Having considered God in his essence and attributes then his unity of essence in the diversity of three persons, we will know give attention to his decrees (eternal purposes) according to the Puritans. In the next post, we will then discuss how those decrees are carried out in creation and providence. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (SC) gives us a good starting point: “God’s decrees are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (e.g. Acts 2:23; Eph 1:11-12). 
First, God, according to his all-knowing and perfectly wise will, unchangeably decreed or purposed from eternity all things that would come to passAs William Ames attests, the decree of God denotes “his determinate purpose of effecting all things by his almighty Power.” God plans according to his “Counsel” or “deliberation concerning the doing of every thing in the best manner” according to “perfect judgment” (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity). Accordingly, notes Ames, God’s “constancy” denotes the fact that his decrees remain “always immutable,” as the “Counsel of the Lord, it shall stand” (Prov. 19:21) without fail.
Second, the decree of God does not nullify the liberty or contingency of second causes. While God’s purposes come to pass necessarily (according to his ordained power), he could have decreed otherwise (according to his absolute power). Thus, he freely purposed everything and not by utter necessity. Likewise, God’s decrees do not annul “liberty or contingency of second causes” (WCF 3.1, see also 5.2) in which humans act freely (without “violence” to their wills, WCF 3.1) and contingently (they could have chosen otherwise) and without God being the “author of sin” (WCF 3.1). Thus, argues Ames, God “did so dispose all things,” as Pharoah hardening his heart, yet he as a man “did work freely in these things.” So, the Puritans maintained that divine sovereignty (by God’s will hidden from mankind) was compatible with human freedom and responsibility (by God’s will revealed to mankind). Thus, Christ’s death by the “determinate counsel” of God occurred at the same time by the “wicked hands” of men (Acts 2:23). Such thinking was by no means novel and extended back through many of the Reformers (e.g. Ursinus, Calvin, Luther), medieval theologians (e.g. Aquinas), and patristics (e.g. Augustine). 
Third, the decree of God extends to salvation as he predestines those who believe on Christ. The general consensus among the Puritans was that some humans and angels being “predestined unto everlasting life,” with the rest “foreordained to everlasting death” (WCF 3.3, e.g. Rom. 9:22-23). This latter concept of reprobation was sometimes stated (as William Perkins did following Calvin) in the manner of a straightforward double decree in which God elects some to salvation and the rest to damnation while others focused on the single decree of election (as John Arrowsmith did following Augustine) to salvation while leaving the rest to be damned for their sin. This passing over does not deny “foreordination” to judgment (see WCF 3.3) but clearly seeks to place hold sinners responsible for their judgment. In line with such reasoning, WCF 3.7 makes clear that God was “pleased . . . to pass by” and “ordain . . .to wrath” the non-elect “for their sin.” In the end, God still sovereignly chooses to pass by the reprobate yet with an emphasis on human responsibility. Wrapped up in this discussion was the matter of how God’s decrees unfolded in relation to fallen man. Did God elect men to salvation logically before the decree for the fall as in supralapsarianism (“above the fall”) or after it as in infralapsarianism (“below the fall”)? The Puritans varied between supralapsarian (e.g. Perkins) and infralapsarian (e.g. John Owen) though the WCF favors the latter.
Fourth, God’s decree makes no allowance for the concept of middle knowledge or a foreknowledge view of election. The Puritans and Reformation and medieval theologians before them, made a distinction between God’s natural/necessary and free/voluntary knowledge. The former (in line with what we discussed about God’s absolute power) was completely internal and concerned the essential knowledge of all things that could possibly be (not just actually would be). The latter (in line with his ordained power) concerned that which God freely decreed and would actually come to pass. In this regard, what God knows will take place he has decreed to occur. 
During the time of the Reformation, the Jesuit Luis de Molina (1529-1599), proposed the concept of “middle knowledge” (scientia media), between natural and free knowledge, in the attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human freedom. In middle knowledge, God possesses the awareness of all possible outcomes connected to what man would freely choose (supposedly without such choices decreed) in all possible sets of  circumstances. Based on what someone freely chooses in a given set of circumstances, God purposes to bring such to pass. The problem with this, of course, is that it attributes to humans an absolute sort of freedom in which they make choices independent of God. Instead, if he had certain knowledge of what comes to pass based on certain conditions, then he must have decreed it and the circumstances to bring it about, which in no way takes away from the free choice of man whose liberty was ordained by God. 
Where the concept of middle knowledge created the greatest controversy came in connection with the soteriology of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) who popularized a foreknowledge view of election based on middle knowledge. In other words, based on “foreseen faith” of an individual freely and independently expressed, God elected him or her to salvation. This view as maintained by Arminius’s followers (the Remonstrants) was soundly condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) where William Ames was present as an English representative. He testified that if the decree of predestination is based upon the idea of “foreseen faith,” the very “Idea of God” depends on something outside of himself (Marrow of Sacred Divinty).  So, argues Thomas Watson, “If God's decree be eternal and unchangeable, then God does not elect upon our faith foreseen, as the Arminians maintain.” Instead, “As many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.' Acts 13:48. They were not elected because they believed, but they believed because they were elected” (A Body of Divinity).

