Perkins, William. The Works of William Perkins vol. 8 . Ed. J. Stephen Yuille. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019.
Were the Puritans introspective men who worried about right and wrong and salvation? Such is a common caricature. In terms of theology, one might say that the Puritans looked inward instead of to Christ. Therefore, it might surprise some (and it had earlier surprised me) to find that William Perkins, the father of English Puritanism, was not introspective in such a way. In fact, rather surprisingly, this volume is a “page-turner.” Perkins begins with the nature and structure of man’s conscience. From that foundation, he engages in what earlier writers called “casuistry.” This volume contains five separate works, three of which deal with conscience in one form or another. The other two are dialogues on assurance.
Conscience does not simply deal with man and God, or man and himself. As Perkins makes clear, there is a three-fold working of conscience in our lives: man and himself, man and God, and man and other men. In other words, Perkins gives the reader a mini-systematic theology, which was a delightful surprise.
Perkins defines conscience as “a part of the understanding in all reasonable creatures, determining their particular actions either with them or against them” (6). In good Ramist fashion, he distinguishes the soul as understanding and will. Understanding can view the truth or the good action. Will does the actual choosing or refusing. Although Perkins places conscience in the understanding, he is clear that it is not a spectator, but “a natural power, faculty, or created quality, from whence knowledge and judgment proceed.”
Conscience cannot be identified purely with the mind. As he notes, a mind thinks a thought. “Conscience goes beyond the mind, and knows what the mind thinks” (10). With conscience, we also speak of the act of judgment. A judgment determines whether a thing is “well done or ill done” (12).
Continuing his Ramist method, Perkins further explains judgment. A judgment is preceded by a cause. This cause “binds” the conscience. As Perkins notes, “The binder is that thing whatsoever which has power and authority over conscience to order it” (13). The binder is either “proper or improper.” The proper is what has absolute authority, which, of course, is the Word of God. In good Protestant fashion, Perkins then divides the Word of God into “law or gospel” (14).
In terms of the Mosaic law, Perkins identifies the “civil law” with the Jewish commonwealth. As the latter expired, so did the former (16). Judicial laws can be divided in two: particular and common equity. What is common equity? Perkins, unlike most on either side in the theonomy debate, actually defines it. A law of common equity has two necessary conditions: if wise men who are not among the Jews acknowledge it, and/or natural reason and conscience judge it to be just (16).
Having explained the “mechanics” of conscience, Perkins explores to what degree the magistrate can bind the conscience, particularly in areas of morality. For example, if a law can be known by either nature or grace, “it binds by virtue of known conclusions in the mind” (21).
In terms of weaker binding, the magistrate can determine and maintain outward order and peace in the commonwealth (27). This is what older writers meant by “things indifferent.” A human law can bind the conscience only on “things good,” which Perkins notes are “commanded by God” (39). A human law can legitimately constrain us on things indifferent, provided it furthers the good of the commonwealth.
Perkins’ order and method is not always clear. He moves from the topic of dancing to that of assurance (61). Before one can answer questions of “infallible assurance,” he must be clear on terms like “certainty.” Some often confuse “certainty of faith” with “certainty of my experience.” The latter is good, but it can never hold the former hostage. I can have certainty of my salvation because the Spirit makes me cry, ‘Abba.’ He makes me cry and declare, not merely “feel.”
If the early Puritans believed in “preparationism,” it was never in the perhaps caricatured sense of later generations. Perkins identifies four characteristics of preparationism: knowledge of the law, knowledge of the judicial sentence of the law, serious estimation of the conscience by the law, and sorrow in respect for the punishment of sin (86-87).
Sins and Conscience
The train of sin: “Actual sin, in the first degree of temptation, is when the mind upon some sudden motion is drawn away to evil, and withal is tickled with some delight thereof” (134). A bad motion is like bait. From here sin moves to conception in “biting the bait.” The mind then delights in the motion and the will consents. Sin “gives birth” in the action.
Of the Subjection and Power of Conscience
Perkins covers similar ground as earlier, but he clarifies some of the terms. Conscience is a middle term between God and man (137). In this ground Perkins again returns to the topic of assurance. If the Spirit is truly working in us, we will have “motions of sanctification, which are these. First, to feel our inward corruptions, Second, to be displeased with ourselves for them. Third, to begin to hate sin. Fourth, to grieve. Fifth, to avoid the occasions of sin. Sixth, to endeavor to do our duty and to use good means. Seventh, to desire to sin no more” (155).
He defines Christian virtue as a “gift that flows immediately from the Spirit of God” (361). He specifically rejects the Aristotelian view that virtue is a habit, and it is not hard to see why he rejects it. If virtue is a habit, then there is no practical reason why the unbeliever cannot develop theological virtues. That difference aside, Perkins’ treatment is fairly similar to earlier treatments.
Prudence includes the deliberation of a good and the determination of the will (365). A prudent man, when faced with tough moral decisions, will seek the moderate course of action. Paul, for example, when in Ephesus never attacked the temple of Diana (Acts 19:10, 26). Likewise, even though usury is a sin, Perkins realizes it cannot ever be rooted out entirely (369).
On property: “the law of nature sets down and prescribes distinction of possessions, and propriety of lands and goods, and the gospel does not abolish the law of nature” (392). (If someone is interested in the reformation of poverty and beggars, consult Perkins, 425-429.)
We have in mind “particular justice,” which gives to every man his right or due. Particular justice, not surprisingly with Perkins, can be divided into two: distribution and contract. Distribution manifests itself in proportion, which can be divided into public and private (432).
A Treatise Tending unto a Declaration whether a Man is in the Estate of Damnation or in the Estate of Grace
Main idea: if you are a good Christian trusting in Christ, yet afflicted with a tender conscience, do not despair. Perkins gives you many good reasons on why you probably are not a reprobate.
- Reprobates have a general knowledge of God and common equity, not a particular knowledge of God in Christ.
- A reprobate’s fear and terror of conscience is only of the wrath of God, and not that he has grieved the goodness of God (453).
- A reprobate hates sin for its grievous effects, and not sin for itself.
- He loves God for the benefits He gives, not for God Himself.
Perkins takes the analysis deeper. Bad seed is not deeply rooted. The mind understands and remembers it. A seed that is rooted, however, “pierces the heart and takes hold of the affections” (461).
This is an excellent manual in Puritan casuistry. Although written 400 years ago, it is relevant today (except, perhaps, on some medical issues). Perkins leaves few stones unturned.