Results tagged “Puritanism” from Reformation21 Blog

Hearken Unto a Verser


Last year was the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation and so we were all busy celebrating the major figures, reconsidering their key doctrines, and evaluating their legacies. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others took center stage at conferences, on blogs, and in journals. Meanwhile we heard far less about the cultural, and especially literary, fruit of the Reformation. That is why we ought to consider a figure who deserves to be better known in Evangelical circles: the early seventeenth-century Anglican poet, George Herbert.

Though he belongs more to the age of Perkins and Hooker, Herbert deserves to be better known both as a great Protestant and a great poet. He was a pastor firmly dedicated to sacrificial ministry in his local congregation. Much of his poetry relates to the church and the spiritual life. His influence extends from John Milton to Emily Dickinson, Tim Keller, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Calvinist author, Marilynne Robinson. C. S. Lewis wrote of Herbert, "Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment."

Born in 1593 and thus a later contemporary of Shakespeare, Herbert came from an aristocratic family and went to Cambridge, where he excelled in classical languages and rhetoric. Elected to the post of University Orator, he gave a ceremonial address to King James in 1623. A political office seemed likely for the talented young man, but then his friends in high places began to die off and his career stalled. Poems like "Affliction" (I) and "The Collar" vividly record his wrestling with God over his disappointment and pastoral calling--eventually to a little country church near Salisbury.

Some Protestants today may be put off Herbert's Anglicanism; and there were Pelagian, Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England during Herbert's ministry. But there is nothing formalistic and empty about either his poetry or his ministry. He took pains to preach the clear, profound truth of the Gospel and to explain the "high church" service to his simple parishioners--what the Creed, congregational responses, and various steps in the liturgy all meant.

His poetry, though complex and witty, always returns to simple metaphors borrowed from work and home, from nature and Scripture. His poetry is filled with profound and sometimes painfully honest reflections on the Church and its liturgy, on the Gospel story, and on the Christian life. And his poetry is deeply Protestant in three other ways: its reliance on Scripture, it's focus on salvation by grace, and its emphasis on personal holiness.

Focus on Scripture

The Reformation largely centered on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the teaching that the very words of Scripture should be the basis for coming to new life in Christ and then living it. As Chana Bloch has written, "Herbert doesn't simply read the Bible, he believes in it; and it marks his poetry so distinctively because it first molds his life." In one poem, "The H. Scriptures", Herbert describes the Davidic longing we should have for biblical truth.

OH that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glorie!
Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the storie.

This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destinie:

Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in ev'ry thing
Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.

Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:
This book of starres lights to eternall blisse.


Celebrating the wisdom of Holy Scriptures, Herbert contrasts Bible-reading with astrology and tea-leaves. He is saying that the constellations--the networks of meaning in the Bible--are the true guiding lights of life, and that the leaves of the Book are the true tea-leaves. I don't know about you, but these metaphors rattle me. I can affirm abstract attributes about Scripture all day (infallible, sufficient, profitable) but Herbert's images can awaken those meanings to life. By inverting the Davidic image of the heavenly book that speaks God's glory (Ps. 19: 1-3), Herbert is suggesting we read the Bible imaginatively and holistically. "The H. Scriptures" might offer a gentle criticism to a tradition of hermeneutics that has sometimes overused the grammatical-historical method.

Herbert's poetry is saturated with Scripture-- sometimes in the form of direct or slightly altered quotations, but more often with images of Scripture that Herbert expands or meditates on poetically. For example, here's his poem "The Altar":

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman's tool hath touch'd the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

Here we have Herbert's poetic reflection on Ps. 51:16 - "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart O God, thou wilt not despise" and similar texts. Herbert is saying that the sinful, stony-dead heart has to be softened by being cut and then rebuilt. We find the dead and resurrected contrite heart in the tears of ln. 2. We find the typically Herbertian and, I think, Reformation paradox in the last lines where the poet asks God to 'make his sacrifice mine and my altar-self yours.' Salvation is all God's sacrifice and sanctification is his craftsmanship. Once again Herbert has taken the biblical imagery and expanded it, nicely illustrating Chana Bloch's point that "the poems . . . owe their distinctive character to Herbert's immersion in Scripture [ . . . and] to his sense of personal identification with the text."

