Charles Dickens’ famous line in A Tale of Two Cities—“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—seems well suited to contemporary western Evangelicalism. On the one hand, the last few decades have seen much for which to praise God. In his goodness and grace, for instance, he has restored Reformed truth once more to a position of godly influence. And yet, as an increasing number of Evangelical authors have noted, there are still many sectors of Evangelicalism that are characterized by great shallowness and a trivialization of the weighty things of God. Moreover, so much of Evangelical worship seems barren, and when it comes to spirituality there is little evidence of the riches that should be there—simply poverty, or even worse, carnality.
Back to the Sources
Increasingly, my response to this situation has been shaped by my calling as an historian. I am convinced that we need to heed the watchword of the Reformation: ad fontes—“back to the sources.” Just as it was with the Reformers, so it is now: the way forward is backward. The sixteenth-century Reformers went back to the inerrant Scriptures to find a solid foundation for renewing the Church. And they also looked to the writings of the Church Fathers, senior Christians and conversation partners, in their meditation upon the Scriptures and their application of God’s Word.
We too need to go back: back to Scripture to recover a truly biblical spirituality and back to the classics of Evangelicalism and of the Reformed tradition to find the pathway forward. To be sure, we cannot live in the past. To attempt to do so would be sheer antiquarianism. But our Evangelical and Reformed forebears in the faith can teach us much about Christianity—its truths and its passions, its ethos and its fruit.
Pondering the Lives of Saints Past
Moreover, our forebears can serve as role models for us. As R.C. Sproul noted in the October 1999 issue of Tabletalk with regard to such giants of the Faith as Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards: “These men all were conquered, overwhelmed, and spiritually intoxicated by their vision of the holiness of God. Their minds and imaginations were captured by the majesty of God the Father. Each of them possessed a profound affection for the sweetness and excellence of Christ. There was in each of them a singular and unswerving loyalty to Christ that spoke of a citizenship in heaven that was always more precious to them than the applause of men.”
Scripture itself expects us to be so learning from the past. Hebrews 13:7, for instance, calls those claiming to be disciples of Christ to imitate the faith of their leaders and, by implication, the faith of the saints of bygone ages. In fact, is this not what the writer of this tremendous letter does in chapter 11? We thus need to ponder the lives of saints past. Caleb Evans, the eighteenth-century English Baptist educator, was spot on when he once said: “Every Christian ought to be a good historian”
Of course, we cannot place these men and their writings on the same level as the Word of God. John Jewel, the sixteenth-century Anglican apologist who served as bishop of Salisbury, rightly stated with regard to the Church Fathers: “They were learned men, and learned fathers; the instruments of the mercy of God, and vessels full of grace. We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them, and give thanks unto God for them. Yet…we may not make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience: we may not put our trust in them. Our trust is in the name of the Lord.”
The Puritans and Their Baptist Heirs as Models for Imitation
Where, though, to begin? Church History is a veritable cornucopia when it comes to such lives. In fact, the more I have studied the history of God’s people, the more I have become aware of how little I really know and how, despite over forty years of almost constant reading of this history, I feel like I am only scratching the surface of what there is to know. Yet, we cannot afford to be stymied in the face of such riches. In the studies that follow I propose to ponder the lives of some of the English Puritans and their eighteenth-century heirs, the Calvinistic Baptists.
The Puritans are often written off, even by Christians who ought to know better, as hard-hearted prudes whose grim visages matched their drab clothing. While the eighteenth-century Baptists are sometimes depicted as being simply narrow-minded dogmatists sunk in the morass of hyper-Calvinism and out of touch with the great movement of God in the eighteenth-century awakenings.
Neither caricature accurately bespeaks reality. Both of these Reformed groups, the Puritans and their Baptist children, when considered as a whole, can be seen to have shared a common Christ-centered piety that gloried in the Gospel and that was deeply rooted in the Scriptures. And their lives and experiences have therefore much to instruct us.
*** An earlier version of this article first appeared in Tabletalk in January 2012 and is used here by permission.