William Perkins


**I wrote this about 4 years ago now, before I ever heard of TF Torrance, Scottish Theology (our Evangelical Calvinism), or things like “Christ’s vicarious life for us,” etc. I think what Frost has called “Affective Theology” is an excellent complement to what we are doing in “Evangelical Calvinism;” as it really develops the “Spirit’s” work in our union with Christ (or Christ’s union with us, better). Beyond that, the history of this movement is also very telling, “Affective Theology” (aka The Spiritual Bretheren, or Free Grace Calvinists [my label]) represents another instanciation of Calvinists, albeit in England and not Scotland, who saw the theological and pastoral problems that Federal Calvinism presented. Like their Scottish counterparts, they sought a way to think out Calvin[ist] themes in more ‘Evangelical’ and in fact ‘Trinitarian’ ways. I am presenting this post to introduce the reality, for one thing, that, indeed, Calvinism (in her history) is not a monolithic “thing;” that there are Calvinism[s] out there that I think capture the intentions and beauty of what scripture presents us with, as well as with what Calvin originally seemed to be intending (just see his “order” of the 1559 Institutes, he starts with ‘the Doctrine of God’ — Trinity). I hope you find this little offering inspiring and enlightening; if I was aware of what I am now (i.e. Evangelical Calvinism) I probably would have framed things in this article a little differently, but overall I think this piece still has some legs, and makes points that are still very pertinent to the aim and intentions of this blog . . . see you in the comments**

Here is a brief sketch to a historical system of theology (don’t let the historical part scare you away) that I was first introduced to while in seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost. This theology is known as Affective Theology (or even Free Grace Theology–different than the popular movement being forwarded currently by Zane Hodges). I am a proponent of this form of theological engagement (qualified at a few points, I actually like to assimilate this with “Scottish Theology”), and believe that it beautifully captures the intention of scripture relative to things salvific and God’s nature. This framework was communicated in Puritan England by people such as Richard Sibbes and William Erbery amongst others. This was a movement that was responding to the stringent “precianism” of Federal Theology (Calvinism) articulated by fellows such as William Perkins and William Aames. Notice a testimonial offered by a man named Humphrey Mills, someone who new what it meant to live under the unbearable burden of the moralistic proving ground spawned by the inevitable consequence of “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Limited Atonement/Election”, here he speaks in his own words about the freedom of conscience he finally felt under the teaching/preaching of Sibbes:

I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward. (Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics,” Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653)

Here’s a heart freed from the constant burden of looking to self for assurance of salvation; and prompted to look up to Christ for freedom and salvation.

Sibbes was one of the key-note articulates against the popery he observed with the moralistic tradition provided framework through the Calvinist doctrines. Sibbes believed, along with others, that external works should never be the basis for assurance of salvation–in fact Sibbes believed that assurance of salvation should not even be a functional premise within a soteriological construct; such as Calvinism provided. Sibbes was part of a movement known as Free-Grace, this was ” . . . the party of Puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.” (Frost, The Devoted Life, 81). Notice this quote offered by William Erbery, a contemporary of Sibbes, as he discusses progression of Purtian thought ending with that kind of Free-Grace preaching exemplified most clearly by Sibbes, note:

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching. First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike. . . . Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . . Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit. (Frost, The Devoted Life, quoting from: William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London: n.p. 1658)

As Erbery highlights, Sibbes’, amongst the other Free-Grace teachers, was not taken as seriously as the predominate moralistic (Calvinist) teachers, i.e. Perkins, Bolton, et al. But notice where Erbery’s quote leaves off, “the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit”, to this we now turn. This is an important point of departure for the teaching of Affective Theology, as defined by Sibbes, i.e. the immediacy of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life.

