Not Just Any Old Dead White Guys

22 May 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

Following God Fully: An Introduction to the Puritans, Joel R. Beeke and Michael Reeves.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022.  Hardcover, 151 pages.

Back in the day, the story goes, there was a Canadian Reformed pastor who warned his congregation against reading the Puritans.  I don’t know whether the story is true, but an anti-Puritan animus has certainly existed in our circles.  They said the Puritans were legalistic, rationalistic, too introspective, and, naturally, un-Reformed.  If you, dear reader, were sold that bill of goods, this book may very well challenge or even change your perspective.

Joel Beeke’s life-long interest in the Puritans hardly needs mention – he is, after all, well-known as the founder and president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.  He’s been reading them since he was a boy – introduced to them by his godly father.  Beeke has also written extensively about the Puritans in other books.  His co-author, Michael Reeves, is the president of Union School of Theology in Oxford and has also written many books.

These days, even apart from any theological considerations, there’s a great suspicion around old dead white guys.  But the Puritans are not just any old dead white guys.  These men were passionate Christians.  They blended an eager commitment to biblical doctrine with an equally zealous drive to live a holy life.  Beeke and Reeves introduce us to some of these men, what they believed, and how they lived. 

In a series of nine short chapters, the authors describe some of the “Puritan Stalwarts,” including Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, and John Bunyan.  I’d liked to have seen Thomas Watson included in there, but alas…  In subsequent chapters (all similarly short), the authors summarize Puritan teaching on the doctrine of God, the order of salvation, and the doctrine of the church.  There are five chapters on “Puritans in Daily Life.”  Following God Fully concludes with three chapters reflecting on the relevance of the Puritans for today.  By the end, you’ve had a delicious appetizer which should make you hungry for more.  The last chapter gives you some direction on where to go next to quench your appetite.

I’ve been reading the Puritans (and about the Puritans) since I was a university student.  Yet this small book taught me some new things.  For example, chapter 39 on marriage mentions the role the Puritans played in the development of the desirability of romance in marriage.  Prior to their era, many marriages were arranged without any consideration for whether there was love between bride and groom.

Beeke and Reeves are honest about the foibles and failures of the Puritans.  Were some of them legalistic?  Undoubtedly.  Did some of them own slaves?  Sadly, yes.  Were some of them unnecessarily wordy and unclear in their writing?  Read John Owen.  However, for every Puritan who was legalistic, there are many more that weren’t.  There were literally hundreds of Puritan pastors and authors.  There will always be some bad apples in the bunch.  But to write them all off would be short-sighted and unfair.

To finish, let me just share a few choice quotes to give you a flavour for what’s in store when you read Following God Fully:

  • Quoting Richard Sibbes:  “Though I have daily experience of my sins, yet there is more righteousness in Christ, who is mine, who is the chief of ten thousand, than there is sin in me.” (p.60)
  • Quoting John Owen:  “…holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel in our souls.” (p.78)
  • “Joseph Alleine said one way to remember the preached Word is to ‘come from your knees to the sermon, and come from the sermon to your knees.’” (p.110)
  • “We need the inward disposition of the Puritans – the authentic, biblical, intelligent piety they understood, taught, and lived – we need that piety in our hearts, lives, churches, and nations.” (p.149)

The Puritans have much to offer, even after all these years.  If you want to grow in your understanding of Christian doctrine and how to become more Christ-like, you’ll soon find that they have few peers amongst modern-day authors.

Originally published in Clarion 72.7 (May 19, 2023)