J. I. Packer has long been considered one of the leading interpreters of the Puritans. His latest book on this topic, Puritan Portraits, is a brief collection of introductory essays on notable Puritan pastors and their works. Packer’s purpose is to present a clear portrait of the Puritan clergy and their message (p. 11). Far from merely a biographical study, however, Packer aims to show how the Puritans, when at their best, are the necessary remedy to a current generation of Western Christianity that seems to be treading toward extinction (p. 181). He argues that many of the Western Church’s current shortcomings could be easily cured by reading and appropriating Puritanism.
The book is divided into three parts: Puritan Pastors at Work, Puritan Pastors in Profile, and Two Puritan Paragons. Part I first historically surveys the English Puritans of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He illustrates the seriousness of the Puritan pastor, the desire for church purity that dominated the movement, and its overwhelming commitment to Scripture and the church’s knowledge and application thereof. Part II consists of introductory essays that Packer wrote for the Christian Heritage series of paperbacks on the Puritans, also published by Christian Focus. Each chapter highlights a particular Puritan and a selected work from that person. From well-known figures like John Owen, John Bunyan, and Matthew Henry to less familiar Puritans like Stephen Charnock and Henry Scougal, these chapters briefly present the selected Puritan’s life and ministry worth exemplifying and then demonstrate how the selected work of that author carries as much importance and weight today as it did when published.
Part III focuses in greater depth on two Puritans whom Packer argues exemplify the era and the theology of English Puritanism: William Perkins and Richard Baxter. Packer provides a brief biography of Perkins’s life and overview of his theology. Of particular focus for Packer in this chapter, however, is Perkins’s influence in fundamentally shaping English Puritanism as well as Perkins’s lasting influence, despite being largely forgotten among modern evangelicals. Concerning Baxter, Packer seeks to demonstrate how this Puritan represented his era in the diversity of ways in which he ministered. The prototypical Puritan, Baxter produced a massive written corpus, enjoyed a successful preaching ministry, and cultivated a deep, biblically centered counseling ministry to troubled souls. Like Perkins, Baxter left a great legacy to the church. Packer briefly concludes his book by, as he does in his introduction, highlighting the areas of modern Western Christianity that have drifted away from the biblical church and suggesting how reappropriating the Puritans could guide the church back on course.
Packer’s work succeeds in its purpose by demonstrating the biblical traits of ministry and the Christian life in the lives and works of the Puritans. His writing is accessible and engaging as his own passion and enjoyment of the subject matter bleeds throughout the pages of this book. Moreover, in a brief number of pages he thoroughly and soundly introduces a rich and deep era of church history. The work is further commendable in its recognition of the many criticisms that have been leveled at the Puritans over the centuries. Packer addresses both the more general social insults levied toward the era, as well as particular critiques that have been put forth in more academic settings, such as in the work of R. T. Kendall. The book is a quintessential demonstration of both Packer’s scholarly expertise in the subject matter as well as his pastoral instincts and concern for the health and vitality of the church.
The book is not without a few shortcomings, however. First, due to the admitted fact that most of the book has been compiled from various other previously published works, the book lacks coherence and fluidity at times. Moreover, the work often repeats itself in places where the repetition is distracting rather than edifying. Second, the book at times seems to approach hagiography, as Packer offers an almost wholly positive reading of the Puritans. The only critiques he makes concern Perkins’s supralapsarianism and Baxter’s soteriology. While it is the purpose of his book to illustrate how the virtues of the Puritans would be of benefit today, an acknowledgement of Puritan shortcomings would not only provide greater balance to the book but could also serve as a beneficial guide and warning for the twenty-first century church.
Overall, Puritan Portraits is highly recommended for anyone interested in an overview of English Puritanism. Whereas Packer’s A Quest for Godliness would be more appropriately suited for those who already possess a general background in the field, even the most learned Puritan scholar can still find considerable enjoyment and edification in this present work.