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is
  7. Trinity
One of the great fictional adventure stories of all-time is one of the oldest: The Odyssey by Homer. In this book, the main character, Odysseus, along with his crew, are sailing home. During their long journey, they are forced to sail through a narrow strait between two rock peaks.
There were two mortal dangers on either side of the strait. They were called Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a six-headed monster and if they got too close to her then she would swoop down and snatch six men for her dinner. Charybdis was a whirlpool and if they got too close to it then the whole ship would get sucked in and be completely destroyed.
Unfortunately, there was no middle ground. You couldn’t steer between them. If you steered out of range from Charybdis then Scylla would get you. And if you avoided Scylla then Charybdis would get you. You had to pick your poison. Odysseus was advised to steer close to Scylla and row as fast as they could. Losing six men is better than losing the whole crew. That is what Odysseus did. But they paid the price. Scylla snatched up the six strongest men on the ship.
When it comes to the imitation of Christ we need to be careful to avoid two mortal errors. On the one hand we must not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus merely came to set an example for us to follow. And on the other hand, we must not believe that we don’t have to follow his example. These two errors are sometimes referred to as theological liberalism or moralism and antinomianism. Unfortunately, some people think that these are the only two options available. There is no way to navigate between them. Like Odysseus in The Odyssey, you have to steer towards one or the other. Indeed, some have steered to one simply to avoid the other. A hatred for liberalism and moralism has led some to be sucked up by the whirlpool of antinomianism. But there is a third way. We can and we must navigate our way between these two errors as did the puritan Nathanael Vincent did in his sermon entitled, "How Christ is to be Followed as our Example" (Puritan Sermons, 4:437-451).
The church I serve, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was born out of a necessary conflict with theological liberalism, which has plagued the church in one form or another for centuries. One of its key tenets is that Jesus is merely an example for us. Jesus didn’t atone for our sins on the cross so that believers might be forgiven. Rather, Jesus died to show us the way to live, that is, how to love God and one another. If we imitate Jesus then we will be able to create or recreate heaven on earth. We redeem ourselves and the world by loving one another just as Jesus loved us.
Although proponents of this view speak passionately about Jesus and love, they do not proclaim the Gospel. This view is not Christian in the least. It is a damning heresy. Vincent wrote:
To say that this [Christ suffered to leave us an example] was the principal end of his passion, to deny his satisfaction as if it were impossible or needless, is heretical in a very high degree. To deny the blood of Christ to be the price of our redemption, is to ‘deny the Lord that bought us.’ And truly, the only propitiatory sacrifice for sin being rejected, there is no other remaining, ‘but a certain fearful looking-for of judgment and of fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries’ (Heb. x. 27).”
Jesus is not just our example, or even primarily our example. He is, as Vincent put it, our example and our Redeemer. Or as J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1923, Jesus is not only the example of our faith, he is the object of our faith. In fact, if Jesus isn’t our redeemer then he isn’t a worthy example, because, as Machen pointed out, Jesus claimed to be far more. Since Jesus claimed to be our redeemer, then if he isn’t, he is a liar, or an ignorant and arrogant man, or something worse. He would not be the kind of man that you would want to follow.
Furthermore, we couldn’t imitate Jesus if he weren’t our redeemer. Showing us what we need to do and how we are to do it, isn’t going to help us because our fundamental problem isn’t ignorance. Our root problems are sin, sinfulness, death and the devil. If Jesus doesn’t save us from those things, then we won’t be able to love one another as Jesus has loved us. All the education and examples in the world can’t rescue the condemned sinner enslaved to sin who lies under the power of the evil one.
Thus, with respect to the imitation of Christ, we need to avoid the Scylla of theological liberalism or moralism. We also have to avoid the Charybdis of antinomianism, which we hope to consider in the next article.

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661). Read part one here

Rutherford's Conversion

Rutherford received the M.A. degree in 1621 from Edinburgh and, two years later, was appointed Regent of Humanity for the university. He was chosen for this position over three other candidates—who far exceeded him in years—because of his "eminent abilities of mind, and vertuous [sic] disposition." Shortly after being named Regent in 1623, however, Rutherford was embroiled in two controversies that called this virtuous disposition into question and resulted in his being removed from the university. The more serious of the two controversies is recorded in the city records of Edinburgh for February 3, 1626. There we are told by the Principal of the university John Adamson that Rutherford had committed a great scandal by falling in fornication with his eventual wife Eupham Hamilton. Unfortunately, this account does not completely square with the university's record, which states that Rutherford resigned on account of an "irregular marriage."

Because the details lying behind this charge are nowhere given, a great debate has ensued over the years as to what exactly happened. Those who dismiss Adamson's charge against Rutherford do so largely on the basis of the difficulty they have in believing that Rutherford could commit fornication one year and then be appointed minister in Anwoth the next. While this is a legitimate point that ought not to be treated cavalierly, it, nevertheless, seems best to conclude that Adamson's charge was in fact correct. For one thing, the committee that was formed to investigate the charge against Rutherford and to appoint a replacement for him in the event that the charge was substantiated, did in fact appoint a replacement, which suggests that they did in fact find that the charge was substantiated.

Before moving on, it may be helpful to pause for a moment and to consider what lessons there might be for us to learn from Rutherford's sin of fornication. There is, in the first place, a stark warning here to those who are ministers of the Gospel or who are candidates for the ministry. The allurement of sexual immorality has ensnared far too many men and done untold harm (from a human perspective) to the cause of Christ. We need to be on guard against this in our own lives. In the second place, there is a warning here to those who might think they are above this sin and that something like this could never happen to them. Although it is true that Rutherford was probably not converted at the time he fell—as we will soon see—he was nevertheless described as being of a "vertuous disposition." The example of Rutherford and many other at least outwardly godly men should be enough to alarm us and to teach us that none of us, no matter how virtuous, are above the reaches of this (or any other) sin.

This was clearly a profoundly difficult time in Rutherford's life, one in which he was confronted like never before with the corruption of his own heart. As a result, Rutherford appears to have experienced Christian conversion. On this there is little disagreement among his biographers; even some of those who deny the charges of fornication still trace his conversion to this point in time. If they are right that this event did precipitate Rutherford's conversion, then it would help to explain why he might have been shown leniency and been appointed as minister in Anwoth only a little over a year after committing what certainly would have been a serious sin in the eyes of the church.

One of the most convincing reasons for tracing Rutherford's conversion to the time of the fornication scandal is that this event sets the paradigm for the remainder of Rutherford's Christian life. From this point on, Rutherford's Christianity becomes deeply experiential, which one would expect to find following conversion, especially a conversion brought on by a public humiliation such as Rutherford endured. Beginning at this decisive moment and continuing throughout the remainder of his days, Rutherford's life becomes marked by a profound sensitivity to the sinfulness of his own sin. And this, in turn, ensured that his life would also be marked by a profound gratitude and an overwhelming appreciation for what Christ accomplished on the cross on his behalf. These two aspects of Rutherford's life—a profound awareness of his sin and a profound gratitude for Christ's finished work on the cross—will uniquely qualify and equip him to speak so powerfully to the souls of others.

