When after some years into the reign of Queen Elizabeth it became clear that no thorough reform such as the Puritans desired, was going to come, many decided to leave the Established Church and organize into what they viewed as truly Reformed churches. Some became Presbyterian, others Congregationalist, while still others organised themselves into "gathered" or Baptist churches. The majority of Puritans, however, remained in the Church of England and began to concentrate on preaching to their flocks, trying as best they could to implement the necessary reforms in their local parishes. Many did so with great success. Especially those Puritan-minded pastors whose bishops were favourable to reform or who at least were willing to tolerate it, were able to influence their congregations in many ways.
Puritan pastors were concerned not only with doctrinal, liturgical and church political reform, but especially with the salvation of souls. Everything they did was subservient to this concern. As Packer says, "Puritanism was, at its heart, a movement of spiritual revival.
The Puritans had the same goal as the Pietists in Germany and Holland. Both movements sought to promote experimental or experiential religion. They believed that merely professing the right religion and holding to sound doctrine is not what makes a person a Christian. Rather, it is the experience of the grace of God and the manifestation of it in a godly conduct that constitutes the evidence of being a true believer.
In Germany Pietism arose as a protest movement against Lutheran dead-orthodoxy, while in the Netherlands it was occasioned by Arminianism and formalism in the Reformed churches. Similar movements arose in Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries and Russia.
Despite certain important differences between the Puritans and their Lutheran and Anabaptist counterparts in continental Europe they were agreed on the absolute necessity of the believer's praxis pietatis or practice of piety or practical godliness. It is important in this connection to make a distinction between Puritanism as a political entity and the Puritans whose main concern was godliness. The former were primarily interested in ridding the Establishment of "popish" remnants. They spent much energy inveighing against bishops, vestments, and the ÒmedievalismsÓ which they felt were embodied in the Anglican Prayer Book.
To be sure, all Puritans were opposed to these things, but the more serious and devout among them had little stomach for the political wrangling that went on year after year. Being first and foremost concerned with the spiritual well-being of their flocks, Puritan pastors attempted to influence the lives of their people through preaching, writing of devotional literature and counselling.
To understand Puritanism as a spiritual movement one needs to recognize at least four characteristics which it shares with all other forms of Pietism.
1. In the first place, Puritans believed that the essence of Christianity is to be found in a personally meaningful relationship of the individual to God. The term "experimental" or experiential, so frequently used in Puritan literature, says it all. It sums up the great concern these serious-minded Christians had that one's religion be a personal matter and not merely a formal and outward profession.
To be sure, the Puritans insisted on purity of doctrine, but they were also keenly aware of the danger that people would think all was well with their soul as long as they professed the right doctrine. That danger was not and is not imaginary, but very real. Church history shows that whenever the emphasis shifts from personal piety to the externals of religion, such as preoccupation with liturgical reforms, excessive political and social involvement and even doctrinal purity, spiritual life tends to decline. The result is always formalism, and this is what the English Puritans and their Pietistic brethren in Continental Europe were deathly afraid of. They believed that formalism is the pre-condition for moral and religious Òindifferentism.Ó To them formal Christianity, by which they meant a Christianity exhausting itself in externals, is only slightly better than no Christianity at all.
2. A second characteristic of Puritanism is its religious idealism. There is in every form of pietism an element of perfectionism. Not that the Puritans were perfectionists in the sense that they believed it is possible for a Christian to attain to perfection in this life. They did believe that every Christian should certainly strive after perfection.
It was exactly at this point where they differed with the Anglican establishment. The Church of England, from its inception, advocated moderation and compromise. This often resulted in a spirit of complacency and satisfaction with the status quo. They resented the Puritans for what they considered fanaticism and excessive piety. The Puritans, from their perspective, abhorred the latitudinarianism and half-heartedness of the Anglicans. For them the Christian life meant a radical break with the old life of sin and a total commitment to the new life in Christ with all its implications. Thus, in their preaching they emphasized that without conversion and sanctification one's Christianity remains hollow and oneÕs religious profession a mere sham. By this they did not intend to detract from the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ as the only ground of acceptance with God. Neither did they wish to minimize in any way the importance of justification by faith, whereby Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believing sinner.
Justification by faith alone was a doctrine the Puritans gloried in as much as the orthodox in Lutheran and Reformed churches. What they did stress, however, more than the orthodox, was that justification is meaningless if it does not result in a consistent holy walk. Justification, they felt was more than a forensic act on the part of God. It must also enter into human experience, and it does that in every true convert.
The divinely wrought miracle of conversion always leads to a life of sanctification. Here the Puritans merely echoed the earlier Reformers who taught in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism that "it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness," and that "Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image" (A.64,86). While the early Reformers clearly taught the necessity of sanctification, later generations, both in the Lutheran and Reformed camps, tended to focus on justification more or less in isolation from sanctification. This inevitably led to antinomianism and loose living.
