Packer’s Puritan Portraits: Solid Reading, Not Entirely New


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puritan portraits cover courtesy christian focus (publisher)J. I. Packer. Puritan Portraits: J. I. Packer on Selected Classic Pastors and Pastoral Classics . Ross-shire, Scotland, U.K.: Christian Focus Publications, 2012. Kindle (Mobi) Format. ISBN 978-1-78191-076-4. (Location numbers in the review are sometimes approximate.)

For some years, an introduction by J. I. Packer has served among Protestant evangelicals a function roughly equivalent that of the nihil obstat among Roman Catholics. For a Protestant evangelical like myself to give a Packer publication something other than five stars would be unusual. Though not at all averse to being unusual, I have opted not to do the unusual in this case. Five stars.

Five stars does not mean “perfect” or “a good purchase for anyone and everyone,” however. Potential buyers should know that the bulk of this volume is not new material. Puritan Portraits is primarily a promotional piece, an extended advertisement, for Puritan devotional works, particularly for those Packer would like to see read and internalized by contemporary pastors. (These works, one should note, are not to be confused with the fluff that passes for “devotional” writing today, which neither Packer nor the Puritans would deem worth one’s reading time.) Make no mistake, this is an informative promotional piece, and readers unfamiliar with the Puritans might find it as serviceable an introduction to them as any. Nevertheless, its central purpose is clearly to promote and advertise the Puritans and their work, not to stand alone as a reference.

Packer’s motivation for this promotional piece may best be seen be skipping forward to his epilogue, “The Puritan Pastor’s Programme” (starting loc. 2425). Noting the often-stated observation that “the church of God on earth, always and everywhere, is just one generation from extinction” (loc. 2458), Packer suggests that “much of Western Christianity” is headed toward extinction and that the only thing that “can stop the rot and turn the tide” is “a renewed embrace of the Puritan ideal of ministerial service” (loc. 2463). After noting that the state of the church is not so dire in all areas of the globe (he sees promising developments in Asia and Africa), Packer observes that in “our post-Christian, secularised, materialistic, arrogant, drifting Western world….the Christian message is mocked, the church is marginalised and ghettoised, and too many clergy persons see their role in explicitly defensive terms, as keeping the institutional wheels going round…and keeping their congregations feeling good” (loc. 2466). Church leaders have “lost their way,” leaving “small hope for the rank and file.” Obviously, renewal is called for, and “the Puritan ideal for pastors,” being an accurate outworking of New Testament teaching, “is the foundational reality on which all ventures in church renewal must be based, otherwise they will fail continually until finally all is lost” (loc. 2475).

The need to promote wider reading of Puritan works, particularly among contemporary church leaders in the West, is therefore a pressing one; hence the present volume. Puritan Portraits comprises a prologue (starting loc. 75) describing the Puritan concept of “devotion” as including “an appetite for learning and wisdom from didactic study and exposition of Scripture” (starting loc. 75; quote loc. 80); an historical overview of “the Puritan era” (c. 1560-1710)(loc. 107) and some of its leading characters and concerns (“Puritan Pastors at Work,” starting loc. 99); reproductions of Packer’s introductions to nine modern editions of Puritan works by seven Puritan authors, each including an image of that edition’s cover and an ISBN number for would-be purchasers (“Puritan Pastors in Profile,” starting loc. 386); a set of essays describing two leading Puritans, William Perkins and Richard Baxter, and their work (“Two Puritan Paragons,” starting loc. 1613: “William Perkins (1558-1602): A Puritan Pioneer,” starting loc. 1628; “Richard Baxter (1615-1691): A Man for All Ministries,” starting loc. 2089); and the aforementioned “Epilogue: The Puritan Pastor’s Programme” (starting loc. 2452).

