"Richard Sibbes: Puritianism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England" by Mark Dever

William Inboden
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 2002

Texas politician Jim Hightower famously dismissed moderates with the crack that "the only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos." Texas highways notwith-standing, the English Puritan Richard Sibbes was a moderate in every best sense of the word. Sibbes's moderation enabled him to pursue a fruitful gospel ministry amidst the tempests embroiling seventeenth-century England. "Moderation" should only be applied to Sibbes with caution, however. While he resisted entreaties from his more radical nonconformist friends to leave the declining Church of England, Sibbes's devotion to Christ, the Church, and reformed orthodoxy knew no tempering. Rather, his irenic spirit and wise perceptions shielded him from some of the violent ecclesial and political divisions of the day, and he preached to glorify God and edify his people both then and now.

Alliance council member and contributor to Modern Reformation Mark Dever's biography, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England, stands as the most authoritative treatment of Sibbes yet produced. Dever's work has garnered accolades from eminent scholars of historical theology, among them Richard Muller and Eamon Duffy. And no wonder, for Dever has done a masterful job of resuscitating, from relative obscurity, an eminent figure in the life of the Church. His scrupulous archival research and exhaustive study of Sibbes's writings have produced a comprehensive portrait of Sibbes's life, thought, and historical context. Dever achieves an elusive balance, presenting a book worthy for scholars, pastors, and lay Christians alike.

As a leading cleric in seventeenth-century Cambridge and London, Sibbes deeply influenced many of the Puritans who subsequently repaired to the new hope of New England. In turn, American Puritanism from John Cotton to Jonathan Edwards bears the unmistakable stamp of Sibbes's intellectual and spiritual imprint. Yet, it is as a local English pastor that Sibbes is best understood and appreciated. His sermons resonate with an earnest and tender concern for the spiritual nurture of his flock. While holding faithfully to the doctrines of divine sovereignty and human depravity, he did not shy from the affections. "Oh, what should water my heart, and make it melt in obedience unto my God," he wondered, "but the assurance and knowledge of the virtue of the most precious blood of my Redeemer, applied to my sick soul, in the full and free remission of all my sins, and appeasing the justice of God?"

Against the few scholars who have disparaged Sibbes as a proponent of moralism and mysticism, Dever persuasively defends him as a faithful adherent and proponent of reformed orthodoxy. Contrary to those such as R. T. Kendall who diminish Sibbes's Calvinism, Dever concludes "for Sibbes, the Reformed doctrines of predestination were nothing other than God's love language to his people, a 'delightful determinism'." Likewise in response to those who have accused Sibbes of "preparationism"-and thus an excessive emphasis on human agency in salvation-Dever demonstrates that Sibbes clearly understood the salvation of souls as wholly wrought by God. Sibbes just made unusually effective use of preaching the Word as a means of grace.

The preeminent ecclesial concern of Sibbes's day was whether or not to remain within the increasingly questionable Anglican church. Though his closest friendships and theological sympathies were with the nonconformists who left the Church of England, Sibbes himself chose to stay. He did so not out of timidity but rather humility. Sibbes feared the perils of relying too heavily on unrestrained conscience and maintained a strong sense of deference to authority-both earthly and divine.

Moderate in his disposition and judgments, yet rigorous in his theology and passionate in his devotion to Christ, Sibbes joyfully navigated the turbulent seas of his day in the belief that he lived "in the best tymes of the gospell."

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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