The Puritans maintained that orthodoxy's tendency toward rigid objectivity in this connection was dangerous and misleading. Therefore, in their preaching and pastoral work they emphasised both the objective truths of the Gospel and the subjective appropriation of Christ and all His benefits evidenced by a changed life. To the orthodox this stress on sanctification seemed wrong. They called it synergism or the idea that man has to help earn his salvation by good works. They were quick to apply the label perfectionism to anyone seeking to live a consistent Christian life. The Puritans simply regarded it as Biblical Christianity, which of course it was.
Part and parcel of Puritan preaching was the conception of the two ways--the broad way which leads to destruction and the narrow way which leads to life. This doctrine was preached and believed with an earnestness which we today may find rather excessive. Also in the seventeenth century the broad mass of Protestants had very little appreciation for it. The popular idea among Anglicans was that a Christian is anyone who has been baptized, who maintains some formal connection with the Church by making use of the means of grace--especially attending the worship services which mandatory in Elizabethan England, and who believes in general the truths laid down in the doctrinal symbols of the Church.
Against this kind of Christianity the Puritans directed the full intensity of their preaching skills, calling it superficial, shallow and meaningless. These "Gospel hypocrites" were believed to be on the road to destruction because they revealed very little if anything of a godly walk.
3. The third basic characteristic of Puritanism was its emphasis on practical religion. In this respect also Puritanism was different from Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy. The latter tended to be scholastic and theoretical rather than practical in their emphasis.
The Puritans were concerned about the question, how does Scripture and theology relate to the problems of daily life? This emphasis is evident from Puritan sermons and devotional books. There is first an explanation of the text of Scripture, but then follow the uses or practical applications. Like all the Protestants at the time, Puritans regarded theology as a science. Whereas Orthodox scholars tended to study theology for its own sake, the Puritans saw theology as a means to an end; the end being sanctification or godly living.
It was especially William Ames (1576-1633) who worked out the implications of what he called "the science of living to God." Ames was influenced by the French philosopher Pierre de la Ramee (Ramus). Ramus was the arch-enemy of Aristotelian scholasticism. He is known for his development of the science of technometria or the science of defining the arts according to their nature and use. Every art, according to Ramus, has its own nature and use. Thus theology is the art of living well.
Ames, who spent many years as a theological professor in Franeker, Holland, made Franeker a Ramist centre. He became the chief opponent of scholasticism in theology. Ames called theology the doctrine of living to God. He attacked the sharp distinction between theory and practice and stressed the practical uses of theology. He also emphasized the importance of Scripture as the theologian's main textbook, and warned against metaphysical speculation. "Beware of a strong head and a cold heart," was his main maxim.
Keith Sprunger who wrote a very interesting book on Ames, called "The Learned Doctor William Ames," says that Ames called theology away from questions and controversies, obscure, confused, and not very essential, and introduced it into life and practice, so that students would begin to think seriously of conscience and its concerns. The Puritans' concern, accordingly, was primarily ethical or moral rather than abstractly doctrinal. This is not to say that they were moralistic in their preaching and outlook. The Puritans based their ethics and morals squarely on the New Testament. Their opposition to immoderate drinking, immodest dress, excessive ornamentation of the body, feasting, dancing, etc., was nothing more than an attempt to apply the ethics of Scripture directly and without compromise to contemporary Christianity. Men and women who professed to be Christians were to remember that their bodies are temples of God in which they are to glorify God. They were to make no provision for the flesh.
4. A fourth characteristic of Puritanism was its total submission to Scripture. Puritans have been accused of being biblicists. The charge is true in a sense. They believed the Bible to be the very Word of God and were prepared to look to it alone for guidance in all matters. If that is biblicistic so be it, and we should all be willing to wear that label.
Although the Puritans insisted on a reasonable interpretation of Scripture they definitely made reason subservient to what they considered to be the objective discernible authority of the Word. It has to be admitted, however, that there sometimes was a tendency to carry this principle of literal interpretation of the text too far. One did not always have sufficient regard for the context, so that especially Old Testament passages were at times misapplied.
This was especially a problem in continental Pietism where the opinions of theologically untrained laymen had as much or more authority than that of theologians. The theory was, of course, that the Spirit of God is able to commend the truth of God's Word to men's minds and hearts without the tortured interpretations of the professional theologians. Hence, to the consternation of the champions of orthodoxy and High Church men, laymen were permitted to testify, to exhort and even to preach. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was thus rescued once again from being a mere dogma and set free to exert its influence in the Church.
It is to the credit of the English Puritans that they always insisted on their ministers being well educated. Many of them were great scholars, but even then, as learned as they might be, they always remained practical and devotional and close to the common people. They were real pastors, whose main concern was to see their congregations walking in the fear of God and enjoying the joy of their salvation.