Engineerish minds and being as helpful as the Puritans

Whenever you read a book by a Puritan, they always keep worrying a topic until they’ve extracted every bit of helpfulness they can from the Scriptures on that topic—and made every related exhortation and application too! Puritans leave you no place to carve out exceptions for yourself where you get to indulge in bitterness and self-pity. They’re gloriously unashamed of proclaiming God’s truths, and calling men to love and faithfulness to those truths. For example, here is one of my favorite parts of Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:

Submitting to God’s disposal—What is that? The word submit signifies nothing else but ‘to send under’. Thus in one who is discontented the heart will be unruly, and would even get above God so far as discontent prevails. But now comes the grace of contentment and sends it under, for to submit is to send under a thing.

Now when the soul comes to see its own unruliness—Is the hand of God bringing an affliction and yet my heart is troubled and discontented—What, it says, will you be above God? Is this not God’s hand and must your will be regarded more than God’s? O under, under! get you under, O soul! Keep under! keep low! keep under God’s feet! You are under God’s feet, and keep under his feet! Keep under the authority of God, the majesty of God, the sovereignty of God, the power that God has over you! To keep under, that is to submit. The soul can submit to God at the time when it can send itself under the power and authority and sovereignty and dominion that God has over it.

That is the sixth point, but even that is not enough. You have not attained this grace of contentment unless the next point is true of you…

Puritans are linear, and thorough, and helpful. Engineerish minds are naturally linear and thorough, but are not naturally helpful, since their tendency is to focus on the least important details and miss the main point.

The postulation: God, for reasons known only to Himself, has raised up many engineerish minded men in His church recently. Properly discipled, this linearness and thoroughness can be a help to the church.

The question: What should be done with engineerish minded men in the church today to make them helpful like the Puritans?

I’ll start by saying, load them up with work. This gets them out of the too-often-unhelpful world of abstractions they tend to live in and makes them make decisions that actually help the body.

But this stops short of the help we get from the Puritans, much of which comes to us through them having distilled their thoroughness in writing. I think very few of our engineerish men are in any position to be writing books that would be helpful. Why is that? I think it has something to do with spiritual immaturity. How were the Puritans spiritually mature and thus helpful in their writings, and how do we get our engineerish men there?

Or is the major needed application of that linearness and thoroughness for the church something different than books today? And if so, how do we equip our engineerish men to be helpful in that new application?


The Puritans got better educations than we did. Even among engineers who have good STEM educations, writing just isn’t taught in our day the way it was even 50 years ago.


I know next to nothing about educational philosophy, but does this have something to do with Trivium?

As far as logic and rhetoric goes I met it only once during my education (Public School, then Christian University Bachelor’s). A logic class required for a Philosophy major. In that logic class we dealt with informal fallacies for one week. The rest was solving equations using letters rather than numbers. Had we dealt with turning verbal arguments into these equations it would have been beneficial, as this was not covered it was more like Awkward Math 101.

Regarding the Puritans, they are good about running out arguments in a linear fashion, but when they err on a point it affects their arguments later. Like screwing up a variable early in a program, it’s going to give an answer, but it may not be correct due to presuppositions.

I remember reading Turretin (can we call him Puritan-adjacent?) for two dozen pages wishing he’d revisit an earlier point to either clarify or change his reasoning. It was a flimsy argument with too much stacked on top.

Is there some specific example or situation that pressed this issue into your mind @danielmeyer ?

The Trivium is grammar, logic (or dialectic) and rhetoric, but those terms are a bit broader than their usual usage in English.

Grammar includes the rules of language, but it’s really the facts about anything. If you learn a new topic for the first time, say, how to light a fire, you are going to learn terms for things (tinder, match, kindling, e.g.), as well as basic rules like “don’t stick your hand in red-hot coals,” and “blow gently on a fire to get it going more.”

Logic includes formal logic (what you studied), but is much more general, and is basically the interplay between facts: how things fit together to make a whole. In the case of lighting a fire, learning how the heat and fuel and oxygen work together to make combustion, and how different types of tinder work best with different sources of flame (match vs. lighter vs. flint and steel).

