A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Andrew Ballitch
Summary and Review
Matthew Haste and Shane Parker write from “a perspective of genuine appreciation” for the Puritans, from “the conviction that today’s pastors could learn much from the Puritans” (14). Thus, after defining the Puritans historically and theologically, the authors aim to make this group of pastors more accessible to pastors today.
Each chapter tackles a pastoral task or aspect of pastoral ministry through the lens of one or two Puritans. The topics include the pastor’s call, Bible, doctrine, piety, prayers, family, preaching, affections, shepherding, evangelism, leadership, and failure. The Puritan’s selected range from the familiar, John Owen, John Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards, to the less well known, such as William Perkins, Lewis Bayly, and John Eliot.
Installments helpfully begin with a single page portrait, with basic biographical details: dates, pastoral post, primary writings, mentor(s), and a quote. Of particular note are those who mentored these men. This historical detail illustrates that the Puritans formed a network of relationships and influence, indeed, as Sinclair Ferguson terms it in the forward, a brotherhood. After the authors provide a brief narrative of the individual’s life and historical context, with few exceptions, discussions are drawn from primary sources, though modern editions, pointing readers to where they can go for more.
Haste and Parker are at their best when they are drawing applications from Puritan lives, ministries, and writings, as correctives for today. For instance, in the chapter on John Bunyan and the pastor’s calling, they point out that the pastoral call should be housed within a full-orbed doctrine of vocation, and much more objective than subjective, with an emphasis on external, rather than internal confirmation. In other words, all people are called to something, and the individual who feels called to ministry should have their gifts and life evaluated by the church. The Puritan approach was not the mystical or minimalistic sort of thing we often see today.
The chapter on John Owen and the pastor’s doctrine is another illustration. “The task of pastoral ministry, at its core, is teaching sound doctrine,” while the “vehicles of ministry are varied” (53). So whether one is exhorting from the pulpit, teaching Sunday School from the lectern, or leading a small group from the living room, the task is teaching sound doctrine. That goes for counseling, writing, and discipleship as well. And the substance is not up for grabs; it is the truth of the gospel revealed in Scripture.
One last example: as a welcome antidote to pragmatism and an emphasis on church growth by numbers, Haste and Parker offer Richard Baxter on the pastor’s shepherding. Here are three statements in summary on page 121 that speak powerfully for themselves: 1) Regardless of context, the pastor’s central task is to shepherd his people. 2) Regardless of temperament, pastors must know their people and their needs. 3) Regardless of perceived needs, pastors must remember that what will benefit their people most is more of God.
There are some editorial things that would have polished this book up a bit. At times the first-person pronoun is used without indication of whether Haste or Parker are speaking. There are some short title footnotes that could point to more than one previously cited source. And some of the chapter introductions come across as forced and distracting, referencing things like the Wright brothers and the history of aviation or Indiana Jones. But some of this is minor and, admittedly, preferential.
One larger complaint is from the chapter on Jonathan Edwards and the pastor’s failure, and the issue of slavery. The authors handle the topic well, with a nuanced evaluation of Edwards’s actual position and historical sensitivity. But it seems like a nod to our current cultural milieu. As is pointed out, none of the Puritans were perfect, all of our heroes are flawed, sinful people, so there is no shortage of failures at which to look. More original and interesting would have been pressing the nerve of religious persecution in John Cotton’s Boston or John Owen as chaplain to Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, where atrocities took place that would be considered ethnic and religious cleansing today.
All in all, this is a valuable resource. It is clearly written, thoughtfully organized, with Puritans and their works ably selected. We have seen an increase in recent years of short works with the goal of introducing the Puritans to a wider audience. This contribution is particularly welcome as it offers a lens into their wholistic pastoral ministry, an area where the Puritans uniquely excelled.
Andrew S. Ballitch (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Westwood Alliance Church in Mansfield, Ohio.
Buy the books
THE PASTOR'S LIFE: PRACTICAL WISDOM FROM THE PURITANS, by Matthew D. Haste and Shane W. Parker