The Works of William Perkins

Written by William Perkins Reviewed By Matthew N. Payne

William Perkins (1558–1602) was a highly influential English Reformed theologian whose works not only bear great historical significance but are of immense value to Christians today. Perkins was both an able theologian and a gifted populariser of Reformed theology and piety. In his day, his works proved edifying to scholars, pastors, and laypeople alike, and they retain that same potential benefit to contemporary readers.

Perkins offers an intriguing point of intersection between emerging post-Reformation Protestant identities. On the one hand, Perkins’s works were so influential upon the Puritans of England and New England that he has been dubbed the “father of Puritanism.” However, he was also a lifelong member of the established English Church, and his works were intended to promote and enrich the Reformed theology and piety of its established theological formularies, as particularly expressed in The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563, 1571). Perkins also occupies an important place in the early development of Reformed orthodoxy. In his lifetime, his books outsold those of Calvin and Beza in England, and he became the first English theologian to enjoy a wide readership in Europe. Perkins’s most significant contributions relate to predestinarian thought, assurance, preaching, pastoral theology, covenant theology, and Roman Catholic polemic.

Given Perkins’s significance, it is genuinely surprising that his works have not been republished until now. When Perkins died after a brief illness, aged 44, various of his Cambridge colleagues published his collected works in three folio volumes, with the final edition published by John Legatt in 1631. They have remained virtually unpublished since then. Even when James Nichols republished various important Puritan figures in the nineteenth century, Perkins remained neglected. Thus, except for a few individual titles (The Art of Prophesying and the Calling of the Ministry and A Golden Chain), the works of the “father of Puritanism” have remained out of print for more than three centuries. With the publication of The Works of William Perkins in ten volumes, Reformation Heritage Books has done a remarkable and long-overdue service to Reformed Christians.

The set was completed under the general editorial oversight of Joel R. Beeke and Derek H. Thomas, while the individual volumes have their own editors, including Stephen Yuille, Paul Smalley, Randall Pederson, Ryan Hurd, Greg Salazar, Shawn Wright, and Andrew Ballitch. Volume introductions are provided by the editors of individual volumes. These provide useful contextualization, summary, and introduction to the contents of each volume, and their informed engagement with the scholarly literature makes them of value to researchers as well as to casual readers. A biographical preface by Beeke and Yuille is also included in the first volume.

The text mostly follows the final Legatt edition of Perkins’s works, occasionally noting textual variations to earlier editions in footnotes. Spelling is modernized, the volumes are attractively typeset, and obscure early-modern terms are defined in footnotes or occasionally changed to modern equivalents. However, this is not a critical edition of Perkins’s works. Scholars will undoubtedly continue to refer primarily to sixteenth and seventeenth-century editions. This set of volumes is intended to make Perkins accessible to modern readers, and it fulfills that laudable goal admirably.

In the interests of orienting interested readers to this massive set, this review will give an overview of its contents along with some notes of significance and contemporary interest. The set contains forty distinct works, ranging from volume-length works to brief treatises consisting of a few pages. They are arranged into the categories of exegetical (vols. 1–4), doctrinal and polemical (vols. 5–7), and practical writings (vols. 8–10).

Volumes 1–4 contain the published sermons which Perkins preached during his position as “lecturer” (preacher) at St Andrews the Great Church, Cambridge. They consist of rich theological and practical expositions of the temptation of Jesus (Matt 4:1–11), the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), Galatians, Hebrews 11, Jude, and Revelation 1–3. Perkins was a renowned preacher in his day, and these volumes give the reader access to the fruit of his preaching ministry and model his approach to biblical exegesis (see Andrew S. Ballitch, The Gloss and the Text: William Perkins on Interpreting Scripture with Scripture [Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020]). Perkins is particularly noteworthy for his constant emphasis on the practical application (or “uses”) of biblical teaching and can provide a useful conversation partner to preachers as they approach these texts today. Volume 1 also includes Perkins’s biblical chronology, Digest of Harmony of the Old and New Testaments, a precursor to the better-known chronology by James Ussher (1581–1656).

