Joel Beeke is an expert in Puritan theology and has written extensively on the topic. Credo editor Lance English asks Beeke to share his insights on the value of studying the Puritans, especially those who were Reformed scholastics. Beeke explores the ways in which these traditions provide a rich foundation for contemporary theology, highlighting their focus on scriptural exegesis, philosophical retrieval, and the practical implications of theology for the Christian life. Beeke also discusses the challenges of integrating these traditions into modern theological education and offers guidance for educators and students seeking to deepen their understanding of these important theological streams.
1. How did you first meet the Puritans and what advice do you have for beginning readers who have only recently been introduced to them?
I came under some conviction of sin at the age of 9, and looked through my Dad’s bookcase for help. I settled on reading The Life and Death of Mr. Badman by John Bunyan because I concluded that I was a bad boy. After six months, those convictions receded, however, but they returned in earnest when I was 14. At that point I read through the Bible (more than once) and devoured all the old Banner of Truth Puritan paperbacks in my father’s bookcase every night in my bedroom—usually until around midnight. I couldn’t get enough of them. Reading the Puritans greatly helped me come to spiritual liberty for my own soul over the next 18 months. And I have been reading them ever since as I find that they do more for my soul—alluring, convicting, challenging, and moving me to spiritual growth in Christ more than any other spiritual discipline. I relish their hatred for sin, their love for Christ and for the Triune God, their earnest prayer, and their passion to walk in the King’s highway of holiness. Despite my numerous shortcomings, I want to follow them insofar as they follow Christ.
The theology of Reformed scholasticism was essentially the same as that taught by Heinrich Bullinger and John Calvin . . . . Click To Tweet For beginning readers who often struggle with the rather quaint language of the Puritans, begin with reading “The Puritan Treasures for Today” (Reformation Heritage Books), such as John Flavel’s Triumphing Over Sinful Fear or Anthony Burgess on assurance of faith. These short Puritan works have every sentence carefully edited into contemporary language without losing or distorting content. After reading some of these paperbacks, you will be hooked for life due to the beautiful and weighty substance of their writings!
From there, I would suggest moving to the unedited writings of Thomas Watson, beginning with his Heaven Taken by Storm. His writings are so succinct, so captivating, so probing, so alluring. And then move on to other unedited, easy-to-read Puritans, such as Bunyan, Flavel, Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Brooks, and William Bates. From there, gradually work your way up to Thomas Goodwin and John Owen.
2. This issue of Credo Magazine is devoted to Reformed scholasticism. What is Reformed scholasticism? What are some key insights from their theology and method that you believe Protestants should recover today?
By way of background, Reformed scholasticism was an academic movement to crystallize, defend, and more comprehensively develop the biblical insights of the Reformed branch of the Reformation that took place in the first half of the sixteenth century. Reformed scholasticism begun in the mid-sixteenth century and continued through the late eighteenth century. The theology of Reformed scholasticism was essentially the same as that taught by Heinrich Bullinger and John Calvin, but it was expressed with a high degree of exegetical, theological, and philosophical sophistication developed in university settings. Thus, we use the term scholasticism, referring to the methods of schools, including “the tools of linguistic, philosophical, logical, and traditional thought,” as Richard Muller says in his well-respected Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.
Yet the term scholasticism can be misleading, as if the academic method dictated the content of doctrine, thus leading to the false conclusion that Reformed scholasticism taught the exact same doctrines as late medieval (Roman Catholic) scholasticism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (not to be confused with the scholasticism of the High Middle Ages during the tenth through thirteenth centuries). The Reformed scholastics used some of same methods as the medieval scholastics, but Reformed scholastics insisted that Scripture alone has divine authority and, therefore, grounded their theology in the exegesis of the Bible. As a result, the content of their doctrine was significantly different from that of the medieval scholastics in areas such as soteriology and ecclesiology. In other areas of theology, however, Reformed scholastics made a critical appropriation of medieval scholastic teachings, weighing them in the balance of the Holy Scriptures and sifting out human inventions not taught in the Word.