We sometimes take familiar verses for granted and grow cold to them; I know I do. But poetry in general, and Herbert's in particular, can brings us closer to Scripture, can re-awaken us to the profundity of Grace. In this vein, take a few lines from Herbert's crucifixion poem, "The Sacrifice":

Then they condemn me all with that same breath,
Which I do give them daily, unto death...
They buffet me and box me as they list,
Who grasp the earth and heaven with my fist...

Behold, they spit on me in scornful wise,
Who by my spittle gave the blind man eyes...
O all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree...

What these lines--especially the last two--illustrate is the power of poetry to release striking paradoxes from familiar doctrines and images. Here the poetry stings us with images revealing spit-back distortion of sin, whereby sinners turn the very gifts of God against his Son. The full sequence of twelve Easter poems in The Temple is a bracing, profound set of reflections on the saving work of Christ. I highly recommend them to you for next Holy Week. But in any case, it is once again a poetic meditation on the biblical words and details that uncovers new connections and provokes new awe.

*This is the first in a two part series on the theological poetry of George Herbert.

Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities John Witherspoon College.

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

Are you too introspective?

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax has warned us against what he calls the Puritan paralysis: that crippling, morbid self-analysis - what Mr Wax calls hyper-introspection - that directs all our spiritual attention toward self and our efforts rather than toward Christ as the object of saving faith, and so cuts the nerve of Christian service as assured saints. He writes:
We can avoid this type of introspection by avoiding the pitfalls of some of the Puritans. Though the Reformers sought to emphasize the assurance we can have because of God's grace in election and salvation, their descendants sometimes undercut the beauty of assurance by stressing the fruit of sanctification more than the fact of justification. Self-examination was a "descending into our own hearts" to root out every possible sinful tendency and desire.

Beware the paralysis that comes from this type of introspection. If our goal is to discover, analyze, and root out every aspect of sinfulness in our hearts, then we will never come to the end of the task.
Of course, Mr Wax is correct to say that there can be a morbid introspection that turns our eyes upon self for the evidences and away from Christ for the foundation, and that some Puritans and others in the Puritan tradition opened a door for those so inclined to head in that direction. Some readers may know of the treatment by Thomas Shepard (1605-1649) of the parable of the ten virgins, in which he compares at length those without oil and those with oil in their lamps, emphasising how positively and creditably like one another they were outwardly, and yet some were lost when the Bridegroom arrived, prompting the lament from one wounded soul, "Oh, to be one of Shepard's hypocrites!" While there is much of value in the book, the suggestion is that the realities of faith were so parsed down that the tender conscience might look at genuine marks of salvation in the life and explain them away, so losing assurance. And, of course, we should not forget that these same charges have been laid against Jonathan Edwards book on The Religious Affections, which takes a similar approach of analysing those things which are and are not genuine indicators of the saving work of the Spirit. As the good advice goes, "For every one look at yourself, take ten looks to Jesus Christ."

Mark Jones has gone helpfully into bat in the comments to provide something of a balance. Mr Jones points back to the historic Puritan position, summarised, for example, in the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:
This certainty [that we are indeed saved] is not a bare conjectural, and probable persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel; and also upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made, and on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; and as a fruit thereof keeping the heart both humble and holy.
Here there is a clear and balanced statement about the nature and foundation of the assurance of salvation, because the root of saving faith always produces in its season the fruit of good works. One of the evidences that we are in Christ is that, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ. If there is no fruit in the life - and, of course, that statement itself needs to be explained and qualified - then we have no grounds for concluding that a man is walking with God. Healthy saints are holy saints, not forgetting that the grounds on which their good deeds are accepted in the sight of God remains their relationship with his beloved Son.

Indeed, Mr Wax is operating on precisely this principle in his post. Again, he says,
To be clear, in warning against the Puritan paralysis, I am not saying we should never engage in self-examination. Self-examination in light of the Scriptures is appropriate and necessary for every believer. The Apostle Paul calls us to this discipline (2 Cor. 13:5).

