- In Pursuit of Purity, Unity, and Liberty: Richard Baxter's Puritan Ecclesiology in Its Seventeenth-Century Context
Paul Chang-Ha Lim's In Pursuit of Purity, Unity, and Liberty: Richard Baxter's Puritan Ecclesiology in Its Seventeenth-Century Context considers an aspect ofBaxter's thinking that has not been fully explored: his ecclesiology, which Lim defines as "the nature of the true church, its offices and the right administration of discipline" (104). For this investigation, Lim drew on a wide and impressive array of manuscript sources (including the Baxter correspondence in Dr. William's Library, London), seventeenth-century printed books, and contemporary scholarship on theology and religious sources. The result is a nuanced, lucid, and fascinating account of Baxter's vision of the church and the contexts that fueled it.
Lim structures the book elegantly and thoughtfully along three facets of Baxter's vision of the church — purity, unity, and liberty. In the process, he offers a vision of Baxter's eclectic theology while presenting a broader vision of his ecumenical stance than is usually the case. A focus on three themes also allows Lim to consider a range of debates and controversies of the period itself — such as baptism, the status of confessions of faith, and the attitude that nonconformists should hold towards the Restoration Church of England. Baxter's search for purity is embodied in his commitment to conversionistic preaching and his emphasis on catechistic work with individuals. Baxter located his desire for greater purity in the church in the conviction that the visible and the invisible church were not yet identical, prompting a push for greater spiritual rigor in congregations and support for believers. Turning to the idea of unity in the church, Baxter's anti-separatist stance constitutes a large part of the book; his vision of purity is situated within a [End Page 715] parochial context: "purity and edification could not be pursued in isolation from the unity of the church" (227). In Lim's section on unity, there are several nice remarks about the way in which Baxter's espousal of a unified church was in many ways more welcome in the Interregnum than in the anti-Puritan backlash of the Restoration. The section on liberty works through Baxter's articulation of anti-Laudian ideas, and the anti-Popery that in Baxter's vision betokened the greatest freedom for Christian believers. The organization into three sections works very well, and Lim constantly refers back to previous ideas, in order to consider Baxter's thought as a system.
Lim is extremely sensitive to the microcurrents of national and church history in the period and offers a rewarding and fascinating vision of Baxter's influences. Lim rightfully comments at one point that Baxter's sources have been underexplored, and his book goes a long way to rectify that problem, offering striking links between Baxter and Luther, Grotius, Calvin, Bucer, Beza, Zanchius, and Ursinus. Since Lim combines respect and admiration for Baxter with critical acumen, some of the nicest sections of the book show Baxter sparring with powerful opponents like John Owen or William Bagshaw. There are several exquisite and keenly felt articulations of Baxter's motivations as well. For example, one section speaks of the way in which Baxter's writings on conversion balanced the need for a sound conversion with a concern that believers not experience despondency from fear of spiritual inadequacy. Within Lim's focus on ecclesiology, there is room to consider Baxter's rhetoric, and he links Baxter's plain style to a desire for widespread Christian instruction. One gets a sense not only of Baxter's vision of church governance but the myriad ways in which he personally instructed and guided people within his congregation and community. A few typographical errors mar an otherwise well-researched and clearly written work. It might have been helpful to see a glossary of...