How to read the Puritans

On blind spots…JD Greear said,

Our Christian forebears were fallible men and women, but so are we. And we fool ourselves to simply assume that we would have had the courage to act differently when every societal pressure was pushing one direction. They had blind spots which we see clearly now. But we too have blind spots that our children and grandchildren will speak of with shame.

Greear was specifically speaking of slavery, but his concept applies to theology too. There has never been a time when the fundamentals and the tangential items of the faith were completely settled. During Jesus’ day, His ‘new’ theology, which was really the original theology, was misapplied, misunderstood, and rejected. Even Nicodemus, THE Teacher of Israel, whiffed the concepts of suffering servant/sacrificial atonement/new birth. The Pharisees certainly didn’t get it and at one point even John the Baptist, who’d had the Spirit in him since the womb, asked if Jesus was the one or should they wait for another.

During the Apostolic age, there were many points of theology to be settled, and the succeeding councils during the centuries after to hash them out are testament to the fluid nature of man’s understanding of the Kingdom. Early church fathers were certainly fallible men. Origen’s theology (c. 184-c. 253) was hailed either as the “height of faithful theology or the depth of horrendous error.

Augustine (354-430) adhered to many theologies that were solid but he clung to many that were not. Hailed as a brilliant thinker, at the same time, his philosophies “also considerably skewed the Christian vision.”

I could go on, but far be it for anyone to think that the faith delivered once for all to the saints is understood widely by all the saints for all time. In every era men struggle with certain elements of it due to their cultural blind spots of the time in which we live.

jedwards
Jonathan Edwards

By the time of the Reformation, the understanding of the faith delivered once for all to the saints had been polluted beyond saving, and the Puritans started afresh, breaking completely with the Roman Catholic Church.

Suffice to say that the theologians in each era were duly conscientious of their thinking, striving to understand all that is required, and to explain it in ways the common man could understand, too. But they had blind spots, being products of their own generation. This is the way of it. We in this era have blind spots too, being products of our own generation. When we read a modern book, we nod and say, yes, yes, not realizing that the constructs of our own culture and time are blinding us to this or to that. Our grandchildren will look at our books of the millennium na shake their heads at us.

This is why it is important to read the products of the ancient and historical thinkers. We see their blind spots clearly, and we are happily exposed to theology that can and does enhance our understanding of the faith.

But oftentimes the ancients and historical fathers are difficult to read as well. Language changes. When reading Spurgeon, (1834 –1892) his words seem quaint. Backing up a hundred years, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is a bit more difficult. By the time we get to the Puritan John Owen, (1616-1683) his works present comprehension difficulties nearly impossible to overcome. Even the great theologian JI Packer called Owen “cumbersome” and Kris Lundgaard took an hour to read just 8 or so pages of Owen, re-reading sentences three and four times and using a dictionary to look up certain words. The common man who finds these hurdles insurmountable miss out on great thinkers and founding fathers of the past.

What to do?

I have a few tips on how to grapple the ancients and the historical men who’ve contributed mightily to the faith but whose works present difficulties.

I’ve found that pairing books helps. For example, this summer I read John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners paired with A Pilgrim Who Made Progress, the Life Story of John Bunyan, by William Deal. I found that Deal’s book offered historical information that helped me understand some of Bunyan’s spiritual choices. That Deal’s book is aimed at the Youth demographic was actually a help.

If you’re interested in Augustine’s Confessions, the biography by Peter Brown is a good pairing. Brown’s treatment of Augustine seems to have become THE standard bio of Augustine since its publication nearly fifty years ago. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.

Another kind of paring I’ve done is for example, I read Kris Lundgaard’s The Enemy Within paired with John Owen’s Indwelling Sin. Lundgaard’s book is essentially a re-write/Cliff’s Notes to Owen’s towering work. My version of Owen’s book was from the Puritan Paperback series. Where Lundgaard’s is a total re-write using modern examples, the PP series is a slightly edited and slightly modernized version of the original Puritan work. It’s put out by Banner of Truth Trust, an organization, you can, well, trust!

Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustin-e1440725829425
Fra Angelico, The Conversion of St. Augustine

I read Lundgaard on Mondays and the same Owen chapter the next day. I found that Lundgaard’s version helped me prepare my heart and my mind for the depth of the main meal Owen serves up.

 

Lundgaard also wrote Through the Looking Glass: Reflections on Christ that Change Us as a modernized re-write of Owen’s Glory of Christ, so that could be another pairing.

For Moby Dick, a theological but difficult book, (1851) there are many are study guides online. I used this one as I read the book itself.

For Pilgrim’s Progress, (a 1678 Christian allegory) there are study guides also. I bought The Pilgrim’s Progress Study Guide by Maureen L. Bradley.

Ligonier also has a wonderful teaching series on video by Derek Thomas, as well as a hard copy study guide by the same author. Ligonier says of the teaching series:

The Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan over 300 years ago, is one of the most widely-circulated books ever to be published in the English language. In spite of its popularity in the past, many people today are not familiar with this masterpiece. Join Dr. Derek Thomas as he leads a guided tour of this allegorical work, showing that Christians have as much to gain from this book today as they did hundreds of years ago.

The first video is free. The remainder of the series are fee-based.

So, you can pair books with re-writes of books. Or you can pair books with a biography of the author you’re trying to read. You can use a study guide. Go through a teaching series. Buy a Puritan Paperback which is lightly modernized and abridged.

Any way you do it, don’t let the classics languish. There is a multitude of good theology in them we should not lose our connection to. I’ve offered some ways to ease the difficulty so to speak. If you have ideas, please do share them.