What exactly is Puritan Theology?

Posted by
'Puritan' has been co-opted by many Reformed evangelicals to mean 'whatever I think is good, noble, and true'. So, Edwards becomes a Puritan because of his Reformed piety and maybe Ryle also. Definitely Piper. And obviously Packer. And, well, if you keep it up, maybe you too.

Then somewhere along the way, we pushed that understanding back into the 16th-17th C. English Reformed Church, shattering what some are now recognizing as the Elizabethan doctrinal consensus. But this popular, though sometimes scholarly, tendency must be challenged. William Perkins presents us with the ideal test case. 

Perkins was a Reformed Orthodox theologian and among the chief apologists of the late Elizabethan Church of England. Much like Richard Hooker, though more popular, Perkins was a defender of the faith as defined by the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.  

We particularly remember Perkins for his works of practical divinity and pastoral ministry, those works seeing translations in French, Dutch, German, Welsh, Czech, Hungarian, and Spanish. But we also remember Perkins as the father of English Puritanism, news which would no doubt come as a shock to him. 

Perhaps our memory here is flawed. Puritanism is a notoriously difficult movement to define. But the argument against the Puritanism of Perkins is strong enough that we need only give brief consideration to a definition, and then observe whether or not that definition is suitably applied to him.

William Perkins does not conform to the technical definition of a Puritan

Richard Baxter, reflecting on England's recent past, helps us develop the vital distinction between the rubbish popular definition of Puritanism and its technical definition: 
Within a few miles about us, were near a dozen more Ministers that were near Eighty years old apiece, and never preached; poor ignorant leaders, and most of them of Scandalous Lives: only three or four constant competent Preachers lived near us, and those (though Conformable all save one) were the common Marks of the People's Obloque and Reproach, and any that had but gone to hear them, when he had no Preaching at home, was made the Derision of the Vulgar Rabble, under the odious Name of a Puritane
'Puritane' was often an 'odious' slur against faithful Christian witness and a learned preaching ministry. Some of what we take for granted today - such as the importance of sitting under biblical preaching and a faithful ministry - was maligned by many in that day as a cause for disgrace. To be a competent preacher, or to attend competent preaching, was sufficient cause for the reproach of 'Puritane'. This use of the word was venomous and had little to do with the geographically and ecclesiologically delimited Elizabethan Puritan Movement. 
 
So, if we were to follow out the popular use of the slur, the magisterial Reformers were 'Puritane'. This popular definition would also make Richard Hooker, John Whitgift, and King James VI and I a 'Puritane'. Why? Because they all believed that godliness matters and that, therefore, England needed to have a learned ministry. But this demonstrates the failure of the popular definition. For, alas, Richard, John, and James were all anti-Puritans, though episcopal Calvinists and 'particularly godly'.

Contrary to some of its early modern haters and 21st C. enthusiasts, Puritanism was a grassroots movement, with its theological ressourcement in Reformed Orthodoxy in particular and the Christian tradition in general. Its organic source and historical context was none other than the Church of England. The dual priorities of external order and practical divinity were forged together into an intentionally internal reform movement. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement's roots ran deep, deeper than the abilities of either Archbishops Whitgift or Bancroft to pluck up from the English Reformed garden.

As we briefly noted above, Reformed piety is often identified as the all-important mark of a Puritan, and this is why many are quick to identify Perkins as a Puritan. But the Puritans did not have the monopoly on Reformed piety. Nor were they the only godly, Sabbath-keeping, anti-Papist, 'experimental Calvinists' in Elizabethan England. 

So, the experimental mark is not alone definitive. Or, rather, it is not only the experimental use of the first two marks of the true church which constitute a Puritan. When we lean solely on its godly flavor, we cast a net large enough to catch the most unlikely of fellows.

But Elizabethan Puritanism also strove for a third mark of the true church, which is the external government of the church according to Scripture alone. The Puritans did not long for the further reformation of just any church but for the further reformation of the established Church of England after the model of 'the best reformed churches'. For this reason, Puritans were also referred to as disciplinarians, attacking not only Bishops and non-preaching ministers but also the traditional liturgy, vestments, oaths, holy days, and the wedding ring. These are the points that earn the Puritan the title 'non-conformist' - though in some individuals there was a cautious conformity, or pseudo-conformity, but even this variant had its expiration date. 

If there were to be an argument in favor of Perkins's Puritanism, it could not be found in his works but only in his life. There are two events which link him directly to Puritanism, one in 1587 and another in 1589. The first concerns controversial points allegedly made in a sermon on the practice of communion, and the second his presence at a debate over a proposed 'Presbyterian' book of discipline. 

We can pass quickly over the first event. Perkins denied the disgraceful allegations but did acknowledge causing some worry. There were no further complaints made and no penalties were rendered. This episode was a mere moment of youthful pulpit indiscretion. Even the current Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift could be considered a Puritan if we were to isolate certain events early in his career. In that case, early Whitgift would be more the Puritan than early Perkins.