But our self-examination needs to take place in light of Romans 8: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But what is his premise, in terms of his post? Healthy saints are not overly introspective but properly missional, having a Biblically balanced perspective on Christ and themselves, a Scripturally informed understanding of the grounds of their relationship with God in Christ. So, are you too introspective? Have you allowed your missiological effectiveness to be thwarted by this? Are you looking too much to yourself and not enough to Christ?

The trouble is that a tender conscience might take these very questions and make them the grounds of the self-same problem that Mr Wax contends against. If "Satan loves to take the tender conscience and stir up doubt of salvation, doubt of sanctification, and doubt of progression in holiness," then he can do so as well with these things as anything else.

John Owen - a Puritan, you know - somewhere says that it is the trouble of the preacher that when the terrors of the law are proclaimed, they too often seem to wash over those who ought to tremble under them while those who have no cause to fear are deeply troubled; by the same token, when the preacher ministers comforts to believers they are swiftly embraced by those who have no right to them and rejected by the very saints who most need them, as outside their entitlement. This is the battle that every shepherd of the sheep faces: to explain and apply the truth with that proper discrimination that brings needful truth to bear on needy souls, with prayer that the Holy Spirit will so make it plain as to accomplish the purposes of almighty God in his proper time.

A Puritan preacher remembered

Dr William Bates preached the funeral sermon of Thomas Manton. When we read how he described his departed friend, we understand why it is reported that Bates would weep whenever he spoke of Manton for some years after his friend's death. At the same time, the description below provides us with a powerful depiction of a true preacher and true preaching.
His name is worthy of precious and eternal memory. God had furnished him with a rare union of those parts which are requisite to form an eminent minister of his word. A clear judgment, a rich fancy, a strong memory, and happy elocution met in him; and were excellently improved by his diligent study. In preaching the word he was of conspicuous eminence; and none could detract from him, but from ignorance or envy. He was endowed with an extraordinary knowledge of the scripture; and in his preaching, gave such perspicuous accounts of the order and dependence of divine truths, and with that felicity applied the scripture to confirm them, that every subject, by his management, was cultivated and improved. His discourses were so clear and convincing, that none, without offering violence to conscience, could resist their evidence; and from hence they were effectual, not only to inspire a sudden flame, and raise a short commotion in the affections, but to make a lasting change in the life. His doctrine was uncorrupt and pure; the truth according to godliness. He was far from the guilty, vile intention to prostitute the sacred ordinances for acquiring any private secular advantage; neither did he entertain his hearers with impertinent subtleties, empty notions, intricate disputes, dry and barren, without productive virtue; but as one who always had in his eye the great end of his ministry, the glory of God, and the salvation of men. His sermons were directed to open their eyes, that they might see their wretched condition as sinners, to hasten their flight from the wrath to come, and make them humbly, and thankfully, and entirely receive Christ as their Prince and all-sufficient Saviour; and to build up the converted in their holy faith, and more excellent love, which is the "fulfilling of the law:" in short, to make true Christians eminent in knowledge and universal obedience.

And as the matter of his sermons was designed for the good of souls, so his way of expression was proper for that end. His style was not exquisitely studied, not consisting of harmonious periods, but far distant from vulgar meanness. His expression was natural and free, clear and eloquent, quick and powerful; without any spice of folly; and always suitable to the simplicity and majesty of divine truth. His sermons afforded substantial food with delight, so that a fastidious mind could not disrelish them. He abhorred a vain ostentation of wit in handling sacred truths, so venerable and grave, and of eternal consequence. His fervour and earnestness in preaching was such as might soften and make pliant the most stubborn and obstinate spirit. I am not speaking of one whose talent was only voice, who laboured in the pulpit as if the end of preaching were the exercise of the body, and not for the profit of souls. But this man of God was inflamed with holy zeal, and from thence such expressions broke forth as were capable of procuring attention and consent in his hearers. He spake as one who had a living faith within him of divine truth. From this union of zeal with his knowledge, he was excellently qualified to convince and convert souls. His unparalleled assiduity in preaching declared him very sensible of those dear and strong obligations which lie upon ministers to be very diligent in that blessed work. This faithful minister abounded in the work of the Lord; and, which is truly admirable, though so frequent in preaching, yet was always superior to others, and equal to himself, He was no fomentor of faction, but studious of the public tranquillity; he knew what a blessing peace is, and wisely foresaw the pernicious consequences which attend divisions.

