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A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 4 of 5)

February 27, 2013

Puritan Reformed Spirituality

The problem with medieval Catholic spirituality is that it does not purely stem from God’s Word. Consequently, it often produces unscriptural mysticism. In contrast, Puritan Reformed spirituality is essentially based on the Bible and in dependence on the Holy Spirit. The by-product is biblical piety.

Anyone who studies Puritan Reformed spirituality should not neglect Joel R. Beeke’s priceless work whose title itself is Puritan Reformed Spirituality. Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a first-class scholar of Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. This book, according to Beeke, “promotes biblical spirituality through a study of the Reformed and Puritan heritage.”[1] Actually, all chapters in this volume (except for chapter 13) have been previously published in a periodical or book. As a result, and what could be perceived as a disadvantage, each chapter “is an independent unit with the exception of chapters 11 and 12.”[2] Yet, these independent units do not affect the serviceability of the material to understanding Puritan Reformed spirituality, a type of spirituality which the author believes to be biblical.

Puritan Reformed Spirituality deals with different dimensions of spirituality (assurance of faith, evangelism, the Decalogue, meditation, preaching, justification by faith, and others) with a special focus on the writings of the following authors:  French reformer John Calvin, English Puritans William Ames and Anthony Burgess, Scottish divines John Brown of Haddington, Thomas Boston, and Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and Dutch Second reformers Willem Teellinck, Herman Witsius, and Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen. Noticeably, Beeke includes the spirituality of the Dutch Second or Further Reformation, which resembles English Puritanism, especially in terms of the practice of piety.

Of all nineteen chapters of Beeke’s book, one may find chapters 1, 4, 14, and 18 as most helpful for the understanding of Puritan Reformed spirituality. In chapter 1, “Calvin on Piety,” Beeke examines Calvin whose “reputation as an intellectual… is often seen apart from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology.”[3] Beeke dispels this caricature, insisting that for Calvin “theological understanding and practical piety, truth and usefulness, are inseparable.”[4] In fact, the very purpose of Calvin in writing his great theological work—the Institutes—was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[5]

Ironically, Calvin’s concept of piety also has an element of mysticism—mystical union with Christ—which is cardinal to his system of theology. Beeke says, “For Calvin, piety is rooted in the believer’s mystical union (unio mystica) with Christ; thus this union must be our starting point.”[6] But such piety is different from medieval spirituality for the simple reason that Calvin’s piety is solidly grounded in the proper knowledge of God. Calvin believes that right doctrine of God prompts holy practice, and that the practice of holiness becomes only superficial when it does not emanate from the right knowledge of God. To further distinguish Calvin’s piety from medieval spirituality, Beeke gives the following explanation:

For Calvin, the Reformation includes the reform of piety (pietas), or spirituality, as much as a reform of theology. The spirituality that had been cloistered behind monastery walls for centuries had been broken down; medieval spirituality was reduced to a celibate, ascetic, and penitential devotion in the convent or monastery. But Calvin helped Christians understand piety in terms of living and acting every day according to God’s will (Rom. 12:1-2) in the midst of human society. Through Calvin’s influence, Protestant spirituality focused on how one lived the Christian life in the family, the fields, the workshop, and the marketplace. Calvin helped Protestants change the entire focus of the Christian life.[7]

In chapter 4, “The Puritan Practice of Meditation,” Beeke discusses one critical aspect of spirituality—meditation. For the Puritans, meditation is a spiritual exercise of both mind and heart. In the words of Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1689) meditation is “a holy exercise of the mind whereby we bring the truths of God to remembrance, and do seriously ponder upon them and apply them to ourselves.”[8] Puritan meditation centers on the written truth (Scripture) as well as the living Truth (Christ). As such, Beeke says, “the Puritans distanced themselves from the kind of bogus spirituality or mysticism that stresses contemplation at the expense of action, and flights of the imagination at the expense of biblical content.”[9]

In chapter 14, “Willem Teellinck and The Path of True Godliness,” Beeke addresses one of the foremost representatives of the Dutch Second Reformation, namely, Teellinck (1579-1629) who is often considered the father of the Dutch Further Reformation. Teellinck was profoundly influenced by the Puritans, particularly by their practice of piety.  This Puritan influence is seen in his sermons and writings in which his concern was always to promote holy living. In Teellinck’s The Path of True Godliness, his magnum opus on sanctification, he castigates those who claim to have faith in God, and yet do not show godliness in their lives. For Teellinck, “the true Christian faith is knowledge that leads to godliness.”[10] Beeke, commenting on the impact of Teellinck, states: “Teellinck’s positive emphasis in promoting biblical, Reformed spirituality serves as a corrective to much false spirituality…. to orthodox teaching that presents truth to the mind but does not apply it to the heart and daily life.”[11]

At the latter part of his life, however, Teellinck became somewhat mystical, emphasizing feelings more than faith. This mystical tendency can be detected from Teellinck’s The New Jerusalem, published posthumously. The Dutch Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) commented that, in this volume, Teellinck “could rightly be regarded as a second Thomas ä Kempis.”[12] Beeke agrees with Voetius’ comment, but adds that, unlike Thomas ä Kempis, Teellinck was “Reformed in his theology.”[13]

Beeke, in Chapter 18, “Cultivating Holiness,” reaches as it were the climax. This chapter is packed with quotes from the Reformers and the Puritans, and their like-minded successors. Here Beeke demonstrates to his readers what Puritan Reformed spirituality really is. The chapter ends with a pastoral plea to pray for piety with Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843), “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.”[14]


[1] Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), viii.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Ibid., 1-2. The quote is taken from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.

[6] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 4.

[7] Ibid., 26-27.

[8] Cited in Ibid., 74. The quote is taken fromThomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm (Morgan, Pa.; Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 23.

[9] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 74.

[10] Willem Teellinck, The Path of True Godliness, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Annemie Godbehere (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, reprint, 2006), 31.

[11] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 329.

[12] Cited in Ibid., 315.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cited in 421.

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