Therefore, one insight that we should recover from Reformed scholasticism is the need to combine sola Scriptura with a critical use of the Christian tradition. Modern evangelicalism too often errs by claiming that sola Scriptura requires us to ignore traditional sources. This leaves evangelicalism vulnerable to people who, seeing its shallowness, plunge themselves into an uncritical acceptance of church tradition and end up in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Of course, many Protestants today reject both the inerrancy of Scripture and the helpfulness of tradition to follow human reasoning in formulating their theology—the spirit of liberal modernism. Reformed scholasticism can help us by teaching us to follow Scripture as the supreme authority while giving proper respect to Christian tradition as a witness to how Scripture is best interpreted and applied. One insight that we should recover from Reformed scholasticism is the need to combine sola Scriptura with a critical use of the Christian tradition. Click To Tweet
There are so many ways that Reformed orthodoxy or scholasticism is helpful in its theology that it is difficult for me to isolate a “key insight.” Contrary to much scholarship done in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Reformed scholasticism does not consist of a central dogma from which all other doctrines are logically derived. And contrary to popular evangelical thought in recent decades, Reformed scholasticism recognized that to be Reformed (or “Calvinistic” in more recent parlance) cannot be reduced to a list of a handful of points. (It is somewhat humorous to observe that the famous TULIP acronym, by which many people identify themselves as Calvinists, was not coined until centuries after Calvin died.) Perhaps the difficulty of identifying a single theological insight is an insight all by itself. Reformed theology, which is a summary of biblical revelation, is a full-orbed worldview expressed in the confessions and catechisms. We should learn from the Reformed scholastics that we need to embrace and teach the whole counsel of God in doctrine and ethics.
3. Can you briefly explain the similarities and differences between Puritan and Reformed scholastic thought?
English Puritanism was one historical expression of Reformed orthodoxy, which was the religious movement within which Reformed scholasticism operated. Thus, when we speak of the theology of the Puritans and the theology of Reformed scholasticism, we are talking about the same doctrinal and ethical convictions. Reformed Christianity was an international movement and its theologians frequently corresponded with each other and even travelled to teach in schools outside of their own nation.
However, we can make a distinction between Puritan theology and Reformed scholasticism in that the latter involves by definition a highly developed academic method. Sometimes the Puritans wrote in a scholastic manner, which generally meant writing technical treatises in Latin. But the Puritans were also ministers of the Word who pastored congregations. Therefore, many Puritan writings are not highly academic but written for laypeople. In fact, most Puritan books are series of sermons revised for publication. This makes much Puritan literature easier to understand and digest than the highly technical treatises intended to serve the schools or engage in polemics against theological opponents.
4. Do you have a favorite Puritan theologian? If so, why?
Thomas Watson and Thomas Brooks were my early favorites in my-mid-teens, followed by Thomas Goodwin for decades, and more recently I have been profiting greatly from Anthony Burgess. I love Watson for his succinctness. Whose can say this in three words: “Association begets assimilation”? I love Brooks for his amazing substance interlaced with an incredible use of illustrations from a wide field of interests, which always make you want to read the next page. I love Goodwin for his deep exegetical, expository, and experiential insights. His Christ Our Mediator was a boon for my soul when I first read it at age 17. (Yes, I love Owen too!) And I am learning to love Burgess as a Puritan divine who is a well-rounded theologian, skilled in teaching doctrine biblically, confessionally, experientially, and practically. His magisterial Spiritual Refining is a model example of this, but so are his more exegetical works. (Exciting news: Reformation Heritage Books is committed to printing the complete works of Burgess in 14 volumes under the excellent editorial supervision of Chad VanDixhoorn!)
If you put me on a desert island and told me that I could only take one book with me beside the Bible, I would choose Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Click To Tweet If I can cheat a bit here, and throw in a Scottish “puritan” and a Dutch “puritan” as well, I would choose Samuel Rutherford and Wilhelmus a Brakel respectively. I would choose Rutherford for his extraordinarily intimate relationship with Christ that pulsates in his famous letters and his sermonic works and for how he is able to comfort weary souls by directing them to Jesus. I kept his unabridged Letters on my nightstand for more than twenty years, and would often read a letter or two to the joy of my needy soul before going to sleep. And then, Brakel—I can’t say enough good about him. If you put me on a desert island and told me that I could only take one book with me beside the Bible, I would choose Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service (I would then get 4 volumes instead of one!), not only because of its incredibly warm pastoral theology imbedded in its first two volumes that comprise a masterful systematic theology, but also because of the last two volumes of ethical applications that deal with subjects of amazingly practical import, such as chapters on spiritual courage, or how to fight against backsliding, or how to use the promises of God. Brakel’s writing is theology at its best for the layman who aspires to a closer walk with the triune God.