The introductions are from the following works, which Packer notes are still available for purchase (loc. 405), numbered here in accord with Packer’s outline: (1) The Life of God in the Soul of Man, by Henry Scougal (ISBN 978-1-78191-107-5, starting loc. 411); (2) Christ Crucified, by Stephen Charnock (ISBN 978-1-84550-976-7, starting loc. 541); (3) The Heavenly Footman, by John Bunyan (ISBN 978-1-84550-650-6, starting loc. 704 ); (4) The Pleasantness of a Religious Life, by Matthew Henry (ISBN 978-1-84550-651-3, starting loc. 855); (5) The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen (ISBN 978-1-84550-977-4, starting loc. 991); (6) Keeping the Heart, by John Flavel (ISBN 978-1-84550-648-3, starting loc. 1150 ); (7 a,b, and c) The Art of Man Fishing, The Crook in the Lot, and Repentance, all by Thomas Boston (ISBNs 978-1-78191-108-2, 978-1-84550-649-0, 978-1-84550-975-0, and starting locs. 1231 , 1371 , 1499 , respectively). In multiple of the introductions, Packer provides an overview of basic Puritan theology, typically with reference to the Westminster standards (Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, etc.). These overviews, each somewhat different, should give one a good grasp of Reformed doctrine in Puritan mode, enhancing what one will have learned from the preface and “Puritan Pastors at Work.”

Though you could be annoyed at being asked to pay for a set of introductions from other works, it helps to remember that everything the Puritans wrote has long since passed into the public domain and that the works they intended for general readership are in English, albeit with now-odd spellings and words no longer in general use. Of course, if you are one of those readers who, for instance, finds the King James Bible too Elizabethan to endure, you may need to seek out and pay for modernized editions of Puritan works, assuming Packer’s Portraits makes you want to read them.

Packer is not at all vague about what contemporary church leaders are missing by failing to read and internalize Puritan insights. “Many ministers,” he writes, “are unclear as to what they should tell their congregations about holiness and godliness, and many church people are quite lost when it comes to the specifics of spelling out, commending and living the Christian life” (loc. 118). Today, clear instruction in “self-management” and “structured obedience” (locs. 86, 115), both as to methods and motivation, is sorely lacking. A reappropriation of Puritan teaching might help correct this. Pastors and parishioners who sense, as Packer does, that there is something missing in contemporary approaches to spiritual formation or discipleship, or who feel contemporary writings on spiritual disciplines are inadequate, may wish to peruse Puritan Portraits, then acquire and study some or all of the works recommended there.

Some specifics from Packer’s introductions (“Puritan Pastors in Profile”) may give the reader a better sense of the value Packer sees in these particular Puritan works. Such might also enable the reader to better gauge the utility of Packer’s introductions themselves.

The first introduction is for Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. This work, Packer notes, was a favorite of Oxford’s Holy Club, and so an important influence on the revivalism of Whitefield and Wesley (loc. 434). What this text taught Whitefield, who credited it with providing his first exposure to “true religion” (loc. 414), and what it might teach contemporary pastors and their flocks, is “the inwardness and supernaturalness of biblical godliness” (loc. 447). A sense of Scougal’s relevance to the above-mentioned need for more precise guidance on self-management may be seen in his definition of “purity,” which Packer quotes: it is “a due abstractedness from the body and mastery over inferior appetites…such a temper and disposition of mind as makes a man despise and abstain from all pleasures and delights of sense or fancy which are sinful in themselves, or tend to…lessen our relish of more divine [i.e., God-centered, Packer explains] and intellectual [i.e., rational, Packer notes]…pleasures” (loc. 463). Whereas today’s Christians freely grant the necessity of avoiding things “sinful in themselves,” they respond (the reviewer has observed) less positively to calls to abstain from things that are not sinful solely because those things seem to have a negative effect on one’s relish for more God-centered and rational pursuits. (Accusations of “legalism,” or of “meddlin’,” as my pastor puts it, are common.) Perhaps wider reading of Scougal, or at least of this Packer introduction, might help more Christians to realize that it is only by nurturing one’s relish for the God-centered and rational that one can hope to achieve real success in avoidance of things sinful in themselves. (If that means, for instance, giving up a favorite television program or skipping movies that, while well-produced and mostly worthwhile, contain some objectionable content, so be it.) In sum, "Real Christians will gain from Scougal a healthy reminder that heart-change and character-change thence resulting is what their faith is all about” (loc. 530), and perhaps some practical guidance on helping this character-change become more pronounced.

