Book Review: Puritan Portraits by J.I. Packer


As I’ve gotten older (which sounds pretentious since I’m coming up to the ripe “old” age of 34), my appreciation for history—and especially historical figures—has increased greatly. I love learning about the people who’ve influenced movements and events, especially in the history of the Christian faith.

J.I. Packer understands how important understanding these people is, so it’s no wonder Christian Focus asked him to introduce a number of classic Puritan works released in their Christian Heritage line, introductions now compiled in the recently released Puritan Portraits: J.I. Packer on selected Classic Pastors and Pastoral Classics. 

This book combines Packer’s biographical sketches of John Flavel, Thomas Boston, Henry Scougal, John Bunyan, Matthew Henry, John Owen and John Flavel, as well as two larger portraits of William Perkins and Richard Baxter, to give readers a sense of the pastoral heart of the Puritan movement.

I have mixed feelings about Puritan Portraits. I really enjoyed much of what it has to offer—but I still found it a bit disappointing.

I love that the emphasis of these works is the practical pastoral purposes of each book. Packer is very deliberate in showing how Flavel’s Keeping the Heart, Bunyan’s The Heavenly Footman and Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, are not mere theological treatises intended to train the mind, but to transform the heart. This shows most profoundly in his introduction to The Mortification of Sin, as he shares how Owen’s work transformed his own heart:

…Owen saved my spiritual sanity. I do in fact think, after sixty-plus years, that Owen has contributed more than anyone else to make me as much of a moral, spiritual and theological realist as I have so far become. He searched me to the root of my being. He taught me the nature of sin, the need to fight it and the method of doing so. He made me see the importance of the thoughts of the heart in one’s spiritual life. He made clear to me the real nature of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in and to the believer, and of spiritual growth and progress and of faith’s victory. He showed me how to understand myself as a Christian and live before God humbly and honestly, without pretending either to be what I am not or not to be what I am. And he made every point by direct biblical exegesis, bringing out the experimental implications of didactic and narrative texts with a precision and profundity that I had not met before, and have rarely seen equalled since. The decisive dawning of all the insight I have ever received from Owen came, however, when I first read him on mortification.

So what’s disappointing about this book? After all, it sounds like I really enjoyed the sketches provided, doesn’t it? Of course I did.

My disappointment with the book comes not so much with the content, but the obvious “introduction” feel each chapter has (which is natural since, as mentioned above, they were first published as introductions). Reading Packer’s commentary on The Heavenly Footman and sketch of Bunyan makes me want to go and read that book, rather than the following chapter. For me, my disappointment really comes down to this disconnect.

A final question: do the Puritans still matter to our day? The 21st century and its concerns seem so far removed from those of the 17th and 18th—what can (or should) we learn from them about pastoral ministry today? Packer’s epilogue concerning the Puritan pastoral ideal offers a resounding yes:

It would seem that the clergy, the church’s spiritual leaders, have largely lost their way, and when the leadership loses its way there is small hope for the rank and file. Now what I urge here is that the Puritan ideal for pastors, which, judged by the New Testament Scriptures on which it is based, has classic status in itself, is the foundational reality on which all ventures in church renewal must be based, otherwise they will fail continually until finally all is lost.

This, fundamentally, is a reminder of why we need to pay close attention to history. If we aren’t familiar with those who’ve come before us, we can’t learn from their example. We’ll be doomed to repeat the errors they made, while missing out on the positive insights they had that we may be overlooking. This is why Packer exhorts readers to consider the Puritan pastoral ideal—not because they are greater than us, but because their insights are valuable to us. Puritan Portraits is a good starting point to understanding this and will hopefully be a valuable resource leading to greater study.

Title: Puritan Portraits: J.I. Packer on selected Classic Pastors and Pastoral Classics
Author: J.I. Packer
Publisher: Christian Focus (2012)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

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