Consider him as a Christian, his life was answerable to his doctrine. This servant of God was like a fruitful tree, which produces in the branches what it contains in the root. His inward grace was made visible in a conversation becoming the gospel. His resolute contempt of the world secured him from being wrought upon by those motives which tempt low spirits from their duty. He would not rashly throw himself into troubles, nor, spreta conscientia [disdaining conscience], avoid them. His generous constancy of mind in resisting the current of popular humour, declared his loyalty to his divine Master. His charity was eminent in procuring supplies for others, when in mean circumstances himself. But he had great experience of God's fatherly provision, to which his filial confidence was correspondent. I shall finish my character of him by observing his humility. He was deeply affected with the sense of his frailty and unworthiness. He considered the infinite purity of God, and the perfection of his law, the rule of duty; and by that humbling light discovered his manifold defects. He expressed his thoughts to me a little before his death. "If the holy prophets were under strong impressions of fear upon extraordinary discoveries of the divine presence, how shall we poor creatures appear before the holy and dreadful Majesty? It is infinitely terrible to appear before God, the Judge of all, without the protection of the blood of sprinkling, which speaketh better things than that of Abel." This alone relieved him, and supported his hopes. Though his labours were abundant, yet he knew that the work of God, passing through our hands is so blemished, that without appealing to pardoning mercy and grace, we cannot stand in judgment. This was the subject of his last public sermon, upon 2 Tim. i.18, which was published from his notes, with the second edition of his funeral sermon.
May God grant to his church more such men and ministers today!

This Lent I am giving up . . . reticence

I will make no bones about it: I am an Old World (for which please read 'continental European') Christian, of Puritan inclination, and a Dissenter - specifically, a Particular or Reformed Baptist. That means several things. By conviction and heritage I belong to those who left the Anglican communion as a matter of conscience, sick of its halfway reformation and unwilling to conform to the general shabbiness and unscriptural demands of the Act of Uniformity. My conscience with regard to the extra-Biblical trappings of mere religiosity is tender. My attachment to simplicity of worship as a gathered church is sincere. I am sensitive to those doctrines and practices over which my forefathers spent their energies and shed their tears and sometimes their blood, both from within and then from without the established folds of their day. I see things with an awareness tuned by walking the streets, graveyards and memorials of men and women who suffered and sometimes died for conscience' sake.

Out of such an atmosphere I cannot help but be sickened by the seeming obsession with Lent and Easter at this time of year, and Christmas at the end of the year. Please do not misunderstand me: conscience also demands that - where the cultural vestiges of a more religious society patterned to some extent on the significant events of the life of Christ provide for it - I take every legitimate opportunity to make Christ known. If an ear is even half-opened by circumstance, I willingly and cheerfully speak into it, and seek to make of it a door for the gospel. I do not see the point of making a point by not preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord if some benighted soul wanders into the church with at least some expectation of hearing about his humiliation and exaltation.

But what chills my blood is the unholy elevation of things not mandated by the Word of God. I find it odd that some of the very people who obsess about contextualization and resist 'religion' have swallowed hook, line and sinker the empty traditions of men, that the men who wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts (quite literally) all the year round besides dress in sombre suits every April, telling us with one breath that all of life is worship and so tending to level out our experience and the Biblical rhythms of our relationship with God (especially dismissing the one-day-in-seven pattern established at the first and the new creation), and with the next telling us that this is Holy Week, and we are somehow falling short if we do not build it into some unholy jamboree. Meanwhile, those who trumpet their credentials as the true heirs of the Reformation either seem willing to stop with the house half-clean or seem quite keen to redecorate it with the junk that their more enlightened forefathers were in the process of throwing out (establishing the principles of the matter even if they never quite got round to that corner of the attic themselves).