Next is Packer’s introduction to Stephen Charnock’s Christ Crucified. While Packer grants that "Charnock’s expositions, though clear and deep, sometimes seem cool and dry” (loc. 615), he still believes Christ Crucified worth reading. Christian faith’s “central focus…is the knowledge, conceptual and relational, objective and personal, of Christ crucified….knowledge that involves both the head and the heart, and that begets a new loyalty, a new love and a new life” (loc. 548), and Charnock offers a detailed treatment of this subject that merits reading. Packer does not hide those aspects of Charnock that current readers might find off-putting. Charnock’s writing is dense and economical, “bony” like portraits of the man, and requires sustained attention (locs. 560, 563, etc.). Nevertheless, Christ Crucified “will not baffle today’s attentive reader in any way” (loc. 580), and can be found useful devotional reading if one suitably prepares oneself ahead of time. The specific preparation Packer suggests is a reflection on some hymns by Isaac Watts (“When I survey the wondrous cross….”; “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed And did my Sovereign die?….”)and Augustus Toplady (“From whence this fear and unbelief?….”)(locs. 629-696). It is Packer’s belief that, once one has entered into a suitably worshipful state of appreciation for Christ’s work on the cross (“with the preciousness of the cross to you firmly fixed in your mind and heart through meditating on these lyrics”), one will be able to read Charnock with due appreciation and benefit.

Packer next introduces The Heavenly Footman, by John Bunyan, best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. Packer’s summary makes clear why he believes The Heavenly Footman merits reading: "The Heavenly Footman, first to last, is a single sustained exhortation to run, to run hard, and to keep running, along the path of life. Bunyan…concentrates on raising consciousness and generating commitment with regard to gaining heaven and escaping hell. Here, as in other of his homiletical writings, Bunyan’s intensity almost overwhelms you” (loc. 827). The work, in other words, is motivational, helping to sustain passion for the “self-management” serious faith calls for, and so is a worthwhile addition to Packer’s church renewal reading list.

Next: Matthew Henry’s The Pleasantness of a Religious Life. This collection of sermons, which Henry sent to the press shortly before his death in 1714, is another work of Puritan motivation. Starting with a quotation from Proverbs 3:17, The Pleasantness of a Religious Life points out that “nothing draws more forcibly than pleasure” and that “true piety has true pleasure in it” (loc. 872-74), then proceeds to unpack just how this is the case. Henry’s work, Packer states, is "as true and wise today as ever it was. We too get told, sometimes by our secular friends, sometimes by our own morbid thoughts, that being a Christian is a bleak and burdensome business, and not being a Christian would be more fun; we too, like Henry’s first hearers and readers, need to be reminded that it is absolutely not so” (loc. 895-97). If one finds piety unpleasant in a way that seems to confute Henry’s (and Packer’s) claim, the reviewer would suggest that one perhaps must more diligently apply Scougal (above) before questioning Henry. One may also wish to take careful note of Henry’s own words, which Packer quotes: “Believe, that in our present state, the soul and the body have separate and contesting interests; the body thinks it is in its interest to have its appetites gratified, and to be indulged in its pleasures; while the soul knows it is in its interest to have the appetites of the body subdued and mortified, that spiritual pleasures may be the better relished” (loc. 976-81). In other words, as one also learns from Scougal (or infers from Packer’s introduction to Scougal), there are two sets of ostensible “pleasures,” two forms of “joy,” to choose from, and each works against the other. A refinement of tastes in line with God’s own standards is in order, and internalization of Puritan writing, perhaps beginning with internalization of Packer’s distillations of key thoughts from the same, should help effect such refinement. With time, one should be able to find “mental pleasure and joy at every turn” just as the Puritans themselves did: “Thought-control,” in sum, “in realising the reality of God present each moment to bless, is the secret” (loc. 985-89), and Henry’s text is one more Puritan aid to such though-control.

Packer next introduces John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, a text especially dear to Packer because it delivered him from the unrealistic and self-destructive “let go, and let God” or “higher life” understanding of sanctification (locs. 1012-15, 1037-41, etc.). The book allowed Packer to realize that he must expect, not achievement of an easy “higher life” at some point, but “Lifelong conflict with the besetting sins that [internal, indwelling] besetting sin [sinfulness, corruption] generates” (loc. 1050). In terms of the Reformed division of the Holy Spirit’s progressive work in Christians into two aspects, Owen’s text deals with the negative aspect, mortification (killing) of sins (the positive aspect is the vivification, bringing to life, of virtues)(loc. 1088-90). Owen provides “a series of things to know, and things to do” that help Christians acquire strength to repudiate indwelling sin’s prompting [“inordinate desire,” loc. 1149] and “to fortify [themselves] against bad habits by forming good ones contrary to them” (locs. 1102-3, 1054-5). In sum, "This small work is a spiritual gold mine” and Packer “cannot commend it highly enough” (loc. 1111).