Rhetoric is also a broad topic that includes presenting information in almost any form: written, oral, even videography. How to compose technical documents in a readable format is very much rhetoric, as is any kind of teaching.

These stages happen in one form or another in any kind of learning, but I’ve found having these distinctions very helpful for homeschooling, not least because children tend to be better at different aspects of the Trivium at different ages, which really helps with both managing expectations and focusing on kids’ strengths. Generally speaking, the grammar stage is birth to about grade 5, dialectic is grades 6-8, and rhetoric is grades 9+.

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Great questions, I agree with much.

Tell me more about these Puritans and their spiritual maturity. What experiences did they have? How did they grow?

Were the writers you’re thinking of mostly ordained men? How young were they?

Did they come from big families and have big families of their own? Did they tend to develop long-term, close relationships with family and friends?

Were they persecuted? Had they suffered poverty or other suffering?

I’m thinking of the many things I expect they may have in common that today’s engineers unlikely have and can not be simply given.

Regarding education, yes, public school lacks depth and engineering school lacks breadth.

Ah spoken like a true engineer, John. :grin:

It would seem to me that John is right…there is a lack of training but also perhaps a lack of discipline. I think many pastors are not this type of man (engineerish) and are often intimidated by them and so avoid doing the work of disciplining engineerish hearts for leadership. There are risks of course putting such men in leadership, Pride is not the least of these. But I do believe that our churches and leaders have long ago made determinations that engineerish men need to be tolerated more than implemented. I was talking with another friend who was contemplating his own pastor and whether he could find any real faults besides his weak positions on Sexuality as reason enough to leave. His arguments in favor of his pastor was his affable nature, his clarity of the basics of the gospel. Engineerish men get no or little of such endorsements, and so the flocks dictate the kind of shepherds they will tolerate. The Puritan era was very short-lived after all.


But it think engineer-types generally make better theologians than pastors.

One thing to remember is that 400 years ago, there were fewer literal engines around for these guys to tinker with. And university was much harder for a typical man to get into and pay for than it is in our day. These guys just had fewer career paths in general and fewer outlets for their autism in general.


Is there a general inclination around this site to regard the Puritans as the ‘gold standard’ of Christian discipleship, and being Christians generally? I do wonder.

You can expand this beyond the Puritans. Richard Hooker was likewise exhaustive, and spent several volumes arguing against the (early) Puritans. His Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, despite the dry sounding title, are chock full of sound, God-glorifying reason and careful pastoral guidance. The Davenant Trust has recently re-published this work and it shows Hooker to be a titan of the [Reformed] Christian faith. Anyone interested in the English Reformation should read it.

The seriousness, warmth, urgency and exhaustiveness that permeated many areas of Christian writing in past centuries, I think has to do with the fact that death was everywhere, all the time. Nobody was shielded from it they way they are now. Its finality confronted everyone at every turn. Gender issues is a very frequently discussed issue here and there’s a lot that points to a broad loss of a biblical understanding of those issues (I include myself in there with all my conditioned biases). But I think the issue of death and the way the modern culture has fenced it off from the normal processes of life has likewise sapped much of the Church’s enthusiasm, sense of urgency, and vitality. It is also a reality we’ve lost; when is the last time you heard a sermon forcing you to consider your coming, inevitable death? Today death is an anomaly. It happens in hospital wards and sad warehouses where we stash old folks.

Not saying longevity, science and medicine are not blessings of course they are. But I think that the constant presence of death in our forefathers’ lives really added something to their writing that we lack today.

Yep. It was definitely the style of writing and argumentation of the time, not just with the Puritans. And yes, death affects everything.

@Hobbit, I’m using the term Puritan loosely. When someone writes and speaks like @Auslander describes here, I call him a Puritan.


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In the latest Masculinist issue from Aaron Renn, he wrote:

Despite its greatness, Mortification of Sin has a problem. It was written a long time ago in English that’s very archaic. Owen was not a very good writer to begin with either, and his outlining system was weak. This makes the book painful to read and difficult to understand in parts. Owen isn’t Shakespeare, but reading him can be a tough slog.

I don’t deny that Owen is hard to read, but weak outlining system? Not a very good writer? Seems the opposite of what you’d say about Puritans in general. Including Owen.

