Category Archives: Puritanism

Who Should Treat Depression?

Depression -- "The Black Dog."

Depression — “The Black Dog.”

Clinical depression has been described as the common cold of mental illnesses.  At times in my ministry I have wondered:  who doesn’t suffer with depression or hasn’t at some point or other?  The more open we are about discussing it, the less stigma we attach to it, the more we discover how common this ailment is.  Unfortunately, its prevalence does not mitigate its pain.

The pain is not eased by those who see the ailment in a simplistic way as merely a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure.  Even today there are Reformed believers who want to maintain the old view that a spiritual issue is the root cause of most (maybe even all) depression.  This view insists that depression is directly caused by the sufferer’s sin and then the solution to depression rests in repentance.  According to this perspective, pastors, elders, and regular believers, should call depression-sufferers to determine the sin which caused their anguish and turn from it.

Thankfully, other voices have been bringing a more balanced view.  Among them is Dr. David Murray.  His excellent book Christians Get Depressed Too (review here) proceeds on the basis that depression is a complex phenomenon often involving biological and medical realities.  One might think that this is a contemporary approach, something only developed in the last few years.  However, Murray points out that a nuanced view of clinical depression has been around for hundreds of years.  William Perkins (1558-1602) recognized that depression requires medical treatment, and so did Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

Perkins and Edwards were not alone.  I was recently paging through Peter Lewis’ The Genius of Puritanism.  In chapter 3 (“The Puritan in Private”), Lewis has a discussion of mental depression.  He notes that the Puritans distinguished spiritual depression (obviously caused by sin) from mental depression.  They used the term “melancholy” for the latter.  Lewis notes that Richard Baxter (1615-1691) and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) both recognized melancholy as a medical phenomenon.  I want to focus for a moment on Brooks and what he writes about this in The Crown and Glory of Christianity (found in volume 4 of The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks).

Brooks was addressing the question of why some Christians seem to be hard pressed with sadness, sorry, and grief.  After all, shouldn’t Christians be joyful?  Part of Brooks’ answer was to note that some of these issues arise from our bodies and the way we were constituted.  Some people are constitutionally more inclined towards melancholy.  He adds a vivid description of it:

Now there is no greater enemy to holy joy and gladness than melancholy, for this pestilent humour will raise such strange passions and imaginations, it will raise such groundless griefs, and fears, and frights, and such senseless surmises and jealousies, as will easily damp a Christian’s joy, and mightily vex, perplex, trouble, and turmoil, daunt, and discourage a Christian’s spirit (page 260).

He further says that this inclination towards melancholy can be used by Satan to his advantage.  Moreover, it is a condition which afflicts both soul and body.  There is definitely a spiritual aspect to the experience of depression, according to Thomas Brooks.  In another book, he writes that this malady “tries the physician, grieves the minister, wounds relations, and makes sport for the Devil.”  This surely sounds familiar!

Also familiar is the cure of which Brooks writes.  He writes, “The cure of melancholy belongs rather to the physician than to the divine, to Galen than to Paul” (page 260).  By “divine” here, Brooks means “theologian” or “pastor.”  Galen (129-200 or 216) was one of the ancient pioneers of medical science.  In our terms, Brooks was saying that depression needs to be treated by doctors, rather than by ministers.  Certainly he would agree that ministers must be involved and can provide spiritual guidance as treatment is sought and provided, but at its roots this is a medical problem to be addressed by medical science.  Did I mention that this was written in 1662?  Yes, in those times they had a far different understanding of medical science, yet they were not averse to pinning a mood disorder on a biological cause.

If you were to encounter a brother or sister suffering from a brain tumour, you would encourage them rather than admonish them to examine themselves for the sin which caused their condition.  Of course, we hold each other accountable for how we respond to medical ailments.  Every Christian is responsible for how they respond to adversity in whatever form.  Clinical depression should be dealt with in the same way.  Those suffering from it need medical treatment — and Christian encouragement from office bearers and regular church members.  In so doing, we reflect the heart and compassion of our Saviour Jesus.


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)


What If You Could Preach to the Whole World?

Precious Remedies

Chrysostom once said that if he were the fittest in the world to preach a sermon to the whole world, gathered together in one congregation, and had some high mountain for his pulpit, from whence he might have a prospect of all the world in his view, and were furnished with a voice of brass, a voice as loud as the trumpets of the archangel, that all the world might hear him, he would choose to preach upon no other text than that in the Psalms, “O men…how long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” (Psalm 4:2)

Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, page 104.


Read the Puritans, Love the Puritans

Every now and then I still run into prejudice against the Puritans amongst Reformed folk.  I deeply lament this.  Hundreds of years later, there is still much of value that can be gleaned from these Reformed giants of old.

I was introduced to the Puritans while in university.  An online friend from South Africa moved to Edmonton to study.  He had a nearly complete collection of the Puritan Paperbacks published by Banner of Truth.  He got me hooked.  My copy of Thomas Watson’s classic All Things for Good was a gift from this brother — still a treasured gift and one of my favourite books.

We discussed theology and the Puritans endlessly in those days.  We talked about the prejudices that many people have against the Puritans.  He pointed me to two books that dispel the myths surrounding these men.  These books are still worthwhile and I want to recommend them to those readers who are willing to have an open mind.