5. Who is your favorite non-Puritan theologian? Why?
Bear with me as I cheat a bit again: For the 18th century I would be hard pressed deciding between Jonathan Edwards (but perhaps he could still be counted as a Puritan), Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Thomas Boston. Probably Boston is the one who has done the most for my spiritual development throughout my life, though all three would be in the running. I am overjoyed to have just brought Boston’s 12 volumes of complete works back into print through RHB.
For the 19th century, I have profited spiritually and experientially the most from writings of Octavius Winslow. He is akin to a 19th century Rutherford in unveiling the fullness of Christ. He knows how to lift up the downcast with Jesus, and fill the longing soul with angels’ food. Theologically, I would place John Colquhoun near or at the top of my list. His writings on law and gospel and on the covenants are unsurpassed.
In the 20th century and up until today, I love reading everything that Iain Murray writes. And Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has had a huge impact on me as well. Nor can I help but my mention my good friend, Sinclair Ferguson, whose writings always edify me.
6. How did the Reformed scholastics interpret the relationship between faith and reason?
We must be careful not to assume in an anachronistic way that Reformed scholastics discussed the question of how faith and reason relate in the same way as the question has been posed by modern theologians and philosophers. It is notable that Petrus van Mastricht, an eminent Reformed scholastic, gives no focused attention to the relationship of faith and reason in his massive Theologia Theoretico-Practica. Yet, he plainly sees faith as involving the intellect. However, Francis Turretin, another Reformed scholastic, addresses some questions of faith and reason in the context of polemics against rationalists (Socinians) and theologians who make self-contradictory claims (Lutherans). (For more on Turretin, see below.)
Reason, or the ability to think logically, was regarded by Reformed scholastics as a faculty of the soul, which God created so that man might know him and his will. Thus, the reason of man must always be exercised in submission to God and for his glory. As a created faculty, reason is essential to human nature. When God first made man and placed him in paradise, human reason was well suited to embrace God’s revelation both in the created order and in his spoken words.
However, all of human nature has been pervasively depraved or corrupted by man’s fall into sin and misery. Hence, human reason in the state of sin cannot function properly to the glory of God. Though all creation is a divine testimony to God and his attributes, the unregenerate mind is not capable of finding God in a saving way through an attempt to construct natural theology. Contrary to Semi-Pelagians and Arminians, Reformed scholastics denied that the world of nature was full of salvific grace that could lead people back to God merely through the right use of their created faculties. Rather, human reason wanders in the darkness generated by man’s foolish hostility to God and futile resistance to his will. Consequently, the heathen world evidences a nearly universal recognition of the divine but an abysmal failure to attain the knowledge of the true God. Nevertheless, human reason continued to function with regard to the natural order, as evident in mathematics, natural science, and politics—all of which were subjects of intense study in Europe in the early modern period. And the regenerate could employ the rational arguments of natural theology to defeat the objections of unbelievers and demonstrate that belief in God is most rational.
The great fruit of regeneration is faith in Christ alone for salvation by the saving illumination of the soul. Faith, according to the Reformed scholastics, is the proper response to God’s Word. Faith was described by many Reformed orthodox theologians in three dimensions: knowledge, assent, and trust. Thus, faith is inseparable from the faculty of reason, which is partially healed by saving grace, though faith involves the whole soul in the act of receiving God as he offers himself through the Mediator in the gospel. Reformed scholastic theologians rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that faith is merely the assent of the mind to the truth, which then leaves faith inadequate to save apart from the added grace of infused love. On the contrary, saving faith is a holistic response to the veracity and authority of God’s Word as it reveals the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the only Mediator.
Regenerated reason (reason in a regenerated person) is given a new posture or disposition to be a servant of the Word. Consequently, through the grace-wrought influence of the Word, human reason is increasingly healed of its blindness and is enabled to recognize and appreciate the glory of God in his natural revelation throughout creation. This right functioning of reason is increasingly cultivated as believers grow in Christ’s likeness, reaching its fullness in their glorification. However, as a servant of the Word, human reason never has the right to exercise the authority to judge the Word or establish doctrine on logic alone. As Turretin said, Reformed scholastics rejected the notion that reason is “the principle and rule by which the doctrines of the Christian religion and theology (which are the objects of faith) ought to be measured” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.8). “Reason is the instrument which the believer uses, but it is not the foundation and principle on which faith rests” (1.8.6, emphasis added).
