Book Reviews: Historical accounts of the Puritans and God’s redemptive plan
Books | Caleb Nelson
Nineteenth-century novelists, rather than historical fact, are responsible for most modern people’s mental picture of the Puritans. Packer, well-known theology professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, has labored for decades to change that. Puritan Portraits: J.I. Packer on Selected Classic Pastors and Pastoral Classics (Christian Focus Publications, 2012), a collection of the introductions Packer has written for Christian Focus’ Puritan reprint series, is one of the fruits of that labor. Containing profiles of nine exemplary Puritan ministers, plus an essay on the beginnings and aims of the Puritan movement, Puritan Portraits is a set of devotional biographies—and a powerful corrective to historical misconception.
Here are the more famous Puritans—John Bunyan and John Owen—and the less well-known—John Flavel, William Perkins, Thomas Boston. In Packer’s treatment, Puritanism shows its true colors. It was a movement dedicated to the personal apprehension of faith in Christ by every human being. During the ministry of Richard Baxter, for example, who was Anglican rector at Kidderminster, nearly the whole village was converted. When Baxter arrived in 1647, only one family per street showed any signs of being Christians; when he departed 15 years later, in some streets, only one family remained unconverted.
The Puritans flourished from 1560 to 1710, and they ministered by writing as well as preaching, counseling, and catechizing. Their works are strongly practical, says Packer, and he cannot resist quoting large sections to prove it. If you need to know what repentance is and how to do it, or if you find yourself dealing with a sin that just will not go away, then Puritan Portraits has advice for you. Packer’s purpose is obvious: He not only wants readers to know about the Puritans and get a few good quotes, he also wants his readers to put down Puritan Portraits and pick up the original works of these godly men.
The main point of Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (IVP Academic, 2012) is for all Christians: God’s saving work in history has moved in three stages. First came creation and fall. In the second stage, God responded to the fall by calling Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. When Israel entered the Promised Land and King David reigned in Jerusalem, God’s people appeared to be close to realizing His promises to Abraham. And then Israel went down the tubes and Judah quickly followed. Yet even as their nations were decaying around them, the prophets kept talking about a future time when the booth of David would be picked back up and God would again dwell with His people in His land. The prophets too soon fell silent, and the Israelites were left a colonized people, aliens in their own land.
In the third stage, a man was born in Roman Palestine. This Man lived, died, and rose again—and in so doing, says the New Testament, He fulfilled all the promises and prophecies. Even though the prophets had been speaking in terms of physical blessings, their true meaning was spiritual. Jesus Christ is the singular seed of Abraham through whom all the families of the earth are being blessed.
Goldsworthy has been a theology professor for more than 50 years, and he decorates this basic storyline with some autobiographical touches, some academic citations and arguments, and a few retractions. Few general readers will be interested enough to follow his argument through the entire book, or appreciate his small disagreements with the likes of Geerhardus Vos. Yet his main point is one that needs to be heard throughout Christendom. In the blizzard of sermons and commentaries on short passages, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Goldsworthy restores that vision to his readers.
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