Two outstanding books
By J.P. Thackway
A PURITAN THEOLOGY by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones.
ENCOURAGEMENT FOR PASTORS by Joel R. Beeke and Tony Slachter
(Full details at the end of this article).
“Of making many books there is no end” says the inspired preacher (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This truth is borne out in our day more than ever before. In the English-speaking world in particular we have an almost embarrassing choice of Christian books to supplement our reading of God’s word. If they are by authors whose aim is to open Scripture and faithfully apply it to our souls, it is to our everlasting profit.
If many of these “many books” never saw the light of day, however, the Christian world would be none the poorer. Not everything, even from reformed publishers, is indispensable. Much, however, is and this is certainly true of the two books under review here. They are markedly different from each other. The first is a hefty hardback measuring 25.5cm by 17cm, consisting of more than 1,000 pages and sixty chapters. The second is a fraction of its size, a mere 211-page paperback with six chapters. What they have in common, however, are the Puritans. Dr. Beeke is a renowned expert in this field, having written, lectured and preached extensively on these great instructors of the Church. In these two works he has collaborated with friends to produce two volumes of immense spiritual value.
A Puritan Theology
Subtitled “Doctrine for Life,” we can see that this bigger book is no mere technical treatment of Puritan theology. That it is scholarly and intellectually demanding is clear. However, its target audience is not mainly academic, although its contribution at this level will be significant. Rather, its appeal is “to Christian laypersons, students of theology, seminarians, and ordained church leaders, such as pastors, ruling elders, and deacons.” This is not unrealistic because the writers have striven for clarity of expression and a style that is readable.
The sixty chapters are arranged under nine categories which form the outline of the book. Before this, however, the Introduction should not be overlooked. This is a succinct overview of Puritans and Puritanism, its five pages skilfully reminding us of their historical setting and what defines a Puritan. No more is needed, since another large book on this subject is available which also comes highly recommended. The rest of the Introduction is about Book and Chapter Aims and is designed to help the reader gain the most benefit from this volume.
In order to show the scope of the book, here are the Contents. Following the Foreword, Acknowledgments and Introduction come the following:
1. The Puritans and Natural and Supernatural Theology
2. Puritan Hermeneutics and Exegesis
3. The Learned Doctor William Ames and The Marrow of Theology
4. Stephen Charnock on the Attributes of God
5. The Puritans on the Trinity
6. John Owen on Communion with the Triune God
7. William Perkins on Predestination
8. Thomas Goodwin and Johannes Maccovius on Justification from
9. Thomas Goodwin’s Christological Supralapsarianism
10. The Puritans on Providence
11. The Puritans on Angels
12. The Puritans on Demons
Anthropology and Covenant Theology
13. The Puritans and the Sinfulness of Sin
14. The Puritans on the Covenant of Works
15. The Puritans on the Covenant of Redemption
16. The Puritans on the Covenant of Grace
17. The Puritans on the Old and New Covenants: A Gracious Moses?
18. The Minority Report: John Owen on Sinai
19. The Puritans on Covenant Conditions
20. The Puritans on Law and Gospel
21. Puritan Christology
22. The Puritans on Christ’s Offices and States
23. The Blood of Christ in Puritan Piety
24. Anthony Burgess on Christ’s Intercession for Us
25. Thomas Goodwin n Christ’s Beautiful Heart
26. The Puritans on Understanding and Using God’s Promises
27. The Puritans on the Holy Spirit
28. Puritan preparatory Grace
29. The Puritans on Regeneration
30. The Puritans on Union with Christ, Justification, and Regeneration
31. John Owen on Justification by Faith Alone.
32. The Puritans on Coming to Christ
33. The Puritans on Living in Christ
34. The Puritans on Adoption.
35. The Puritans on the Third Use of the Law
36. Richard Sibbes on Entertaining the Holy Spirit
37. William Perkins and His Greatest Case of Conscience
38. The Puritans on Perseverance of the Saints
39. The Puritans and the Government of the Church
40. The Puritans on the Office of the Church
41. John Owen on the Christian Sabbath and Worship
42. Puritan Preaching (1)
43. Puritan Preaching (2)
44. John Bunyan’s Preaching to the Heart
45. The Puritans and Paedobaptism
46. The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper
47. Puritan Prayers for world mission
48. “The City on a Hill”: The American Puritans’ Optimistic View of the
49. Thomas Manton on the Judgment according to Works
50. How History Informs the Historicist: Thomas Goodwin’s Reading of
51. Christopher Love on the Glories of Heaven and Terrors of Hell
Theology in Practice
52. Puritan Theology Shaped by a Pilgrim Mentality
53. The Puritans on Walking Godly in the Home
54. Matthew Henry on a Practical Method of Daily Prayer
55. The Puritan Practice of Meditation
56. The Puritans on Conscience
57. Puritan Casuistry
58. Puritan Sacrificial Zeal
59. Practical Lessons from Puritan Theology Today
60. A Final Word
This amounts to a systematic theology according to the Puritans, although they would probably use the term “Body of Divinity.” A typical volume of systematic theology takes the raw materials of Scripture and logically arranges them into various categories of truth. We may well possess or have seen such volumes by Berkhof, Strong, Dabney, Hodge, Reymond, Dagg and others. Here we have how the Puritans did this – in the words of the authors, “an overview of Puritan thought concerning Scripture’s major doctrines, historically and systematically considered.” Or, as someone else has expressed it, “Given that no previous work has ever woven the threads of Puritan teaching into a unified tapestry of systematic theology, A Puritan Theology is a remarkable achievement.”
