No investigation of the Puritans would be complete without focusing on J.I. Packer, who is fondly referred to as “The Last Puritan”. Even though he is advanced in age, Dr. Packer is a Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He earned the nickname because of his Puritan-focused scholarship, teaching, and writing over many decades. Packer’s influence has been important in Reformed circles, and he has inspired a new generation of Puritan-minded Christians.
Dee has the entire collection of Christian History magazines (published by Christianity Today), and she shared several issues with me last week. The articles on the Reformers and Puritans have been fascinating! In Issue 89 (Winter 2006), there is an interview with J.I. Packer entitled “Physicians of the Soul”. You can access this article by clicking on the following link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2006/issue89/1.12.html
I thought it would beneficial to our readers to share the highlights of this “conversation with J.I. Packer”. Here are some of the questions in the article and excerpts from Packer’s answers that I especially enjoyed reading.
What kind of movement was Puritanism?
“Puritanism in England was a holiness movement – seeking holiness in church, family, and community, as well as in personal life.”
What did the perfect church and the perfect society look like to the Puritans? What was their dream?
“Their dream was holiness in their own lives and in the lives of those around them…They believed that doing everything they could to advance the kingdom of God in England was tremendously important for the welfare of the world.”
Why did some Puritans leave England to go to continental Europe or the New World, while others stayed?
“Those who left England mostly did so under a cloud. James I, a Presbyterian, came down from Scotland to be king of England in 1603. He had said of the nonconforming Puritans – the Puritans who wouldn’t use the bits of the Prayer Book that they didn’t like – that they would have to conform or he would “harry them out of the land, or else do worse.”
Packer then explains that the English Puritans greatly identified with the early Christians who were being persecuted in the Roman Empire during the second century A.D.
“I think it’s fair to say that the people who left England were the clergy and laity who felt most strongly about the inadequacies of religion in England… The clergy, knowing that James I thought that conformity to Prayer Book order was very important, felt themselves to be under threat from the authorities if they stepped out of line. So they had a new idea: If they started a colony in the New World, New England would be out of reach of the restrictive powers that were crippling them in old England, and so they could realize their ideal of the godly community and be a beacon for the world.”
What key ideas characterized the Puritan view of the Christian life?
“Everbody is a sinner, and the Puritans spent a lot of time and energy establishing that fact. God in his grace has sent his Son to save us through his death, which is the basis of our justification. Now he gives a covenant promise to those who have faith.”
The Puritans call themselves “physicians of the soul.” What did they mean by this?
“A physician’s business is to check, restore, and maintain the health of those who commit themselves to his care. In the same way, the minister should get to know the people in his church and encourate them to consult him as their soul-doctor. If there is any kind of spiritual problem, uncertainty, bewilderment, or distress, they are to go to the minster and tell him, and the minister needs to know enough to give them health-giving advice. That’s the Puritan ideal.”
Did this emphasis foster a special relationship between a Puritan pastor and his congregation?
“Yes. Of course, this varied from clergyman to clergyman. Richard Baxter leads the pack here…Counseling people for spiritual diseases was a distinctive Puritan emphasis, and it indicates a closeness of commitment to the flock which the Puritan pastor thought ideal.”
How were the Puritans innovative?
“They introduced the Christian Sabbath to England. They also introduced the Christian family to England, in the sense thaty they thoroughly worked out the responsibilities of father and mother inside the home… They also devised a style of preaching that England has never experienced before. It was expository…”
J.I. Packer then explains that Western society has avoided anything that would recall the Puritans. Much of the literature read by the Puritans has been forgotten and replaced by popular devotional books and other superficial and simplistic writings. This “Conversation with J.I. Packer” ends as follows:
“But there has beena modern resurgence of interest in the Puritans. Their books have become available again and have found a public. Seminaties have courses on Puritan theology and devotion. In its own way, Puritanism is now once again quite a power in the evangelical world. Christians have become disenchanged with the sort of devotional literature that was abroad when I was a young believer. They want something with more backbone.”
And so ends he conversation with J.I. Packer; however, the conversation on Puritanism is just getting started here at The Wartburg Watch. Please feel free to comment or ask questions… We’d love your input!