The Puritans were a group of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices. They placed a strong emphasis on the authority of the Bible and taking the written word of God seriously. This blog post will examine how central the Bible was in Puritan life and thought, and the depth of their commitment to following what they believed was the pure word of God.
The Puritans viewed Scripture as vital for doctrine, guidance, and godly living. The Bible was foundational to their faith and practice. Here are some key takeaways on how seriously the Puritans took the written word:
- They believed in the supreme authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Nothing could be required of Christians that was not commanded in the Bible.
- Daily Bible reading and meditation was encouraged for all Puritans. Family worship revolved around Scripture reading and teaching.
- Puritans defended the regulative principle – that only commanded elements of worship in Scripture were permissible in the church.
- Accurate preaching and interpretation of the Bible was a priority. Ministers were extensively trained in original languages and theological education.
- Puritans wrote numerous commentaries and works focused on Biblical exposition and application.
- They emphasized Old Testament moral law as still binding, unless removed in the New Testament.
- Biblical typology – finding Christ in the Old Testament – was popular among Puritan theologians and preachers.
- Reform of society, church, and personal lives was driven by Puritan zeal to align everything with Biblical commands and principles.
The Puritan View of Scripture
The Puritans’ high regard for Scripture went back to the core beliefs of the Protestant Reformation regarding the Bible. The Reformers emphasized the supreme authority of Scripture over church tradition. They also revived the doctrine of Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone as the final authority for doctrine and practice.^[The New King James Version. (1982). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.] This exalted view of the Bible was integral to Puritan theology and spirituality.^[J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 82.]
Puritan Richard Baxter wrote that the Scriptures are “the word of the infinite God, the judge of the world, the standard of truth and falsity, good and evil.” Nothing could hold greater authority.^[Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 1998), 14.] The Bible contained everything necessary for salvation, faith and how to serve God. No tradition, papal decree, or new revelation could add anything to the completed revelation in Scripture.^[Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 40.]
The Westminster Confession, a Reformed confession of faith that Puritans adhered to, declared that:
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added…”^[Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow, UK: Free Presbyterian Publication, 1994), 1.6.]
This conviction in sola Scriptura meant the Bible alone was the final authority for Puritans in all matters of doctrine, worship and church government.^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 40.] Nothing could be required of Christians that was not commanded in Scripture. Practices and beliefs lacking explicit or clearly deduced Biblical basis were rejected as ungodly innovations or false doctrines.
For instance, the Puritans opposed observing saint feast days, wearing surplices and kneeling for communion in worship – because the Bible contained no warrant for these traditions. Church officers, worship and discipline were to follow the New Testament pattern alone. The organization and governance of their church consisted only of pastors, elders, deacons and congregational rule, which they found sanctioned in Scripture.^[Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (New York, NY: Routledge, 1958), 57-58.]
This supreme authority accorded to the Bible directly shaped how Puritans viewed and used Scripture. The Bible was the very word of God. Thomas Watson explained that “The Scripture is the library of the Holy Ghost…the Scripture is the pillar of truth, it is the star in our horizon, that leads to Christ.”^[Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 7.] It was their indispensable guide and the truth that shaped their whole understanding of God, salvation and how to live.
Puritan Emphasis on Bible Reading and Meditation
Because the Puritans so highly valued Scripture, they encouraged all Christians to read, study and mediate constantly on the Bible. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship exhorted that every Christian should read the Scriptures diligently, laying Scripture words “up in his heart” and meditating “in it greatly.”^[The Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (Still Waters Revival Books, 1991).]
Puritan leaders consistently stressed personal engagement with the word of God. Richard Baxter charged each Christian to “Read the scriptures constantly…Let not a day pass without some time spent in it.”^[Baxter, Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 10.] Reading Scripture was as essential to the soul as food was for the body. Laying up God’s word in one’s heart was vital to resist temptation and walk obediently.^[Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 125-126.]
Puritans advocated methods like intensive, repeated reading of a passage and careful comparison with other relevant texts to best understand Scripture’s meaning.^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 41.] Meditation on a verse involved thinking through its implications, praying over it, and searching one’s heart in light of its commands. It digested the words personally into one’s spirit.^[Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 129.] Memorizing Scripture was strongly encouraged as well, since it stayed with you throughout the day. Even Servetus, who denied the Trinity, said “none commit Scripture to memory more than the Puritans.”^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 45.]
