“A Puritan Theology” – A Somewhat Critical Review

A Puritan Theology

(This review was originally published here in June, 2014)

There are many parts of A Puritan Theology that are helpful – I’ve mentioned some here on this blog.  As a whole, this book is a good 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 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.  Furthermore, as the authors rightly note, when we read the Puritans they shoud drive us back to the word of God, and the God of the word (cf. p. 26).

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

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015