Ames’ Federal Theology

The big question over the relation of the ordo salutis to the historia salutis has been answered in various ways. In the Puritan theologian William Ames we see something rather remarkable in terms of the connection he makes.

William Ames (1576-1633), professor of theology at Franeker in the Netherlands, was one of the most influential theologians in the early seventeenth century. He was educated at Christ College, Cambridge under the great Puritan, William Perkins (1558-1602). His learnedness earned him the title “the learned Dr. Ames.” John Eusden, in the introduction to Ames’ Marrow of Theology, comments that “No previous thinker in the Calvinist-Puritan tradition analyzed the covenant of grace with an acuteness comparable to that of the Franeker professor” (p. 52). I might dispute that, but the comment is not far off.

In The Marrow of Theology Ames treats the subject of the covenant using a method that Owen would later adopt. Ames speaks of a covenant of works in this manner: “In this covenant the moral deeds of the intelligent creature lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment. The latter is deserved, the former not” (p. 111). He spends far more time, however, on an exposition of the covenant of grace which ended up being his most significant contribution to the development of covenant theology.

That the covenant of grace is one and the same from the beginning (Genesis 3:15) is a basic presupposition that guides Ames’ thinking. He notes, however, that the application and administration has differed in each particular administration. There is a progression from the imperfect to the perfect, which means, for him, that the “manner of administration of the covenant is twofold: One points to the Christ who will appear (imperfect) and the other to the Christ who has appeared (perfect)” (p. 202). In the history of salvation, he divides up the covenant of grace into periods from Adam to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, and Moses to Christ.

These divisions, identical to Owen’s in Theologoumena, represent a biblico-theological approach to the unfolding nature of God’s redemptive purposes. But, even in this approach Ames is concerned to speak about Christian doctrines, common to systematic theology, like election, justification, sanctification and glorification. In each redemptive period there are, however, different applications of the aforementioned doctrines.

In the period from Adam to Abraham, Ames notes the following doctrines in relation to the covenant of grace:

“From Adam to Abraham it should be noted, first, that redemption by Christ and the application of Christ was promised in general. It was to be carried out by the seed of the woman in order to banish the works of the devil, or sin and death. Gen 3.15; Rom. 16:20 …

Second, calling was evident in the distinction between the seed of the woman and the seed of the devil, and between the sons of God and the sons of men, Gen. 6:2.

Third, the way of justification was set forth by expiatory sacrifices offered and accepted for sins.

Fourth, adoption was indicated both by the title of sons, common to all the faithful at that time, and by the translation of Enoch into the heavenly inheritance.

Fifth, sanctification was expressly taught by the prophets and foreshadowed by typical oblations and rites of sacrifice, Jude 14; Rom. 12:1.

Sixth, glorification was publicly sealed by the example of Enoch and the saving of Noah and his family from the flood. 1 Peter 3:20, 21” (p. 203).

We can only fully appreciate the nuances of Ames’ approach to the covenant when we compare the period from Adam to Abraham with the period from Moses to Christ. For example, Ames speaks of doctrines like justification and sanctification, but with a different application of each doctrine because of history of revelation had progressed further.

“From the time of Moses to Christ, these same things were further adumbrated by extraordinary and ordinary means.Redemption and its application were extraordinary. They were signified, first, in the deliverance from Egypt through the ministry of Moses, who was a type of Christ, Matt. 2:15, and by the entrance into the land of Canaan through the ministry of Joshua, another type of Christ. Second, in the brass serpent, by looking at which men who were about to die were restored to health, John 3:14; 12:32. …. (p. 204).

In the ordinary sense Christ and redemption were foreshadowed by the high priest, the altars, and sacrifices for sins.

Justification was shown in many sacrifices and ablutions and in the sacrament of the Passover.

Adoption was shown in the dedication of the firstborn to God.

Sanctification was set forth in all the offerings and gifts as well as in the observances which had anything to do with cleanliness.

Glorification was shown in the inheritance of the promised land and the communion which they had with God in the holy of holies” (p. 205).

Ames next speaks of the administration of the covenant from the coming of Christ to the end of the world. Christ’s coming ushered in a new administration that would continue until the end of the world, hence the New Testament (pp. 205-6). The New Testament differs from the former administration in quality and quantity. For example, its difference in quality is in clarity and freedom.

“Clarity occurs, first in the more distinct expression than heretofore of the doctrine of grace

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and salvation through Christ and through faith in him (together with other kindred points of the doctrine). Second, it is expressed not in types and shadows, but in a most manifest fashion (p. 206).

Freedom comes, first, in doing away with government by law, or the intermixture of the covenant of works, which held the ancient people in a certain bondage. The spirit of adoption, though never wholly denied to believers, is also most properly said to be communicated under the New Testament, in which the perfect state for believers most clearly shines forth …. Second, the yoke of ceremonial law is taken away in that it was a mortgage bond held against sinners, forbade the use of some things in the nature indifferent, commanded many burdensome observances of other things of the same nature, and veiled the truth itself with many carnal ceremonies” (p. 206).

Ames further elaborates the difference between the Old and New Testaments by speaking of how the new differs from the former intensively and extensively (207). It differs intensively in terms of the application of the Spirit; the new administration produces a more spiritual life (2 Corinthians 3:18). The administration differs extensively insofar as the Gentiles are now heirs of the promises that were once confined to Israel.

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6 Responses to “Ames’ Federal Theology”

  1. Rich Barcellos
    September 25, 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    Great stuff! Do you think there is a seed-form of the progressive abrogation of the covenant of works in Ames? This has been suggested and that Cocceius further developed Ames on this point.

  2. Mark Jones
    September 25, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

    I don’t know; that’s an interesting idea. Who suggested it? Cocceius’ progressive abrogations was both redemptive-historical and existential. I assume you are talking about the redemptive-historical aspect?

  3. Rich Barcellos
    September 25, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    I found it in Jan van Vliet, “Decretal Theology and the Development of Covenant Thought: An Assessment of Cornelis Graafland’s Thesis with a Particular View to Federal Architects William Ames and Johannes Cocceius,” WTJ 63 (2001): 416.

    Ames held to what van Vliet calls “a form of [the progressive] abrogation of the covenant of works” (van Vliet, “Decretal Theology and the Development of Covenant Thought,” 418). Cocceius was Ames’ student. It is an interesting proposal.

  4. Mark Jones
    September 25, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Indeed. If I was going to my Presbytery next week I could have asked van Vliet about it, but, alas, I will be overseas. Thanks for putting me on to that.

  5. Rich Barcellos
    September 25, 2009 at 7:02 pm #

    Ames said, “9. Freedom comes, first, in doing away with government by law, or the intermixture of the covenant of works, which held the ancient people in a certain bondage” (Ames, The Marrow of Theology, 206 (XXXVIII:9)). This seems to illustrate a form of the abrogation of the CW.

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