A significant figure in a variety of circles, J. I. Packer is one of the last voices representing the generation of British evangelicals with roots in the Reformation. Packer is articulate, warm, and evangelical in the best sense of the word. His latest invitation to the evangelical community to join him in appreciating and learning from the older English Reformed piety and theology comes as a series of introductions to British Reformed writers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and an epilogue on the value of the Puritans as models for pastoral ministry.
Inasmuch as it is intended, however, to introduce the uninitiated to “the Puritans,” some cautions are in order. First, the very designation “the Puritans” is a better marketing catchphrase than historical denominator. This is illustrated by Packer’s own conflicting account of the term. For example, he notes that it was originally intended as an epithet and thus “the Puritans” did not use it of themselves (12)—although Richard Baxter (1615-91), one of Packer’s favorites, thought of himself as a “Puritan” (158). This is the problem with writing about “the Puritans.” Like modern “evangelicals,” the more closely one looks at them the more they seem to disappear.
Under one cover, Packer presents Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Congregationalists as Puritans. So they were not united by church polity. They were not united in their view of the sacraments, hermeneutics, or reading of redemptive history. As they say on Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the others.” Richard Baxter does not belong in a collection of otherwise orthodox Reformed writers. He was decidedly heterodox on the doctrine of justification and was regarded so by John Owen (1616-83), whom Packer describes as one of the three greatest Reformed theologians (81). Thus apparently “the Puritans” were not united on the article upon which depends the “standing or falling of the church” (J. H. Alsted, 1618). If to be a “Puritan” meant it was not necessary to be orthodox on justification, to agree on the nature of the church and her sacraments, and any number of other related issues, then one is hard-pressed to see how Packer could nevertheless claim that “the Puritans” were “theologically homogeneous” (23) and that they had a “connected view of God, of the Bible, of the world, of ourselves, of salvation, of the church, of history and of the future” (72). “The Puritans” as Packer himself describes them in this volume do not quite display that sort of unity. What is it, then, according to Packer that really unifies them? It was their “close communion” with God (12) and their “deep sense of the reality of the holy God who impacts every life” (13). There was, he argues, a “Puritan mind-set” (26) that consisted in a commitment to doctrinal and ethical precision and thoroughness in their exposition of Scripture (23-26).
A volume titled A Variety of English Pastors with Varying Sympathies with the Reformation and United by Similar Method and Passion for Holiness would not be nearly as marketable as a volume on “The Puritans,” but it would be more accurate. That it may be method as much as theology, piety, and practice that united these authors may explain why American evangelicals of diverse theological persuasions identify with “the Puritans” in one way or another.
We should be thankful that Packer reminds us that R. T. Kendall fundamentally misunderstood William Perkins (153), but the reader will lament that Packer perpetuates the stereotype about “rationalistic” supralapsarianism (154-55).
Finally, the author’s more than half a century of enthusiasm for Baxter manifests itself in another way: his strange account of the English Reformed assessment of Rome. He rightly says that the Reformed considered Rome as a “false religion” (18-19); but when he says, “Roman Catholicism as they knew it, or thought they knew it” (19), he implies that Perkins et al. were mistaken in their assessment. “Rightly or wrongly, Puritans generally saw the Roman Catholic Church as embodying the principle of justification by meritorious works.” Perhaps they thought such because Rome declared this doctrine as dogma at the Council of Trent in 1547? Readers should do their own reading and start with William Perkins’s 1597 treatise, “A Reformed Catholic,” in which he carefully lays out the areas of agreement between Rome and the Reformed, and then just as carefully explains how the Reformed are the genuine heirs of a truly catholic (universal) Christian faith and how Rome degenerated into sectarianism.
J. I. Packer has served us all well for a very long time. Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958), Knowing God (1973), and other titles have offered us paths back to Reformed theology and piety. The present volume is typical Packer: warm, well written, and engaging. It does its job of enticing readers to read “the Puritans” for themselves, to pray while they study, and to study while they pray.