Results tagged “Puritan Theology” from Reformation21 Blog

The Works of John Flavel: A New Edition


A nonconformist, unifier, husband of three deceased wives, victim of religious persecution, and author of what has been collected into six volumes of reprinted Works, John Flavel (c.1630-1691) of Dartmouth, England not only had an immense following during his own lifetime, but deeply influenced those who would set the course as shapers of religion and culture in the generations to follow.

Flavel's influence remained strong until the end of the nineteenth century, when (for various reasons) historiographical, philosophical, and Christian literature ceased to recognize his life or thought. However, over the last twenty-five years or so, John Flavel has enjoyed increasing popularity among academics, pastors, and laypeople alike, evidenced by the growing number of books and articles on Flavel as well as the number of students taking post-graduate courses of study on his life and thought. More than ever, people are asking, "Who was John Flavel?" And then they ask, "How do you pronounce his last name?"

John Flavel's Legacy & Writing

Anthony รก Wood (1632-1695), the Oxford historian, once (reportedly) noted that Flavel had "more disciples than ever John Owen the Independent, or Rich. Baxter the Presbyterian." Increase Mather, himself a well-known New England Puritan and Harvard College president, once wrote shortly after Flavel's death: "[Flavel's] works, already published, have made his name precious in both Englands; and it will be so, as long as the earth shall endure."

Flavel's Works have been published and reprinted numerous times as a collected whole since their first publication in 1701--thirteen editions during the eighteenth century alone! Since Flavel's first printed work in 1664, there have now been at least 721 printings of his roughly thirty-five treatises and sermons. His best-selling work, A Saint Indeed, went through forty-one printings from 1668 to 1800.

Flavel's writing style may be compared to Richard Baxter or John Bunyan in both its variations of simplicity and density. It is not as technical as that of John Owen, nor is its content as difficult to understand. But, as Iain Murray once said, "Certainly if the sustained regard of Christian readers is any guide, Flavel belongs to the very front rank of evangelical authors." Charles Spurgeon, commenting on Flavel's writings, believed that "Master John Flavel"--as he liked to call him--deserved "an honorable place among the makers of metaphors, emblems, etc." He adds that Flavel is "greatest in metaphor and allegory" and that "[Flavel] was popular in the highest degree both at home and abroad."

In addition to the wide variety of topics that Flavel wrote about, he also quoted over 550 different authors. These included ancient philosophers, Greek and Latin church fathers, Roman Catholic theologians, Continental Reformers, and other Puritans. He was a pastor-theologian who sought to communicate the doctrines of the Protestant and Reformed faith in a clear and practical way, which is why his writings may appropriately be considered works of practical divinity.

Well-known Puritans, such as John Howe, Matthew Henry, and Thomas Boston knew of and appreciated Flavel as a pastor and writer, as well as poets and writers, such as Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe). John Eliot, the early missionary to the Native Americans, read and enjoyed Flavel's writings as did Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, who described Flavel as "that most excellent, practical and evangelical writer." John Howe, with several other prominent ministers, penned the preface to Flavel's The Occasions, Causes, Nature, Rise, Growth and Remedies of Mental Errors, writing that Flavel did not "need any letters of recommendation from us," but rather the preface was simply an "expression of respect to him, a debt." Almost one year after Flavel's death, Increase Mather lamented, "Dartmouth will know, Devonshire will know, that there has been a prophet among them."

"Holy Mr. Flavel," as Jonathan Edwards called him, is quoted in his Religious Affections more often than Richard Baxter, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, William Ames, and William Perkins combined. Historian Frank Mott notes, "The two most popular devotional essayists of the Colonial period [were] John Flavel and James Hervey... [Flavel] had an amazing following in America for a hundred and fifty years.... His Works appear in the lists of titles advertised by Colonial booksellers probably more often than any others except those of Dr. Watts, and they continued to be popular well into the nineteenth century."

