THE GENIUS OF PURITANISM, by Peter Lewis; Carey Publications, Haywards Heath, Sussex, U.K., 1975, 144 pp. (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. H. C. Hoeksema]
Written by a Baptist who has a lively interest in the writings of the Puritans, this little book gives the author’s overview of the preaching of 17th century Puritan pastors. In the first chapter, short biographies of several of these men are followed by the author’s resume of the characteristics of Puritan preaching, liberally sprinkled with examples and quotations from 17th century writings. The next chapter is about the Puritan in the pew, and it describes the more formal aspects of Puritan worship. The rest of the book treats the subject of spiritual desertions and depression—the causes, the cure, and the role of the minister, both as preacher and as pastor, during these times of trial.
The note of sincerity, the use of appealing anecdotes and native wit, the appeal to Scripture, and the author’s quotations of Puritan writings contribute toward making this book a bit of interesting and edifying reading for the Reformed reader. It may be said that the author succeeds in achieving the purpose stated in the preface: “I have sought to show pastors of our own day the way in which that most biblical race of men . . .applied a deep doctrinal sense and spiritual wisdom to the various problems, especially depressions and discouragements under which God’s people have always had to labor in this life.”
There would appear, however, to be an imbalance both in the book and in the genius of Puritanism with which the book is concerned. More than half of the book is devoted to the subject of the Christian’s assurance. Worse than this, the subject of assurance is approached, as it were, from the back door, or from the viewpoint of the abnormal rather than the normal. I refer to the preoccupation with the subject of spiritual depressions and discouragements as these arise from the knowledge of our sinfulness and the sorrow we experience when our sins mount up day after day. In a day when sin’s sinfulness is deemphasized, and when also the sins of God’s people do not receive due attention, it is well that we be reminded to take sin seriously. And surely, we would make no plea for the perfectionism and superficiality of “happiness” religion. Nevertheless, to be preoccupied with spiritual depressions and discouragements in the Christian life is to be preoccupied with the abnormal rather than the normal. The assurance of faith, though it may differ in degree in various children of God, is normal. Besides, the method with which the Puritans treated these discouragements smacks of subjectivism. On each page the believer is told to “search himself,” to “reason with himself,” to “ponder within himself” about his sin and his sorrow for it. This introspective approach the author sums up as follows: “. . .it is very significant that the Puritan pastors laid much stress upon mental acts as being of vital practical use to the Christian . . . . Thus the terms ‘meditate,’ ‘consider,’ and ‘reflect’ were . . .terms belonging to the vital . . .activity of the Christian. ” This emphasis on spiritual depression and on subjectivistic introspection lays one wide open for the error of sickly mysticism, of which the Reformed believer must beware.
This is not the place for an exposition of the subject of the assurance of faith. But had the author of this book and the Puritans themselves approached the whole subject of assurance and of self-examination for the positive viewpoint and followed the lead of our Reformed creeds, which teach us that assurance is a spontaneous thing which is obtained from the promises of God’s Word and the testimony of the Spirit in the way of sanctification and in the fellowship of God’s people, they would have been closer to the healthy spiritual balance of the Reformed truth and practice.
Though the book leaves the Reformed reader somewhat depressed, he may derive benefit and instruction from it, if he remembers to be more critical of the emphasis of the Puritans than the author was.