Next is John Flavel’s Keeping the Heart. This text guides readers in a spiritual discipline Packer suggests calling “admonitory meditation,” meaning, “in effect, talking to oneself before the Lord, reminding oneself of truths about the ways of God and the grace of Christ that will energise and stabilise one for a return to, and continuance on, the path of faithfulness, no matter what” (loc. 1213-18). Keeping the Heart provides practical and specific guidance as to the lines of thought most helpful in this process of “thoughtful inward arguing with ourselves” (loc. 1221-24), and so earns Packer’s endorsement.

Packer then introduces three works by Thomas Boston. The first of these is The Art of Man-Fishing. Concerning the first half of this text, Packer writes: "Evangelism was not a word that Boston knew, but evangelism, in the sense of awakening the unconverted to their need of Christ, leading them to faith and repentance, and establishing them in the new life to which his own self-analysis testifies, is what ‘man-fishing’ meant to him, and it was this skill that he sought to learn from the example of Jesus’s own soul-winning service” (loc. 1310-12). The helpful corrective offered here for contemporary thought is undoing of the popular expectation that “the whole process [of conversion] ordinarily starts and ends within an hour or two” (loc. 1322), which misses the truth that an extended period of gradual awakening to one’s need is often involved. Concerning the second half: it "is taken up with exploring what following Christ in faithful ministry involves. From this standpoint, the Art is a classic text which any minister of the word in any age might well use for an annual check-up” (loc. 1332-34).

Next is The Crook in the Lot, concerning the suffering, difficulties, and hardships inevitable in Christians’ lives, and (in Boston’s view, and in Packer’s) providentially ordained for Christians’ ultimate good (Romans 8:28). Originating as a series of seven sermons on Ecclesiastes 7:13 (3 sermons), Proverbs 16:19 (1 sermon), and 1 Peter 5:6 (3 sermons) (loc. 1395-98), The Crook in the Lot helps readers adjust their understanding of hardships so that they can endure them (when prayed-for deliverance is not forthcoming) in a God-honoring fashion, knowing their continuance is necessarily for the believer’s benefit. In Packer’s view, Boston’s writing exhibits “piercing precision” (loc. 1457) as it seeks "to discipline Christ’s disciples in reverent, realistic, hope-filled humility, as they face up to the inescapable imperfections of life in general and their own lives in particular” (loc. 1468-69). Clearly, this runs contrary to such tendencies in contemporary Christian thought (or contemporary Christian feeling) as find expression in “the health and wealth gospel of some televangelists” and in “theological theories” that try to explain why bad things happen to good people by limiting God’s sovereignty (loc. 1489-93). Though this divergence from contemporary tendencies may be enough to make The Crook in the Lot worth reading (in the reviewer’s judgment), Packer worries that these contemporary tendencies may lead some readers to reject Boston’s insights: “The fantasy of nasty things kept at bay and only nice things meant for us here and now dies hard, and where it has not yet died Boston’s realism, bracing, clarifying and stabilizing as it is, will not be received” (loc. 1493-95).

Finally comes Repentance. On this work, another collection of sermons, Packer writes: "The sermons have all the qualities we associate with Boston: a dazzling mastery of the text and teaching of the Bible; a profound knowledge of the human heart; great thoroughness and clarity in exposition; great skill in applicatory searching of the conscience; and a pervasive sense of the wonder and glory of God’s grace in Christ to such perverse sinners as ourselves” (loc. 1535-38). In this case, these qualities are deployed in “reaching out to impenitent religious people…of two kinds: the self-satisfied and presumptuous, and the procrastinators…the slothful…spiritual sleepers,” seeking “to explode the pride of the former and the apathy of the latter, and to lead both into the repentance that both need” (loc. 1592-95).

As for Packer’s essays on the “Puritan Paragons,” William Perkins and Richard Baxter, little need be said but that they effectively introduce and persuasively promote these two men and their works. Reading these final essays will, in combination with the preceding chapters, leave one with a decently rounded basic acquaintance with the Puritans, their theology, and how reading them might enhance Christian growth in the present day. No more need be said, but a bit more may be said, and now will be.

