"God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him" -Piper

Part 1: An Introduction

Abstract: The church needs to rediscover the theology of the Puritans, especially in the light of a postmodern world, which has no absolute truths and is clearly at loggerheads with Christianity.

We will begin our discussion with a number of definitions, namely what would be an accurate definition of Puritanism, and secondly what is understood by the term postmodernism?

Definition of Puritanism

Firstly, it must be noted that Puritanism is not a strict religious system of legalistic laws which boarders on Christian fanaticism.

Beeke and Pederson (2006: xvii-xviii) argue that the Puritans embraced five major concerns and addressed each of them substantially in their writings:[1]

· Puritanism was at its core a concern to search the Scriptures, collate their findings, and apply them to all areas of life.

· The Puritans were passionately committed to focusing on the Trinitarian character of theology. The never tired of proclaiming the electing grace of God, the dying love of Jesus Christ, and the applicatory work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of sinners.

· In common with the Reformers, the Puritans believed in the significance of the church in the purpose of Christ. They therefore focused on plain and earnest preaching, liturgical reform, and spiritual brotherhood.

· In the great questions of national life presented by the crises of their day, the Puritans looked to Scripture for light on the duties, power, and rights of king, Parliament, and citizen-subjects.

· In regard to the individual, the Puritans focused on personal, comprehensive conversion (John 3:3).So they excelled at preaching the gospel, probing the conscience, awakening the sinner, calling him to repentance and faith, leading him to Christ, and schooling him in the way of Christ. They developed from Scripture a careful description of what a Christian ought to be in his inward life before God, and in all his actions and relationships in this life, at home, in the church, at work, and in society.

Therefore in this paper the term Puritan is used as a combination of the above points.

J.I Packer (1996:1-2) summarizes this understanding for Puritanism well: ‘Puritanism was an evangelical holiness movement seeking to implement its vision of spiritual renewal, national and personal, in the church, the state, and the home; in education, evangelism, and economics; in individual discipleship and devotion, and in pastoral care and competence.’ [2]

Peter Lewis (1975:1ff.) rightly says that Puritanism grew out of three needs:

1. The need for biblical preaching and the teaching of sound Reformed doctrine.

2. The need for biblical, personal piety that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of the believer.

3. The need to restore biblical simplicity in liturgy, vestments, and church government, so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of Triune God as prescribed in his Word.[3]

Beeke and Pederson (2006:xviii-xix) sum up the power that resided in Puritanism: ‘Doctrinally, Puritanism was a kind of vigorous Calvinism, experimentally, it was warm and contagious; evangelistically, it was aggressive, yet tender, ecclesiastically, it was theocentric and worshipful; politically, it aimed to be scriptural, balanced, and bound by conscience before God in the relations of king, Parliament, and subjects.

Puritanism thus was completely Christocentric in its proclamation and in its discipleship of believers. It was thoroughly pneumatological (Holy Spirit) in its application for the transformed inner life of the believer. Lastly, the aim of Puritan theology was to discipleship believers into mature faith. And here I define mature faith as a lifestyle of doxology; progressive growth in intimacy with Jesus; and the fostering of mature faith in existential crises.

With this brief introduction towards a definition of Puritanism we turn our attention to an examination of the meaning of postmodernism.

Postmodernism

What is postmodernism? And more importantly can Christian theology, with particular reference to Puritan theology, embrace a postmodern worldview? We now turn to answer these two fundamental questions.

Defining a postmodern worldview

There is no denying that we live in a postmodern world. However, defining postmodernism is profoundly complex and ambiguous. This is due to the many cross currents shaping the postmodern climate. Houston (1994:184) lists pragmatism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, deconstructionism and postempiricist philosophy of science as the most prominent shape of postmodernism. [4]

McGrath (1996:184) defines postmodernism as follows: ‘Postmodernism is generally taken to be something of a cultural sensibility without absolutes, fixed certainties or foundations, which takes delight in pluralism and divergence, and which aims to think through the radical ‘situatedness’ of all human thought.’ [5]

A postmodern worldview

Veith (1994:42) points out, ‘if the modern era is over, we are all postmodern, even though we reject the tenants of postmodernism.’[6] Griffin (1990:x) argues that postmodernism asserts that humanity must go beyond the modern.[7]

Postmodernism is anti-worldview as it denies the existence of any universal truth or standards. Postmodernists deconstruct metanarratives (worldviews) so that no one particular belief is more true or believable than another. Therefore one can argue that postmodernism does not have a worldview.

Griffin (1990:2) writing in the context of a postmodern spirituality points out that postmodern spirituality is in favour of some form of nondualistic spirituality such as naturalistic pantheism, where God is in all things and all things are in God. This spiritual perspective undoubtedly has serious implications for theology which will be discussed further on.

