Reading the Puritans -- By: Joel R. Beeke
PRJ 3:2 (July 2011) p. 193
Reading the Puritans
A medieval Talmudic scholar, R. Isaiah Di Trani (c. 1200-1260), once asked, “Who can see farther, a giant or a dwarf?”
The answer was, “Surely the giant, because his eyes are higher than those of the dwarf.”
“But if the giant carries the dwarf on his shoulders, who can see farther?” Di Trani persisted.
“Surely the dwarf, whose eyes are now above the eyes of the giant,” was the answer.
Di Trani then said, “We too are dwarfs riding on the shoulders of giants…. [I]t is by virtue of the power of their wisdom that we have learned all that we say, and not because we are greater than they were.”1
The point is: a dwarf must realize his place among giants. This is true of all human achievement. When we survey church history, we discover giants of the faith, such as Aurelius Augustine (354-430), Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), John Owen (1616-1683), and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Amid those giants the Puritans also rise as giants of exegetical ability, intellectual achievement, and profound piety.
Upon this mountain our Reformed “city” is built. We are where we are because of our history, though we are dwarves on the shoulders of giants. Who would George Whitefield (1714-1770), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), or D. Martyn
PRJ 3:2 (July 2011) p. 194
Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) be if not for their predecessors? Despite this, Puritan studies were sorely neglected until the resurgence of Puritan literature in the late 1950s. In many evangelical circles today, Puritan theology is still marginalized. While the Puritans built palaces, we are comfortable building shacks; where they planted fields, we plant but a few flowers; while they turned over every stone in theological reflection, we content ourselves with pebbles; where they aimed for comprehensive depth, we aim for catchy sound bites.
The Latin phrase tolle lege, meaning “pick up and read,” offers a remedy for this apathy toward spiritual truth. Our ancestors have left us a rich theological and cultural heritage. We can say of the Puritans what Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) said of his evening routine of reading the ancients, “I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing.”2
Returning to Puritan writings will also reward a diligent reader. Whitefield said, “Though ...
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