The Puritans and Modern Spiritual Formation: An Interview with Joanne J. Jung

Joanne J. JungWhat practices of the Puritans, who lived centuries ago, can inform modern Christians in their spiritual lives of reading the Bible, praying, and meditating? What have we forgotten from the past that we need to reclaim for the health of our spiritual formation?

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, The Pilgrims May Not Be Who You Think They Were: An Interview with Jay Milbrandt]

Bible Gateway interviewed Joanne J. Jung about her book, The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans (Zondervan, 2018).

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Who were the Puritans?

Joanne J. Jung: The English Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries had a bad press in their own day and on the whole still do. Influenced by John Calvin, they held a high view of Scripture and its authority for their lives both inside and outside of the church. They sought to reform the Church in England from within, “purifying” it from influences and practices they believed were not supported by Scripture. Puritans were ordinarily cheerful souls, living in the joy of knowing their sins were forgiven through Christ’s completed work on the cross. They were particularly communal, too, with hearts open to their families, friends, and neighbors.

How does Puritan spirituality speak to modern Christianity?

Joanne J. Jung: Exploring the spirituality of the Puritans can alleviate the jitters some may have over spiritual formation. It provides a vehicle for biblical literacy and soul care that’s found within our own Protestant tradition. Puritan spirituality is grounded in God’s Word. The Bible was their litmus test for how they lived life. This is especially timely as modern inventions and devices can squeeze the quantity and quality of time spent with God and each other. The Puritans provide opportunities to be recalibrated and refreshed in and with the ways of God.

Explain the premise of this book.

Joanne J. Jung: Malachi 3:16 is often referenced when conference was addressed in puritan writings, “At that time those who feared the Lord spoke to one another. The Lord took notice and listened. So a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who feared Yahweh and had high regard for His name” (HCSB).

When rediscovering the practice of Puritan conference, where biblical literacy and soul care blended in their conversations, I found a variety of contexts where this was exercised: pastor with pastor, pastor with congregants, small groups of Christians, spouse with spouse, parents with children, and even conversations with acquaintances and through letters. Each of these contexts are explored and updated for contemporary application.

Unpack the essence of your chapter titled, “The Word Heard, Read, and Remembered.”

Joanne J. Jung: Holding a high view of Scripture meant that for the Puritans both the preached Word, the sermon, and private Bible reading had a circular relationship. Each impacted and influenced the other when it came to living a life pleasing to God. It was essential that the sermon was remembered beyond the walls of the church. Four tools were utilized by those in the pews to assist their memory and application of the sermon heard:

  • listening
  • taking notes
  • repeating the sermon’s main points with others, and
  • conference.

What are “conferences” in the context of your book?

Joanne J. Jung: Conferences in the English puritan context were meaningful conversations that spoke into the life and life experiences of those engaged. These not only helped avoid spiritual isolation but fostered a growing knowledge of God’s Word, strengthened intimacy with God, and deepened relationships with others in community, all of which contributed to spiritual transformation.

Community involved an array of interactions and relationships, much like today. It was important for the Puritans to have biblical support for conference. Here are a few with their own comments added:

  • Psalm 66:16 — Thus (Christians) when you meet, give one another’s souls a visit, drop your knowledge, impart your experiences each to another.
  • Deuteronomy 6:6-7 — Grace changes the language and makes it spiritual.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:31 — Christians should take all occasions of good discourse when they walk together and sit at the table together. This makes their eating and drinking be to the glory of God.

Drawn from the puritan practice of conference and updated for the 21st century, this book describes three levels of conversation for various contexts: informational, transitional, and transformational. The hope is that readers will desire to engage in the kind of conversations God uses to transform others and themselves.

How do you want readers to “conference through God’s Word”?

Joanne J. Jung: To conference through the Scriptures is to engage in focused conversations in light of what God reveals about himself, his plan, and his ways in and through his Word. As one studies, understands, meditates, and applies the truths found in the Bible, the need for engaging with others is critical. This engagement helps to avoid the misinterpretation and misapplying of scriptural truths while improving biblical literacy, building a more trusting and transparent relationship with God and others and increasing in grace.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Joanne J. Jung: This is a difficult question for me to answer. It seems the more I study God’s Word, I come across more “favorite Bible passages.” If pressed for an answer today, I might say Ezekiel 47:1-12. What starts as a trickle of water from the temple becomes and changes a mass of water, the Dead Sea, into a life-giving, life-transforming, vibrant body of water. The water depicts the Holy Spirit and as we are temples of God’s Spirit, then everywhere we go, we are conduits of God’s life-giving, life-transforming influence. That’s powerful.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Joanne J. Jung: For the past 15 years, the English Puritans have become some of my favorite old dead friends. In richly and beautifully descriptive ways, their writings reflect sound theological truths. I hope you find this true of them as well.

The Lost Discipline of Conversation is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Joanne J. Jung (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University and chair of the Talbot School of Theology committee for online learning. She’s the author of The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans and Knowing Grace: Cultivating a Lifestyle of Godliness.

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