Works of William Perkins, vol 5

Perkins, William. The Works of William Perkins, Volume 5. Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.

Recent Reformed theology can be sadly described as a generation arising “which knew not the scholastics.” To paraphrase Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring: Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.

Perkins defines faith as “a supernatural gift of God in the mind, apprehending the saving promise with all of the promises that depend on it” (Perkins 11).

Doctrine of God

God is a spiritual essence. His nature admits of no composition or form (19). Concerning his nature, Perkins notes that “By nature is meant a thing subsisting by itself that is common to many” (24). A person is a thing or essence that subsists but is incommunicable.

Side note: Perkins says “plain reason will show there is a God” (494).

The whole Godhead is “communicated from the Father to the Son, and from both Father and Son to the Holy Ghost” (24). Because of this, we must have doctrines like eternal generation. We distinguish the Father by his personal property of begetting. Moreover, “We distinguish between generation itself and the manifestation of it (Ps. 2) (109).”

The personal relations are notionally distinct from the divine essence, but realistically (in the traditional sense of the term) one with it (27). This does not make a quaternity, as the persons are modes of the Godhead, not distinct entities.

Perkins anticipates and rebuts the wicked heresy of eternal subordination. He notes that the Father is not set before the Son “in regard of time or dignity….but in regard of order only” (28). Commenting on 1 Cor. 11:3, the Father is “head of Christ” only as he is “God incarnate or made manifest in the flesh and in respect of the office to which he willingly abased himself” (11). Concerning 1 Cor. 15:24, this means only that his kingdom shall cease in respect of the outward manner of administration” (111).

Continuing with his treatment of classical theology, Perkins discusses the inseparable operations. The actions of God are twofold, inward and outward. An inward action is one “which one person does exercise toward another, as the Father does beget the Son” (43).

His take on the Filioque is quite interesting. He argues that when a divine person sends another, he communicates his whole essence to him. If both the Father and the Son send the Spirit, then they communicate their one essence to him (308). As it stands it needs more argument, but it is an interesting idea.

God’s Counsel and Man’s Sin

God’s counsel does not hinder the will of man, “but only order and dispose it” (46). God’s counsel is necessary in regard to the highest cause, but contingent regarding secondary causes, which include the wills of man. Regarding Adam’s fall, God did not take away his free will; he only ordered it (86). “God is a moving cause of the wills of evil men” (87). This does not entangle him in the defect of evil.

Christology

Perkins has an excellent section on the theologia unionis. Christ was anointed by the Holy Spirit and his human nature received certain created gifts. The first is the “sanctification of the mass or lump which was to be the manhood of Christ” (126). The sanctification stopped the propagation of original sin and guilt. The second part infused holiness into the human nature.

Perkins has a good take on the autotheos controversy. In regard of the Son’s person, he is from the Father; in regard to the Godhead he is of himself.

On the Cross

When Jesus cried “why have you forsaken me?” did that entail Nestorianism? Did it imply a severing of the human nature from the divine nature? (This was always a danger latent in saying Jesus experienced hell). Perkins notes it in no way implied a severing. Rather, “the Godhead of the Father did not show forth his power in the manhood but did as it were lie asleep for a time, that the manhood might suffer” (188).

Death of the Body

The body dies when the soul is separated from it (83). When Christ died “his body and [human] soul were really and wholly severed” (197). This is common-sense. Perkins then adds a degree of precision that probably isn’t found elsewhere in the literature: “For as when he was living, His soul was a mean or bond to unite his Godhead and his body together, so when he was dead, his very Godhead was a mean or middle bond to unite the body and soul. To say otherwise is to dissolve the hypostatic union, by virtue whereof Christ’s body and soul, though severed from each other, yet both were still joined to the Godhead of the Son” (228).

The Fathers believed that Christ’s human soul was the middle point, or interface, between the divine nature and the flesh. This makes sense, as it is both created and immaterial. When Christ died, his Godhead held body and soul together.

Perkins realizes that “descended into Hell” wasn’t part of the Creed originally. He wants to avoid the idea that Christ accidentally (or maybe intentionally) got roasted a bit in his humiliation. Both sides kind of miss the point, though. The Creed collapsed several Greek words into the word “Hell.” Jesus probably raided Sheol or Hades. He didn’t go into Dante’s Hell. Even the passage in 1 Peter where the Spirit of Christ preached to the souls in prison isn’t referring to Hell. It would either be Taratarus or Sheol, not the lake of fire.

On Witchcraft

Perkins is unafraid to address hot topic issues. He argues, quite rightly, that Christ’s ascension protects believers from curses. He notes that “no witchcraft nor sorcery (which often are done with cursing) shall be able to hurt us” (259). Those not covered by the ascended Christ have no such protection. It is important to keep in mind that Perkins was once involved in the occult before he received better teaching.

The Church

The efficient cause of the church is God’s predestination. The formal cause is the mystical union (324ff). Of predestination, we note that the will of God appoints the estates of the creatures. (The following section is an exegesis of Romans 9). When God decrees something, there is no succession of moments. Nonetheless, we make logical distinctions. First, God purposes “what he will do and the end of all things.” The second is where he decrees the execution of the former (331).

God’s Will and Subordinate Means

Does God will evil? This seems to be the implication of predestination, yet it isn’t. Perkins notes three actions in God’s willing of a thing. God can absolutely will a thing as something he delights in. God can absolutely nill a thing. “There is also a third action which comes as a mean between the two former, which is remissly or in part to nill and will a thing” (356-357). God does not approve a thing, yet he wills the permission of it.

God’s willing of causes can be set in a hierarchical structure. A highest cause of a thing overrules all. As Perkins’s notes, this is God’s will (358). This is the cause of all things that have being. From this are secondary and tertiary causes. This allows Perkins to rebut something like Molinism. A thing cannot have hypothetical options before it even has being.

Side notes:

Perkins condemns the prayer lives of those involved in usury (436).

Perkins believes reading forms of prayer are lawful (468).

Following his exposition of the Lord’s Prayer is a poem in rhyming couplets. It’s surprisingly good. Not as good as Alexander Pope, to be sure, but still quite good overall.

Criticisms

While the work is structured around the Apostles’ Creed and so lends itself to a natural organization, Perkins’ Ramism, of which I am generally a fan, sometimes gets the better of him. His method is to set forth the doctrine, the uses, the benefits, and probably some other stuff. None of that is wrong, but by the time we get to the fourth or fifth “use,” itself probably a subdivision of a previous use, one sometimes forgets which article of the creed he is on.

While Perkins gives the classic formula of “the practical syllogism,” his take on assurance leaves much to be desired. We are told not to pry into heaven, which is true. Rather, he tells us “by signs and testimonies in ourselves to gather what was the eternal counsel of God concerning our salvation” (337). The syllogism itself isn’t wrong. I know Beza and Perkins take a lot of heat for it, but I like how Perkins frames it: “an application of the promises of the gospel in the form of a practical syllogism.” I’m just concerned that he leaves out one of the very places where Christ has promised to meet us: The Lord’s Supper. In his shorter catechism he rightly notes that the Supper strengthens us in our doubts (506). Very true. He just missed a good opportunity to tie it in here.

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