Metanarratives and deconstruction

The postmodern writers apply the critical method of deconstruction to texts. Deconstruction declares that the identity and intention of the author of a text are irrelevant to the interpretation of the text.

Two general principles of this approach to the reading of texts are highlighted (McGrath 1996:188):

· Anything that is written will convey meanings that its author did not intend and could not have intended.

· The author cannot adequately put into words what he or she means in the first place.

This means that all interpretations are equally valid or equally meaningless. Caputo (1987:156) therefore argues that ‘the truth is there is no truth.’[8] This has massive implications for Christianity which claims to be the authentic revelation of Jesus Christ as the way and truth to a meaningful relationship with God. Du Toit (1996:31-32) advocates that postmodernity is indeed the end of any exclusive religious truth. [9]

The postmodern mind views all metanarratives as large scale interpretations of the whole of history with universal applications and this is a vain attempt to universalize history. No metanarrative is large enough to include the experiences and realities of all people and the only purpose of the metanarrative is to legitimize the power structures that marginalize these experiences. Thus the metanarratives of redemption history in Jesus is rejected.

The problem with deconstruction is that very little is left afterwards. Middleton and Walsh (1995:141) believe that deconstruction leaves anarchic pluralism, political cynicism, and cultural and moral paralysis in its wake. ‘Deconstruction therapy, in other words, is so radical that it runs the risk of killing the patient.’[10]

Postmodernism with particular reference to theology

Neuger (1998:1-14) writing on the subject of religious belief in a postmodern era argues for a collaboration between theology and postmodernism. She arrives at this conclusion based on Fiorenza’s (1995:267) belief that we can approach theology in a postmodern environment through the means of ‘critical collaboration.’[11] Neuger (1998:8) insists that this collaboration through dialogue and debate is the kind of process which a postmodern reality demands. [12]

While theology may engage in debate with a postmodern worldview Janse van Rensburg (2000a:53) wisely argues that Christianity with its absolute truths and fixed value systems cannot embrace a postmodern epistemology that defies the very essence of unity in truth.[13] Hunter (1998:16) asserts that pastoral care and counselling in a postmodern world cannot embrace a postmodernist epistemology due to its bent towards individualism and privatism. He therefore argues for an ‘ecclesia’ model that advocated a strong religious community formed as a community of redemptive love, justice, faith, and truthfulness.[14]

Yet there is a ground swell of theologians who argue for the necessity of theology aligning itself with postmodernism in order to be contextually relevant. As already noted Neuger (1998:1-14) argues for a collaboration between pastoral care and counselling with postmodernism. Bidwell (2001:277) believes that past attempts to define ‘mature religion; have been rooted in a modernist theological anthropology which assumes an atomistic, universal, rational, and stable human self.[15] Yet postmodernists resist universal statements about humanity and understand the ‘self’ as an ever-changing social construct. Bidwell therefore proposes a theological anthropology which is more adequate to the postmodern world. He argues that by adopting such an approach pastoral care and counselling can nurture healthy, integrative, and maturing Christians in a postmodern culture.

Doehring (2004:1-14) points out that that many chaplaincy departments and organizations have started to use the term spiritual care to describe care in order to align themselves with Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu caregivers.[16] Lartey (2002:6) has noted that in Britain the APCC (Association for Pastoral Care and Counselling) changed its designation in 2000 to APSCC (Association for Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counselling). This change was made to accommodate spiritual pluralism.[17] Doehring (2004:6) vehemently opposes such a change based on the fact that the term spiritual care can refer to individualistic spirituality that lacks any connection with communities of faith and religious traditions in which spirituality has been historically rooted.

In my opinion theology and in particular pastoral theology cannot embrace a postmodern epistemology for the following reasons:

· Firstly, postmodernism rejects the unity of truth which Christianity strongly advocates.

· Secondly, its rejection of metanarratives and its process of deconstruction stand in direct opposition to the values of Scripture. Grenz (1995:96) correctly argues that postmodernism opposes the core of Christianity and evangelical theology.[18]

· Thirdly, postmodernism violates using Scripture organically in pastoral care and counselling.

· Fourthly, if theology and pastoral theology embraces a postmodern worldview it will eventually dilute the values, morals, and truths which Scripture espouses. Louw (1995:11) therefore warns against such praxis on the grounds that postmodernism attacks the most basic principles of the Christian faith. [19]

· Fifthly, Scripture contains a definite and definitive biblical worldview whereas postmodernism is anti-worldviews.

The Value of Reading the Puritans for Spiritual Formation

The discussion thus far argues for a strong case for the reintroduction of Puritan theology in a postmodern world. The praxis of postmodernism is crouching at the door of the church, ready to indoctrinate her and lead her away from the authority of Scripture.

