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A Case for the Re-Introduction of Puritan Theology in a Post Modern World: Pastoral Counselling

Part 4: Pastoral Counselling and the Puritans


Abstract: In this paper I will examine the current state of pastoral counselling and argue for the reintroduction of a far more biblical approach within Reformed theology which is based on Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura as well as the sovereignty of God. The Puritans were deeply impacted and theologically shaped by Reformed theology.


1.1        Pastoral Care at the Crossroads


It must be noted that there has been a radical shift from the historical model to the contemporary model in pastoral theology. This shift has resulted in a reduction of pastoral care to psychotherapeutic counselling. Clebsch and Jaekle (1987:12-13) commenting on this postmodern phenomena write, “During recent years, counselling has been the chief locus of concern for pastoral theology…counselling has become the gate through which new intellectual formulations of pastoring have entered and claimed attention.”[1] Pattison (1993:26) concludes that “the gospel of counselling is gradually leaving pastoral practice even at the level of general and subconscious assumptions.”[2]

This radical shift within pastoral care can be seen by the following comparison and characteristics between the historical model and the contemporary model. Bridger and Atkinson (1998:37-38) point out the characteristics and differences between these two models.

a.         The contemporary model


  • The one-to-one relationship as the primary context for pastoral care.
  • The importance of therapeutic expertise to the healing process.
  • The expectation that the counsellor should conform to a psychotherapeutic role model.
  • The adoption of psychoanalytic methods and assumptions.
  • The ‘translation’ of traditional theological concepts such as sin, guilt, atonement and redemption into psychoanalytic categories such as failure, self-awareness, resolution and self-acceptance.

b.         The historical model

In contrast, the historical method emphasizes:

  • Pastoral care as the ministry of the whole community of faith.
    • The representative role of the pastor in acting on behalf of both God and his people.
    • The centrality of a distinctively theological understanding of human beings and their needs.
    • That pastoral practice and assumptions should never be regarded as morally neutral but as incorporating values which need to be recognized and ‘owned’ by the counsellor/pastor. Only then can she evaluate the motives and actions of herself and her counsellee.
    • The crucial significance of theological categories such as sin, guilt, grace, atonement and redemption.
    • The grounding of personal growth in Christian spirituality based upon the historic resources of the life of faith: Bible, sacraments, fellowship, worship and prayer.

The characteristics and comparison between these two models illustrate just how radically pastoral care has shifted from its historical moorings to embracing a psychotherapeutic model of care and counselling.

As I have argued in my previous papers I am not anti-psychology. In fact, I argue for an integration of pastoral counselling models with psychological models.  However, I am vehemently opposed to the practice of psychology being elevated above Scripture and the Scriptural approach to counselling. Pastoral theology must never be reduced to psychotherapy.


 1.2        Reasons why the Church needs to return to the Praxis of Biblical Counselling


The Puritans were deeply impacted and theologically shaped by Reformed theology. Reformed theology is based on Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura as well as the sovereignty of God.

Pastoral theology and here I am incorporating a Scriptural focused counselling epistemology, which is based upon the following dynamics outlined by Louw (1998:190):[3]

  • The theocentric focal point of Reformed theology is based on the theological presupposition of predestination. This implies a life before God: a person lives by the grace of God, and grace is perceived as a relational concept.
  • In Reformed theology the truth is revealed through Scripture as its point of departure. This has the practical implication of the demand for continual reformation. One of the main goals of pastoral counselling is to help the counsellee through the Word and the Spirit to be reformed into Biblical truth and Biblical actions.

When pastoral counselling takes as its point of departure from Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura the following dynamics occur within the counsellee:

  • Faith is enhanced to help the counsellee to make radical decisions based on Scripture to make fundamental changes in his or her life, which in the first place brought them into the counselling situation.
  • Scriptural counselling links the counsellee to the faithfulness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and the acceptance of God.
  • Scripture provides the counsellee with the Biblical concept of hope thus re-orienting him or her to a positive future.
  • The counsellee is exposed to the healing presence of God.

1.3        The Various Modes of Effective Biblical Counselling (Louw 1998:382-388)

At the heart of effective biblical counselling is to link the counsellee to the presence of God and the history of salvation. The following structure designed by Louw will explain the various modes of effective Biblical counselling.