Faith, however, is not irrational or contrary to reason. In fact, human reason, when renewed by the Spirit and directed by the Word, can make some judgments about matters of faith because sound doctrine cannot contradict itself, and the logical consequences rightly deduced from a revealed doctrine are themselves necessarily true (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.10.1; 1.12). For example, reason helps the believer to recognize that there is no purgatory for the postmortem purging of sin because Christ’s blood cleanses believers from all sin, and that Christ’s body is not everywhere because he ascended into heaven (1.10.9).
To summarize, the Reformed scholastics viewed the relationship between reason and faith according to the fourfold state of man: (1) reason created in the context of man’s bearing the image of God and trusting in him entirely; (2) reason depraved in the state of sin and blind to God’s glory, and thus, the very enemy of faith; (3) reason renewed in the state of grace to act as the handmaid of the Word, a servant increasingly rectified by deepening sanctification; and (4) reason fully illuminated in the state of glory, where faith gives way to sight.
7. What do you enjoy doing when you are not teaching, administrating, or writing?
By God’s grace alone, I can say with Rutherford that my two greatest joys in life are Christ and preaching Christ. Besides this, my favorite thing to do in life is to be with my best friend, my Queen. I just love walking, talking, traveling, and communing with her in a variety of ways. I wouldn’t be half of what I am without her. Next to God Himself, she is by far my greatest treasure—a prized gift from God.
Reading the Puritans have helped me love my people more. Click To Tweet Family is close behind. I love to be with our six children (3 biological and 3 wonderful in-laws), and the precious ten grandchildren entrusted to us in the last seven years (one yet to be born in a few months, D.V.)! People told us for a long time how wonderful grandchildren are, but covenant grandchildren are better than anyone can put into words!
I also enjoy pastoring in the flock of 750 souls that I serve—in fact, the older I grow, the more I love it—as well as pastoring the 250 students at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. In a sense, I no longer view pastoring as work but as a joyous, loving task. And I absolutely love editing books for RHB. I began this ministry close to 30 years ago and I love it increasingly over the years.
Given all of the above, I don’t have much time for anything else. I hate wasting time—I see time as a gift of God worth more than gold, and I want to live as much as is humanly possible to God’s glory for every minute of my life. But I could add that my favorite “hobbies” are reading, golfing (I love to go golfing a few times each year with my son), and spending down time at our 2-week time share in Florida with my wife and/or family.
8. As a seminary president and professor, you have an intimate view into the world of Christian higher education. What are some encouragements you see from your vantage point as the world of education changes?
We can reach far more theological students with solid biblical, Reformed teaching than ever before due to modern technology.
I rejoice at the growth not just of Puritan Reformed Seminary, but of nearly all sound Reformed seminaries around the world.
As I am privileged to do scores of conferences around the world, I am greatly encouraged by the hunger I feel from numerous young men from conference to conference who either feel called to the ministry or are struggling with a possible call.
After serving as president of and professor at Puritan Reformed Seminary for nearly 30 years, I personally am more encouraged and optimistic than ever that though the ungodly are (tragically) becoming far more ungodly, the godly are becoming more godly.
I still long and pray for a day of greater things in the midst of our dark days. I pray for the growth of sound seminaries and churches qualitatively and quantitatively. I pray for a Spirit-worked great awakening that would be greater than the original Great Awakening—and that spearheaded by Spirit-filled, biblical, Reformed, confessional, experiential, practical, well-trained men of God who are, as the Puritans would say, burning with a white-hot flame of zeal for God’s glory and the well-being of never-dying souls.
9. You have been a lifelong student of the Puritans. How have they blessed your ministry in the local church?
Speaking humbly here—because I have many faults in every area of life and still have a long ways to go to be the kind of minister I want to be—reading the Puritans have helped me love my people more. They have helped me to be more pastoral, more caring. They have assisted me in learning ever so slowly to be a physician of souls. They have taught me to be simpler in my preaching, and to speak as much to the heart and the will as to the mind in preaching and teaching. They have particularly taught me how to minister to those who are missing God, and to the hurting and the dying. Above all, they have taught me how to keep on pointing saints and sinners to Jesus Christ in every sermon and every pastoral visit. They have also taught me to begin and end every visit with earnest prayer—that prayer is actually the most important part of the visit.
10. What is one thing you want your students and church family to remember about you?
That I love Christ and love their souls, made my hands free of their blood, and long to spend eternity with them.