Review: Puritan Portraits: J. I. Packer on Selected Classic Pastors and Pastoral Classics By J. I. Packer

J. I. Packer is a significant figure in a variety of circles. He is one of the last voices representing that generation of British evangelicalism which had roots in the Reformation, which 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 seventeenth and eighteenth 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 catchphrase than a 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 (1615–1691) 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 (1616–1683), 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 of 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 the 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” (p. 19) 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 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2015.


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  1. Thank you for this article. It helped me to see that the Puritans are not a monolith and should be evaluated person by person. That way, one will not embrace someone like Baxter and assume he is in the same category as Owen (for example).

    This sentence was brilliant:
    “Like modern evangelicals, the more closely one looks at them (the Puritans) the more they seem to disappear.”

    Packer himself is an enigma to me: Knowing God continues to deeply impact my life and at times, he says absolutely wonderful things about the Cross and the gospel. For example, he quickly summarized the gospel message as being “adoption through propitiation.”

    He at times seems to communicate other things that go against the Gospel–or at least become murky. For example, the Catechism he wrote at the end of his life (that the ACNA now uses) does not even mention justification and seems fuzzy on the finished work of Christ and sola fide.

    Maybe I am reading him incorrectly…but I don’t get this fuzziness when I read someone like Cranmer, Luther, or Machen.

  2. Thank you for this assessment. I have to admit — I am fairly new at wading into the Puritans. I am reading O’Reilly’s new book called “Killing the Witches” where he speaks about the Puritan influence in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. What I am reading seems much more like Christian Nationalism’s (Doug W.) emphasis on theonomy and post-mill than the Reformed Theology I know and love.

    I would love for someone at WSCAL to write a book that can help lay people like me to understand both the good and bad of the Puritan movement. Sometimes it feels like there is such praise for the Puritans, yet in O’Reilly’s book I see theocracy and law-driven death punishments — abuse of women in the colony — lies about others in order to punish — the propensity to be super-suspicious (thus the emphasis on witchcraft as an excuse to accuse others of sin). When others ask us questions about them, it would be nice to have a real theological historian tackle this topic — the abuses of the Puritans, etc.

    • You’re correct. I attend an Anglican church because I love it’s rich liturgy.
      But, it’s a mixed bag of old and new covenant.
      I’m a reformed guy. So those inferences that won’t allow for a compete assurance giving a synergistic need to be sure, I filter through the gospel.
      I think it’s best to go from a foothold on the reformed understanding of assurance to Anglicanism. I almost feel bad for those who grew up Anglican. Unless they’ve read Ashley Null, and men like Owen they’ll look to secure and polish off their justification.

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