Archibald Alexander, one of the founders of Princeton Theological Seminary, was converted through reading Flavel. He later recounted: "To John Flavel I certainly owe more than to any uninspired author." Alexander's son, James--also a noted Presbyterian minister and theologian--once remarked: "To my taste, Flavel is the most uniformly interesting, engaging, and refreshing writer on religion, ancient or modern." He adds, "A mix of Baxter and Flavel would be my highest wish as a preacher."

In December 2012, noted Puritan scholars Sinclair Ferguson, Carl Trueman, and Mark Dever overwhelmingly chose John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence as their favorite Puritan paperback title. J. I. Packer agrees: "Flavel is clear-headed and eloquent in the plain Puritan style, orthodox, Christ-focused and life-centered in his subject-matter, with his mind always set on advancing true godliness, with peace and joy in the Lord." The resurgence in Puritan literature in general and that of Flavel in particular among Reformed communities is starting to provide a healthy amount of helpful resources for further study on Flavel's life and thought.

The Project

The current six-volume edition of Flavel's Works (W. Baynes and Son, 1820; rpt. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968) has faithfully served generations of believers and has remained a strong favorite of Puritan literature. However, it contains antiquated punctuation, typographical errors, content errors, and was based on eighteenth-century rather than seventeenth-century documents. These later editions of Flavel's Works have even inserted errors into the text where Flavel originally had them correct. It is time for a new complete edition of Flavel's Works.

In the spring of 2013, I approached The Banner of Truth Trust with a proposal to produce and edit a completely new edition of Flavel's Works based on the original documents. After months of deliberation and narrowing our focus, the agreement was made, and the task began. I asked two other Flavel scholars to help with this enormous project, Nathan Parker and Cliff Boone, and they provided invaluable assistance, especially with tracking down the roughly thirty-five individual treatises and works that were published in the later 1600s. I also assembled an Advisory Board to guide me in the project, which includes noted Puritan scholars Joel Beeke, Derek Thomas, Gerald Bray, John Coffey, Stephen Yuille, and Adam Embry.

The project is currently underway without an exact publication date (but expect it sometime late 2020 or early 2021). As you might imagine, the work is rather tedious and involves careful attention to detail. And yet, the content makes my soul soar! My prayer is that this new edition of Flavel's Works will provide many generations of believers spiritually-rich, Christ-exalting literature to spur affections for our Lord and King, Jesus Christ.


Dr. Brian H. Cosby serves as senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, and author of over a dozen books, including John Flavel: Puritan Life and Thought in Stuart England.

What Do You Know?


In January, Meet the Puritans began a new series studying Richard Muller's Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Join Danny Hyde in Week 6 as he discusses not just what we know, but how we know:

What's theology? What does God know? What can we know? How do we know what we know? How do we know what we know is true? And how do we express it? That's what this week's reading is all about. Muller deals with the Reformed Orthodox discussion of the parts of true theology, so helpfully distinguished by Franciscus Junius as theologia archetypa, God's own knowledge of himself, and theologia ectypa, what we know of God.

Why this distinction? One of the insights Martin Luther rested on was the late medieval critique of Thomas Aquinas by men like John Duns Scotus. Aquinas said there was an anaology of being between God and man; Scotus said it was impossible for man to derive a description of God apart from an authoritative testimony from God himself. Hence Luther's theology of the cross--what God revealed--took precedence over the theology of glory--what God has kept hidden. John Calvin added to this the radical effects of original sin upon the mind of man so much so that apart from God's self-revelation, true knowledge of God is inaccesible to us. Therefore, Reformed Orthodox writers distinguished theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) from theology as we creatures can know it (theologia ectypa), whether in this life as pilgrims (theologia viatorum) or the life to come (theologia beatorum). In other words, we as creatures before the Fall, after the Fall in sin, after redemption in Christ, and even in glory, are limited in what we can know of God. We know what God knows is reality; and what we can know is tethered to whatever he decides to reveal to us in a manner appropriate for our creaturely capacity.

Why is this distinction important? Let me illustrate...

Read more at Meet the Purtians today! 


What exactly is Puritan Theology?

'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 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