Rutherford's Ministry in Anwoth

Sometime in mid-1627, Rutherford was called to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in Galloway, in the southwest of Scotland. The church building—the stone ruins of which still stand—is reported to measure 18' wide by 60' long. And, as those who have seen it will testify, it seems much smaller than that in actual fact. (Many churches today have Sunday School rooms that are bigger!) But as insignificant as Anwoth was in terms of its population, it had a geographical and a political importance that far outpaced its size. Anwoth was located on the highway between England and Ireland, and it was the parish of the Viscount Kenmure. Kenmure's wife, Jane Campbell—one of Rutherford's closest friends and correspondents—was the sister of Lord Lorne (Archibald Campbell), who was later to become the Marquis of Argyle and the most powerful nobleman in all Scotland.

However, when Rutherford accepted the call to come to Anwoth in 1627, these political factors remained quite unknown to him. We see something of Rutherford's humility and his lack of earthly ambition in the fact that he accepted the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in the first place and, in the second place, that he did so at a stipend that was significantly less than the average for his day (n.b., Rutherford's stipend was approximately 40% of the going rate for the day!). Perhaps because of his public scandal with his eventual wife, Rutherford felt unworthy of a larger parish with a larger stipend. Whatever the case may be, he still exhibited a selflessness and humility that is rarely seen today in the church. Some ministers tend to look for the most significant calls they can with the largest salary packages they can get. Rutherford's humble and unassuming approach was an altogether different thing.

More interestingly, Rutherford not only chose to accept the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth for an extremely low stipend, but he also chose not to leave once he got there. The General Assembly actually had to force him to leave in 1639, in order that the church might make better use of his talents and gifts as a professor of divinity at St. Andrews University. Rutherford did not play on his newly acquired political connections in Anwoth to seek wider fields of influence for himself or to magnify his own name. Nor did he seek to move on to greener pastures. He preferred to stay where God had placed him. Of course, one possible explanation for Rutherford's not wanting to leave Anwoth is that he did not want to be taken away from the political connections that he had so recently established there and that he wanted to capitalize on them for the propagation of the cause of Christ in Scotland. But, even if that is true, it does not change the fact that Rutherford's overriding motivations were not selfish but wholly selfless. In a way that is contrary to much contemporary thought, Rutherford placed a far lower value on himself and his own ministry than did the church at large.

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part three!

As we've seen in our ongoing study of "The 39," when the articles discuss essential doctrine, they begin with the general principles of the doctrine before continuing to a more specific examination. Article 25 set out the general principles on the nature of a sacrament. Now article 26 answers the question of the relationship between the work of God and the minister of God making some important distinctions that are applicable today. 
XXVI—Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which Hinders not the Effect of the Sacrament

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.
Article 26 remains virtually unaltered from Cranmer’s 1553 original. Archbishop Parker’s 1563 and the final 1571 promulgation made only slight changes for clarity. We can find a parallel in Article 8 of the Augsburg Confession:
Although the church is, properly speaking the assembly of the saints and those who truly believe, nevertheless, because in his life many hypocrites and evil people are mixed in with them, a person may use the sacraments even when they are administered by evil people. This accords with the saying of Christ [Matt. 23:2]: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…”. Both the sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of the ordinance and the command of Christ, even when offered by evil people.
The question of the relationship between the work of God and the minister of God has come up from time to time in the history of the church. Simply stated, is the effectiveness of the communion with God in the sacrament in any way hindered, prevented, or dependent upon the morality of the one who administered them? Early church Donatists, some late medieval Catholic reform movements, and Reformation Anabaptists said, “Yes.” Article 26 replies instead with a qualified “no.” Although the efficacy of God’s grace is in no way hindered by the fitness of his ministers, Christ as the head has established a proper order to his church. Wicked ministers may be ejected after a biblically faithful due process of godly discipline. This concern for discipline in the last part of article 26 again highlights the importance of sola Scriptura that grounds all Thirty-Nine Articles. Specifically, here it is the commands that are found in the Apostle Paul’s letters about breaking fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and in his letters to Timothy and Titus. In the same way, we have seen the articles applied in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer, its Ordinal repeats the command that priests (presbyters) are to be “ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word." And the Collect or special prayer for setting apart a presbyter to episcopal office refers specifically to his responsibility to administer a godly discipline.
John White, a parliamentary member of the Westminster Assembly publicly cataloged the failings of a hundred ministers who were deposed from their cures by the proper due process of the church from the area of greater London [VanDixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors 4-5]. The tawdry list began with a minister accused of buggery and attempted bestiality, accounts of drunken ministers and "popishly affected” pastors (the two most common complaints) as well as accounts of clergy who were womanizers, rapists, thieves, gamblers. There are accounts of battery, sexual assault, verbal abuse in the home, bribery, neglect of the pulpit, flirting from the pulpit, misogynist jokes from the pulpit, making a business out of burials, begging for money during Communion, throwing Communion elements to the ground, name-calling from the pulpit, public cursing, even excommunicating a handicapped man who could not kneel at Communion. White's pamphlet focused on ministers near London, but of course, wickedness does not end with the capital but was scattered across the realm. Such wickedness also does not end with the Reformation, but continues to the present day, as the sad catalog of pastor's failings makes the regular news. 
We must also be clear in what the article does not say. Article 26 is the one article quoted by liberal Anglicans who usually dismiss the articles as an artifact from a more unenlightened age from which we have evolved. They argue that the unworthy minister does not hinder the effect of any Sacrament they administer. Therefore a congregation should accept any minister carte blanche that is lawfully called by the church. Such a conclusion is a gross distortion of what the articles have already taught on the nature of the church: the regulative nature of sola Scriptura that make such position untenable.
The article addresses the error of misguided zeal for the purity of the church. It is about a legalism that leads to a breaking of fellowship with faithful Christians. The error creates divisions between Christians. At the dawn of the Reformation, many reform movements had focused on the immorality of many Roman priests. The Augsburg Confession specifically mentions the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe teaching that Christians should only be baptized or receive the sacrament from a godly minister. Cranmer, therefore, understood from recent English church history that this error is likely to arise when the church does not take seriously its responsibility to exercise discipline on what he terms here “Evil Ministers.” Cranmer wrote the last sentence which underlines how a lapse of biblical fidelity will eventually lead to a lapse in private and public morality. 
This is exactly the issue that most faithful Anglican ministers have faced in making their decision to separate from The Episcopal Church and seek alternative episcopal oversight in the Anglican Church of North America and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Once the gospel cannot be defended within the assemblies of the church, that church has lost the key marks of the word and discipline (Articles XIX and XXVI). It is not a church any longer. It is thus no sin to separate from such a body. If the responsibility which the Ordinal expects of presbyters and bishops is not discharged, then one will have no option but to express the break in fellowship in appropriate ways. The St. Matthias Day Statement of the Church of England Evangelical Council put it this way:
5 - God’s people united in and by God’s word
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
The visible church of Christ is a congregation of believers in which the pure Word of God is preached and in which the sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ's command in all those matters that are necessary for proper administration… (Article XIX)
5a. The visible Church of Christ is a place where the life-giving and life-changing word of God is faithfully proclaimed.
5b. Redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships or affirming or blessing sexual activity outside marriage is contrary to God’s word.
5c. When a church does either of these things it therefore becomes difficult to recognise it as part of the visible Church of Christ. Consequently, such matters fall outside the scope of acceptable ecumenical diversity and are a legitimate ground for division between churches.

