Review: The Puritan View of Substantive Biblical Law by George J. Gatgounis (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

We live in an impoverished age of sound bites, where form has replaced substance, and where tweets of 280 characters can make or break a person’s career. The church is not immune from these pressures but has succumbed to the allure of marketing spin or simply outsources its thinking to the civil government.

The Christian tradition contains many riches which can resource and equip Christians today to think through the many challenges of living in a technocratic, secular age. One particularly productive period was the seventeenth century: faced with the chaos of the English Civil War and the resulting crisis of authority, the puritans were forced to grapple with issues of law and its relation to civil government. One obstacle is that Puritan treatises are voluminous, and their writings are often scattered throughout many works. Reliable guides which can pilot Christians through this maze are to be welcomed.

George J. Gatgounis has written a summary and exposition of the puritan view on biblical law, entitled The Puritan View of Substantive Biblical Law, part of a series on Religion and Law. It presents the views of four leading puritans, namely John Owen, Thomas Boston, Thomas Goodwin and Stephen Charnock. The book includes a discussion of the covenantal structure of biblical law, including law under the covenant of works and under the covenant of grace. The author expounds the puritan view of the nature and purpose of the law, the continuing applicability of the Old Testament laws in the era of the New Testament, and we see Christ’s work in relation to the law, the perfect obedience rendered by the incarnate mediator. There are brief treatments of natural law and civil law.

The author notes that, unlike the majority of the Christian tradition and the Westminster Confession, John Owen did not recognise judicial laws as a distinct category of the Mosaic laws. This is an interesting point that would have benefited from further analysis and reflection. Further, the exposition would have benefited from placing the views of the puritans in their historical and theological context, and explaining how the puritans have been analysed in prior literature.
One strength of the book is that it allows the puritans to speak for themselves; the book contains many useful extracts and citations which I personally found stimulating for my own research. It is a concise introduction which distils the key elements of puritan jurisprudence and will be a helpful resource for beginners as well as more well-read readers.

Benjamin B Saunders is an Associate Professor at Deakin Law School.