Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 57 which discusses the Puritans and casuistry. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and this strange word that I had never encountered before.
TC: I guess we need to begin here: What is casuistry and why did the Puritans focus on it?
JB: Casuistry is teaching people how to know what God wants them to do in specific situations, and how to live with peace of conscience before God. It addresses particular “cases of conscience” or ethical and spiritual questions. The Reformation of the sixteenth century brought a renewed understanding of justification by faith alone and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, but these very doctrines raised questions such as, “How do I know if I have justifying faith?” or, “What does it mean to please God at my job?” Therefore the Puritans, as heirs of the Reformation, developed answers to such questions based upon the Word of God.
TC: What was the place of counseling for the Puritans? Was it something they did primarily in the corporate worship service or was it done one-on-one and in private?
JB: The answer is both. William Perkins, who wrote a foundational treatise on preaching, said that the preacher must apply the law and the gospel to the several specific spiritual conditions in which people find themselves. Someone who is ignorant and unteachable needs far different treatment than someone broken under the guilt of sin. Some listeners need milk, and others strong meat. Fifty years later the Westminster Assembly, in the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, said the minister “is not to rest in general doctrine,” but “to bring it home” in specific applications, including teaching the truth, refuting errors, exhorting for obedience, warning against sin, applying comfort, and directing self-examination. As a result of such an approach to preaching, Puritan sermons were full of practical counseling.
At the same time, the Puritans recognized that a pastor must counsel families and individuals in a more personal way. Some Puritans did more of this than others. John Owen said some people in a church will face particular spiritual difficulties, such as “the terror of the Lord” on those convicted but not yet converted, backsliding into sin after conversion, great and long-term afflictions, feeling abandoned by God, and horrible temptations from Satan. It is part of a pastor’s calling to understand their cases and the right spiritual medicines to heal them, to give such people attention and concern with patience and tenderness. Personal work is very fruitful both for comfort and rebuke. Richard Baxter said, “I have found by experience, that an ignorant sot that hath been an unprofitable hearer so long, hath got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten year’s public preaching.” Preaching the Word is the primary means of grace, but personal counseling plays a significant role as well.