Packer on What 3 Types of Evangelicals Could Learn from the Puritans

What have the Puritans to say to us that might serve to heal the disaffected casualties of modern evangelical goofiness?

The great Puritans were as humble-minded and warm-hearted they were clear-headed, as fully oriented to people as they were to Scripture, and as passionate for peace as they were for truth. They would certainly have diagnosed today’s fixated Christian intellectualists as spiritually stunted, not in their zeal for the form of sound words but in their lack of zeal for anything else; and the thrust of Puritan teaching about God’s truth in man’s life is still potent to ripen such souls into whole and mature human beings.

 

J.I. Packer, writing more than 30 years ago in A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990), 31–34:

Our numbers, it seems, have increased in recent years, and a new interest in the old paths of evangelical theology has grown. For this we should thank God.

But not all evangelical zeal is according to knowledge, nor do the virtues and values of the biblical Christian life always come together as they should, and three groups in particular in today’s evangelical world seem very obviously to need help of a kind that Puritans, as we meet them in their writings, are uniquely qualified to give.

These I call

  • restless experientialists,
  • entrenched intellectualists, and
  • disaffected deviationists.

They are not, of course, organised bodies of opinion, but individual persons with characteristic mentalities that one meets over and over again.

Take them, now, in order.

1. Restless Experientialists

Those whom I call restless experientialsts are a familiar breed, so much so that observers are sometimes tempted to define evangelicalism in terms of them.

Their outlook is one of casual haphazardness and fretful impatience, of grasping after novelties, entertainments, and ‘highs’, and of valuing strong feelings above deep thoughts.

They have little taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in their callings and their prayers.

They conceive the Christian life as one of exciting extraordinary experiences rather than of resolute rational righteousness.

They dwell continually on the themes of joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction and rest of souls with no balancing reference to the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or the ‘lows’ of Psalms 42, 88, and 102.

Through their influence the spontaneous jollity of the simple extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, while saints of less sanguine and more complex temperament get driven almost to distraction because they cannot bubble over in the prescribed manner. In her restlessness these exuberant ones become uncritically credulous, reasoning that the more odd and striking an experience the more divine, supernatural, and spiritual it must be, and they scarcely give the scriptural virtue of steadiness a thought.

It is no counter to these defects to appeal to the specialised counselling techniques that extrovert evangelicals have developed for pastoral purposes in recent years; for spiritual life is fostered, and spiritual maturity engendered, not by techniques but by truth, and if our techniques have been formed in terms of a defective notion of the truth to be conveyed and the goal to be aimed at they cannot make us better pastors or better believers than we were before. The reason why the restless experientialists are lopsided is that they have fallen victim to a form of worldliness, a man-centered, anti-rational individualism, which turns Christian life into a thrill-seeking ego-trip. Such saints need the sort of maturing ministry in which the Puritan tradition has specialised.

What Puritan emphases can establish and settle restless experientialists? These, to start with.

Read More