Emergent Puritan…

…sounds like it ought to be a blog title.

There is considerable grass-roots interest in the Puritans amongst a certain slice of current Christianity. This is, of course, a good thing–any interest in church history is a good thing, and the Puritans represented a practical and doctrinally serious model of living the faith that deserves and repays reflection. I’ve had the privilege of being involved in some attempts to renew popular and scholarly interest in the Puritans, and applaud some others.

However… I observe that most of those interested in the Puritans fall into the ‘golden age’ trap. Ignoring all that was wrong with the movement (and there was plenty), and even all the diversity in the movement (and there was even more), the Puritans become a cipher for an idealised vision of uncompromisingly Calvinist and astonishingly reactionary Christianity that never, in fact, existed. ‘Puritan’ becomes some sort of Platonic ideal, or Jungian archetype: Calvinist, presbyterian, separatist, committed to certain ethical stances and certain patterns of worship, it is held out as a well-defined and uniform challenge and ideal to which we are called to aspire.

In scholarly use, ‘Puritan’ is astonishingly difficult to define: the movement was just far too diverse. Its centre of gravity was certainly Calvinistic, but there are recognisably Puritan pastors and authors who are Amyrauldian (including Richard Baxter, hardly a minor figure in the movement!) and even Arminian; to a lesser extent, the centre is presbyterian, but the movement includes many congregationalists, some of them Baptist, and not a few episcopalians. Some Puritans (Baxter again) were astonishingly ecumenically-minded for their day; on most controverted ethical issues, they could be found on every side (John Milton offered a defence of divorce; William Perkins–again, not a minor figure–wrote books of casuistry that rival anything the Jesuits produced).

The point struck me forcibly last week in two ways; I stumbled across a book in the library whilst looking for something else which rejoiced in the title Liberal Puritanism and Other Essays (A.W. Harrison; pub. 1935); in the epynonymous essay, Harrison makes a convincing case for a tradition of socially liberal thought stretching from the Puritans down. Second, when dipping into a collection of Puritan quotations, published by Banner of Truth, I read some fine words, and saw underneath the name of Ralph Cudworth. Now, Cudworth’s Intellectual System of the Universe is an excellent book, representing (alongside John Scotus Eriugena and Coleridge’s unpublished Opus Maximum) the fullest flowering of a persistent British tradition of mystical Christian Platonism. But Puritan it is not!

If I had to define ‘Puritan’ in a useful way, I think I would offer four points. First, the great and uniting rallying cry of the movement was ‘Reformation without tarrying for any!’ Puritanism was a restless and urgent reform movement. They might not agree on what a pure church would look like, but they were utterly at one on the pressing and immediate need to create one. Careful, political steps designed to bring the mass of the populace–or even the mass of the congregation–along with you were not appropriate; what God’s Word said was to be done, and done now.

Second, the movement was radically ‘congregationalist,’ not in the sense of a system of church government, although some of them did hold to congregationalism as well, but in the sense of a focus on the local congregation as the place where reformation must be applied, where pastoral care would be focused, and where evangelisation would happen. God’s basic tool, and perhaps God’s biggest idea, was the local church fellowship. A few of the great Puritans held offices other than local pastor, of course (John Owen, to continue the list of the greats who do not fit the stereotype…), but they still witness to the local church, where the Word is preached, the sacraments celebrated, and discipline and discipleship practiced, as the beating heart of God’s mission in the world.

Third, and already hinted at, the Puritan vision of the Christian life was an astonishingly high one. Jim Packer entitled his book recommending the Puritans A Passion for Holiness; Kelly and Randall, in the one I contributed to, went for The Devoted Life. Both point to this same instinct, that at the heart of the Puritan vision was a pastoral theology that sought and expected to create a congregation of visible saints. Again, what visible sainthood might look like was somewhat controversial amongst them, but nonetheless, a seriousness in Christian practice, an utter commitment to living the truths of Scripture, was what Puritan pastors expected from themselves and their congregations.

Finally, the Puritans were Biblicist, but in a rather particular way. They were constantly innovative in their readings of Scripture, typically rejecting tags and traditions, wanting to test and re-test everything by direct appeal to the Word. Their primary hermeneutic was the sermon; texts yielded doctrines which demanded applications, and if a text challenged received practice, the application demanded an urgent revision of practice. The notion, so common amongst those who are noisiest about the Puritans today, that there is a settled and agreed account of Biblical truth which needs defending rather than discovering, would be utterly foreign to them.

Restless, endlessly reforming, united by the urgency of pursuing a vision, rather than by the vision they were pursuing, focused on new and high visions of Christian community, committed to living Scripture, but impatient of inherited readings of Scripture that merely justified the status quo, always radical and never conservative–I think there is an argument for finding the true heir of the spirit of Puritanism not in Reformed and conservative circles, but in the restless radicals of every age, for all their failings and faults. Darby and Irving in the 1830s; Keswick in the 1890s; the new charismatic churches in the 1960s–

–and in the emerging church movement of today!