Family worship in Puritan homes revolved around daily Bible reading and teaching. Heads of households would read chapters from the Old and New Testament, before expounding and applying it to the family. William Gouge instructed fathers that “The Scriptures must be read orderly…children and servants must be examined what they remember…[and] must be able to give some account of what they read.”^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 48.] So God’s word was imprinted on children from a very young age.
The emphasis on Biblical meditation stemmed from the Puritan spiritual ideal of cultivating a lively faith that penetrated the heart and operated practically in one’s inward being and outward life. Thomas Watson described meditation as “a middle sort of duty between the word and prayer…it is like the heating of wax, between the fire and the seal.”^[Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 128-129.] The Puritans believed memorized Scripture and meditation on its meaning helped warm believers’ soul and imprint God’s image on their heart, so they would live according to the Bible.
Regulative Principle of Worship
Another manifestation of how seriously the Puritans regarded Scripture was their strict adherence to the regulative principle of worship. This was the conviction that Scripture alone should regulate the worship of the church.^[Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 83.] The Pilgrim pastor John Robinson declared that Christ had “prescribed every circumstantial part of his worship.” Only commanded elements of worship in the New Testament were permissible in the church.^[Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma, 57-58.]
The regulative principle was foundational for Puritan ecclesiology and worship. It prohibited any symbol, ceremony, vestment or liturgy in worship that was not expressly authorized in Scripture. As John Owen wrote, “Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the church, or be made a part of the rule of obedience, but what is prescribed by the Holy Scripture.”^[John Owen, Biblical Theology (Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 679.]
So Puritans stripped away kneeling for communion, cross gestures, music, festival days, priestly garments or altars as “will worship”, with no Biblical justification. Worship was reduced to simplicity – the plain reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, Psalms in meter, and unadorned sacraments.^[J.I. Packer, Among God’s Giants: Aspects of Puritan Christianity (Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway, 1991), 160.] As the Westminster Confession stated, “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men.”^[Westminster Assembly, Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1.]
This principle dominated Puritan worship. Though at times it was applied Legalistically, it revealed their zeal that God alone dictates how He is to be worshipped. Scripture set the boundaries for their whole approach to public worship and church life.
Emphasis on Preaching and Education
Central to Puritan worship services was preaching. This was the high point where God’s word was proclaimed to convict, instruct and exhort the congregation. Great pains were taken that only the pure word, directly from Scripture, should be heard.^[Packer, Among God’s Giants, 161.]
Puritan preaching aimed for precise, learned exposition of the text, drawing out its doctrine, uses and applications for the listener. Sermons unpacked the meaning of passages verse-by-verse or doctrine-by-doctrine. Technical terms were used and references made to the original languages.^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 155.] This required rigorous training of ministers in Biblical languages, theology and preaching method, so that the truths of Scripture were clearly expounded.
Two university degrees were usual for Puritan clergy. Philip Henry studied Greek and Hebrew from age 10, and attended Oxford University at 16.^[J.I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 147.] Aspiring ministers received five or more years of formal education in Latin, logic, church history, ancient and modern thought. This equipped them to preach insightfully from the Bible in their own tongue.^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 158.]
Sermons often lasted two hours to thoroughly cover the chosen passage. Puritan preachers aimed to soak their minds in Scripture, to “preach precisely, substantively and practically…enlightening minds, stirring up affections, setting conscience on work and applying all.”^[Packer, Redemption and Restoration, 147.] Such preaching demanded rigorous training and constant meditation in the word.
Puritans also wrote extensively on Biblical exposition. Many scholarly Biblical commentaries were produced, as well as volumes applying Scripture to theological and practical concerns – like Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory. This mammoth work expounded Biblical teachings on ethics, politics, economics, marriage, and more.^[Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, 166.] Such literature flooded the populace with direct, relevant application of God’s word for living all of life.
So the Bible was central in Puritan preaching and education. Their intense focus on preaching, academic study and writing swirled around mining the depths of Scripture and pressing its meaning on church, society and individual souls.
Puritans maintained a strong ethical seriousness rooted in the holiness, authority and commands they found revealed in Scripture. A major emphasis was the continuing validity of Old Testament moral law.
The moral law was seen as an expression of God’s timeless righteous standards. Since this law’s precepts reflect God’s nature, Puritans believed its requirements still obligated Christians under the new covenant. As Samuel Bolton wrote, “The matter of this law binds universally and perpetually, both justified and unjustified…so that they remain bound to obedience.”^[Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 6-7.]
