Dale Johnson: This week we have Dr. Stephen Yuille joining us to talk about the Puritans, the physicians of the soul. It’s hard in our modern context to think about the role of a minister as a physician. Dr. Yuille, can you describe a little bit about how the Puritans took on that label as “physicians of the soul” from some of their works in the past?
Stephen Yuille: There are a couple of things that led to that designation. You’ll find the Puritans referred to as physicians of the soul in the literature. There are two chief reasons this term emerged, the first being their ability to identify the problem and assess people’s spiritual condition. They were very keen in terms of looking beyond life circumstances and the externals and getting to the heart of the matter. They understood what it is in the heart of man that gives rise to the way we think, the way we talk, the way we act, the decisions we make, and the dreams and the aspirations we have. They were very good at diagnosing the problem and very clear on the fact that ultimately the problem resides in the depravity of the human heart. Coupled with that, they were very good when it came to prescribing the remedy: the gospel and what it means to be in union with Christ. They were experts at identifying the ailment, the problem, and they excelled at applying the gospel to the problem very uniquely in that way. It’s something we could learn from them today.
Dale Johnson: One of the reasons we chose this topic is that I’ve personally benefited so much from the writings of the Puritans, especially with a more clear understanding of how to see the problem. In the modern world, we’re so clouded with modern thinking and ideology relative to secular psychology and different philosophies trying to interpret man’s problems from a very different paradigm. The Puritans were nestled nicely into a historical context where their suffering was real. They saw suffering as a part of the brokenness of life, yet they were anchored to the Scriptures to be able to describe and understand all the suffering in relation to this world that God had made and the brokenness caused by sin.
I think about this description of them being physicians of the soul in our context and our specific role in the ways we minister. One of the benefits that I see is the way in which the Puritans married together doctrine and practice. In the modern context, sometimes we have a tendency to put doctrine in an ivory tower. It’s the guys who sit in the office and just think all day. They’re the theology guys. Doctrine can be divisive, so we don’t want that on the ground level. But the Puritans were able to do a very thoroughly biblical job at wedding those two things together which makes practice much more valuable because it is so grounded, rooted, and saturated in doctrinal truth. Can you describe the ways in which the Puritans wed those two things together, the beauty of doctrine with the necessity of practice?
Stephen Yuille: That’s a very good observation, and it is difficult for us to grasp because we live on the other side of the Enlightenment and we have a very different worldview from the one the Puritans had. We have a very different concept of humanity than the Puritans had. Even our understanding of what it means to know is very different. When we throw around the word “knowledge,” we’re thinking strictly in terms of the cerebral. To know is to understand. To know is to grasp something cognitively. To know is to be able to regurgitate facts or figures. That is foreign in pre-enlightenment thinking in the 1500s and 1600s. The Puritans and the Reformers were very strong on the fact that you don’t know anything until you actually act on it.
We’ve divorced it. We think to know is strictly of the mind, to feel is of the heart, and to act is of the will, and these things are all separate. But in the Puritan understanding, knowledge involves the entire being, the whole man. To really know something is to understand it cognitively, but it is also to have that truth then grip the affections of the heart and for the life then to conform to those affections and to that understanding. To know something is to be affected by it, influenced by it, and to live life accordingly. They would often differentiate between a mere theoretical knowledge, which is usually what we mean, and a practical knowledge, and they hammered away at the need for a practical knowledge. To know something is to act upon it. The need for sound doctrine and application is wedded in their minds. These two are inseparable in their thinking.
William Perkins was the father of English puritanism. He says theology is the science of living blessedly forever. That makes no sense to us today. For us theology is picking up a systematic theology book and reading a bunch of facts. They wouldn’t have understood that. For them, theology is the science of living blessedly forever. It’s a life conformed to the will of God and a life lived in the enjoyment of God. Yes, that flows from an apprehension of the truth, but if life is not being lived out in the enjoyment of God, then that isn’t real knowing, that is simply theory. They excel in that area and there’s so much we could learn from in that regard.
Dale Johnson: What are some of the ways on a personal level that we can revisit or reintroduce ourselves with intentionality to marrying this idea of doctrine and practice much the same way the Puritans did? What are some key things that we can pursue in order to wrap our minds around this idea of making theology necessary for life so that we make it practice? What are some things that we could pursue to make sure that we’re living life out of healthy doctrine?
Stephen Yuille: There are a number of answers that beg further analysis. To boil it down to the basics, the main answer is meditation, the lost art in the church today and a largely misunderstood concept. Biblical meditation is a lost discipline in the church, and for the Puritans it is the key means by which the Spirit of God makes the truth of God, the Word of God, come alive in the soul. It’s not merely studying Scripture, although that is absolutely important. It’s not reading Scripture, although that too is essential because we can’t meditate on what we do not know. It’s not mere memorization, although that too has an important place. It is taking time and disciplining ourselves in this regard to dwell upon Scripture, think through Scripture, and ask questions of Scripture.