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
  3. The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
  4. The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
  5. The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
  6. The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
  7. The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
  8. The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
  9. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
  10. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
  11. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
  12. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
  13. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
  14. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
  15. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)
  16. Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
  17. Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
  18. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
  19. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)
  20. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 3 (Art. 21)
  21. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 4 (Art. 22)
  22. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 5 (Art. 23)
  23. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 6 (Art. 24)
  24. The Sacraments: Part 1 (Art. 25)


Matthew Levering, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical. Grand Rapids, MI, 2017. 231pp. Paperback. $16.99.
We allegedly live in an age of tolerance. Yet tolerance often takes on distorted meanings. Contrary to popular misconceptions, tolerance does not mean that all viewpoints and practices are equal and worthy of acceptance. Tolerance, instead, involves disagreeing with others while being willing to put up with them and their views in spite of the persistence of real disagreement. While we should be thankful that the days of the inquisition and burning heretics at the stake are past, we must not run to opposite extremes by concluding that theological and practical differences must not really matter much.
In this volume, Matthew Levering seeks to show implicitly why Protestants and Roman Catholics should tolerate one another’s viewpoints and even why Roman Catholic theology is a viable option for Protestants in light of the teaching of Scripture. Rather than turning the Protestants’ sword against them, part of his hope is that both sides might eventually put down their swords and shake hands. While his tone and way of proceeding is admirable and worthy of imitation, the fundamental difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic teachings remains the authority and use of Scripture in theology. While Protestants and Roman Catholics should learn from Levering to tolerate one another, this reviewer believes that this difference over the foundation of theology remains an insurmountable obstacle to unity.
The aim of this book is fairly modest. The author seeks to show only that Roman Catholic theology is not “unbiblical.” This goal fits post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, since Catholic theologians often admit openly that while many church traditions are not taught in the Bible they do not contradict the Bible as foundational revelation. Treating Roman Catholic doctrine in this way allows authors, such as Levering, to seek agreement with Protestants over the teaching of the Bible in general without abandoning Roman Catholic convictions. The question remains whether or not doing so is possible when many Roman Catholic doctrines not only go beyond Scripture but, from a Protestant vantage point, contradict it. Levering addresses nine disputed doctrines (Scripture, May, the Eucharist, the Seven Sacraments, Monasticism, Justification and Merit, Purgatory, Saints, and the Papacy), beginning with Luther’s protests to each and followed by arguments from Scripture to the end that Roman Catholic teaching fits general patterns of biblical reasoning. He engages in mature biblical theology that will likely appeal at many points both to Protestants and to Roman Catholics. However, he does not adequately address the core differences between these groups in relation to the function of Scripture in theology. The book concludes with a “mere Protestant” response by Kevin Vanhoozer that more or less argues to this effect.
Levering’s chapter on Mary illustrates the difference over core principles clearly. Most Protestant readers will likely find his treatment of Mary to be the most jarring of his chapters. Vanhoozer apparently agrees, since he singles out this example in his response (208-212). Following standard Roman Catholic exegesis, Levering argues that Mary is the “woman” in Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12 (70-71), that she shared uniquely in her Son’s suffering and in his exaltation (71), that her womb is the true ark of the covenant (72), and that as Christ is the new Adam so Mary is the “new Eve” (73). Though his exegesis related to each of these themes is plausible on a surface reading of biblical texts, it is difficult to see how Scripture itself requires such conclusions. This illustrates what is at stake in the age-old divide between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The former seeks to establish its teaching on the authority of Scripture alone with the ministerial aid of the church in doing so. The latter establishes its teaching through the magisterial interpretations and ecclesiastical traditions in a way that tries to build upon and harmonize with the teachings of Scripture. In this way, Levering’s treatment of Mary in particular, and of other doctrines in general, exemplifies the root issue that continues to divide both groups.
In the seventeenth-century, William Perkins wrote Catholicus Reformatus. In the first line of the book, he wrote that Protestants and Roman Catholics believed the same articles of faith. However, Protestants must reject those errors and additions that Roman Catholics added to these articles of faith. His point was that the Reformed were the true Catholics because their catholicity consisted in retaining biblical doctrine. In his view, Roman Catholics were the true schismatics because they added to the teaching of Scripture. In this reviewer’s opinion, such ideas can help readers evaluate, Was the Reformation a Mistake? While the irenic tone of Levering’s work is most welcome and Protestants should respond in kind, the principle of authority that underlies his theological method and his view of how God speaks to his church is still a fundamental dividing line that permeates every area of theology. In this light, Vanhoozer’s assertion that there are few if any impediments to unity on the Protestant side (231) misses the proverbial elephant in the room to some extent. Protestants have asked (and should continue to ask) whether the Bible requires a doctrine or practice. Roman Catholics have asked (and continue to ask) how the traditions of the church interpret the Scriptures and harmonize with them even where they add to their teachings. The one side asks what the Bible teaches while the other asks what the Bible could allow for. In this respect, it is a greater danger and tragedy than many Protestants today realize when people in our churches increasingly justify aspects of church life, worship, and government by saying that Scripture does not forbid them.
We should not continue to press issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics simply because we have always done things this way, or because we are we want to avoid the stigma of talking with “the enemy.” Yet the issues dividing Roman Catholics and Protestants continue to be substantial and fundamental. We must tolerate one another and we should delight in and imitate Levering’s (and Vanhoozer’s) gentle and kind spirit. However, we must, like Perkins, seek to be Reformed Catholics, not by uniting ourselves with the tradition of a particular church whose teachings may or may not be compatible with Scripture, but by uniting around the catholic doctrine taught by the apostles and prophets in the true Catholic Church, of which Jesus Christ himself is the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20).