Mode Goal Outcome
Admonition Pastoral counselling cannot avoid confrontation as a variant of constructive challenging. Admonition deals with the issue of transgression, sin and conscience. Confrontation and admonition are frequently used in pastoral care when guilt is being addressed. Scripture unmasks human behavior and frequently generates change – conversion. 2 Timothy 3:16 says specially that Scripture is inspired by God. Hebrews 4:12 declares that the Word ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ Confrontation strives to change sinful behavior accompanied by an attitude of love.
Teaching and instruction This has to do with what has been termed the pedagogic of pastoral counselling (2 Tim 3:16). Scripture is used to provide instruction to bring about necessary change. A bible study assignment is a useful method to heighten the effectiveness of this mode of teaching and imparting information. Parishioners’ own activity and insights are applied in their own discovery of the scriptural truth. The pastor’s role is to sustain and to help them to understand and to apply the information which they themselves have discovered. Teaching pastoral care as a metaphor of wisdom strives to enhance practical knowledge and true discernment regarding God’s will.
Recalling Christians suffering from terminal illness or a stroke, or another form of debilitating pain, find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time during teaching and instruction. Therefore, Scriptural passages which are familiar with the patient can be used to strengthen his/her association with God. Scriptural passages could be employed to encourage people to reflect on their situation in the presence of the Lord (Ps 1:1-2). Reflection on the Word stimulates the believer’s God-talk. The believer is encouraged to talk to God and to mention his Name in his thoughts. Repetition of scriptural passages intensifies the intimate communication with the Lord. The purpose of recalling is to penetrate human thoughts effectively (2 Cor 10:5). Reflection on Scripture promotes the focus of thoughts on positive thinking, which, in turn, has a positive influence on the person’s emotions and behavior – being positive.
Comfort and consolation Scripture is used to articulate a particular emotion, condition, or feeling. The fact that Scripture understands a certain condition enables people to realize that they can use Scripture to interpret and communicate their most profound needs accurately before God. For example, in the light of Psalm 42:11 the person could discover that the psalmist was also subjected to tremendous emotional pressure; he too experienced doubts, psychic instability and depression. This experience generated the psalmist’s advice to: ‘Put your hope in God.’ In this way, the parishioner’s’ needs and emotional disruption have been articulated, and the person’s faith has been nurtured. Scripture thus comforts and allows this to take effect organically at all levels of human existence.
Transformation Behavior is restructured by changing the value system, priorities in life and ethical codes of behavior. Scripture could be used to design a new life style. ‘Mirroring’ is an effective method of transforming people’s lifestyles and value systems. A person’s previous behavior, problematic coping mechanism and its destructive effect are analysed, categorized and written down under the headings” ‘present problem; previous actions; effect on relation with God; effect on the person him-/herself; effect on fellow-human beings and environment.’ The parishioner is then asked to formulate his/her view of life (philosophy). Appropriate scriptural passages are employed when discussing the meaning and reliability of his/her philosophy and the ways in which this is expressed in behavior. Other actions are then discussed and written down: ‘new philosophy, present and future actions, possible positive effects.’Paul often makes use of ‘mirroring’ in terms of contrasts. In Ephesians 2:1-2 he addresses believers concerning their previous lifestyle and the scheme of the sinful world. He now contrasts this previous lifestyle with his ‘but now’ proclamations, in which he points out God’s compassion and character of the new life which is expressed in terms of grace (Eph 2:4-5). He points out their previous condition (Eph 2:12) and then contrasts it with Ephesians 2:13. This method of mirroring by using contrast, aims to encourage believers to break with sinful practices which have a destructive influence on relations (Eph 4:17-19). The new life should have a transforming influence on thoughts (Eph 4:23). Behavior should also change radically (Gal 5:25).
Representation Pastors often have to sustain and encourage people. Within the representative mode, it is not only texts that are used to communicate God’s comfort. The pastor or parishioners’ own comforting stories are employed to strengthen believes. People, as living human documents, are used to illustrate the existential significance of words of comfort. The experience of sharing in another’s comforting story consoles and fosters hope (2 Cor 1:4; 4:8-11; 12:7-9).
The Narrative Approach and Story-telling In some cases bible stories should be told in order to make the person aware of God’s concrete, active presence in our human history. The narrative mode was frequently used in the Old Testament. Psalm 78 is a good example of how the liberation stories were used in the Old Testament in order to spur people on to faith.
Doxology When doxology is used as a mode of biblical counselling, its aim is to encourage the person to praise, worship and thank God (Ps 22:25; 145:21; 146:1-2). Doxology is used when a person experiences gratitude and discovers that God’s grace is a gift, that life is a gracious gift. The pastor encourages the parishioner to find reasons for thanking God, encouraging the person to say: ‘I thank God for this…’ (reasons). Ephesians 5:20 is a good example. The pastor should try to ensure that these thanksgiving formulas are not superficial by linking them to a concrete event or a reason.Gratitude is not based on emotions, but is based on the experience of grace in the midst of suffering.