The Ten Commandments and other moral commands in Scripture remained to instruct Christians in duty, restrain sin, and show them how to please God in gratitude for their salvation. John Owen wrote that all Old Testament laws “arising from the nature of God and his eternal righteousness” remain in force unless “repealed in the Scripture of the New Testament.”^[Owen, Biblical Theology, 323.] Where Scripture revoked ceremonial laws or judicial punishments unique to Israel, the underlying moral principles still applied.
So the Puritans called believers to ongoing obedience to the ethical requirements of Scripture. This included honoring the Lord’s Day, proper care for the poor, honesty, sexual purity, avoiding idolatry and images, and all civic duties commanded by God.^[Packer, Among God’s Giants, 64.] Failure to keep God’s moral law provoked His fatherly discipline.^[Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom, 7.]
Thomas Watson summed up the Puritan regard for Scripture’s moral law as still binding: “Though God frees a Christian from the condemning power of the moral law; yet not from the commanding power…It is a rule as well as a covenant. Though it cannot justify, it can direct.” He stressed that justifying faith upholds the authority of the law and leads to keeping God’s commands.^[Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 6, 22.] So the Puritans held Christians responsible to fulfill the righteous requirements of Scripture in their conduct.
Another feature of Puritan Scripture exposition was mining the Old Testament for Christological types and shadows. This typological interpretation was very influential in Puritan preaching and theology. Scriptural symbols, people and events were seen as divinely intended types that foreshadowed Christ and the blessings of His redemption.
For example, Adam was a type of Christ, David prefigured Christ as king, and the sacrificial system and tabernacle all foreshadowed Christ’s work. Such typological readings created striking contrasts between law and grace.^[Packer, Among God’s Giants, 112-113.] The vivid types displayed in their Scriptures made Old Testament history come alive to the Puritans with spiritual meaning.
Biblical typology also enriched the Christ-centered emphasis of Puritan preaching. Thomas Goodwin’s sermons exhorted hearers that “as verily as you read such and such things were done [in Scripture], so verily shall the like be accomplished in you.”^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 152.] Grasping links between the Bible’s figures, symbols and their fulfillment in the gospel nurtured a vivid, experiential faith.
This typological preaching summoned Puritans to find their own spiritual experience in the persons, events and symbols of Scripture. Seeking Christ in all parts of the Bible aided the Puritan goal of preaching that awakened spiritual affections.^[Packer, Among God’s Giants, 113.] Their typological lens helped craft sermons that gripped hearts with the realities foreshadowed.
The Puritans were a movement of spiritual renewal and social reform. Central to their reforming mission was the conviction that Scripture spoke directly to ordering all aspects of church, society and the Christian life. John Owen wrote that the Bible contains principles “to guide us in things political.”^[Owen, Biblical Theology, 670.] Richard Baxter said Scripture “is perfect to direct in all things…it hath perfectly showed me all that ever I need ask or know.”^[Packer, Redemption and Restoration, 145-147.]
Such confidence in the Bible’s complete sufficiency led Puritans to apply Scripture to reforming culture, politics, law, economics, education, and ecclesiology. Scripture was seen to speak directly to right ordering of family, church, state, economics and all relationships. Every area of life came under the lordship of Christ as revealed in the Bible.^[Leland Ryken, Puritans: Religion and Politics (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1974), 194.]
Advocacy for church reform toward Biblical worship and governance came first. As Anglicanism was purified of non-Scriptural traditions, Puritans went on to apply God’s word to society. Laws and culture were to uphold the moral law in Scripture. A godly civil magistrate modeled on Old Testament leaders was expected to enforce the first table of the Ten Commandments and suppress sin.^[Packer, Among God’s Giants, 109-110.]
John Cotton contemplated an entire legal code based on the laws God gave to Israel. Other radical Puritans like John Eliot believed Native Americans should be civilized and converted based on Exodus commandments regarding strangers in Israel.^[Ryken, Worldly Saints, 53-54.] While extreme, such cases illustrate the zeal with which Puritans pursued reforming everything according to Biblical commands.
So the Puritans stressed that Scripture speaks to all matters of religion, morality, wisdom and the church’s place in society. Their vision was wholeheartedly to align all realms of life with the righteous principles found in the written word of God.
In conclusion, we see that the Puritans were characterized by a remarkably high view of Scripture and deep quest to order their lives strictly according to its commands. The Bible was the bedrock and touchstone for their theology, spirituality, moral code, ecclesiology and vision for societal reform. They elevated Scripture alone as the final authority and strove zealously to interpret and apply it thoroughly to all areas of life. Puritanism demonstrates perhaps the most serious commitment to establishing the written word of God as the supreme ruling norm over individual souls and the whole of society among any Christian movement in history.