Let it not be thought, though, that this volume just consists of the words of Puritan authors strung together to cover the various subjects. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones have written much themselves, skilfully giving Puritan writings form and shape in clear writing of their own. The result is Puritan statements of great truths that provide rich and quotable gems that can be found nowhere else. As a random example, what other systematic theology would give help like this on the doctrine of effectual calling?
The Puritans insisted that this effectual calling did not force anyone to act against his will. Rather, the will itself is renewed and changed by an inward work of grace. John Brinsley (1600-1665) wrote that God draws men to Christ by the Word and Spirit, “sweetly overpowering their wills, making them willing to come unto him (reference given in a footnote).” Sibbes wrote,
As the minister speaks to the ear, Christ speaks, opens, and unlocks the heart at the same time; and gives it power to open, not from itself, but from Christ… The manner of working of the reasonable creature, is to work freely by a sweet inclination, not by violence. Therefore when he works the work of conversion, he doth it in a sweet manner, thought it be mighty for the efficaciousness of it.
Because the quotations are all footnoted, the reader can follow them up in the original works, most of which are reprinted these days as books and on digital media.
Readers will recognise from the Contents list a number of well-known Puritans, and some of their treatises. One that helped me some years ago was Thomas Goodwin’s Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners upon Earth, in the Nichol’s Series edition of his works, volume 4. This receives extensive coverage from page 387 under the chapter title, “Thomas Goodwin on Christ’s Beautiful Heart.” “Goodwin’s writings are a shining example of Christ-centred Puritanism,” declare our authors, and to demonstrate this they review his works on Christ’s love to sinners in His crucifixion, and especially in His heavenly ministry toward us in the treatise mentioned above. This is heart-warming and precious, and a great incentive to read Goodwin himself. The Heart of Christ in Heaven is now more accessible as a separate reprint for just £5.00.
To read the Puritans on such a comprehensive range of subjects, one would need to look up hundreds of volumes for a long time. Here it is done for us, and can be looked up in one volume, anytime.
A further blessing of this volume is that these doctrines are not only clothed in Puritan precision, but in warmth of application. As well as being mighty theologians these men were pastors and teachers in the church, ministering to ordinary people, often in troubled circumstances and dangerous times. The teaching comes right down to life and experience and is God’s message to Christians of every generation. Although this is true throughout the volume, notice particularly the last eight chapters entitled “Theology in Practice” and the subjects covered there. It bears out what the authors say on the last page of the book: “The Puritans combined theology with devotion.”
Encouragement for Today’s Pastors
Subtitled, “Help from the Puritans,” here Joel Beeke and his co-author in effect distil the teaching of the first book and give in in the form that cannot fail to help those who would be Puritans today. Ministers of the gospel need encouragement. The strength of this little volume is to show that although times are hard, God is unchanged and His truth is ever the same. What helped these godly men of centuries ago helps us also. Here is no superficial, man-centred uplift, but solid and spiritual counsel that cannot fail to inspire.
The Introduction is valuable in itself. It covers aspects such as, “Causes of Pastoral Discouragement,” the need to “Hold Fast,” and “Why the Puritans?” Then comes the body of the book in six parts, plus an Epilogue. As before, here are the contents to give an idea of the ground covered.
Part One: Piety
1. Zeal for the Ministry of the Word
2. “In Sweet Communion, Lord, with Thee”
3. Encouraged by God’s Promises
Part Two: Sovereignty
4. God gives the Increase
5. Submission to God’s Will
Part Three: Clarity
6. Taking Heed to Doctrine
7. Practising What is Preached
8. The Calling of the Shepherd
Part Four: Creativity and Community
9. History and Science
10. The Communion of Saints
11. A Cloud of Witnesses
Part Five: Dignity
12. “One among a Thousand”
13. Doing the Work of Angels
14. The Urgency and Importance of Preaching the Word
Part Six: Eternity
15. The Reward of Grace
16. The Glories of Heaven
Notice that “Piety” comes before everything else. What we are as ministers counts for more than what we do. Concentration on our life of holy communion with the Lord must lie behind our usefulness for Him. Two other chapters I found particularly helpful were Part Two on divine Sovereignty and the last, Part Four on Eternity. The first of these includes the part called “Predestination and Preaching,” and these words from our authors,
So the pastor cannot bring anyone to Christ. His task is to preach the gospel, trusting God to bring sinners to repentance and faith by His Word and Spirit. If God saves those who listen, He glorifies His grace; if He damns them, He glorifies His justice. Either way, though the preacher yearn for the conversion of all who listen, he may rest in the assurance that God will glorify Himself. That is a comfort to all who love God above all. It takes the weight of man’s eternal destiny off the frail shoulders of preachers and puts in on God.
Another valuable section is “Taking Heed to Doctrine,” which urges and encourages us to equip ourselves for genuinely edifying preaching through diligent use of the Puritans. In addition, “Practising what is Preached” is helpful in the way we apply the truths of scripture to the needs of our people, the Puritans again our exemplary helpers. So much more could be written but I trust this has whetted appetites and commended these volumes to our readers. Either, or both, would make splendid presents for our Pastor, church officers, students for the ministry or Christian friends generally.
A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, 1054 pages, hardback. £32.00 from Metropolitan Tabernacle Bookshop.
Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans. Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter, 211 pages. £8.69 from Amazon.