Definition of Puritanism
Just what is meant by the term Puritan? Many people today use the term to describe a morose and legalisticbrand of Christianity that borders on fanaticism. Much of this stereotype was the product of nineteenth-century anti-Puritan sentiments. While subsequent cultures have expressed various opinions of the Puritans, it is helpful to chronicle a brief history of the term and to assess the movement as objectively as possible.
The term Puritan was first used in the 1560s of those English Protestants who considered the reforms under Queen Elizabeth incomplete and called for further “purification” (from the Greek word katharos, “pure”).
The Puritans embraced five major concerns and addressed each of them substantially in their writings:
• The Puritans sought to search the Scriptures, collate their findings, and apply them to all areas of life. In so doing, the Puritans also aimed to be confessional and theological, and drew heavily on the labors of dedicated Christian scholarship.
• The Puritans were passionately committed to focusing on the Trinitarian character of theology. They never tired of proclaiming the electing grace of God, the dying love of Jesus Christ, and the applicatory work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of sinners. Their fascination with Christian experience was not so much motivated by an interest in their experience per se as it was in their desire to trace out the divine work within them so that they could render all glory to their Triune Lord.
• In common with the Reformers, the Puritans believed in the significance of the church in the purposes of Christ. They believed therefore that the worship of the church should be the careful outworking and faithful embodiment of her biblical faith, and so Puritanism was a movement that focused on plain and earnest preaching, liturgical reform, and spiritual brotherhood. Likewise, the Puritans believed that there was an order or polity for the government of the church revealed in Scripture, and the well-being of the church depended on bringing her into conformity to that order.
• In the great questions of national life presented by the crises of their day, the Puritans looked to Scripture for light on the duties, power, and rights of king, Parliament, and citizen-subjects.
• In regard to the individual, the Puritans focused on personal, comprehensive conversion. They believed with Christ that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” ( John 3:3). So they excelled at preaching the gospel, probing the conscience, awakening the sinner, calling him to repentance and faith, leading him to Christ, and schooling him in the way of Christ. Likewise, the Puritans believed with James that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead being alone” ( James 2:17). So they developed from Scripture a careful description of what a Christian ought to be in his inward life before God, and in all his actions and relationships in this life.
Peter Lewis rightly says that Puritanism grew out of three needs: (1) the need for biblical preaching and the teaching of sound Reformed doctrine; (2) the need for biblical, personal piety that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of the believer; and (3) the need to restore biblical simplicity in liturgy, vestments, and church government, so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of the Triune God as prescribed in His Word (The Genius of Puritanism, pp. 11ff.). Doctrinally, Puritanism was a kind of vigorous Calvinism; experientially, it was warm and contagious; evangelistically, it was aggressive, yet tender; ecclesiastically, it was theocentric and worshipful; politically, it aimed to be scriptural, balanced, and bound by conscience before God in the relations of king, Parliament, and subjects.
The Puritans were by no means a monolithic movement any more than were the Reformers, or, for that matter, any major group of theologians in church history. They too had their differences, not only ecclesiastically and politically, but also theologically. There were men among them who imbibed error, such as Richard Baxter on justification and John Preston on the atonement. Yet, for the most part, there was a remarkable unity of thought, conviction, and experience among the Puritans.
To be Continued