I have argued thus far that pastoral theology and the church must return to Biblical counselling.  We will now turn out attention to a brief overview of the Puritan’s Biblical methodology of counselling.

1.4        The Puritan’s Biblical Methodology of Counselling


The following discussion on the Puritan’s methodology of counselling will reveal a definitive correlation with reformed evangelical theologians such as Louw.

Hemming (2000:31) writes that the Puritans realized that the child of God does not walk in a state of unbroken joy: there come times when clouds intervene and the Christian loses the sense of God’s favour.[4] The Puritan pastor encouraged his people to come to him and disclose the state of their hearts so that counsel and advice could be given.

In this section we will examine how the Puritan pastor worked along the following well defined lines in pastoral care.

a.      The Puritan pastor considered the possibility that the person coming to him may not be truly be converted


In our postmodern church world or our therapeutically embodied pastoral care methodology this would be an unthinkable approach to adopt. We would consider such an approach unprofessional and judgmental.[5] However the Puritans were concerned with looking for the fruit of conversion as evidence that a work of grace had taken place in the person’s heart. This was their starting point for helping people deal with spiritual or psychological problems.[6] In other words, they would point the troubled parishioner to the all-sufficiency of Christ to help the person work through their problems.

The Puritan pastor also wanted to ascertain the troubled person’s genuine love for God. Puritan pastor Perkins sees five characteristics of saving faith:

  • The person who has it will know what it is ‘to feel his extreme need of Christ and His merits;
  • to hunger and thirst after him as after food;
  • to be nothing in himself/herself;
  • to be able to say that he/she does not live, but Christ lives in us by faith;
  • to loathe his/her own sin with a vehement hatred;
  • and to prize and value Christ.

When the Puritan pastor was satisfied that the troubled person was indeed saved he would then proceed to the next step.

b.      He considered the possibility that the person’s distress might be due to non-spiritual causes


The Puritans recognized that a person might be deeply distressed through what we call psychological problems. In such cases they would encourage the person to fellowship with joyous and positive Christians to help them come through their depression.

Although we do not have a great scope of material of how the Puritans dealt with psychological problems, nevertheless, we do have ample evidence that troubled people were brought into the reality of God’s presence; his sustaining love; his faithfulness and the power of Scripture to help them be strengthened by the power of the Spirit.

c.      Genuine spiritual distress


The Puritans understood that there are seasons in the Christian life when believers loose the sense of God’s realized presence or closeness. When dealing with this problem they would begin with the sovereignty of God. They counseled people to realize that God does not withdraw his love from us, but in times when we cannot feel his realized presence he is still with us, and that once we come through this ordeal we would have a stronger faith.

The Puritans realized that this withdrawing of the realized presence of God could arise from a number of causes:

  • Sin unrealized or unconfessed.
  • Direct attack of Satan.
  • The work of the Holy Spirit. The Puritans taught that at times God himself brings about this experience of desertion. They quoted and expounded Isaiah 50:10-11. They encouraged the Christian to wait upon God and await the gracious return of the Lord’s known presence.

1.5        Conclusion


The Puritans ministered in a very different world to us and no doubt a lot less psychologically complicated. Our world today is indeed complicated and the severity of psychological ailments is overwhelming. But the Puritans do leave us with the value of Scripture being a healing balm to the sea of wounded humanity pastors and counselors face daily. Without denying the enormous value that psychology adds to the process of bringing people to a place of self-discovery and healing in the counselling process; the Word of God, the love of the Father, the Presence of the risen Christ and the power of the Spirit is what brings about optimal healing. Let us strive never to deviate from this truth!

[1] Clebsch, W.A and Jaekle, C.R. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, New Jersey: Prentice Hall (1964) pp.4-10, 79-82; reprinted in Jacobs, Michael (ed.) Faith or Fear? A Reader in Pastoral Care and Counselling, London: Darton, Longman & Todd (1987) pp.12-13.

[2] Pattison, Stephen, A Critique of Pastoral Care, London: SCM Press (1993)

[3] Louw, Daniel, 1998. A Pastoral Hermeneutics of Care and Encounter. Western Cape: Lux Verbi.

