The Puritan Ladder of Meditation by Greg Daniel

Greg Daniel seeks to explain the distinctive nature and particular aspects of puritan meditation in his work the Puritan Ladder of Meditation. This work of Daniel is a masters thesis that he submitted to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In this work, Daniel aims to explore puritan meditation more deeply so as to understand it more thoroughly and compare and contrast it with catholic forms of meditation prior to the seventeenth century. He contends that puritan meditation did not consist in a mere life of introspection that aimed a confirming one’s standing before God. Rather, puritan meditation, in part similar to catholic meditation, was a way of Christian life that sought to draw the heart out toward God and his ways. Daniel begins by clarifying his terms, and there are many terms that need clarification. For instance, the term puritan itself can be quite a difficult word to define. The term was originally one of disdain as certain believers sought to apply the truths of the reformation more thoroughly than others would have liked. Daniel highlights the connection between the puritans and the reformation as he describes the meaning of the term. Another term that Daniel clarifies is that of meditation. He emphasizes that for the puritans meditation great concerned the affections. One of the major reasons people misunderstand meditation is because they misunderstand its relationship to the affections. Finally, he clarifies the meaning of mysticism. He points out that mysticism has been a notoriously difficult term to define. The key is to see that the term mysticism concerns a direct and unmediated experience of God.

Daniel proceeds with a historical chapter that trace meditation from Augustine to Richard Baxter. He highlights the development of puritan meditation as it matured from a focus on the mind only to one that include both the mind and the heart. He also details how puritan meditation at certain points grew out of certain catholic writings on meditation. For instance, there are even puritan works that are reprints of catholic meditation that have been edited to align with protestant doctrine. Daniel includes a string of synopsis concerning the meditation practices of names like Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clariuvux, Ignatius, and Edmund Bunny. Particularly insightful was the point that Bernard stands out for his unique Christocentric meditative practices. He concludes this section by pointing to Richard Baxter’s the Saint’s Everlasting Rest. Daniel corrects the mistaken notion that Baxter is the first organizer or puritan meditation. He shows that there were puritan works on meditation developed in the years prior to Baxter. Rather, what distinguished Baxter is that he worked diligently to show the sweetness of meditation. Meditation, in Baxter, is not a mere discipline of the Christian life, it is a sweet practice of the Christian life. In the same way, another distinguishing mark of Baxter is that he make heaven the focus of the Christian’s meditation. This was a unique focus in contrast to former forms of puritan meditation.

Daniel goes on to detail the precise method of puritan meditation. Puritan meditation must be viewed through the lens of sanctification. Puritanism itself has been described as a sanctification movement, and meditation lies at the heart of their vision of sanctification. Sanctification is something that comes in the Christian life as a result of God’s sovereign grace and it is something also that believers should work diligently toward. One aspect of the method of puritan meditation is that the Christian seeks to root out certain sins in their life. The puritans sought to discover the sins that were in the heart and bring them to the light of God’s word. In the same way, meditation included getting the mind infused with a heavenly mindedness. As believers learn to hate and kill their sin, they will also grow to hate the world and love heaven. Daniel details certain times in which puritans would engage in meditation. They had formal or set times of meditation as well as times of occasional or informal meditation. One of the set times of puritan meditation was the morning. During morning meditation the puritan sought to get his mind concerned with spiritual truth by engaging the word. This was a time to rouse oneself from sleep and prepare the heart for the day. The puritans also sought to meditate in the evening. Yet, in the evening the meditation was one of self-examination. Were there secret sins that were committed that day? Was the time redeemed and used for good spiritual purposes? These are the questions that marked the puritans evening meditations. Outside of these two set times of the day, the puritans also sought to meditate on the Sabbath. Sabbath is a key aspect of puritan spirituality in general and as it was a feast day of the soul, so it was a day to richly engage in meditation. The puritans not only meditate at certain times of the day and week, but they also meditated at certain events like the Lord’s Supper. The puritans viewed the commands associated with the Lord’s Supper to tend toward the need of meditation as one discerns the body and blood of Christ and sets his mind to remember the Lord.

Puritan meditation broke down into three definable parts. First, there was the preparation for meditation. As puritans prepared to meditate, they would find a secluded place so as not to be interrupted and seek to put away worldly thoughts from their mind. Second, there was the actual meditation where they sought to rightly understand what they were thinking upon, then be rightly affected by the truth considered, and finally trust the Lord will bless their meditation on so heavenly a subject. Third, there was the conclusion of the meditation. In the same way that the puritans sought to find a secluded place to fix their minds and heart on the truth, so they did not want to rush out of a time of meditation. The key was to slowly enter back into practical duties after engaging the mind and heart in meditation on the things of God.

Daniel elucidates a few key areas of puritan meditation. He describes the puritan meditation practice of self-examination. He points out that this was a key form of puritan meditation. In self-examination, the believer sought to root out any sin. This puritan practice was a way of bringing every thought and word captive and examining it under the light of God’s word. Daniel continues to address meditation on Christ. He shows that there are some significant similarities in puritan meditation on Christ and catholic mediation on Christ. For instance, it is not true that puritan meditation only concerned the mind and catholic meditation concerned the heart. Catholic meditation may have engaged the imagination more, but this does not mean that the puritan form neglected the imagination. Daniel highlights some of the colorful meditations of the puritans concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Daniel numbers four key differences between the puritans and the Catholics when it comes to meditation upon the Savior. First, catholic meditation tends to dwell longer upon the crucifixion than that of puritan mediation. Second, catholic meditation spends significant time considering the infancy of Christ while puritan meditation does not. Third, catholic meditation is inclined to consider the tenderness of Christ where puritan meditation is inclined to look to the power of Christ. (Although puritan meditation is not ultimately neglectful of the tenderness of Christ—one thinks of Richard Sibbes’ the Bruised Reed). Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, puritan meditation calls for considering the causes and effects of Christ’s crucifixion after meditation where catholic meditation is often satisfied to contemplate Christ’s death in an imaginative way only. It is here that the Reformational roots of the puritans can be vividly seen. Puritan meditation seeks to apply the truths of the gospel to the soul.

Added to the themes of self-examination and Christ, the puritans sought to meditate on God and the future. Their meditations the centered on God cannot be detached from their meditation on God’s word. It was in God’s word that God was to be found. They meditated on personal reading of the word and they meditated on sermons that preached the word. Similarly, they fixed their minds and hearts on eternity. Puritans were not afraid to meditate on their death and in fact considered the Christian’s responsibility to do so that he could meet death prepared. They added to meditation upon death the call to meditate upon the judgment, hell, and heaven.

Daniel concludes his work by pointing to a few similarities and differences between catholic meditation and puritan meditation. There is a similarity between these meditations in that they both detail certain methods and practices. Both forms of meditation are concerned with a particular way to go about the practice. Another similarity is that both Catholics and puritans sought to get rid of sin as they entered into mediation. Finally, both Catholics and puritans employed the imagination in meditation. Yet, puritan meditation is distinguished from catholic meditation in that it was a duty for all believers and it had a corporate aspect as well as an individual one. Daniel marks out the biggest difference between catholic meditation and puritan meditation as he closes his work and that is namely that catholic meditation was a salvific effort in which one ascended to God while the puritans thoroughly grounded in justification by faith meditated to commune with God. In conclusion, Daniel has provided a rich resource that traces puritan meditation through its history, clarifies certain themes, and helpfully contrasts it with catholic meditation so as to give a better understanding of the Puritan Ladder of Meditation.

Jared served in pastoral ministry since 2007, he has earned MDiv and PhD degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his wife Heather have seven children.
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