Review of J. I. Packer, Puritan Portraits

packer-puritan-portraitsJ. I. Packer is a significant figure in a variety of circles. He is one of the last voices representing that generation of British evangelicalism that 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.

We should be thankful that Packer reminds us that R. T. Kendall fundamentally misunderstood William Perkins (p. 153) but the reader will lament that Packer perpetuates the stereotype about “rationalistic” supralapsarianism (pp. 154–55).

Finally, the author’s more than half a century of enthusiasm for Baxter manifests itself in another way: his strange account of the English Reformed assessment of Rome. He rightly says that Reformed thought of Rome as a “false religion” (pp. 18–19) but when he says, “Roman Catholicism as they knew it, or thought they knew it” (p. 19) he implies that the Perkins et al. were mistaken in their assessment. “Rightly or wrongly, Puritans generally saw the Roman Catholic Church as embodying the principle of justification by meritorious works….” Perhaps they thought such because Rome declared that doctrine to be dogma at the Council of Trent in 1547? The reader should do his own reading and start with William Perkins’ 1597 treatise, A Reformed Catholic, where he carefully lays out the areas of agreement between where Rome and the Reformed and then just as carefully explains how the Reformed are the genuine heirs of a truly catholic (universal) Christian faith and how Rome degenerated into sectarianism.

Apart from the Evangelicals and Catholics Together episodes, J. I. Packer has served us all well for a very long time. Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) Knowing God (1973) and other titles have offered us paths back to Reformed theology and piety. The latter was particularly influential upon the present reviewer. I had never read a book like it. That book was my bridge from the theology and piety of American revivalism to the Reformation. The present volume is typical Packer: warm, well-written, and engaging. It does its job of enticing the reader to read “the Puritans” for himself, to pray while he studies and to study while he prays.

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  1. I agree Packer is far too broad in his definition of Puritan, but how narrow would you say the definition has to be? Are you going to tell us that a certain Puritan said that he would gladly give up all his learning in order to be able to preach like a certain Non-Puritan? Incidentally, this Non-Puritan’s supralapsarianism was supradestinarian (That condemned by the Synod of Dort was, I think, infradestinarian).

    • J. R.,
      Maybe we should just realize that ‘puritan’ is a word that no longer (if it ever did) has a specific definition for any useful purpose, especially as we look back into history. Kinda like “evangelical” – define that category so that includes all who claim it…

    • Really John Bunyan wasn’t a Puritan, he’s often made out to be a puritan of Puritans!
      Technically a Puritan was someone within the Established Church of England, who
      while seeking to maintain it’s Unity, nevertheless sought to bring its Doctrine, Worship,
      Discipline & Government into greater conformity with the Word of God & the Reformed
      Churches on the Continent. That would probably then rule out Independents, Brownists
      & all Baptists as they would by their Church Polity be regarded as separatists, & thus
      schismatical & sectarian by there very nature.

      What is a supradestinarian? is that a higher than high Supralapsarianist, if your’e going
      to make up new Theological terms than you will have to provide a definition that goes
      with that!

      Though there is nothing wrong with being a Supralapsarian as the Apostle Paul was one!
      For when he says in Romans 9:11 For the children being not yet born, neither having done
      any good or evil; He is saying that God made a discrimination between Jacob & Esau in an
      Pre-Lapsarian or Supralapsarian decree because without either having sinned, they could
      not have been foreseen as having been Fallen, neither was any good work foreseen thus
      eliminating any Foreseen Faith as a ground of Election, and thus blowing the arminian free
      will theory’s dust to a thousand winds.

    • Thank you, Robert. Your definition of what a Puritan is “technically” virtually cuts out the entire Scottish people group. I suggest you revise it before we discuss it further.

      Maybe I should have used my original term, Suprainfernarian, rather than Supradestinarian. Basically it means that God subdivides humanity into elect and reprobate, irrespective of whether there is going to be a Hell or not. With Bunyan (His authorship of “Reprobation Asserted” has been questioned, but George Borrow gives an initial publication date well within Bunyan’s lifetime), election is for some other unidentified purpose and reprobation is merely the passing by of the non-elect with regard to that purpose. George Ella identified that purpose as Union with Christ (letter to the English Churchman, in which he also contradicted me, claiming that Bunyan was sublapsarian), whereas Richard Wurmbrand, in one of his writings, quoting an unnamed “Orthodox Church Father”, identified it as incorporation into the Bride of Christ. The consignment of the reprobate to hell is a logical consequence of theLapsarian and Soteriological decrees and does not constitute a separate decree. Bunyan’s scheme thus has a softer flavour even than infra- or sublapsarianism (in which God already sees man as lost in sin when He chooses whom to save and whom to condemn), let alone classical supralapsarianism, which is infrainfernarian (in which the purpose of God’s primary decree of election and reprobation is to choose with whom to people heaven and hell, and the Fall is decreed in order to bring that peopling about). The election and reprobation of Jacob and Esau is not described in Scripture as primarily about the fate of their ever-conscious souls and resurrectable bodies, but about other eternal purposes of God, and, therefore, fits entirely into Bunyan’s scheme.