[4] Packer, J. I and Godfrey, W. R (ed) 2000. Puritan Papers Volume One 1956-1959. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[5] Please see my first paper for a discussion on how the church has moved away from calling sin, sin and replacing sin issues with psychological problems.

[6] Today we would accuse the Puritans of viewing human beings as primarily sinful, and therefore, having an overarching theology of hamartia. But I don’t believe that this was their theological epistemology. In my opinion the Puritans primarily viewed human beings as created in the image of God and yet due to the fall of humanity, human beings were born into sin. Sin therefore cannot be dealt primarily with psychological schools of thought. For the Puritan much of the psychological problems (troubled souls) were due either to sin issues or other psychological reasons. They did not exclude psychological problems being the reason for a person’s troubled soul. But their understanding of the power of sin to destroy and harm a person’s life and psyche forced them to start with the authenticity of a person’s conversion experience and sin issues.

I believe this to be a lesson for us today in pastoral ministry. We have been trained to begin with a person’s psychological problem, thus isolating the person from their relationship with God, and the distinct possibility that their sin issues are indeed the result of their residing psychological problems. Taking such an approach leads to the transcendence of psychology over theology, which is slowing eroding the place of pastoral counselling and care within the church.


The Puritans and the Preaching of the Gospel

A Case for the Reintroduction of Puritan Theology in a Postmodern World

Part 3: The Puritans and the Preaching of the Gospel

The Problems Facing the Church in a Postmodern World

During the course of the past few decades there has been a subtle shift from preaching a God-centered message to a human being-centered message. This subtle change of diet has produced serious and dangerous flaws in the church. Let me begin by discussing some of these flaws.

1.         The proclamation of an Eros centered gospel

Eros simply means a man centered gospel. Here human beings are the center of importance with their insatiable cravings to have their needs met. The characteristics of an Eros relationship with God are as follows:

  • Christians who seek God to satisfy their own spiritual hunger by ‘possession’ and enjoyment of God. They want to possess God in such a way that the primary goal is for him to meet all their needs. In other words, God is seen as an ‘ATM bank’ or a ‘user-friendly God.’
  • They do not seek God for his own sake rather they seek God to see what they can get from him.
  • Thirdly, their relationship with God is not Christ-centered but me-focused. What do I get out of this relationship?
  • It is a love that desires ‘to get’ therefore it is a highly refined form of self-interest and self-seeking.

I firmly believe that this type of Christianity is a result of the postmodern worldview that advocates individualism.

2.         A subtle move away from proclaiming the cross and resurrection of Jesus preached by the early church in the book of Acts

When Christians become the center of their relationship with Christ there is a drastic move away from the cross with its message of dying to self, and picking up one’s cross to daily follow Jesus.

3.         The diet of preaching in a postmodern world is more focused on meeting people’s needs, rather than preaching the doctrines of the faith that produce a mature faith in believers

This has produced disciples in the West that are wrapped up in their own needs rather than being ‘others’ focused. Our church services are filled with disciples who come for one primary reason; what will I get out of today’s service to see me through the week?

Packer (1991:164) has observed the following:

  • The chief aim of the Puritans was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new (postmodern world) seems limited to making them feel better.
  • The gospel which the Puritans preached was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new (postmodern world) is man and the help God gives him.[1]

I believe that the theology of the Puritans hold the key to us reversing the curse of these flaws. We now turn our attention to the Puritans and the preaching of the gospel which will help in the process of recovering a gospel which centers on the Trinity and God’s ways with human beings.

The Puritans and the Preaching of the Gospel

I must admit that when I first began to read the sermons of the Puritans I was put off by what I then called an over emphasis on sin, confession and repentance. However, the more I studied their lives; the more I studied Reformed and Evangelical theology; the more I dialogued with their exegesis of Scripture; I soon realized that I was preaching a very shallow version of the true gospel. The Puritans and in particular Martyn Lloyd-Jones (whom I considered to have been a modern day Puritan) steered me away from preaching a psychologized gospel, and centered me on preaching the whole counsel of the Word of God with the emphasis on glorifying and exalting Christ.

At the heart of our preaching to a postmodern world must be Jesus Christ and not the needs of human beings. We must fight the urge or the theological postmodern persuasion to present Jesus simply as One who gives peace, and purpose to the neurotic and frustrated. It is my opinion to follow this route is to deprive believers of the opportunity to grow their faith to maturity. In this light I quote the wisdom of Packer (1991:217): ‘If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgment on it, we cannot present Christ as a Savior from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible…Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Savior from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else.’

