"The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics Edited" by Kelly M. Kaic and Randall C. Gleason

Henry Knapp
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2005

I initially approached this collection of essays on "classic Puritan works" with the dread of pending disappointment, fearful that no such collection could do justice to breadth and scope of the movement. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by The Devoted Life. The essays gathered here introduce "some of the very best literature" from the Puritan period, "a distilled list of texts worthy of the layperson's time." The editors offer these as a portrait of a life devoted to Christ, highlighting the Christian experience of communion with God, individual and corporate spiritual revival, biblical preaching, and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. One of the obvious strengths of the collection is the quality of the contributing authors-many prominent, reputable scholars in Puritan studies are represented here (J.I. Packer, Leland Ryken, Sinclair Ferguson, Richard Lovelace, Joel Beeke), as well as some lesser-known, yet promising, researchers. Another strength is the selection of which Puritan works to identify as "classics." It would, I suppose, be impossible to generate a list which would satisfy every interested person, but I questioned the inclusion of only one or two at the expense of others. My only real quibble is the omission of anything from the Westminster Assembly, certainly a defining highpoint of Puritan life and thought.

As with all such collections, the individual pieces vary in terms of quality and approach to the material. Nearly every essay provides a short biography of the Puritan author, offering the reader an inspiring glimpse into twenty different faithful lives, and, in keeping with the stated goal of introducing these works to a modern audience, most include an overview of the classic work, its impact on contemporary and future generations, and its value for the reader today. The best essays also interact with modern critical scholarship: did William Ames' voluntarism fall outside Reformed orthodoxy? Was Thomas Goodwin's separation of justification and assurance a radical departure from the reformers' position? A few of the essays provide helpful insight into the historical context of their respective works: the pastoral concerns in England underlying Richard Baxter's Reformed Pastor, the familial events giving rise to Anne Bradstreet's poetry, and the impact and questions surrounding the revivals in Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections. The introductions to The Letters of Samuel Rutherford and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress motivate one to read the works themselves, and the essay on John Milton would serve well as a reading guide to Paradise Lost. Unfortunately, not enough of the essays deal either with critical scholarship issues or the original context of the writings; many simply summarize the content of the book in question, leaving the reader to wonder if they should bother reading the original at all.

One of the more disappointing aspects of this collection is the opening essay where the editors attempt to discuss the nature of the Puritan movement. Under, I suppose, the guise of "evenhandedness," the editors begin the essay by recounting the common caricatures of the Puritans throughout the ages. Yet the very presence of the book belies their own acceptance of these caricatures, and merely mentioning them without criticism or assessment perpetuates the pejorative stereotypes. Their attempt to offer a definition of "Puritan" is also unsatisfying: spurning either a theological definition grounded in the post-Reformation Reformed movement, or an ecclesiastical one emphasizing conflicts with the established Church of England, the editors propose "a more inclusive definition"-so inclusive, in fact, as to be applicable to Christians throughout the ages. The history of the Puritan movement is adequately summarized in a dozen or so paragraphs, and a list of seven characteristics well describing the core Puritan values and beliefs is briefly discussed. The concluding essay by Richard Lovelace links the Puritan movement with the revivals of the following centuries.

Two final complaints: first, the version of the volume I read (provided before press) still needed some significant editing-too many typos are present, the formatting is annoyingly inconsistent, and some essays could have benefited from an economization of the prose. The second is almost inexcusable in a collection with seeks to introduce these texts to the layperson: the authors often cite editions which are inaccessible to the common reader. Even when a modern version (albeit, frequently abridged or "modernized") is available (as with the works by Edwards, Boston, Goodwin, and Owen) the essays often refer to an edition published in the Puritan's collected works. Finding any copy of John Howe's "classic" published in the last century or more might well be impossible. As the stated goal is to direct the layperson to these texts, this problem should not have occurred.

These shortcomings, however, do not negate the overall quality and value of this volume. In general the essays successfully express the depth of devotion typified by the Puritans and inspire the reading of the texts. The editors have done a great service by highlighting these particular works, and our congregations should be exposed to their riches.

Thursday, May 3rd 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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