I’m at least half-serious about this; go on, shoot me down…


  1. Marty Foord
    Feb 19, 2008

    Dear Steve,

    Your words are timely. An interesting phenomenon in this area of research is the work of Richard Muller. His work has been a great encouragement to for Puritan (and Protestant Orthodox) research. Many of the “Golden-Agers” have lauded his work when he refutes the Barthian interpretation of Reformed Orthodoxy; however, other conclusions Muller has made go unnoticed (like his claim that the Salmurian school is theologically compatible with Dort in particular and Protestant Orthodoxy in general). The future of Puritan research looks very interesting!

    See you at the John Owen Today conference.



  2. John Coffey
    Feb 19, 2008

    Steve, I’m enjoying your blog, and this entry is characteristically stimulating and provocative. My own view is that the Banner of Truth shaped Evangelical understandings of Puritanism by creating a canon from which were excluded all kinds of Puritans who didn’t fit the conservative Reformed mould (Baxter the Amyraldian, John Goodwin the Arminian, Antinomians like John Eaton, John Milton, Roger Williams etc). Readers who want a more rounded picture might be interested to know of the forthcoming ‘Cambridge Companion to Puritanism’ which I’ve edited with Paul Lim (should be out towards the end of the year):

  3. Steve H
    Feb 19, 2008

    Marty, John, welcome to you both.

    Muller’s work is invaluable for us all in coming to terms with the early modern Reformed movement, undoubtedly; his own perspective is curious, and I think relies on some sort of assumption that history should be done untainted by theology.

    On the Puritan ‘canon’, the thing that struck me, reading my BoT collection of Puritan quotations, is that the rhetoric is so different from the reality. There is a claim that true Puritanism looks like this, and then a championing of authors who just don’t (Cudworth!?! BoT publish at least a couple of Baxter’s works).

    I observe this quite commonly at a very conservative end of Christian life: somehow age makes someone acceptable…

  4. John Coffey
    Feb 20, 2008

    Incidentally, Steve, I agree on the link you make between Puritans and ‘restless radicals’. In particular, there’s a continuity between what historians now call ‘radical Puritanism’ and later varieties of ‘radical Evangelicalism’. What one finds across the generations is that radical movements within the broader evangelical tradition often emphasise the dramatic work of the Spirit, an ‘antinomian’/free grace theology, the imminent millennium, lay/female participation, and (in some cases) political activism. It’s worth remembering that the Quakers arose from within Puritanism, as did the Levellers. It’s easy to imagine emergent types warming to the Levellers; but we’re unlikely to see them featuring in a BoT catalogue.

  5. Steve H
    Feb 20, 2008

    The Levellers–great band; A Weapon Called the Word is still fresh…

    Oh, sorry…

    The point you make is completely right, of course, John. The thought I am playing with is whether actually every Puritan was, to some significant extent, a radical?

  6. John Coffey
    Feb 20, 2008

    To some extent, yes – that’s certainly how their enemies saw them! But historians these days talk a lot about ‘moderate Puritans’, people who worked within the mainstream of the CoE under Elizabeth I and James I, and were often striving to contain the radicals within their own godly subculture – lay preachers, prophets, antinomians, separatists, heretics and the like. Baxter was very much a moderate Puritan though he was theologically innovative; other moderate Puritan divines were often deeply committed to conserving strict Reformed orthodoxy. Cromwell and Milton had much stronger radical sympathies. When people say that they ‘love the Puritans’, one always has to ask ‘which Puritans’? The point is that different sections of the contemporary church scene can lay claim to competing strands within Puritanism (though in practice conservative Reformed Christians are almost alone in showing much interest in the Puritans).

  7. Tim Foley
    Feb 20, 2008

    The movement I am most familiar with that consistently promotes the Puritans is the new-church denomination New Frontiers. With frequent quotations from Puritan works in sermons and promotion of Puritan books in their bookshops it seems that Puritan theology is a central theme of the movement. They also seem to be planting churches at a fats rate. It seemed natural then that NF pastor Greg Haslem became minster at Westminster Chapel where DM Lloyd-Jones encouraged Puritan theology.

  8. Craig Bennett
    Mar 2, 2008

    I thought your post raised some important issues and I wonder if the term puritan meant more than just the intellectual theology one held to which was either coming from a Catholicism or Reformed theological background.

    I agree with your idea that it is the Charismatic etc who are the heirs of this movement as it seems to me that the Puritans were an experiential movement rather than one that was based on propositional truth. They were open to the leading / burdening / experience of the Holy Spirit and not satisfied with the status quo of nominal Christianity.

    I wonder if the same could be said of the current emerging church movement and their dissatisfaction with the status quo – though I believe the Puritans had a higher view of Scripture than perhaps is held by many within the emerging church.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button