They preached the whole counsel of God

I have added some short extracts from some of the Puritans to illustrate how they preached a comprehensive gospel. As Packer (1991:220) says ‘to preach the gospel meant to them nothing less than declaring the entire economy of redemption, the saving work of all three Persons of the Trinity.’

Thomas Manton:

The sum of the gospel is this, that all who, by true repentance and faith, do forsake the flesh, the world, and the devil, and give themselves up to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as their creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, shall find God as a father, taking them for his reconciled children, and for Christ’s sake pardoning their sin, and by the Spirit giving them his grace; and, if they persevere in this course, will finally glorify them, and bestow upon them everlasting happiness; but will condemn the unbelievers…to everlasting punishment. That this is the sum of the gospel appeareth by Mark Xvi.15,16…’[2]

John Owen shows us how much is involved in declaring the promises of the gospel:

Gospel promises then are: 1. The free and gracious dispensations; and, 2. discoveries of God’s good-will and love; to, 3. sinners; 4. through Christ; 5. in a covenant of grace; 6. wherein, upon his truth and faithfulness, he engageth himself to be their God, to give his Son unto them, and for them, and his Holy Spirit to abide with them, with all things that are either required in them, or are necessary for them, to make them accepted before him, and to bring them to an enjoyment of him.[3]

The Emphasis of the Gospel as the Puritans Preached it (1991:223-234)

1.         They diagnosed the plight of human beings

They called sin, sin. Their aim was to expose the sinfulness that underlies sins, and convince human beings of their own utter corruption and inability to improve themselves in God’s sight.

2.         They analyzed the issue of sin in terms of God’s hostility in the present, as well as his condemnation in the future.

3.         They preached the grace of God

They stressed that the goal of grace is the glory and praise of God and our salvation is a means to this end. God, they said, has chosen to redeem us, not for our own sakes, but for his own name’s sake.

4.         They stressed the sufficiency of Christ

5.         They stressed the condescension of Christ

He was never to them less than the divine Son, and they measured his mercy by his majesty. They magnified the love of the cross by dwelling on the greatness of the glory which he left for it. They dwelt on the patience and forbearance expressed in his invitations to sinners as further revealing his kindness.

The Demands of the Gospel as the Puritans Presented them (1991:225-231)

1.         Faith

The gospel, they said, summons sinners to faith in Christ.

2.         Repentance and confession

They held to the belief that repentance is a fruit of faith.


The Puritans were thirsty of desire for men’s conversion and salvation. This is what drove them to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word.

Can such preaching have a place in our postmodern world? Yes it can. Mark Driscoll (2008:15) affirms this when he writes of his experience of preaching a series on Christ on the Cross in Seattle: ‘I saw our attendance grow by as many as eight hundred mainly young, single, college-educated, twenty-something hipsters in a single week. I yelled myself hoarse for well over an hour at each of our Sunday church services about the depth of sin, the wrath of God, and the propitiation of Jesus and am happy to report that the gospel of Jesus Christ remains the power of God.’[4]

[1] Packer, J.I 1991. Among God’s Giants. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications.

[2] Thomas Manton, Works, II:102f.

[3] John Owen, Works (see chapter 4 n 43), XI:227.

[4] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears 2008. Death by Love. Letters from the Cross. Wheaton, Illinois: Christian Art Publishers.

Part 2: Building a Case for a Puritan Theology in a Postmodern World

In the first paper I argued for the reintroduction of Puritan theology in a postmodern world. I also argued that although we live in a postmodern world, the church cannot embrace a postmodern worldview. To this point I want to make a few important comments.

  • Firstly, the church needs to be relevant within a postmodern world.  The world will not revert back to the modernist period. Nor am I suggesting that we become modern day Puritans. Rather I am arguing for a dialogue with the theology of the Puritans.
  • Secondly, we need to find creative ways of doing church in a postmodern world in order to draw the postmodernist into the kingdom of God. I believe that grounding new believers in the theology of the Puritans will result in strong God- loving and God-fearing Christians.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly in our effort to be relevant to our culture and the postmodern world we cannot afford to water down the preaching of the gospel. Puritan theology in my opinion is the antidote to a weak and watered down gospel.

Their will be those who will argue that a Puritan theology is no longer relevant in a postmodern world on the grounds that it is not longer contextually relevant. Due to its theological formation from the sixteenth century onwards, it can no longer have any pastoral application to a postmodernist generation. Nor does its message have any value for our world today.