If you have heard the name of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) at all, you have probably heard it in connection with the Westminster Assembly or one of his two best known works, the Letters of Samuel Rutherford or Lex, Rex. You may know that Rutherford is arguably the most important of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly; that he stayed in London longer than any of his Scots brethren (from November 20, 1643, to November 9, 1647); that he was the only commissioner specifically commended by the Assembly for his faithful attendance and assistance in its debates; and that very few of the delegates or commissioners spoke on the floor of the Assembly as frequently or as forcefully as Rutherford did. 

Letters has been in print ever since its original publication in 1664, passing through some 100 editions and translated into at least four languages. Letters has been treasured by Christians the world over and across time for the manifest fragrance of heaven that lingers on its pages. Meanwhile, Lex, Rex (originally published in 1644) not only fueled the Covenanters' armed resistance to King Charles I, but was also influential in justifying the French and American revolutions that would follow in the next century. Many historians regard it as one of the most important contributions to political science in any age, and it is still read and discussed in university classrooms today.

You may know all this already—but what you may not know is that Samuel Rutherford is a towering figure in Scottish theology, that he stands head and shoulders above others of his contemporaries as a theologian, a preacher, and a pastor, and that the magnitude of his literary achievements alone puts him in a category by himself. You may not know that Rutherford published 13 major theological treatises in his lifetime, amounting to just over 7,000 pages of text, not to mention all of his sermons, letters, an in-depth catechism (totaling 562 questions and answers--over five times the number in the Westminster Shorter Catechism), and a variety of political writings, all of which add nearly 3,000 pages to the total. (Just to give you a frame of reference, John Owen's sixteen volumes, including the prefaces to the treatises, totals 9,200 pages). You may not know that when we add to the Rutherford corpus a commentary on Isaiah, which has tragically been lost, and several unpublished manuscripts and sermons, we have a literary output that clearly rivals that of John Owen.

Despite all this, Rutherford has received and continues to receive very little attention, especially when compared to other English Puritans like Owen. In this series, I hope to change that trend by introducing you to Samuel Rutherford and by pointing you to several practical lessons that we in the 21st century might be able to learn from him. My hope is not only to inform you about this towering figure in post-Reformation history, but also to motivate you to take up and read him for yourself. Much more could be said, to be sure, but I trust that what I have selected will help shed some light on a handful of issues that we are facing today.

Rutherford's Early Life and Education

Samuel Rutherford was born in 1600—the same year as King Charles I and Edmund Calamy, both of whom would later become outspoken critics of Rutherford's jus divinum (i.e., divine right) brand of Presbyterianism. He was born in the town of Nisbet in the parish of Crailing, approximately four miles from Jedburgh, in what is called the Borders region of Scotland. Not much is known about his early life or education. Robert MacWard, who was probably Rutherford's closest disciple and the author of the first biographical account of his life, states that he was "a Gentleman by extraction." Some 20th-century scholars, however, claim that his father was a farmer or a miller. Prima facie, one would think that MacWard's account would be the closest to the truth, seeing as how he had the benefit of knowing Rutherford personally and, therefore, should have known the story of his early life more accurately than would be possible for later researchers to discern. Whatever the case may be in regard to Rutherford's family, it is apparent that they at least were of sufficient means to allow Rutherford and his brother to receive the best education possible at the time. 

Rutherford's early education was most likely at the grammar school in the Jedburgh abbey, where the curriculum would certainly have been based upon the medieval trivium (i.e. grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric). Whatever else he gained from his time in Jedburgh, Rutherford clearly gained a thorough grounding in Latin. This was vital in the seventeenth century, as university lectures at that time were given entirely in Latin (the lingua franca of that day). Not only did students have to pass a rigorous Latin entrance examination just to get in to university, but they also were required to speak only Latin among themselves the entire time they were there.

After passing his Latin entrance exam, Rutherford began his course of study at the University of Edinburgh in November 1617. The years ahead looked promising for young Rutherford, and they would be—though not necessarily in the way he would have expected. 

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part two!


Qualifications for Admission to the Lord’s Supper

Given the awesome potential of communion with Christ within the Supper, the Puritans took the matter of right participation seriously. The awakened conscience cannot consider partaking of such a sacred meal without asking, “What does God require of me?” Participation in the sacraments was not optional, though Perkins said sacraments were not “absolutely necessary” for salvation, but were only “a prop or stay for faith to lean on.” Those unable to participate because of an untimely death or geographic isolation were not condemned. Nevertheless, “contempt” for a sacrament by willful and unrepentant neglect did bring God’s condemnation upon the offender.[1] God’s people were urged to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and were not to avoid the question of how to  “communicate worthily.”[2]

Puritan writers paid close attention to the qualifications for admission to the Lord’s Supper. Most Puritans followed Calvin’s teaching that “if the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears.”[3] Charnock wrote, “It is a sad thing to be Christians at a supper, heathens in our shops, and devils in our closets.”[4] Jonathan Edwards viewed the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament reserved for believers, celebrating the unity that they have in Christ. He wrote in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:17, “The Lord’s Supper was instituted as a solemn representation and seal of the holy and spiritual union Christ’s people have with ... one another.”[5]