Edited to add: I think the whole reason Owen’s Mortification is so good is because of his outline and depth of writing.


I very much agree with your take on Owen. He digs deep, writing at length fruitfully.

The difficulty in my reading is due a shift in language, perhaps my own weaknesses, but not to Owen’s weak writing.

Renn is frustrating to read. So good and so not good sometimes. I wouldn’t call him heretical or anything, but very frustrating.

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Not sure about others here, but for me, yes.

I think they were in a sweet spot in many ways. After the reformation and the recovery of many doctrinal truths. Good educational priorities. Printing presses available. Still in a time where it was normal for religion to be central to life.

But most importantly, living in an era where they were mocked for their emphasis on personal holiness.

I know there are those who look back at them with just as much condescension as their contemporaries did, but I would answer your question in the affirmative.

At least in terms of what has been written, I rarely find anybody as helpful as the Puritans.


There are also some weirdos that overdo it with their love for the Puritains and try to LARP as them in 2019–or worse, write like them in 2019 (stylistically, I mean). But these superfans are far outnumbered by the critics.

I’ve found that even reading a Puritan table of contents is often more substantial, convicting, and edifying than a full book by a popular BigEva author.


I would argue that if someone is hard to read, by definition he is not a good writer.

Those who have studied literature may feel free to rake me over the coals, but as a copywriter, I assert that good writing is (at least) good thinking expressed clearly. As proof that copywriting is the jewel of the art, I present Hemingway. Argue with him.

Owen’s writing is not clear. If the point of writing is to facilitate understanding, it must be transparent; a clear channel that conveys ideas to the reader. Owen’s writing positively obstructs understanding.

I think people get defensive about this because they confuse the craft of doing theology with the craft of writing. But you can be outstanding at the former without advancing significantly in the latter—and being weak in the latter has no logical bearing on your strength in the former.

Most theologians I have read, which is fewer than I oughtta, are not highly-skilled writers—and why would they be? One exception who stands out in my mind is Charles Hodge; when I picked up his Systematic Theology I immediately noticed that he seemed to delight in the craft of words as much as the craft of doctrine, and is thus a delight to read.


1600’s English is hard for us to read today. I present the first translation of Don Quixote from the 1600’s:

I’m all for translating Owen into modern English, and look I forward to reading Renn’s attempt to do so. I just think the skill in both theology and communication is quite evident in Owen, longer thoughts and sentences notwithstanding.

I’ve never met anybody who thought Shakespeare was easy to read, and very few who thought he was a bad writer.

Edited to add:
As to Hemingway, I didn’t think he was a good author on the basis of A Farewell to Arms. I thought it was an uncompelling love story and a bad anti-war argument. Thus I found it hard to read. I don’t find Owen hard to read in that sense.

But Owen’s Mortification hasn’t stood the test of time simply because it has good theology. Not even because of its depth. It’s because it is compelling and personal.

If he wasn’t a good writer I submit that Renn would not be attempting to translate him to modern English, but rather take the theology in the book and write another one.

However, I will grant that if engineerish men write today, it should not be like Owen. And engineerish men are generally not good writers, as anybody who has been to engineering school knows.


Pictures. Please.


I readily grant that there’s a language barrier when reading Owen. But it’s not just a language barrier. I think the comparison to Shakespeare is inapt; Shakespeare wasn’t writing prose intended to impress propositional truth on the mind.

We can probably meet in the middle, because I confess I don’t like Hemingway either. As you’ve noted, there more to good writing than clarity of expression. At least one other key ingredient is axiological weight, which would help to explain why people tend to conflate good theology with good writing. Another ingredient is personal connection. Owen obviously excelled at both of these.

But I still contend that without clarity of expression, someone is not a good writer. Though perhaps you could press me on the strength of the word “good” :wink:

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The man made the fire. He looked at the fire. It was a good fire. It was a good campsite. He caught a fish. He cooked the fish. It was a good fishaaaaaarrrrrgh

Pretty much my experience with Hemingway.

Writers like Owen need to be read aloud. I was surprised how much more I could follow On the Mortification of Sin when reading it out loud.