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A conversation with Joel Beeke

photo: Michelle Johnson

BENYOLA: How will reading the Puritans help Christians to have a more thorough understanding of the history of Reformed theology and its practical applications?

BEEKE: Much in every way! Like the Reformers, the Puritans had a keen interest in the history of Christian doctrine, and were committed to maintaining and defending the historic Christian faith. Those who read the Puritans will be introduced to the wellsprings of Christianity, first in the Scriptures themselves, and especially the Old Testament alongside of the New; and secondly, to those church fathers who were most influential in formulating our faith, and expounding it from earliest times.

Because the method of the Puritans in expounding the Scriptures was always analytical first of all, they paid careful attention to the meaning of each verse and each word in it. Committed as well to the unity of the Scriptures as one book, written by one divine Author, they were concerned to bring all its parts into the closest possible harmony, using Scripture to interpret Scripture. Readers of the Puritans will learn the best methods of interpreting the Bible (hermeneutics) in the best way, by seeing those methods applied on every page.

Because the Puritans shared with the Reformers a passion to apply all of Scripture to all of life, they were always practical. The great office of faith was to believe the truth of “whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein,” but acting differently “upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come” (WCF, 14.2). So the Puritans became masters of how to understand the Bible on its own terms, and how to apply it to all aspects of Christian experience and our life as Christians in the world.

BENYOLA: Probably the only exposure the typical student in public school in America might have to Puritan writing is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or perhaps the critiques of the Puritans by historian Perry Miller. One caricature of the Puritans was presented by H.L. Mencken, “Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

From what you’ve been able to observe, how do you believe American history, especially public education, has remembered the Puritans? Do you think that is an accurate memory and a fair depiction of the Puritans’ impression on America’s formation?

BEEKE: As noted before, modern historians have largely written Christianity out of the narrative of American history, with certain exceptions. The Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans of New England are remembered, but only as fanatics, kill-joys, and bigots who proscribed all forms of pleasure, prosecuted innocent victims for the crime of witchcraft, and persecuted the Quakers. This false view of the Puritans has been reinforced by frequent portrayals in popular culture.

Sadly, the Puritans are often viewed through the screen of their offspring of a later day, the Unitarians and the Victorians, who were in the process of discarding Puritan theology while striving to maintain Puritan morality. The result was an empty legalism, a form of religion without any real spiritual life or power. The religious sentimentalism of the Victorians did nothing to improve the dry legalism of the Unitarians.

Modern readers of the Puritans must be prepared to lay aside any acquired prejudices and misunderstandings, and try to understand the Puritans on their own terms. The effort will be richly rewarded as the reader is brought into contact with a generation of highly gifted and well-educated men who were rich in faith, who loved God’s Word, who gloried only in Christ Jesus the Lord, and who speak to the heart about deep spiritual truths beyond any other group of writers in church history.

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