A short account of his life and ministry - part 2.
Perkins was a living refutation of the ‘Via Media’ myth. It is no exaggeration to say that William Perkins was the chief Tudor communicator of the Calvinistic vision, in all its fullness, to the English speaking world. He did not shy away from articulating a thoroughly predestinarian worldview, or from commenting stridently upon the extent of the Atonement or the doctrine of reprobation. At the same time, he was not some peripheral figure within the Church of England. Although not without opponents, he enjoyed the support and approbation not only of much of the ordinary clergy, but of the episcopal establishment, as well as the patronage of many of the nation’s more seriously-minded aristocrats. Perkins shrugged off an attempt by anti-Calvinist rivals at Cambridge to defame him to Archbishop Whitgift, and indeed, Whitgift’s Lambeth Articles of 1595 were largely agreeable to Perkins’ system of thought.
Given that the centuries-old falsehood that the Church of England represents a compromise between Protestantism and the Church of Rome, and that its authentic expression is as a kind of popeless Catholicism replete with automatically efficacious sacraments and baptismal regeneration is presently trumpeted by a revisionist establishment which is as influential as it is dishonest. It would do Bible-believing churchmen well to recall (and to remind liberal and ritualist colleagues) that the views of Perkins, so stentoriously Reformed that they would give a Keble or a Pusey (or, for that matter a Huddleston or a Runcie) a heart attack, were very much the mainstream, yea, the orthodoxy of that foundational Elizabethan generation of Anglicans.
Perkins ministered the Gospel to carnal professors, and assurance to trembling saints. Simply to read Perkins is to see the falsehood of another powerful and popular canard: that Reformed divinity is cold, dry and obsessed with an abstract and fatalistic notion of predestination, to the exclusion or marginalisation of the study of the human experience of being saved. Inherent to Perkins’ ministry was a warm desire for the salvation of souls, and a keen pressing of man’s responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel. He laboured, in word and in print, to impress upon the ordinary parishioner the fact that their mere attendance at services and upon the Lord’s Table, combined with a tolerably moral life, would do nothing to give them peace with God in this life, and eternity with Him in the next. In his Foundation of the Christian Religion, Perkins lists thirty-two beliefs commonly held by the spiritually ignorant, including the notions that “if a man be no Adulterer, no Thief, no Murderer, and do no man harm, he is a right honest man” and that “ye can keep the Commandments as well as God will give you leave”. At the same time, Perkins laboured to cultivate a true assurance of salvation in those parishioners who were believers, but scarcely dared to think themselves saved.
Perkins knew that much of the pastor’s travail is to detect in members of his flock the embers of spiritual life and the seedlings of grace, and nurture these through the Word. One of his treatises was even entitled A Grain of Mustard Seed, or the Least Measure of Grace that is, or can be, Effectual to Salvation. He saw that even the desire to be saved, and a dissatisfaction with the sinful state was itself evidence of grace and called heartily upon those who felt even the first stirrings of conviction to earnestly seek the Lord, and not rest until, by His grace, they had found Him. His was a thoroughly evangelical Calvinism.
There is much that the modern pastor can learn from Perkins. Perkins was at once a scholastic divine and an experienced pastor, who was positively indefatigable in preaching, in writing and in counselling his students and parishioners. His self-sacrificial attitude to this work was posited as a contributory cause of his early demise by more than one of his contemporaries, but ensured that his memory was cherished at Cambridge, and that admiring former pupils often held him up to subsequent generations as a model of godliness and excellence. His grasp of the intricacies of the Ordo Salutis, a topic often neglected in modern pastoral theology, allowed him to minister expertly both to those seeking to come to Christ and to believers who were troubled in their consciences or doubting their election.
At the same time, he practically invented Protestant casuistical theology, which sought to apply the principles found in Scripture both to doctrinal disputes, and the practical questions of life: how a Christian ought to conduct himself in business, in public life and in marriage, how he ought to dress and what recreations were wise and profitable for him. At a time when the errors of the ‘New Calvinism’, which combine outward adherence to predestinarian theology with a lax or permissive attitude to worldliness in the lives of professing believers, there is a great deal to be gained from rediscovering Perkins’ conviction that the believer’s life ought to be wholly consecrated to God in all departments.
The Protestant churches of the Anglophone world owe to William Perkins a tremendous, though normally unrecognised, debt. It is lamentable that previous generations of Reformed believers forgot about him. Let us hope that our own plays its part, through reading his works and discussing his ideas, in bringing this laudable divine back into the eye of the wider church.
For books on the William Perkins & other puritans, check out our St Antholin Series.