Whether or not it is a vestige of the Emerging/Emergent appetite for a range of 'spiritualities' or an enthusiasm for an over-ripe liturgical renewal, I cannot say, but I wonder if it is in part a matter of distance both of time and space. This alleged 'recovery' of Lent and Easter is not actually a matter of historical sensitivity and an inheritance regained but of historical unawareness and an inheritance lost. Whether or not it is the high-grade muppetry of entire churches being urged to tattoo one of the stations of the cross on some part of their anatomy, or some gore-drenched re-enactment of the unrepeatable sacrifice, or some spotlit image-fest in which a total insensitivity to physical representations of the Christ - the image of the invisible God - is displayed, or some be-robed priest-figure half a step away from incense and obeisance, it does not come from Scripture and it does not belong in Christ's church. It is a replacement of God's order with man's notions, a disruption of God's regular rhythms of true religion with the unholy syncopation of mortal religiosity. As John Owen somewhere says, where genuine spirituality is substantially absent, men will turn either to fanaticism or to ritual - or perhaps to both - in an attempt to fill the void. Whichever way you sniff at it, and whichever way the wind blows, to the trained nostril it all begins to smell a touch Romish.

But there is a solution. This year there are - if you wish to see it this way - fifty three Easters. Most years there are fifty two. Each is a high and holy day, an opportunity to remember and rejoice in the one thing that the saints of God are commanded to remember and rejoice in: the Lord of Glory - the incarnate Son - who was crucified but who rose again, in whom we live eternally, and for whom we perpetually look with eagerness, our eyes straining for the first glimpse of the one whom not having seen, we love, who will shortly appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Each is a day of sober and grateful remembrance and recollection of his being and his doing. We have our regular (if not all of us a weekly) meal at which we remember the Lord's death until he comes, celebrated usually on the day of resurrection. On these days, putting aside the trappings of the world, we begin the cycle of time on our weekly peak, equipped by communion with God in Christ by the Spirit for the challenges and the opportunities of the days ahead.

Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year - the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church's discipline). If you're not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the "diehard Reformed" for whom "this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday." To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.

I try not to be a Scrooge (although I cannot help but shed a silent tear that I am now literarily reduced to trying not to be a Grinch, but it's only a silent one and fairly dry, because Dickens' plotting makes many modern soap operas look like masterpieces of restraint and reason). I try not to be whatever is the Easter equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch (probably something that destroys bunnies or steals eggs). Again, for the record, I delight in the incarnation, and love to explore the excellence and wonder of Christ's coming into the world. I love to do so at any time of year, and find it grievous that I am sometimes not expected to handle those truths or sing incarnation hymns apart from at the dead of winter. Neither do I for one instant deny the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the only Redeemer of God's elect, in the glorious good news that the church of Christ declares.

But when we are told that this is the time of year when Christians begin to think again about the death and resurrection of Christ, does it not prompt the question of what we are supposed to be doing for the rest of the year? When men speak after their so-called Holy Week of the abating euphoria of the resurrection, surely they are explaining why a merely annual remembrance is insufficient? Christ Jesus is the risen Lord for 365 days of every year (plus the extra one when required), and we have a weekly opportunity for the distinct recollection of his death in an atmosphere conditioned by his resurrection. To flatten the whole year, perhaps rising only to a few unnatural annual peaks, is to miss so much, to lose so many things, to gain so little.

Christ died to set us free from empty things. Men died to liberate us from the rigamarole of unscriptural traditions and man-made routines and performances of religiosity. I hope that you will hear a voice from the blood-washed streets of the Old World, where those battles and the cost of their victory are ground into our consciousness, where the issues and enemies are neither distant nor tame, and where the lines remain clearly drawn in the collective memory of some of the Lord's people, and consider whether or not the prizes so hardly won ought to be so quickly abandoned.