      There is also Bavinck’s scheme (He claims that if you start supralapsarian you are forced into an infralapsarian view, and vice versa), which in a previous post I labelled as Chicken and Egg Lapsarianism; but really, a less colloquial and more philosophical label is called for. Perhaps Recursive Re-entrant Lapsarianism?

  2. Incidentally, Packer isn’t the first writer to serve the Christian Church well and then go astray. H.E.Guillebaud’s “Why The Cross” was influential in taking me away from both a defective Christology and a defective Patrology and to a proper understanding of the Trinity and the Atonement. I never saw “The Righteous Judge”, which Guillebaud wrote later (under the influence, I gather, of the late Basil Atkinson, who, while being more “fundamentalist” than anyone else at the time in Cambridge, taught annihilationism, dressed up as “Conditional Immortality” – People didn’t notice that what the Bible means by the word “Immortality” is not what society in general, including many outstanding and faithful preachers, understands by it).

    • Whilst “conditional immortality” isn’t a Confessional Reformed distinction, it has nevertheless been
      a consistent theological undercurrent in both Lutheran & Church life, going all the way back to
      Luther & Tyndale, who both denied that the soul went to Heaven upon death, a doctrine known
      as soul sleep, which being a twin pillar of conditional immortality along with annihilationism [which
      doctrine neither Luther nor Tyndale held by the way].

      Incidentally Luther used the doctrine of soul sleep to fight against the belief of purgatory, whilst
      Tyndale argued againt Thomas More in that Christ’s disputation with the Saducee’s in Luke 20,
      that God being the God of the Living, i.e. that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob; had
      nothing to do with the intermediate state but of a Future Resurrection & that More’s implication
      robbed saints of a future need of the resurrection, since their souls had already been glorified
      & thus had no need of a resurrection. These were but early days of the Reformation & the
      Reformed were only just beginning to thrash out their theological differences with the romish
      party, & it was long before any Reformed Confessions were drawn up, History for History’s sake!

    • I haven’t really the learning to answer you on this point, but God in His providence has led me to what Tyndale actually wrote.
      In reply to More he wrote: “And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?”. This does not prove that he believed they were in soul sleep, just that they were not in their full glory. However, he was apparently in error in apparently assuming that disembodied souls even in heaven have nothing to gain from the Resurrection of the Body. But what he wrote regarding George Joye’s publication shows him to have had a somewhat better understanding of the matter: “And I protest before God and our Saviour Christ and all that believe in him, that I hold of the souls that are departed as much as may be proved by manifest and open scripture, and think the souls departed in the faith of Christ and love of the law of God, to be in no worse case than the soul of Christ was, from the time that he delivered his spirit into the hands of his father, until the resurrection of his body in glory and immortality. Nevertheless, I confess openly, that I am not persuaded that they be already in the full glory that Christ is in, nor the elect angels of God are in. Neither is it any article of my faith. For, if it were so, I see not but then the preaching of the resurrection of the flesh were a thing in vain. Notwithstanding yet I am ready to believe it, if it may be proved with open scripture. And I have desired George Joye to take open texts that seem to make for that purpose, as this is, “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise,” to make thereof what he could, and to let his dreams about this word resurrection go. For I receive not in the scripture the private interpretation of any man’s brain, without open testimony of any scriptures agreeing thereto.”. This isn’t soul sleep, unless he’s saying that Christ’s soul was out of conscious fellowship with the Father until His body was raised from the dead. And I think his point about the disembodied spirits of the just not being in the full glory that would be revealed at the resurrection of the body is self evident, even if they are with Christ in the place of glory.

  3. The definition of Puritan is outside of, wary of establishment Christianity, *spiritual warfare oriented,* word of God oriented, Calvinist oriented, practical level of the faith oriented Christians. And it’s like the Justice said: you know it when you see it.