Other Puritans, notably Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729) and William Prynne (1600–1669), did view the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance.”[6] This minority said the sacrament was also intended for unbelievers who had a basic knowledge of Christian beliefs as a means of their eventual conversion by “evoking their internal assent to the Gospel.”[7] This minority view was refuted by George Gillespie (1613–1648) and Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661). Holifield summarizes,

Neither Rutherford nor Gillespie intended to rob the sacrament of efficacy. The Lord’s Supper was still “the nourishment of those in whom Christ liveth,” increasing “the conversion which was before” by adding “a new degree of faith.” Like Calvin, they linked sacramental efficacy with the doctrine of sanctification, which described the Christian’s growth in faith and holiness. Moreover, the sacrament sealed God’s promises to the elect. Since the seal applied to the worthy communicant “in particular, the very promise that in general is made to him,” he could leave the table with assurance of God’s mercy.[8]

            The emphasis on conversion as a qualification for communicants implied that young children should not participate in the Lord’s Supper.[9] The Westminster Larger Catechism fenced the Table against the “ignorant” (Q. 173), saying that one difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is that baptism should be administered “even to infants,” but the Lord’s Supper is to be administered “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves” (Q. 177).

Perkins said that to be qualified to receive the Supper, one must have a knowledge of God, the fall of man, and the promise of salvation by Christ, plus true faith in Christ and repentance from sin, with faith and repentance being renewed daily. If a person with these qualifications hesitates at the Table because he feels he has “a corrupt and rebellious heart,” Perkins said, “thou art well disposed to the Lord’s Table, when thou art lively touched with a sense of thy crooked disposition.” Medicine is for the diseased.[10] That does not say that believers may come unrepentant over known sins, for “the Corinthians had both faith and repentance; yet because they failed in this point, of the renovation of their faith and repentance, they are said many of them to be unworthy receivers, and to eat judgment to themselves.”[11]

The Puritans did not require a believer to have full assurance to partake of the Supper. Assurance was desirable but not necessary.[12] Edward Taylor (c. 1642–1729) wrote, “It [assurance] is not that which anyone is to wait for in order to his coming to the Lord’s Supper.”[13] “It’s not the faith of assurance that is necessary to this ordinance,” Taylor said, “but of affiance and trust.”[14] Neither was moral perfection required. Edwards wrote: “Your sins need to be no hindrance. Christ procured those benefits for such. He gave Himself for such.”[15] Doolittle went further, saying a person may come to the Lord’s Table “if a man cannot say he loves God, and cannot say he has faith, but yet finds he hungers and thirsts for Christ.”[16] Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) summarized this thinking in stating, “A weak faith can lay hold on a strong Christ. A palsied hand may tie the knot in marriage.”[17] Henry made this practical appeal: “If thou doubt, therefore, whether Christ be thine, put the matter out of doubt by a present consent to him: I take Christ to be mine, wholly, only, and forever mine.”[18]


Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


[1] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72.

[2] Larger Catechism, Q. 170.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.9.

[4] Charnock, “The End of the Lord’s Supper,” in Works, 4:400.

[5] Edwards, Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 70, emphasis added.

[6] William Prynne, Lord’s Supper briefly vindicated, and clearly demonstrated to be a Grace-begetting, Soul-converting (not a meer confirming) Ordinance (London: Edward Thomas, 1657); Solomon Stoddard, An Appeal to the Learned, Being a Vindication of the Right of the Visible Saints to the Lords Supper, Though they be destitute of a Saving Work of God’s Spirit on their Hearts (Boston: B. Green for Samuel Phillips, 1709); Edward Taylor vs. Solomon Stoddard: The Nature of the Lord’s Supper, eds. Thomas M. and Virginia L. Davis (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981).

[7] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 109–110.

[8] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 115. He cites, respectively, Samuel Rutherford, The Divine Right of Church-Government and Excommunication (London: Printed by John Field for Christopher Meredith, 1646), 340, 523; George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 500; and Rutherford, Divine Right, 253.

[9] Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), 22–26.

[10] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:76.

[11] Perkins, “Of Divine or Religious Worship,” in Works, 1:713.

[12] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 56.

[13] Edward Taylor’s Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper (Boston: Twain Publisher, 1988), 121.

[14] Taylor, Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 189.

[15] Edwards, Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 156.

[16] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 137. Cf. Edwards’s sermon “The Lord’s Supper Ought to Be Kept Up and Attended in Remembrance of Christ,” in Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 54–69.

[17] Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 73.

[18] Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 73. Henry writes, “You think you are not serious enough, nor devout enough, nor regular enough, in your conversations, to come to the sacrament; and perhaps you are not: but why are you not? What hinders you? Is any more required to fit you for the sacrament, than is necessary to fit you for heaven?” (ibid., 70).

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
Thomas Watson sang the high praises of contentment in his book The Art of Divine Contentment, recently republished by Soli Deo Gloria Publications. He wrote that he didn’t know of any ornament in religion “that doth more bespangle a Christian, or glitter in the eye of God and man, than this of contentment.”  
Watson defined contentment as “a sweet temper of spirit, whereby a Christian carries himself in an equal poise in every condition.” True contentment is a gift from above and is only found in those who have been born of the Spirit. “It is a fruit that grows not in the garden of philosophy, but is of heavenly birth.”  
Contentment exists and flows from the heart.  It “lies within a man; not in the bark, but the root.” This is why difficult circumstances may not destroy a Christian’s contentment. “A bee may sting through the skin, but it cannot sting to the heart: outward afflictions cannot sting to a Christian’s heart, where contentment lies.” This is also why outward prosperity doesn’t necessarily produce contentment. “A drop or two of vinegar will sour a whole glass of wine.  Let a man have the affluence and confluence of worldly comforts, a drop or two of discontent will embitter and poison all.” 
How do you know if you are content?  Here are four diagnostic questions based upon Watson’s book. 1) Do you silently, willingly receive God’s providential dealings with you or do you complain and grumble?  Watson carefully distinguished between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint. In the former “we complain to God,” and in the latter “we complain of God.” 2) Do you thank God in every situation? Phil. 4:6; 1 Thess. 5:18. 3) Do you rejoice always? Phil. 4:4. 4) Do you ever use sinful means to get out of your troubled situation?
Watson had much to say about learning and pursuing contentment. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart since contentment lies in the heart.  Thus, “the way for a man to be contented, is not by raising his estate higher, but by bringing his heart lower.” And “the way to be comfortable, is not by having our barns filled, but our minds quiet.”
In typical Puritan fashion, Watson provided 18 rules for attaining “holy contentment.” The first is to advance faith and the last is to be much in prayer. In between, he said that we should often compare our condition. Specifically, he said that we should make a five-fold comparison. First, let us compare our condition with what we deserve. “If we have not what we desire, we have more than we deserve.” Second, let us compare our condition with others. When we do so we will see some have it better than us and some have it worse than us. Many of the saints listed in Hebrews 11 had to endure much more than we do today. Third, let us compare our condition with Christ’s upon earth. Fourth, let us compare our condition with what it was once. Fifth, let us compare our condition with what it shall be shortly.  
Watson’s book is very readable and contains a wealth of material on this important subject. He is one of, if not, the most quotable puritan. This book is not only worth reading for the subject matter, but it is also worth reading, especially for teachers and preachers, to learn how to illustrate truth with vivid word pictures. In this regard, I highly recommend Expository Preaching with Word Pictures: With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson by Jack Hughes.

