected John Bunyan and declared Pilgrims Progress to be outside the Puritan fold. Also, Jonathan Edwards would have to be outside Puritanism since he spent virtually all of his career as a Congregational pastor in Northhampton and Stockbridge, apart from brief periods at the beginning of his pastorate in Presbyterian circles and the end of his life as president of what is now Princeton. I’m quite aware of Edwards’ letter to Presbyterians in Scotland politely declining a call to Scotland but saying he preferred Presbyterianism to independency, but he wrote that in the context of having been thrown out of Northhampton and not long after accepted a call to another Congregational church.

      A definition of Puritanism which excludes Bunyan, Ames, Owen, Burroughs, Cromwell, the Pilgrims, the founders of Massachusetts Bay, Mather, and Edwards is not a definition that makes much sense.

      • Would it make sense for us to admit that puritanism doesn’t exist as an “ism;” and that the puritan movement is simply impossible to define?

        Would is also help if we admitted that confessions don’t appear to be working the c17th in the way that we might expect?

        Interesting that when Owen and others attempt to construct a national platform for religious belief in the 1650s they don’t refer back to the WCF but make various attempts to draw up their own lists of “fundamentals.” It’s all weirdly familiar to the debates at the beginning of the c20th. Owen seems to have believed he had a common political purpose with Baxter (though he thought very little of him); and a common religious purpose with Bunyan (whom he greatly admired). Piety always trumps polity!

  7. Hi Crawford,

    I think there is a stable, coherent definition of “baptist,” and it’s likely to be along the lines of someone who believes that baptism should be reserved for those making a profession of Christian faith.

    This seems fair. If there is a stable definition of “Baptist” (as we agree there is) then why isn’t the definition of “Reformed” equally stable? Those Baptists who identified with important aspects of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice but who dissented from equally important aspects of the same did not originally call themselves “Reformed” precisely because there was an understood definition of the term. They were called Particular Baptists.

    As far as I know the use of the term “Reformed Baptist” is fairly recent. I haven’t tracked down its exact origins but in the American context it seems to have come into vogue in the 1950s partly through cooperation between Reformed folk with Particular Baptists during a time when the confessional differences weren’t being highlighted.

    Are their earlier uses of the term “Reformed Baptist”?

    Would you be arguing that any c21st Christian whose convictions on any topic put them outside the consensus of the c16th and c17th Reformed confessions cannot legitimately claim the title “Reformed”?

    In Recovering the Reformed Confession I argue that the confessions are not mere historical documents (though they are that). Rather, insofar as the Reformed/Presbyterian churches still confess them, they are living confessions by which we still summarize our faith. They aren’t mini-systematic theologies. They are constitutional documents. They identify us—that was their original purpose and, I argue, continues to be their intended purpose.

    When I was ordained to the ministry I took oaths before God and the church to uphold, defend, and teach that understanding of Scripture.

    So, the definition of “Reformed” is a significant ecclesiastical, theological, practical, and quite personal question for me.

    If we are to re-define “Reformed” so that it now includes those who affirm a certain covenant theology, hermeneutic, ecclesiology, piety, and practice and those who deny the same what becomes of those of us who believe the former and reject the latter?

    This is why I ask about a stable definition of “Baptist.” If we are to re-define “Reformed” then may we also re-define “Baptist”? All the Reformed folk I know believe in the baptism of hitherto unbaptized converts to the Christian faith. In that sense we agree with our Baptist brothers and sisters.

    Further, in a country where the evangelical movements are dominated by Baptists (99% of the 60 million American evangelicals are Baptistic), the identity of the Reformed/Presbyterian confessing minority is always in jeopardy.

    • Thanks Scott. On the first point, the reason may be that it’s much easier to define one theological practice than an entire system of theology. But of course some people are trying to re-define “baptist” – witness the trend among some presbyterians to take the label for themselves and refer to “baptists” as “anti-peado-baptists,” which is equally accurate but certainly harder to spell.

      I think you’re absolutely right with respect to dating the origins of the “Reformed Baptist” identity. The older “Particular Baptist” identity was much healthier for its adherents, I think. Good fences make good neighbours etc.

      My concern isn’t really with defending the “reformed” identity of Baptists, but rather with working out how someone who would not have been considered confessional by the original authors and subscribers can now be considered “Reformed” – particularly in view of the early modern consensus on the sacred duties of the civil magistrate vs recent two-kingdom theories.

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