The Puritans believed that the Bible should be the Christian’s daily companion. The Scottish, puritan-minded Thomas Boston (1676–1732) said, “The reading of the word is an ordinance of God, and mean[s] of salvation, of God’s own appointment. The Bible is this word, and God has given it to us, and appointed it to be read.”1Boston, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, in Works, 2:422. Boston says that there are three contexts in which God has appointed it to be read.
First, the Bible is to be read in public, in the services of the church (1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13). In addition to the preaching of the Word of God, the Puritans followed the custom of the early church of lectio continua: reading through the Bible book by book, chapter by chapter, in sequence.2Justin Martyr (100–165) describes church worship in the second century: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray” (First Apology 1.67; ANF 1:186). During these times, there would be no commenting—just reading the text out loud and listening to it corporately, receiving it and submitting to it, as an act of worship.
Second, the Bible is to be read aloud in families. We’ll return to that point in a moment. Third, the Bible is to be read in private, the “secret reading of it by one’s self.” For Boston, to own a Bible and habitually neglect it was a sure sign of a lack of spiritual life. “By this means the soul converses with God in his word. And those who do not make a practice of daily reading the scripture, are none of the Lord’s people, whatever otherwise they may profess.”3Boston, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, in Works, 2:423. If we have tasted of the transforming power of the new birth, we will continually hunger for the pure milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2). Lack of hunger can only signify sickness, or, tragically, lack of life altogether. “The godly man is a lover of the Word,” says Thomas Watson (1620–1686).4Thomas Watson, A Godly Man’s Picture (1666; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 60.
As noted above, the Bible must also be read in families. Every family was expected to practice daily family worship in which the head of the family would read and comment on the Scriptures to the rest of the household. Boston said, “Every family ought to be a church; and as they are to speak to God by prayer, so they are to hear God speak to them, by reading his word. And this they ought to do every morning and evening, as well as command their children and servants to read it by themselves.”5Boston, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, in Works, 2:423. Whether you practice family worship twice daily, as Boston recommends, or once, be sure to read the Word aloud together in the home. “For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children” (Ps. 78:5).
Why? Because the Bible is a priceless possession! Through the efforts of Christ’s servants—men such as William Tyndale (1494–1536) and the Reformers—the Bible became a commonplace possession, available to every home. Did Tyndale shed his bold blood to put families in possession of this once forbidden Book only to have it collect dust on the shelf? The Puritans believed that it was to be treasured in the home above any other possession that could possibly adorn the living situation, because it is a Book worth dying for. Plus, there is much profit in making it central to the family’s quality time together. The reading of the Bible in families unites family members around the throne of God and joins them together in worship and love, binding their hearts to God and one another.
In Puritan parishes, other literary auxiliaries served to simplify and amplify the teachings of the Bible. When the typical Puritan pastor would assume the call to pastor a congregation, he would normally put in place a system of systematic Christian education. The tool of choice for this task was the trusted catechism, a guide to theology in the form of questions and answers. By using catechisms already in existence or writing their own, Puritan pastors would instruct their congregations on how to make use of them.
The catechism was a doctrinal map that charted out the theological terrain of Scripture. It provided a concise and systematic summary of the major doctrines of the Bible, enabling laypeople to discern these themes in their own reading of Scripture. That way, the Bible could be understood as a unified, coherent whole, the product of God’s singular wisdom. John Cotton (1585–1652) titled his catechism Milk for Babes, Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments. Other Puritans included in the titles of their catechisms such expressions as “the main and fundamental points,” “the sum of the Christian religion,” the “several heads” or “first principles” of religion, and “the ABC of Christianity.”6Adapted from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 963–64. By careful pastoral oversight, the Puritans would hold their people accountable for teaching the catechism in their households and for practicing daily family worship.
How many Christians today treasure the public reading of Scripture in church? The Puritans taught their people to cherish it. How many Christians today neglect the daily, private reading of the Scriptures? The Puritans emphasized that we must read our Bibles daily, deliberately, slowly, meditatively, prayerfully, and with experiential application. What about family worship? Does your family gather together around the Bible, or is your family time structured around the television, the computer, and the smartphone, which splinter our gathered families into isolated segments, each in their own little world? Who is discipling our children? Is it Peter and Paul and the pious Reformed giants of the past, or is it Caesar, Hollywood, and the media? The Puritans urge us to have our minds fashioned and renewed by the regular reading of God’s Word. Reading the Scriptures privately and in families is no substitute for corporate worship, however. The church provides the context in which the Spirit ordinarily—and most powerfully—works in conjunction with the Word. Today many Christians think they can be well fed and nourished by private Bible study and sermons on the internet, while they neglect any meaningful participation in the church. That was not the Puritan view. They had a high esteem for the Word in the church.
Thriving in Grace: Twelve Ways the Puritans Fuel Spiritual Growth
By Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Hedges