Of all the factors which have granted the Puritans a degree of permanence in Reformed Christian consciousness and conversation, perhaps the one which is most easily overlooked is their facility with the English language. Their familiarity with historical theology, their easy navigation of the contours of theological controversy, their deep-dive approach to individual texts of Scripture, and their closeness of application represent their unique genius – but their precise deployment and clear enjoyment of the versatility of English is the vehicle in which all of these other virtues are carried. In this article I want to consider some features of the Puritan poetic, examine why their phrasing was so rich, as well as suggesting some lessons which their approach to language can teach to us in our own day.
The worth of the subject was reflected in the wealth of their words: my educational background was in English literature, and so it was my privilege as an undergraduate and postgraduate to enjoy some of the best writers that the language had to offer. Often, however, there was a disconnect for me when it came to reading Christian books. They were either dully utilitarian, with all of the charm of an instruction manual, or needlessly conversational, with plenty of chumminess but very little capacity to arrest one’s mind or attention; or they were jargonistic, a kind of specialised antechamber which continually called for appeal to a glossary. It was only when I came to read the Puritans (and some twentieth century authors who evidently had been influenced by them) that I found a very powerful marriage between the weight of subject matter and the wealth of words. Here truth was presented in vessels which sought to display its worth and reflect its glory, which sought to complement and highlight the heights and depths to which theology takes the human heart and mind. The Puritans harnessed their spiritual passion with the reins of well turned phrasing and precisely employed aphorism, in order to direct experiential truth towards the human heart.
The best way of appreciating this poetic approach to theology is by means of example. Take, for instance, John Owen’s dynamic handling of the doctrine of the incarnation in his The Person of Christ – God and Man:
This Word was made flesh, not by any change of his own nature or essence, not by a transubstantiation of the divine nature into the human, not by ceasing to be what he was, but by becoming what he was not, in taking our nature as his own, whereby he dwelt among us.
There is so much going on here, that it is easy to overlook the verbal skill which the author employs. Owen, who is not the most lyrical of Puritan authors, is walking between a series of Christological fault-lines, and not only is his summary of the Word becoming flesh utterly orthodox it is also tersely and beautifully stated. One’s theology is forged by such surefooted thinking, but it is also fired by such lucid writing.
Another example is the incomparable Richard Sibbes, whose pastoral and poetic concerns are always present in his theological reflection. In A Glance of Heaven Sibbes seeks to set the believer’s hope of glory at the heart of how they think and worship, and his skill in handling his theme is simply wonderful. A few examples are,
Our houses are houses of pilgrimage; our contentments are the contentments of passengers.
Heaven is prepared for us and us for it. It is kept for us and we are kept for it. Whom God keeps for heaven, he keeps them for heaven in a course of piety and obedience.
Stephen Charnock’s theological opus Discourse on the Existence and Attributes of God continues to carry its own currency in the marketplace of theological ideas, but his is not a dry and dusty dogmatic. Here is an example from his handling of the need for our worship of God to be spiritual and sincere,
How therefore are our hearts prepared to worship? Is our diligence greater to put our hearts in an adoring posture, than our bodies in a decent garb? Or are we content to have a muddy heart, so we may have a dressed carcass? To have a spirit a cage of unclean birds, while we wipe the filth from the outside of the platter, is no better than a pharisaical devotion, and deserves no better a name than that of a whited sepulchre.
How often do we fight against his will, while we cry ‘Hail, master; instead of crucifying our own thoughts, crucifying the Lord of our lives.
The literary dexterity shown by these and many other Puritan authors, their concern to speak plainly but powerfully, to write purely but poetically, makes their teaching all the more memorable, and their application utterly unavoidable.
A contemporary recurrence of this kind of writing should only be welcomed. We now live in a fully realised Christian sub-culture, with its own marketing dynamics, and consumer expectations. So many of our songs are inane repetitions of self-help mantras, Christian novels recycle ready-made tropes, and Christian writing can often fail to plunder what Seamus Heaney described as the ‘word hoard’ of the English language.
In handling Scripture, the doctrine of God and salvation, we are trafficking in the highest ideas on which the human mind can meditate, we are straining our necks and squinting our eyes in an attempt to see and feel something of the glory of the God whom we worship. Surely such an endeavour should be accompanied by words which set the world alive, with expressions which naturally and powerfully catch the keynotes of God’s glory and sing his praise while telling his truth. A superficial engagement with the Puritans reveals the breadth of their reading, their evident saturation in classical literature, and their literary devices demonstrate an obvious understanding of how words can be put to work as a means of magnifying God. Perhaps we would do well to engage with the world of words outside of our cultural ghetto, perhaps Christian writers could benefit from spending time with historical and contemporary authors and poets who weigh their words and find new ways to work those words effectively and affectively.
They understood the difference between sophistication and sophistry: there is, of course, a danger in highlighting the poetry of the Puritans, in that we might come to value their mode of expression rather than the substance of their teaching. It is a delicate balance indeed to speak beautifully and faithfully, to use one’s literary powers without lapsing into rhetorical redundancy. This is arguably the greatest part of the Puritans’ poetic skill – they seem to have had an instinct for sophisticated expression without surrendering to sophistry, and they seldom sacrifice the content of their writing on the altar of form.
One of the great drawbacks of some Victorian writing was its tendency to prolixity, its casual evocation of tired forms, and its dependence on high sounding constructions without a corresponding depth of theological foundation. The Puritans manage to convey a love for the Lord which ignites their words, without lapsing into a love for words which sidelines or sentimentalises the Lord. Theirs is a disciplined rhetoric, a learned eloquence which feels as though it has been carefully crafted, as though pretentiousness has been studiously avoided, as though only what will carry weight is left intact.
This kind of economy is always necessary, a refusal to give way to purple prose, to speak with a poetic candour, with a seriousness and truthfulness which resonate and communicate with the reader. This will mean a dramatic stripping of our linguistic engine, a repudiation of tired cliche and maudlin metaphor, a fresh investment in the beauty and capacity of the English language to glorify God. It will also liberate us to speak our doctrine with sophistication, with nuance and inflection, without wandering into obscurity or exclusive language games.
Their words in print were often words that were preached: perhaps the driver behind the poetic genius of Puritan authors is that many of them were preachers as well as authors. The words on the page have tone and timbre which give the impression of their having been bench-tested through public proclamation. An academic essay and a sermon are different in so many ways, not least of which is the pitch they aspire to, and the purpose they are put to. The sermon is not a dead summary of principles and tenets, but an exulting in the very truth which it proclaims – the sermon sings what the essay says, it sounds notes as well as making points, it delivers flavour as well as facts, it has the sense of encounter and agency. Good preaching stops us in our tracks, it delivers to us a self-deprecating eloquence which puts God in the foreground, it bears up his glory on golden poles of careful phrasing which makes us feel the greatness as well as the truth of the gospel.
It is arguably this element which so ignites Puritan writing – the skills of oratory are recorded on the page without affectation or ostentation, their purpose being to reach a fraction of the measure of their subject matter.
Such an approach should influence how we seek to write, but ought also to help us in how we preach. To read the Puritans as a preacher is to witness firsthand something of the degree to which good language can exalt God, and could stretch us to use the very best of skills to articulate the very best of themes. The worst outcome of this would be an inappropriate and anachronistic delivery, an antiquarian employment of words which do not fit with twenty-first century idiom, but the best outcome would be a thoroughly contemporary proclamation of the teaching of Scripture in words which are measured and which mirror the majesty of the God they declare.