They would go to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example. What do the Scriptures primarily teach? They teach us what we’re to believe about God and what duty to God requires of us. If we asked those two questions of every text we read, we’d be doing so well. What does this text teach me concerning God and who He is? What duty does this text require of me and how does my life measure up? What is it God requires of me and what am I going to change today? We see this meditation in the Psalms, in Paul’s writings, and throughout the Word of God. There’s this idea of making Scripture the object of our intentional thought so that, by the Spirit’s help and by the grace of God, we seek to impress the truth of Scripture upon the soul, whereby the love of God really grips us. The reality of hell and heaven grip us, and the urgency and the brevity of life become realities. The problem we all face is that so many of these truths are mere abstractions and they come and go. At times, we act contrary and antithetically to them. The great emphasis within Puritanism and the cultivation of spiritual life is taking time to meditate on these things and work them down deep within the heart.
Dale Johnson: We’re well on the way to regaining an understanding of some key Puritans. We think a lot about guys like John Owen and Richard Baxter and some of their writings and we’re somewhat familiar with them. I’ve been introduced to several Puritans, some of those by you. John Flavel has written a book called Triumphing over Sinful Fear. You edited George Swinnock’s volume, On the Blessed and Boundless God. I’ve benefited so much from those, Swinnock in particular, as a revisitation of the beauty and grandeur of God and describing the attributes of God. I’ve even used that in a devotional way. Those have certainly been impactful to me in the way that I think about God and living in relation to God. You’ve read Puritan works extensively and done deep study in that area. Who are some of the key people and concepts that have impacted you and helped you to understand Scripture a little bit better from their perspective?
Stephen Yuille: You mentioned a couple of them. I spent a lot of time with George Swinnock years ago. You made mention of John Flavel as well. They are two towers when it comes to Puritan piety and spirituality. There are two more that have been very influential in my life. One is William Perkins who many describe as the father of English puritanism because he lived a little earlier in the 1500s during the reign of Elizabeth I. Many of the thought forms and key concepts and truths that have become central to English puritanism are all in the writings of William Perkins in seminal form. The other one is Thomas Manton. I’ve been reading a lot of Manton over the past few years and he’s become a real good friend although he’s long gone.
In terms of major themes, their vision of God’s glory has impacted me. They have such a God-honoring way of thinking and an expansive view of who the Lord is and that has been so helpful to me at different times in my life.
Their emphasis on union with Christ is a lost doctrine in our day, and yet I would go so far as to say that it’s the heart of the gospel. What it means to be one with the Lord Jesus, to derive our identity from Him, and to realize that I’ve been crucified with Christ and the life I live, I now live by faith in Him, the one who loved me and gave Himself up for me. What does it mean to live that out and have your identity completely shaped by what it means to be one with Christ? That is key to cultivating hope, strengthening faith, and kindling our love.
The third area in which they’ve really helped me is their emphasis on the future, on heaven, as our immediate hope and on the new heavens and the new earth as our ultimate hope. We expect to live well into our 80s, but these were guys who didn’t expect to make it out of their 30s. The infant mortality rate was through the roof. Average life expectancy was maybe 36. They lived each day as if it were their last, so they lived on the cusp of eternity. Eternity was that much more real to them and the promises of God and their hope that much more vibrant. I still have a lot to learn from them in this regard, but I’ve certainly gleaned much.
Dale Johnson: Learning from folks who have thought deeply about the Word of God in history past is really helpful to us, not being disconnected from the flow of Christian history and the way people thought. Not that they were perfect in everything that they thought, but they wrestled with the same realities and struggles of sin that we wrestle with even today.
You mentioned Thomas Manton earlier as being one of the guys who have influenced you greatly and you spent a lot of time with him recently. Part of that is because Dr. Yuille recently released a book that he edited on Thomas Manton called Great Spoil: Thomas Manton’s Spirituality of the Word. If the things that we’ve talked about today have been intriguing to you and helpful to you, I would recommend that resource. He’s edited several other works that you can find from Reformation Heritage Books that would be helpful even in counseling issues. The Puritans dealt with those counseling issues on a bedrock of solid orthodoxy. Dr. Yuille, this has been great. I’ve really enjoyed the time we’ve been able to spend together talking about one of my favorite subjects: the Puritans and doctrine and practice.
Stephen Yuille: It’s been great for me too, thank you very much.
The Blessed and Boundless God by George Swinnock
Triumphing Over Sinful Fear by John Flavel
Great Spoil: Thomas Manton’s Spirituality of the Word by Stephen Yuille