    • David, your definition is the reverse of Robert Joseph T’s. However, it still excludes the Scottish Covenanters, but for a different reason. They were totally committed to establishment Christianity, believing that their model should BE the establishment.

  4. Puritans did not have a distinct confession. To be a “Puritan” all one had to do was disagree with the establishment of the Church of England. Therefore, Packer’s definition would be correct. Sinclair Ferguson giving a good review to the book should be sufficient vindication of it; As Ferguson is as reformed and puritanical a modern theologian as one could find. Puritans have been misappropriated as monolithic paragons of “reformed,” WCF theology, when many people who were much more in line with both qualifiers remained, and very happily so, in the Anglican Church, like Packer.

    • Thrus,

      1. Note the comment policy re anonymous comments.

      2. How do we disagree? I’m arguing that the denominator “puritan” tells us almost nothing. Isn’t that what you’re saying?

  5. Brothers,

    It seems to me, in order to introduce the Puritans to the mass of genuine Christians (as opposed to nominal), I would rather them be introduced to electrical shock treatment or needles driven under their fingernails than for them to attempt to decipher the terms of the various “…arianisms and “…narianisms” used above. If I were a novice, one on the brink of discovering the Puritans, I would be totally flummoxed by your friendly but befuddling words above. As an elder of discipleship, teacher, and occasional preacher in my PCA church, my goal is to introduce the Puritans to our people (as I do), putting before them the names of Owen, Sibbes, Brooks, Goodwin, Watson, Boston, et al, rather than note their peculiarities as we interpret and define them today, even though many comments are theologically astute. Dr. Packer, as I am sure you attest, has done a great service the Christian Church in introducing her to the Puritans, (even broadly or incorrectly when Baxter in included). Though it is good for theologians to be aware of, and even banter in cordial intramurals of the distinct terminologies, precise terms and gracious criticisms of the Puritans, their writings are so Christocentric, covenantal in nature, heart-lifting, soul-warning, precise in Law and filled with hope.
    Consequently, I would not be pedantic nor ostentatious about my knowledge of the Puritans.. which knowledge has very little to display except that… I love them! I want my people to love them….for Christ’s sake. Blessings to each of you.

    • John,

      The problem is that there is no such thing as “the Puritans” any more than we can speak of “the evangelicals” today. There’s just too much diversity. Better to speak of introducing them to orthodox British Reformed writers. “Puritans” is shorter and better for marketing (and that’s part of my point) but it’s not very accurate.

      I’m encouraging people to read (and distribute) orthodox writers from the period. Not everyone who gets called a “puritan” today was orthodox or helpful.

      I’m asking for discernment.

    • John, you don’t mention the Puritan that people ought to read before any others (excepting, perhaps, Bunyan, whom they are likely to have already read anyway, outside of any Puritan context), namely Joseph Alleine. Every Christian should read his “Alarm” – and it’s amazing how compatible with our century his language is, too.

    • Correction: Everyone who’s read the Bible, whether Christian or not, should read Alleine’s Alarm.

  6. Dr. Clark & Mr. Rokos,

    Thank you for your discerning remarks for which I am very grateful. When I use the pejorative term “Puritan” as it was intended in its day, I use it to mean those who were given to Christ and were true ministers of the reformed faith in what they proclaimed and for what they suffered. Indeed, the term ‘evangelicals’ includes an admixture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy similarly to “Puritans”. While my list of Puritans was intentionally short, not intended to be comprehensive, it was not to devalue by omission Alleine or Bunyan whom I also cherish. I suspect, Mr. Rokos, you probably realize that. Nevertheless, I will continue to use the identifying terms of “Puritans”, “evangelicals”, and “Christians”, with qualifiers as necessary”, knowing some are true and others falsely so called. Your sage arguments above are excellent for theological intramurals among astute brothers as yourselves. My educational acumen is lacking in the ability to rival your discernment in some of these matters (not one whit of pseudo-humility intended). I rejoice in,and have learned much from your Heidelblog, Dr. Clark. I’m much indebted for your excellent commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. I treasure your continued writings of First Peter, and numerous other articles of which I have diligently filled my document files for reading and re-reading. I have printed many of your articles (with all due printed credits to you, including masthead and your biography on each item). I have handed them out in class, left them on our narthex information table, and encouraged our members to visit your website. I cherish what you are doing for God’s people and the advancement of His Word and Kingdom.


    John Barber

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