Beeke and Pederson (2006:xix-xxiv) outline the value of reading the Puritans.

  1. They were shaped by Scripture. The Puritans loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word.

The Puritans called believers to be Word-centered in faith and practice. John Flavel (1628-1691) said, ‘The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying.’

  1. They marry doctrine and practice. The Puritans did this by addressing the mind, confronting the conscience, and wooing the heart.
  • Addressing the mind. The Puritans refused to set mind and heart against each other but taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. The Puritans believed that an anti-intellectual gospel quickly becomes an empty, formless gospel that doesn’t get beyond ‘felt needs.’
  • Confronting the conscience. The Puritans were masters at naming specific sins, then asking questions to press home conviction of those sins.
  • Engaging the heart. They wrote out of love for God’s Word, love for the glory of God, and love for the soul readers.
  1. They focused on Christ. Isaac Ambrose wrote, ‘Think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul, and scope of the whole Scriptures.’
  2. They show how to handle trials. We learn from the Puritans that we need affliction to humble us (Deut 8:2).
  3. They show how to live in two worlds. The Puritans believed that we should have heaven ‘in our eye’ throughout our earthly pilgrimage.
  4. They show us true spirituality. The Puritans promoted the authority of Scripture, biblical evangelism, church reform, the spirituality of law, spiritual warfare against indwelling sin, the filial fear of God, the art of meditation, the dreadfulness of hell and the glories of heaven.

Conclusion

It is my conviction that the church needs to return to the theology of the Puritans, even though we live in a postmodern world, which advocates no absolute truths.

The theology of the Puritans will keep us Christ-centered; Holy Spirit sustained and inspired; Word focused; discipleship focused in good theology; and is do doing it will raise up a church that will not comprise the Word of God in the face of postmodernism.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Beeke, J.R & Pederson, R.J 2006. Meet the Puritans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books.

[2] J.I Packer. An Anglican to Remember – William Perkins: Puritan Populizer St.Antholin’s Lectureship Charity Lecture, 1996, pp 1-2.

[3] Lewis, p 1975. The Genius of Puritanism. Haywards Heath, Sussex: Carey Publications.

[4] Houston, J M 1994. Modernity and spirituality. In Sampson, P., Samuel, V. and Sugden, C. Faith and modernity. Oxford: Regnum Lynx.

[5] McGrath, A 1996. A passion for truth. Leicester: Apollos.

[6] Veith, G E 1994. Guide to contemporary culture. Leicester: Crossway Books.

[7] Griffin, D R 1990. Sacred interconnections: Postmodern spirituality, political economy, and art. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[8] Caputo, J 1987. Radical hermeneutics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[9] DuToit, C W 1996. The end of truth? In DuToit, C W (ed.), New modes of thinking on the eve of a new century: South African perspectives.Pretoria: University of South Africa, 28–48.

[10] Middelton, J R and Walsh, B J 1995. Facing the postmodern scalpel. in Phillips, T R and Okholm, D L. Christian apologetics in the postmodern world. Illinois: IVP.

[11] Fiorenza, E S 1995. ‘Commitment and Critical Inquiry’ in Readings in modern theology: Britain and America, (ed.), Gill, R. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,  267–277.

[12] Neuger, C C 1998. Religious belief in a postmodern era: Framing the issues. Journal of Pastoral Theology, 8, 1998, 1–14.

[13] Janse van Rensburg, J 2000. The paradigm shift: An introduction to postmodern thought and its implications for theology. Pretoria: Van Schaik Publishers.

[14] Hunter, R J 1998. Religious caregiving and pedagogy in a postmodern  context. Journal of Pastoral Theology 8, 1998, 15–27.

[15] Bidwell, D. R 2001. Maturing religious experience and the postmodern self. Pastoral Psychology, 49 no 4 Mr 2001, 277–290.

[16] Doehring, C 2004. The challenges of bridging pastoral care experiences and  post-modern approaches to knowledge. Journal of Pastoral Theology, 14 no 1Spr 2004, 1–4.

[17] Lartey, E Y 2002. Embracing the collage: pastoral theology in an era of  ‘post-phenomena.’ Journal of Pastoral Theology, 12, no. 2, Fall 2002, 1–10.

[18] Grenz, S J 1995. Star Trek and the next generation: postmodernism and the future of evangelical theology. In Dockery, D.S, The challenge  of postmodernism: an  evangelical engagement. Wheaton: Victor.

[19] Louw, D J 1995. Ons taak in postmodernistiese tyd: straat toe met die evangelie! Die Kerkbode, 17 November, 11.

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