The second episode is more troublesome for our thesis. Elizabethan Puritanism had something like a classis movement, incredibly difficult for the authorities to pin down, which was at some points more 'Presbyterian' and at others more 'Congregational'. Puritanism valued external order, but it existed in instability. The movement had urgent need of a book of discipline, a platform to unite around theoretically, and a discipline to enact if the opportunity were to legally present itself. 

The very last 'synod' of the Elizabethan Puritan classical movement was held in Cambridge, September 1589, in the lodgings of the St. John's College master, William Whitaker. Whitaker, a preeminent and conformable Reformed theologian with a disciplinarian stripe, was conveniently on vacation. Perkins was present at that assembly with his former tutor and close friend Laurence Chaderton, the first master of Emmanuel College and a good candidate for 'the father of English Puritanism'. The infamous Thomas Cartwright also made an appearance. 

Perkins would later testify in Star Chamber deposition that he had met in St. John's College to debate 'whether the rules and method of the said Book of Discipline ... were agreeable to the Word of God or not.' The book in question was largely written by Walter Travers, a vocal opponent of the arguably Reformed Orthodox theologian Richard Hooker. 

Among the points debated were 'whether thatt the sacraments ought to be receyved at the hands of unpreaching ministers or not'? These questions were discussed in a 'scholastical manner' with some affirming and others rejecting the propositions, but none subscribing to anything. Perkins professed ignorance of the goings-on of the classical movement, whether they had put their discipline into practice or not. 

We have no reasons to distrust Perkins's testimony that he was ignorant of the inner workings of the Elizabethan Puritan Movement, or that he attended no other meetings. Perkins, as a well-respected theologian, was merely present as theological counsel for his friend, a Puritan who was a most cautious conformist, though 'Presbyterian' in sentiments. This episode reveals not Puritan inclinations but a pastor-theologian who stands as an exemplar for 'experimental' friendships across ecclesiological lines.

William Perkins defended and delighted in the Reformed Church of England

Far from rejecting the polity of the Church of England, Perkins stands as its defender:
For we hold, beleeue, and maintaine, and preach the true faith, that is, the auncient doctrine of saluation by Christ, taught and published by the Prophets and Apostles, as the Booke of the articles of faith agreed vpon in open Parliament doe fully shew...
...Now it can not be shewed that in our Churches is taught any one errour that raceth the foundation, and consequently annihillateth the truth of Gods Church
...Indeed there is controuersie among vs touching the point of Ecclesiasticall regiment: but marke in what manner. Wee all ioyntly agree in the substance of the regiment, confessing freely that there must be preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments according to the institution, and the use of the Power of the kaies in admonitions, suspencions, excommunications; the difference betweene vs is onely touching the persons, and the manner of putting this gouernment in exequution
...it appeares that the practice of such as make separation from vs, is very badde and schismaticall, considering our Churches faile not either in the substance of doctrine, or in the substance of the true worship of God'
Perkins pursues unity in the substance of the ecclesiastical regiment and worship of the Church of England. If the separatists and schismatics were troubled in conscience over matters essential to faith and salvation, then they might have a case. But, according to Perkins, the worship of God in the Church of England is not corrupt in its being, nor is it corrupt in its doctrine. Far from an embarrassed conformist, toughing it out and hoping for better times, Perkins takes delight in the doctrinal standards and being of the Church of England. 

Perkins's theology was in the service of the national Church. He did not oppose the polity, liturgy, or discipline of the lawfully established Church. He instead focused emphatically on the life of faith, centered on the hearing of the word and participation in the sacraments, and lived out in the Church Society: 'the theology of the science of living blessedly forever'.

Perkins was sympathetic to Puritanism, not because of its polity but because of its piety:
And doth not experience shewe this to be true among vs? for the pure heart is so little regarded, that, the seeking after it is turned to a by-word, and a matter of reproach: Who are so much branded with vile tearmes of Puritans and Presitians as those, that most indeauour to get and keepe the puritie of heart in a good conscience?
Perkins takes up the popular usage of 'Puritan', because that is what is under consideration. But notice that even still he does not apply it to himself! The popular definition leans emphatically on godliness, but, for reasons outlined above, this fails as a satisfying technical definition, encompassing all of the particularly religious regardless of their own theological identity. 

The hottest of the anti-Puritans were known by 'the godly' for outward godliness only, while they maligned the truly godly. Against this false dilemma, Perkins rejected 'Puritan' as a vile term, while embracing Reformed piety and the external ecclesiastical regiment of the English Church. 

So, if we must categorize Perkins, then, it would be best to use his own preferred title: Reformed Catholic. But, as we have seen, for Perkins, that also meant delighting in the Reformed Church of England. 

Jonathan Tomes currently serves as a Library Assistant at the Baylor University Libraries, and is a PhD candidate at the John Wycliffe Puritan Studies Program. His primary research interests are early modern covenantal thought and Reformed catholicity

Posted February 8, 2016 @ 10:02 AM by Jonathan Tomes


reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login