Biblical Simplicity in the Lord’s Supper

If the material principle of the Reformation was justification by faith alone, the formal principle was that Scripture alone is the rule of faith and obedience. The Puritans viewed this truth as nothing less than the enthronement of Christ as King among His people. Willison said a true sacrament must be instituted by Christ “to show that Christ is the sole king and head of the church, who alone hath the power to appoint her ordinances.”[1] The Puritans earnestly applied the principle of sola scriptura to worship. Owen wrote in question-and-answer format:

Q: What doth God require of us in our dependence on him, that he may be glorified in us, and we accepted with him?

A: That we worship him in and by the ways of his own appointment….

Q: How then are these ways and means of the worship of God made known to us?

A: In and by the written word only, which contains a full and perfect revelation of the will of God as to his whole worship and all the concernments of it....

Q: What is principally to be attended unto by us in the manner of the celebration of the worship of God, and observation of the institutions and ordinances of the gospel?

A: That we observe and do all whatsoever the Lord Christ hath commanded us to observe, in the way that he hath prescribed; and that we add nothing unto or in the observation [observance] of them that is of man’s invention or appointment.[2]

The Puritans also applied the principle of sola scriptura to the Lord’s Supper. Perkins wrote, “The right manner of using the Lord’s Supper … is the observing of the institution, without addition, detraction, or change.”[3] For this reason, the Puritans preferred to call the sacrament “the Lord’s Supper” rather than “Holy Communion” or “the Eucharist,” thus rooting it in the words of Scripture (1 Cor. 11:20).[4] For the Puritans, the sacrament revolved around the Word, especially Christ’s words of institution (Matt. 26:26–28, 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Perkins said, “Therefore this word in the administration of the sacrament ought to be pronounced distinctly and aloud, yea, and as occasion serveth, explained also.” He wrote, “All the efficacy and worthiness” of a sacrament depends on Christ’s words of institution.[5] Indeed, the elements of the sacrament are “visible words,”[6] “the signs representing to the eyes what which the word doth to the ears.”[7]

Each action of the Supper has spiritual significance. Perkins said the minister in his sacramental acts represents God: (1) by taking the bread and wine as a sign of the Father electing His Son to the office of Mediator; (2) by blessing it through the words of institution for sacred use as a seal of God sending His Son in the fullness of time to do His work; (3) by breaking the bread and pouring the wine as a seal of the death of Christ for our transgressions; (4) by distributing the bread and wine to the communicants as a seal of God offering Christ to all, but giving Christ only to the faithful to increase their faith and repentance.[8]

According to Perkins, the actions of the person who receives the Supper also symbolize spiritual events: (1) taking the bread and wine into his hands is a seal of apprehending Christ by faith, (2) while eating the bread and drinking the wine is a seal of applying Christ to himself by faith to increase his union and communion with Christ.[9] More than a century later, Willison attributed the same meanings to these sacramental actions of the minister and communicant, showing the continuity of the Puritan tradition.[10]

The simplicity of the form of the Supper was determined by biblical authority. The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645) instructed ministers to celebrate the Supper “frequently” as “most convenient,” especially after the morning sermon and prayers. The Presbyterian form for the Supper included the following parts: (1) a short exhortation on the blessings of the Supper and necessity of faith, repentance, love, and spiritual hunger; (2) a warning that the “ignorant, scandalous, profane, or those that live in any sin or offence” not partake, but that broken-hearted penitents should come; (3) the reading of the words of institution from a Gospel or 1 Corinthians 11:23–27 with explanation and application; (4) a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the redemption of sinners by Christ, and petition for God’s blessing on the ordinance, “that we may receive by faith the body and blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for us, and so to feed upon him, that he may be one with us, and we one with him”; (5) introductory words spoken by the minister to account for the actions performed: institution, command, and example of Christ—“According to the holy institution, command, and example of our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, I take this bread, and, having given thanks, break it and give it unto you…”; (6) breaking the bread and distributing it, and the cup with the words of Christ, “Take ye, eat,” etc.; (7) an exhortation to walk worthy of the grace of Christ held forth in the sacrament; (8) a prayer of thanksgiving; and (9) a collection for the poor.[11] The Puritans concluded the Lord’s Supper service with the singing of a Psalm, following the example of Christ (Matt. 26:30).[12]

Since some aspects of the Supper’s manner of administration are not given in Scripture, Puritan practice varied. The ceremonial details of the Lord’s Supper were hotly debated at the Westminster Assembly; three weeks alone were spent on whether to seat communicants at a table.[13] In general, the English Independents celebrated the Supper every Lord’s Day, the Baptists once a month, and the Presbyterians four times a year. The Baptists at times preferred to celebrate the Supper in the evening, following scriptural examples (Mark 14:17; 1 Cor. 11:23).[14] But Willison, a Presbyterian, argued, “The circumstances of time, place and company, in the first administration, not being essential to the ordinance, were not intended for our imitation. We are no more required to receive it at night, than to do it in an upper room, with but twelve in company. Moreover, the time was occasioned by the Passover, that was always eaten at night, and in private families.”[15] The Scottish Presbyterians seated communicants at a table, while Independents carried the elements to people in the pews.[16] Within each group there were variations.