The first is Leland Ryken’s volume, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.  This book takes a balanced look at Puritanism.  Ryken takes apart the caricatures that have often been painted — for instance, he has an entire chapter on marriage and sex.  Be ready to rethink the label “Puritan” when it comes to those subjects!  The book tackles the Puritan approach to a number of subjects and then concludes with two summary chapters.  One deals with some of the things the Puritans did wrong, the other with what they did right.

The other volume I want to recommend as an introduction to the Puritans is J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  This is a more theological book, but with a focus on how theology bears on living as a Christian.  This was one of the strengths of many Puritans.  They understood that doctrine was not a game theologians play, but the foundation and root of a God-pleasing existence.  Packer’s book does touch on many Puritan figures, but he spends the most time with John Owen.  If you need to be convinced to read the Puritans, Packer presents a compelling case.

I love the Puritans and have for many years.  I get a lot of spiritual nourishment from reading their works.  That said, not all Puritans are equal.  Not all Puritan works are of equal value.  Some, like Thomas Watson, were dynamic preachers and communicators.  Because of his use of vivid word pictures, his writing has a timeless quality.  Others were excessively verbose, at times convoluted, and sometimes brought methods that belonged in the academy into the pulpit.  However, they were Reformed, many effectively combined emphases on head and heart, they all understood the gospel, and they believed that an understanding of the amazing grace of God in Christ would compel one to strive for holiness.   One can find valid reasons to criticize some of the Puritans in certain times for this or that.  However, the same can be said for Reformed figures of any era or background.  No matter who we’re reading, we must always chew the meat and spit out the gristle and fat.  If you begin with Ryken and Packer, you’ll quickly figure out where to find some of the best cuts.


Friends You Should Meet (2) — Thomas Watson

It’s not a secret that I love books.  Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends.  In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones.  I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses.  The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a better grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.

Today we’re going to go back a few years to my favourite Puritan author, Thomas Watson.  Unfortunately, the word “Puritan” will turn some people off right away.  If you’ve kept reading up to this point, I applaud your open-mindedness and willingness to give these brothers a chance.  We need to set aside our prejudices and what we may have heard about the Puritans and actually go and check them out for ourselves.  You may be pleasantly surprised!

Thomas Watson was an English Puritan, probably born in Yorkshire in 1620.  Following studies at Cambridge, he spent sixteen years at St. Stephens, Walbrook, London.  A Presbyterian, he was forcibly removed from his pastorate in 1662 when the Act of Uniformity was brought into law.  He preached for private audiences for some years following.  In 1672, however, he was again officially permitted by the authorities to preach and did so at Crosby Hall, Bishopsgate.  In 1680, his health began to decline and he was no longer able to preach.  He died in 1686.

Why is Thomas Watson important? Watson is easily the most readable of the Puritans.  Even when his works are not updated in any way, they are remarkably lucid for being nearly four centuries old.  What accounts for Watson’s readability?  Primarily his use of word pictures.  He knew how to communicate deep truths with vivid language.  Moreover, Watson is also important because he combined those communication skills with a deep love for the gospel and a passionate commitment to Christ.  In their helpful intro to the Puritans (Meet the Puritans), Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson remark:  “Watson’s depth of doctrine, clarity of expression, warmth of spirituality, love of application, and gift of illustration enhanced his reputation as a preacher and writer.”

Where do I start? Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any book-length biographies of Thomas Watson.  The best place to start reading Watson for yourself is his classic All Things For Good in the Puritan Paperbacks series published by Banner of Truth.  This is an exposition of Romans 8:28.  Very few modern writers touch on the subject of repentance.  Another Puritan Paperback by Watson tackles this subject:  The Doctrine of Repentance.  If, like me, you’re called to regularly preach on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, then you need to have Watson’s books on these (also published by Banner of Truth).  These are Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Next, there is a new compilation of Watson’s writings, arranged in a 365-day devotional format.  Glorifying God: A Yearlong Collection of Classic Devotional Writings is adapted from Watson’s Body of Divinity.  My wife and I are using it for daily devotions together and it’s a beautiful and edifying book.  Finally, one of the best books about Thomas Watson is Jack Hughes, Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson.  That volume is one of the most influential and important books I’ve read on preaching.

What to look out for? I would be pleased if all God’s people would read Thomas Watson, ignoring 95% of everything else written in the last four centuries.  Spurgeon used to say that if you would cut a Puritan, he would bleed “bibline.”  Watson is nothing if not possessed by the Bible.  Do I really have any cautions about him?  Certainly none that readily spring to mind.  He was an orthodox, confessional Reformed pastor through and through.

Let me conclude with a sample from the devotion my wife and I read together this morning:

The Scriptures appear to be the Word of God by the matter contained in them.  The mystery of Scripture is so abstruse and profound that no man or angel could have known it had it not been divinely revealed.  That eternity should be born; that He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle; that He who rules the stars should suck the breasts; that the Prince of Life should die; that the Lord of Glory should be put to shame; that sin should be punished to the full, yet pardoned to the full.  Who could ever have conceived such a mystery had not the Scripture revealed it to us?  (Glorifying God, devotion for Feb. 15)