However, this is where I disagree with the above arguments. Puritan theology is tailor made to speak to any culture or generation because it is so biblically based. It is alive and full of practical biblical wisdom. I will argue over the next few months in my papers that Puritan theology is precisely what the church needs to preach. We are desperately in need of good sound biblical doctrine that roots believers in Christ. I am convinced that Puritan theology will stop the large fall out of disillusioned believes we have in the church due to people experiencing hardships, sufferings, disappointments and discouragement. Puritan theology is steeped in ways to help Christians live in an uncertain world filled with tragedy and human fragility. When Christians go through hardships and choose to see God as unfaithful and thus walk away from the faith, it is my firm belief this is due to a weak theological formation of their spirituality.

The issue is how we choose to convey their theology within a postmodern world. This is the critical point. I am not suggesting that we pull out the sermons of the Puritans and preach them verbatim. That would be suicidal based upon their archaic use of language. What we require is for teachers and pastors to engage with their theology and make it relevant to a postmodern world. I am the first to argue that the gospel must be preached contextually, but without diminishing its life giving and transforming power.

We need to heed the insights of Bevan and Kessel (1994:506), ‘worldviews are like sand at a picnic; they get into everything.’ A postmodern worldview can subtly contaminate the preaching of the gospel. Therefore my fear is that due to a postmodern worldview, the church is in danger of diluting the gospel to such an extent that it’s stripped of its power to transform the human soul. We cannot exchange the glory and power of the gospel in order to accommodate a postmodern worldview, which believes that there are no absolute truths. Absorbing a postmodern worldview will steer the church away from the central tenants of the gospel: repentance from sin; faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ; redemption from sin and guilt and reconciliation to the Father.

This is precisely what Capps (1993:1) argues when he writes, ‘…sin has not been a central topic of interest within the pastoral care and counselling field.’[1] Capps goes on to argue that pastors and counselors are more caught up with their parishioners’ problems in their psychodynamic context. When pastors and counselors do this parishioners will be viewed less as sinners rebelling against the laws of God and human nature, and more as victims, caught in a complex set of personal circumstances and psychosocial conditions over which they may exercise only limited influence and control (1993:1).

In other words, sin must be called sin and the solutions applied from Scripture. The Puritans on the other hand, challenged their people to repent of known sin and to follow the Scriptural way of life. In fact, when their people came to seek their counsel they would probe first of all to see if the person was truly converted. Today pastors and counselors will skirt around sin issues and concentrate on the parishioner’s psychodynamic context.[2] The danger the church faces is falling into a therapeutic counselling mode that relegates sin to nothing more than psychological problems. Such an approach places psychology above the centrality of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. [3]

Thus far I have argued that the church cannot embrace a postmodern worldview, and must engage with the theology of the Puritans to disciple strong believers in the truth of the gospel. As we shall see in the coming months the Puritans preached a healthy biblical diet which resulted in transforming the church, society and politics.

In conclusion we need to pay attention to Packer’s (1991:24) assessment of the church today. ‘Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs…A much traveled leader, a native American has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-orientated, self-indulgent…to be 3000 miles wide and an inch deep. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants.’[4]

The great revivalist evangelist George Whitefield wrote of them as follows: ‘Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this no doubt that made the Puritans…such burning and shinning lights. When cast out by the Black Bartholomew-act (the 1662 Act of Uniformity) and driven from their respective charges to preach inn barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour….’[5]

[1] Capps, D 1993. The Depleted Self. Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

[2] My view may sound pessimistic and my approach overtly sin focused. However my starting point for defining humanity is from an anthropological view, where human beings are primarily created in the image of God, but due to their fallen state they require redemption through Jesus Christ.

[3] I must stress that I am not against psychology. I did my Masters dissertation on ‘A Hermeneutical Approach To Promissiotherapy In Existential Issues,’ where I argued for the use of biblical counseling and psychological approaches in treating the patient suffering from anxiety, despair and guilt. For those interested in the relationship between biblical counseling and psychology I refer you to: McMinn, M.R & Philips. T.R (eds.) 2001. Care For The Soul. Exploring the Intersection of Psychology and Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Packer, J.I 1991. Among God’s Giants. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications.

[5] George Whitefield. Works. London, 1771, IV:30f.

A Case for the Re-introduction of Puritan Theology in a Postmodern World Part 1: An Introduction

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.


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.


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.