As an author and reviewer, occasionally I review a book where I think, “Now that's a book I wish I had authored.” Helpful Truth in Past Places is such a book because it combines the timeless truth of historical theology with solid application for life and ministry today.
From the outset, author Mark Deckard crystallizes the importance of this book.
“The Puritans were masters at understanding the nature of human beings and applying Scripture in practical ways to help people with their struggles and problems. In the truest sense of the word they were psychologists, students of the inner person, before there ever was a field of secular psychology” (p. 9).
Indeed, the Puritans were soul physicians and spiritual friends who understood biblical answers to life’s three core questions. Who are people (creation)? Why do they struggle (fall)? What has God provided to help with those problems (redemption)?
In the able hands of Deckard, the Puritan pastor-theologians have much to offer believers today who desire to practice truly biblical counseling. As Tim Keller notes, the “Puritans practiced sanctification by theology rather than by psychology” (p. 11).
Deckard does a fine job briefly introducing the Puritans. In particular, he describes their ability to combine being students of the Word with being students of people. Like the Apostle Paul, they blended Scripture and soul (1 Thessalonians 2:8), truth and love (Ephesians 4:15) relationship and insight (Philippians 1:9-11).
Seven Representative Ministers
Understanding that there is no way to cover comprehensively every Puritan, Deckard wisely selects seven representative ministers and seeks to read them “with the specific question of biblical counseling in mind” (p. 15). He explores John Flavel and the question of the mystery of providence; Jeremiah Burroughs and anxiety; John Owen and mortification of sin; John Bunyan and the sense of alienation and isolation; Jonathan Edwards and affections and emotions; William Bridge and depression; and Thomas Brooks and “devil craft” (spiritual warfare).
In each case, the authors wrote not out of theory but out of lived experience. For example, when Flavel wrote on why God allows suffering, he approached his question as one who lost three wives, lost an unborn child, experienced the tragic loss of his parents, and endured ministry exile.
Flavel’s application of Scripture to life is also illustrative of methods used by the other six Puritan soul physicians. When addressing questions about the providence of God, Flavel did not simply and shallowly quote Romans 8:28 about God working all things together for God. Rather, he engaged his parishioners and readers in lengthy, in-depth interactions about extended biblical passages, such as the life of Joseph in Genesis 36-50 and the life of Esther.
Flavel also urges meditation upon such biblical truths. It is the duty of God’s people to “meditate upon these performances of providence for them, at all times, but especially in times of difficulty and trouble.” But Flavel does not leave his readers to guess how to do so. He spells out several principles or “methods” to make his exhortation practical and relevant.
For Flavel and for Jeremiah Burroughs, such principles were not quick solutions or ten easy steps. As Deckard says of Burroughs’ approach to contentment:
“Contentment can be found in Christ but as an art it must be experienced, learned, and utilized in those struggles as a larger goal beyond the relief of the struggle itself. The emphasis on mystery helps to push us back to how God works and away from the more mechanistic (follow the ten logical steps!) approaches that we try to devise for solving problems” (p. 49).
John Owen is typical of the other six authors studied and of all Puritan pastors. Whether in writing, teaching, the pulpit ministry, or house-to-house visitation, ministry was concerned above all else with the twin goals of the glory of God and the spiritual welfare of his people.
Application for Today?
In his concluding thoughts on Owen’s ministry of helping people to mortify sin, Deckard does an excellent job helping pastors and counselors to ponder how to apply these truths today, especially to a world/culture where sin is minimized. At times, with some of the other authors, Deckard offered less of this “how might we apply this today?” In an otherwise excellent book, this is one area that could have been strengthened—helping readers to think through how Christ’s changeless truth, as practiced by the Puritans, could relate to our changing times.
Another approach that might have given this fine book additional impact could have been the inclusion of sample letters of spiritual counsel and/or accounts of personal ministry. Deckard’s choice to emphasize books allowed for great insight into a theology of Puritan biblical counseling. However, lacking specific Puritan letters of spiritual counsel or accounts of personal ministry (which are available) made it more difficult to glean how these Puritan authors, in the one-to-one personal ministry of the Word, might have related to their parishioners, and how they might have related God's truth to their specific daily life issues.
Still, Helpful Truth in Past Places is a very valuable addition to the growing literature on the history of biblical counseling, soul care, and spiritual direction. It helps us to think theologically about suffering and sin. It encourages us with the truth that God’s Word is sufficient, relevant, and profound. For this reviewer, it accomplished the goal Deckard set for it, “…it will hopefully encourage believers to revisit these and other Puritan writers in order to be better equipped in their ministry of helping others” (p. 9).
If you doubt this, then start at the end of Deckard’s book and work backwards. In his conclusion, Deckard lists nearly three dozen applications of Puritan truths to counseling problems people face today. Truly the Puritans offer us helpful truth in past places.