In Perkins, Packer finds first established most of what is characteristic and appealing in Puritan thought, though he faults Perkins for his supralapsarianism. Though the reviewer has known many happy Calvinists who’ve never given much thought to the supralapsarianism-infralapsarianism debate, Packer deems it worth mentioning, so perhaps his mention merits note. "Supralapsarianism,” he explains, “is the view that in God’s initial, pre-mundane decision-making with regard to mankind His purpose of electing some and reprobating the others envisaged human beings not yet created, as distinct from the infralapsarian view that in decreeing this double predestination God envisaged human beings as both created and fallen” (loc. 2009-16). While Perkins’ motivation for embracing supralapsarianism was a good one, in Packer’s estimation, namely “to maintain the absolute sovereignty of God in our salvation,” Packer sees supralapsarianism as “surround[ing] the good news of the redeeming love of God to lost sinners with a forbidding rationalistic framework which…seem[s] to imply that God is an arbitrary decision-maker with an abstract interest in having two sorts of people, one justly saved and one justly condemned, and that He willed the fall in Eden as a means to this end” (loc. 2009-18). One might counter, of course, that Arminians make similar arguments against Calvinism generally; one might, but the reviewer will not. Truthfully, the whole debate seems to the reviewer to propose prying into the mind (“secret counsels”) of God in a way humans should not expect will be successful.

Packer’s profile of Baxter is detailed and laudatory. If you’re interested in the Puritans, you’ll want to know something about Baxter, and Packer’s essay is as good a place to start as any. I would comment on one topic in Packer’s essay, however. Given the prevalence in our day of “religious left” or “Christian left” activists seeking, in the name of “social justice,” to co-opt Scripture in service of a progressive (left-liberal) political agenda, Packer’s reference to “delineating of Christian social justice” as a “sphere of ministry in which Baxter moved” (loc. 2386) merits such comment. It appears from Packer’s summary (of the appropriate section of Baxter’s Christian Directory, “a mammoth treatise on the converted life,” loc. 2324) that Baxter’s “social justice” teachings provide guidance for individual behavior in the social realm rather than suggesting employment of government coercion to bring about a certain “just” state (the hallmark of the left’s “social justice” efforts) (locs. 2388-92). If this appearance is true to Baxter, then the reviewer would prefer not to describe the topic as “social justice,” given the left-liberal baggage that phrase now carries.

Though Baxter’s focus seems to have been individuals, some of what he says to individuals might sit better with statists than with those who want to maintain unfettered freedom for honest exchanges in the marketplace. For instance, Packer quotes Baxter as saying that "’it is a false rule of them that think a commodity is worth so much as anyone will give’ for it” and as observing that “‘To wish to buy cheap and sell dear is common (as St Augustine observes), but it is a common vice’” (loc. 2393-94). Exactly how Baxter, or Packer, would answer the question of how value is to be determined if not by free market processes (free people freely exchanging goods based on their own subjective value systems, needs, and wants), or the question of how needed exchanges are going to occur if persons making exchanges don’t feel they are profiting by them (selling “dear” what they bought “cheap”), is unclear. Perhaps one or both would agree with the left that government officials can somehow manage these matters successfully. Then again, perhaps these quotes of Baxter are misleading out of their context. Out of context as they currently are, Baxter’s remarks appear expressive of the assumption, common today on the left, that someone cannot be both honest and profit-seeking. Anyone who wants to “buy cheap and sell dear” must be out to swindle others; after all, if they could buy cheap, why not sell cheap? Though there are indeed persons who are dishonest, making laws punishing deception and requiring full disclosure of relevant information necessary, there is nothing dishonest about thinking that going to the effort to acquire goods someone else is willing to pay “dear” for entitles one to profit for one’s efforts to find and acquire those goods “cheap.” Honest commerce, even with maximized profit in view, is in no way incompatible with consistent Christian morality, nor should any who instruct God’s people imply that it is.

There, then, is Puritan Portraits, or, rather, a glimpse of some of its aspects. Worthwhile reading? Without a doubt, particularly for those who’ve not yet been introduced to the Puritans, or who are simply hungry for something more substantial and serious than most of what’s out there.

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