Regardless of the specifics of the Lord’s Supper, they were to be ordered for what Reynolds called the sacrament’s “most express end,” namely, “to celebrate the memory of Christ’s death and passion.”[17] This was not just a “historical memory” but what Reynolds called a “practical memory,” that is, the memory of faith, thankfulness, obedience, and prayer.[18] This leads us to the manner of spiritually partaking the Supper, as the Puritans understood it.


Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


[1] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:42.

[2] Owen, “A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God,” in Works, 15:447, 449–50, 462. See also William Ames, A Fresh Svit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633); George Gillespie, A Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (1637; repr., Dallas, Tx.: Naphtali Press, 1993).

[3] Perkins, “Of Divine or Religious Worship,” in Works, 1:713.

[4] Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 204. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms communion and thanksgiving (eucharisteia) are associated with the holy supper in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 10:16. Euchariasteia or giving of thanks, is part of the sacrament, as instituted by Christ (1 Cor. 11:24).

[5] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:71.

[6] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72; Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:611.

[7] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:610.

[8] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75. 

[9] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75.

[10] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:74–78.

[11] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God,” in Westminster Confession of Faith, 384–86.

[12] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 216.

[13] Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 76.

[14] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 205–208, 213.

[15] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:68.

[16] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 214.

[17] Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:87.

[18] Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:104, 107, 108, 110.

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
Rik Van Nieuwenhove, An Introduction to Medieval Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 296pp. Paperback. $25.00.
Why review a book on medieval theology on a site devoted to Puritan and Reformed theology? At least two reasons are prominent. One good reason for doing so is that Reformed theology did not arise out of a theological vacuum. Puritans, such as William Perkins, went to great lengths to argue that Reformed theologians were really “Reformed Catholics.” Becoming familiar with the medieval (and Early Church) background of Reformed thought is an eye-opening exercise that illustrates the discerning genius of Reformed authors, including the Puritans. Another reason for reviewing a book like this is that medieval theology can seem to be both strange and complicated to modern readers. Most of us need a guide to help us wade through what are often deep theological waters.
Rik Van Nieuwenhove’s Introduction meets both of these needs admirably. Readers familiar with classic Reformed thought will see many points of convergence with medieval developments. Those who feel perplexed by medieval thought will find a clear treatment that focuses ultimately on trinitarian spirituality throughout. In short, this book indirectly adds a significant piece of the puzzle to understanding the catholicity, divergences, and developments of Reformed and Puritan theology.
Van Nieuwenhove’s book is clear and comprehensive, yet focused. The author begins with the premise that medieval theology was radically theocentric and trinitarian, with the Trinity shaping every aspect of the theology and spirituality of the figures treated in this volume (2). He divides his material into periods encompassing the fifth through tenth centuries, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the systemization of theology in the thirteenth century, and the radical changes in theology and spirituality in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The figures he treats at length include Augustine, John Cassian, Boethius, Gregory the Great, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Abelard, Bernard of Claireaux, William St. Thierry, Hugh and Richard St. Victor, Lombard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Meister Eckhart, the trinitarian spirituality of Jan van Ruusbroec, and others. He argues that medieval theology as a whole is a “footnote to Augustine” (3), who looms large throughout the book. The author briefly, yet effectively, sets the shifting historical contexts of his subjects throughout and he illustrates the influences of politics, war, famine, pestilence, philosophical shifts, and many other factors on the authors treated. This feature helps readers understand why various theologians went in the directions that they did, for better or for worse, leading up to the eve of the Renaissance and Reformation periods. His focus on the Trinity and spirituality, along with a few other key emphases (284), unifies the book in a way that will interest many readers in light of the modern renaissance in trinitarian theology.
This book, indirectly, illustrates many points of convergence with later Reformed thought. A few examples can highlight this fact. Two of them relate to John Owen. First, Van Nieuwenhove shows that Hugh St. Victor described faith as giving subsistence to the things that we believe in our souls (131). In this respect, faith rises above opinion, since it involves certainty, yet it falls short of the full knowledge of God that we will receive in the beatific vision alone (132). In the opening chapters of his Reason of Faith, this was precisely how Owen defined the nature of that faith by which we believe the Bible to be the Word of God. Second, Aquinas treated the goal of charity as friendship with God, which is based on “some kind of communication” between God and us in Christ, by virtue of which God shares his blessedness with us (194-196). In the introductory chapters of Owen’s Communion with God, he defined communion as the sharing of good things among two parties, grounded on some union between them. He added that this ground was union with Christ in the covenant of grace. This illustrates both the reception and transformation of a medieval idea to meet the needs of Reformed theology. Third, Bonaventure taught that one of the personal names of the Holy Spirit was “Gift.” This was true, both in relation to the eternal processions within the Godhead and in his works in time, with the result that the Spirit is the archetype of all created gifts (220-221). This illustrates why, in Patrick Gillespie’s Ark of the Covenant, treating the Spirit as gift in the covenant of redemption did not violate classic trinitarian principles. Again, this example highlights the appropriation of a medieval idea in the context of a developing Reformed covenant theology. These examples, and many others, show how medieval theology can help make sense of where Reformed authors developed their ideas. Such instances are valuable for those of us who spend most of our time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The author’s conclusion to his book illustrates its primary value: “Medieval theology offers an extraordinarily pluralist view on some of the most important theological issues… Yet this pluralism is supported by an overarching vision, which all major medieval theologians share, namely, that it is only in the fruition of God that our hearts can find ultimate fulfillment and peace” (284). Even though we, like our Reformed forefathers, will reject many points of medieval thought, we should resonate with the goals of the authors treated in this volume. Biblical Christianity has always aimed to press people to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (John 17:3). The Spirit has faithfully helped believers do this in every age and this book gives us a glimpse of how he has done so.