While Sibbes believed works were an aspect of salvation, he did not believe that these should be a barometer for determining a person’s salvation. Furthermore he believed constant obsession with such thinking was a product of an unscriptural understanding foisted on the laity of Puritan England by the Calvinist Divines. Note Ron Frost’s assessment of Sibbes’ approach here:

While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty (Erbery’s category of ‘low and legal’ preaching) Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means: through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to be the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.” (Ron Frost. Kellp Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life”, 82)

Notice the relational nature of the salvific event, the Holy Spirit comes to the heart of the “elect” and showers the heart of the sinner with the beautiful person of Jesus Christ. It is as the heart of the sinner is enflamed a love by the work of the Holy Spirit that the sinner responds back in love–given the overwhelming attractiveness of the sweet Savior. Another thing of note, is that the primary instrument used for disclosing sweet Jesus to the heart of the sinner is through the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, notice the centrality that heart, motive, and desire play in the thought of Sibbes’ as articulated by Frost. This to me is very important, because it takes seriously what God takes seriously, and alone searches, the hearts and motives of men (see Jer. 17:9 and many other passages). This is God’s concern, the motives, and desires of men and women; this is contrary to the system that emphasized external moralistic duties as the basis of determining one’s election (which by the way had horrific ramifications for Christian ethics as well)– Calvinism. Sibbes’ approach, and his affective anthropology, i.e. the defining feature of man (i.e. where values and motives take shape), was directly contrary to the Calvinist anthropology that saw the intellect and will as the defining features of man, and actually saw the “affections” as that which was the weakest part of man. In Calvinist thought it is within the will via interaction with the intellect that becomes enlivened by a “created quality” or Grace. It is through this created quality of Grace that man is able to cooperate with God and thus keep the duty driven moralistic standards consequently proving one’s election and salvation (like Humphrey Mills lived under).

Conversely, Sibbes saw grace as a relational characteristic of God imbued upon the heart of man. It is through this transformative intervention that man’s heart is changed (II Cor 3), and drawn to God. Note Frost’s description here, as he contrasts the Calvinist understanding of grace and the historic Free-Grace (Affective Theology) understanding of grace (as articulated by Sibbes):

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised. For instance, Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion. Faith, for Sibbes, was not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing. God’s laws, Sibbes argued, must be ’sweetened by the gospel’ and offered within a framework of ‘free grace.’ He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology (which is as further explained by Frost: Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate. Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God. In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action. . . .”)Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life”, 82)

This represents the touchstone, and most basic understanding of historic Free-Grace theology, or Affective Theology. Some highlights to take away: Affective Theology (AT) believes man heart is in total bondage to self-love; AT believes that man cannot cooperate whatsoever with God in salvation; AT believes that until the heart is transformed by God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s enflaming work, man will never find rest or salvation; AT believes contra historic Calvinist teaching that the emphasis of salvation is relationally based given the identification of God’s gift of grace with the work and person of the Holy Spirit; AT believes, given the relational basis, is not obsessed with proving one’s election since works are not the foundational component of AT’s framework of salvation.

I’ll leave it here for now, there is much more to be said about this perspective . . . especially about the framework that served as the touchstone for Affective Theology. That touchstone is found in Ephesians 5, and the Pauline marriage discussion. The marital framework provided in this beautiful epistle is picked up by AT and pressed into as the picture, but more than a picture (actually an ontological reality), of what union, and thus communion with Christ, is all about. I.e. this is contrary to the covenental framework provided by Calvinism, and the “contractual” implications provided by such a system (e.g. you keep your end of the contract, and God will keep His—). The marital framework, rooted in the New Covenant, is no longer obsessed with personal performance–but instead is overwhelmed with the beauty of her bride-groom [Jesus]–marriage presupposes relationship, i.e. nothing to prove, just something to grow in–ultimately finding consummation in glorification and celebrated at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb.

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**The following quote is a little lengthy, not too bad, but if you want to skip to the bottom, to my “List of Assertions,” and closing paragraph you might just want to interact at that level (the quote substantiates or at least provides fodder for my assertions). Some might find this beyond where you’re at in your understanding (i.e. might be a little “heady”); if so, you can always ask for clarification. I plan on writing some more posts on “defining” Evangelical Calvinism soon (this piece actually helps provide an example of what it’s not ;-). Also the tone here is a little polemical**

William Perkins (1558-1602), a Cambridge theologian, and English clergyman can be considered to be one of the founders of what today is known as Calvinism. When people say they are ‘Reformed’ (esp. in America), this is one of your forbears who you are beholden to for the theological categories you think through — to one degree of intensity or another. If you, more popularly, follow the teachings of John Piper, Michael Horton, Carl Trueman, and even John MacArthur, amongst others; then you follow in the trajectory that William Perkins set so long ago.

