A conversation with Joel Beeke
photo: Michelle DeBella-Bharath

BENYOLA: The Puritans, who started primarily in England, were people who realized that the Reformation, with all its fervor in the early sixteenth century, was beginning to attrite by the second generation of the Reformation. After this vibrance subsided, one of the concerns of the Puritans was to revive Reformation truths and revitalize the current generation, applying this truth to every area of life, living that life comprehensively, through sound and thorough doctrine.

Sadly, America has all but forgotten its foundation that was, in part, laid by the Puritans. If the Puritans were living today — men such as Thomas Watson, Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Boston, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavel, John Cotton, John Bunyan — how do you think they would prescribe the time-proven truths of Scripture to face the church’s particular challenges in twenty-first-century post-Christian culture, which holds that the only ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth?

BEEKE: The situation for the English Puritans was just a bit different from your description of it. The Puritans found themselves in a national church governed by a policy of compromise known as the Via Media or “middle way” of Anglicanism. In doctrine, the Church of England was committed to the Reformed faith by its confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. In practice, there was an entrenched division in the church from the time of its reformation.

Some churchmen wanted to retain certain features of the pre-Reformation church such as episcopal church government, and maintain a carefully reformulated version of the Roman liturgy as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. These men had the ear of the monarch and the support of much of the church’s hierarchy, and so they had great power and influence.

The Puritans longed to bring the worship and polity of their national church into conformity with the examples of other Reformed churches such as those in Scotland and the Netherlands. There the simple usages of Calvin and the church of Geneva had been introduced into public worship, and the church was governed according to the apostolic model of church government, known as Presbyterianism.

To rouse the common people out of indifference and lead them out of ignorance, the Puritans devoted themselves to preaching the gospel and expounding the Word of God. To lend urgency to their program of reformation for the Church of England, the Puritans probed deep into Christian experience and brought the full light of the Word of God to bear on it. They knew that, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Differences over worship or church government mean nothing to people walking in darkness and unbelief.

What the Puritans labored to do, along with their counterparts in Presbyterian Scotland, and the leaders of the Dutch Further Reformation, was to reach the minds and hearts of their people, and bring them into a personal experience of the truth of the gospel, and to bring them under the power and direction of that truth.

We live in different times, and the issues of the day wear a different costume, but the task remains the same for us, and we are equipped with the same resources, the indwelling presence and power of the Spirit of God, and the unchanging truth, life and power of the Word of God.

In certain respects, we are in a better position than the Puritans, because the problematics of reforming an established national church need not concern us. We are free to address the greater questions of the human heart, questions of life and death, and the meaning of life; and to offer to an increasingly hopeless world the great and abiding comfort that is to be found in belonging to Jesus Christ as our faithful Savior, with body and soul, both in life and in death.

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Covenant theology, interviews, Reformation