A Soft Critique of “A Puritan Theology”

A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life There are many parts of A Puritan Theology that are simply outstanding (which I’ve mentioned before here on the blog).  As a whole, this book is a great resource that serves as an extended intro to the theology of the Puritans.  However, as I’ve been reading sections of it, I do have some concerns.  Before explaining, I want to note that it is very difficult to write and edit a book like this – over 900 pages of theology summarizing the Puritans is a tough task.  Nobody could write this book in a way that would satisfy everyone.  So the following critiques are “soft” critiques.

My first general critique is that though the book is structured like a systematic theology (ST) book, it really isn’t one.  I was expecting the book to be an objective summary of what the Puritans taught on each head of doctrine, but sometimes the authors use one Puritan to talk about a doctrine rather than give a general consensus.  Other times the authors don’t follow the traditional ST outline.  This isn’t a big deal in itself, but I believe the book would be even better if it was more objectively ST.

My second general critique is related to the first.  There are two specific chapters which troubled me: the chapter on the covenant of works and the chapter on the law/gospel distinction.  The chapter on the covenant of works was poorly organized.  Rather than discuss the covenant of works systematically like Watson, Turretin, Boston, and Witsius (etc.), the authors seemed to be all over the place.  In this chapter you won’t find a traditional outline (covenant parties, promises, conditions, penalties, etc.).  Rather, the authors spend time talking about Adam’s faith, the ‘grace’ in the covenant of works, and whether Adam was made ‘in’ a covenant or ‘for’ a covenant.  If my count is correct, Witsius was only mentioned once in this chapter – in a footnote.  I could be wrong here, but it seemed to me like the authors were using the Puritans to interact with some present day covenant theology discussions.  There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but I would rather have learned what the Puritans said about the classic systematic definition of the covenant of works.

The chapter on “The Puritans on the Law and Gospel” was disappointing because it really didn’t give a full summary of the Puritan’s views on the law/gospel distinction.  The authors didn’t even define the law/gospel distinction.  In fact, the law/gospel distinction wasn’t really even mentioned aside from a note that the Reformed theologians differed from the Lutherans on this point (which is only partially true).  The chapter was more about antinomianism and how the Puritans were against it.  Again, it seemed like this discussion had more to do with the current antinomian debate than a summary of the Puritan’s law/gospel teaching.  I would have liked to see quotes and explanations of men like Perkins, Boston, and Bolton – and how they clearly distinguished the law and the gospel.  In fact, Perkins, Boston, and Bolton aren’t even mentioned in this chapter; it is simply incomplete.

Again, I realize writing a book like this is incredibly difficult.  The authors should be heartily commended for their work on A Puritan Theology – a book which will no doubt benefit many who read it.  However, it isn’t without flaws, some of the outlines and points made are debatable, and we would do well to use this book to help us read the Puritans themselves.  As the authors rightly note, when we read the Puritans they drive us back to the word of God, and the God of the word (cf. A Puritan Theology, p. 26).

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).

shane lems
hammond, wi

5 Replies to “A Soft Critique of “A Puritan Theology””

  1. In certain areas more than others I definitely felt that the authors (I believe Mark Jones wrought all the chapters you mention) were using the Puritans really to put forward their particular views on matters and thumbing through them to address issues of the past 50 years. I was disappointed that neither of the chapters you mention seem to have a concrete conclusion on the matters but seem to just try to cloud previously thought conclusion. So by talking about grace in the CoW and Adams faith it makes talking about or emphasizing the CoW irrelevant. I think it is probably more evident in a lot of Jones writing on Law/Gospel and his chapter in Puritan Theology. He tends to throw typical over simplified summaries of the distinction out there and then show how we might talk about them differently (like the curses of the NT or threats of the gospel) and then conclude therefore the distinction is unhelpful and shouldn’t be used (or worse its Lutheran and antinomian). I prefer to stick with people like Bavinck who treats law and gospel in his means of grace section and I don’t feel Lutheran for it.

    I am curious to know what you thought about the chapters on the mosaic covenant (there are two;both written by Jones). I thought it was the first chapter on it was better treatment of the puritan consensus and debate. Probably because he uses one chapter to discuss puritan consensus and the Westminster standards and still had a chapter devoted to Owen’s peculiar view. But what did you think of his conclusions in that section? Do you think he was saying anything different than from what Vos was saying in your post last week?

    I am also curious as to your thoughts on Jones chapter on Covenant Conditions. Especially the section on the necessity of works. Much this material has been similarly published in his book on antinomianism and blog post. While I whole-heartedly affirm his critiques of Tullian (though I wouldn’t call him a full fledged antinomian) yet I find some of Jones answers and language concerning, unclear, and just not a helpful antidote. What are your thoughts on the language of works are necessary for “possesion of life” vs. “right to life”. Or that they are “necessary for retaining and preserving a state of justification” also his repeated emphasis on works as “a way to life” instead of “a way of life”. He also says (p.314) that “to deny works as the way to heaven was in fact an antinomian error.” He has also recently spoke of the “efficacy” of good works, and even in clarification did not shy away from the language. Also do you have any thoughts on the section for Final Judgment According to Works? (These are a lot of questions, maybe a soft critique part 2). Sorry for a long comment, I hate being “that guy” and this is probably the second time I’ve ever commented on a blog.


    1. Brian – thanks for your comments, I appreciate them much. Glad you wrote it out! I’d be glad to carry the conversation on via email or phone perhaps, since detailed interaction via comment threads aren’t always helpful. My email is on the “contact” section of our church’s website (www.covenantopc.net). Thanks, shane


  2. I was planning on reading it in the not too distant future but wondered how it treated Law and Gospel, among a few other things. Especially in light of the current debates, so I’m glad you addresed it and I’m disappointed that they didn’t do it justice, or really on the covenant of works. I’m still looking forward to going through it and I appreciate the heads up on this beforehand.


    1. Thanks, Ruben, for the notes. You’ll enjoy it no doubt, and benefit from it. Even in the places where you may have questions, it’ll stimulate thinking and maybe get you to read some of the Puritans in their own words (if you haven’t already!). shane


  3. Thank you, Shane, for this post. I skimmed through the Law/Gospel section and could tell it was bent toward a bias… It bothers me that this kind of scholarship has gone on unchecked and has been used to dishonor well meaning pastors and theologians. So- thank you for your post… and for the respectful way you wrote about this.


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