William Perkins followed the scholastic tradition (conceptually); that is to say, he adopted the Aristotelian framework assimilated by Thomas Aquinas to explain and articulate who God is (ontologically), and thus what salvation entails as corollary. Part of adopting this framework, for Perkins, means that he must cast God in terms of immutability (there have been reifications of this term to fit a more trinitarian understanding — I say this just so that some of you know that I am aware of this); God cannot have any kind of contingency or composition, here is how Perkins says it: “God’s immutability of nature is that by which he is void of all composition, division, and change” [Perkins, Golden Chaine, 1. 11, first cited by: Ron Frost, “Sibbes’ Theology of Grace UnPublished PhD Dissertation,” 61]. This has a drastic impact upon how God’s life is understood, and emphasied to be, viz. as singular (simplicity); furthermore it implies that the Johannine notion of “God is love” to be a figment of God’s disclosure in time, but not a reality of who God is in eternity (since love would imply ‘composition’, ‘division’, and ‘change’). The following is a quote (from Ron Frost’s dissertation) that further elucidates and substantiates my claims thus far:

2. Love and the will. In speaking of God, apart from any one of the triad of persons, Perkins identified a primary essence which is “void and free from all passion” [Perkins, “Golden Chaine,” 1. 25]. Love, if seen as essentially affective, would include an element of contingency, namely, God’s desire that his creation respond to his love as the complement to his own love. If, however, love is a component of the will, God merely requires such a response . In the Golden Chaine, then, love is striking in its absence as a motivation in God; this despite the primacy of love in biblical descriptions of God. As illustrated in the chart of the Chaine [which Frost provides on the previous page], love appears only after the mediatorial work of Christ.

Perkins also believed that if God’s love is perceived as an inherent motivation (that is, as an affection), it would imply the prospect of universal salvation. He raised an “objection” in the Golden Chaine to make the point, a point which illustrates Perkins’ position that love is defined by God’s arbitrary determinations:

Object. Election is nothing else but dilection or love; but this we know, that God loves all his creatures. Therefore he elects all his creatures.Answer. I. I deny that to elect is to love, but to ordain and appoint to love.II. God does love all his creatures, yet not all equally, but every one in their place [Perkins, “Golden Chaine,” 1. 109, Cited by Frost, 62].

This reflected Perkins’ synthetic definition of God’s love. In his Treatise of God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will, Perkins posed the question “whether there be such an affection of love in God, as is in man and beast.”

I answer that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace, 1.723, cited by Frost].

Thus, God must be understood to express his immutable will in a manner that accomplishes “the same things that love makes the creature do”. God, then, lacks any inherent affections but he still chooses to do the actions of love or hatred, and uses anthropomorphic language, while working out his eternal purposes: “Because his will is his essence or Godhead indeed.” [Perkins, “God’s Free Grace,” 1.703, cited by Frost] [brackets all mine] (Ron Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of London, King’s College, 1996],” 61-2).

List of Assertions

  • This is the origin and framing of contemporary thinking about “double-predestination” (supralapsarianism) and the import of God’s decrees.
  • According to Perkins, to sustain the above framing, and as a result of using Aristotle’s “immutability,” God cannot love within Himself — within His own life freely. Thus God is different in eternity (ad intra) than He is in time as the “mediator” (ad extra).
  • In other words, the decrees of God (absolutum decretum) create space for God, “to love,” without impinging upon His real life, which according to Perkins, cannot love (or there would be change).
  • Furthermore, Perkins’ view implies that there is another God behind the back of Jesus.
  • At bottom, Perkins’ God cannot love, He cannot (in His real life in eternity) have compassion, or greive; He is only able to do this in time because His decrees allow Him to do so (in other words, God becomes subserviant to His decrees — so in the end He really is contingent on Human history, He is determined by His decrees — He is thus, not truly free!).

I wonder if any of this causes any contemporary Calvinists of today any kind of pause. If your view of double-predestination is framed by Perkins’ view (which it is, if you follow Westminster Calvinism), then I wonder what that further says about your view of God. Are you willing to take on the same assumptions on God’s immutability that Perkins does? Or, because you know scripture won’t let you, are you going to say: “I don’t believe that nonsense,” and move on, assuming that what Perkins and Westminster articulated has no bearing on your own “biblical viewpoint?” Enquiring minds want to know!