How to Read the Puritan Paperbacks

This is a slightly edited repost from June, 2010.

If you’ve followed this blog for the past few years, you know that we enjoy the little Banner of Truth series of books called “Puritan Paperbacks.”  To be honest, the first time I (Shane) read one of these Paperbacks (I forget which one), I didn’t really enjoy it or appreciate it.  I thought it was too tedious, detailed, and ancient.  That was twelve years ago; now I have about seventeen of them and have benefited from them in many ways.  Here are a few things that have helped me read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit.  This list also applies to other Puritan books, for sure, but to keep it shorter, I’m thinking primarily of the Paperbacks.

To read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit, 

1) Know your systematic theology.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in systematics to benefit from them, but if you know your basic systematics (i.e. the attributes of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the ordo salutis, etc.) it will be easier to read the Paperbacks.  For example, if you know the Westminster Standards well, or study Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, it will make reading the Paperbacks more enjoyable – you’ll be able to see that when the Puritans do “go deep,” they’re staying in the Reformed categories.  When I realized this, it made it easier and more edifying to read the Puritans on sanctification, because (just for one example) I knew that even when they were quite detailed, they were not blending it with justification.

2) Stick with it.  The archaic language and grammar is tough at first (you may need a dictionary!), and even daunting, but after a few Paperbacks you get used to it.  Be patient.  Remember that these authors wrote several hundred years ago, so the language and illustrations will be different (I still chuckle when I come across a word like “compunction”).  And as with all books, don’t be surprised when there are a few sections here and there that are less helpful than others.   Start with a short Paperback and perhaps read a chapter/section or two a week.  One good Paperback to read first is Thomas Watson’s ‘Repentance’ because it is short, clear, and very helpful – it won’t overwhelm you.  Similarly, Watson’s ‘All Things for Good,’ and Bunyan’s ‘All Love’s Excelling’ are short and clear.   Don’t read the longer and harder ones until later.  For example, wait quite awhile until you read The Sinfulness of Sin, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, and others that are detailed and over 200 pages.

3) Take notes.  When I read a Paperback, I have a pencil and highlighter in hand to mark the best sections.  I also make my own index in the back cover so that when I study a certain topic later I can just pull the Paperback off my shelf, turn to the back cover, find the topic and page number that I wrote, and turn there to find it highlighted/underlined.  You may want to do the same for certain Scripture references since the books don’t have scriptural indexes.  You’ll profit in the long run from reading these books by making your own topical or scriptural index so you can use them in your future studies and devotions.  I’ve also heard of some people keeping a reading journal of sorts.  Either way, taking notes on these books is helpful and edifying.

4) Approach reading the Paperbacks differently than you do other books.  The genre of these books is quite different than other things we read from day to day, so read them when you’re in the mood for deeper Christian writing.  Pray that the book will teach, convict, and comfort you in Christ.  If you approach the Paperbacks realizing that they are not newspaper articles, Christian Amish fiction novels, or other Christian fluff books, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to read.  I don’t recommend reading the Puritans on a tablet because if you’re not self-disciplined enough, you’ll be tempted to check email or browse the web when the reading becomes difficult.  I also find that I profit best from these books when I space them out a bit.  Reading them too often is something like too much of a good thing.  And, of course, it is good to vary our reading material; we should read the Puritans, but we should read other authors from other centuries as well.

In summary, I think with some time and effort, most Christians who are “readers” will be able to understand these books, profit from them, and learn to appreciate the Puritans at least to some extent.  Though I don’t elevate the Puritans above other writers/teachers, they have have taught me much about sin, salvation, and serving Christ.  Even if you don’t get “into” the Puritans, I challenge you to at least read a few shorter Puritan Paperbacks.  And I should warn you that once you’ve read a few of these Paperbacks, it just might make you realize how trendy, simple, and “thin” many modern Christian books are (you’ve been warned)!

By the way – one other great thing about these Paperbacks is that they are usually priced well under $10. 

rev shane lems