Volume 5 contains Perkins’s major catechetical works, namely expositions of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed (the first such work to appear in English), and a brief catechism. Although one of the briefest of Perkins’s works, his catechism is particularly noteworthy for its instructions on how to appropriate doctrine deeply into their hearts. Perkins was concerned that while many English people had rote-learned catechetical material, this had not resulted in widespread spiritual transformation. Much of his work was given over to teaching people how to experience sound conversion and make spiritual progress. This work gives a highly condensed point of entry into some of Perkins’s main pastoral and theological concerns.

Volume 6 mostly contains Perkins’s major predestinarian works. A Golden Chain (1590) is probably his best-known work, laying out the “causes of salvation and damnation” in a predestinarian scheme that would come to be labelled “supralapsarian.” While it is reputed by some to be cold and scholastic, this is, in fact, an accessible, practical, and deeply pastoral work. This volume also includes two later predestinarian treatises that engage matters of grace and divine and human agency. These engage in more sophisticated academic theological discussion in light of the recent Cambridge predestinarian disputes (from which the Lambeth Articles emerged in 1595) and in conversation with contemporary Reformed and Roman Catholic theology, while drawing upon patristic and medieval thought. On all these matters, Perkins’s writing is rich, clear, and insightful and will reward careful engagement. Manner and Order of Predestination (1598) is of particular historical interest because it provoked a lengthy published critique by Jacob Arminius. Both works would prove significant in the lead up to the Synod of Dort (1618–1619).

Volume 6 also contains three of Perkins’s earliest treatises, two of which are translated into English for the first time by David Noe. Their subject matter is obscure to modern readers, consisting of Perkins’s polemical defense of the Ramist art of memory. However, these were Perkins’s first published works and demonstrate his commitment to Ramism, a sixteenth-century humanist educational philosophy that sought to reform scholarly methodology. Its most obvious expression in Perkins’s writings is how he structures his ideas, defining subjects before dividing them into their constitutive parts and thus discussing them in a highly structured way (See Donald K. McKim, Ramism in William Perkins’ Theology [New York: Peter Lang, 1987]). The volume also includes a dialogical work criticizing superstitious approaches to eschatology.

Volume 7 gathers Perkins’s three polemical works against Roman Catholicism, significant works that greatly bolstered his reputation as a defender of the true faith. Perkins’s critique is noteworthy for its relatively accurate portrayal of Roman Catholic opponents (relatively rare among interconfessional polemical works of the sixteenth century), and his effort to lay out areas of agreement and disagreement between Reformed and Roman Catholic confessions, even as he critiques the innovations and idolatries of the latter. These works also represent Perkins’s most extensive engagement with patristic sources, demonstrating his extensive reading of the church fathers as he sought to argue (as many Reformers did) that the church of the first five centuries was far more often in theological agreement with the Reformers than with Roman Catholics.

Volume 8 groups together a range of practical treatises mainly relating to the conscience in the Christian life. A Discourse of Conscience (1596) is a particularly lucid account of the role of conscience in the Christian life. The massive Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience (1606) is a pastoral manual that lays out an approach to godly decision making. A Grain of Mustard Seed (1597) is probably Perkins’s most important work on assurance, a major concern throughout his works. This volume also includes his treatise on Whether a Man be in the Estate of Damnation or in the Estate of Grace (1589), a bestselling collection of eight of Perkins’s earliest treatises which cover many of his main theological and pastoral concerns.

Volume 9 draws together a range of miscellaneous works, including two works on knowing Christ, several relating to true repentance and the battle against sin, treatises on a Christian approach to the tongue and the imagination, and finally, treatises critiquing the practices of witchcraft and astrology. Perkins’s works on repentance and the battle between the spiritually renewed man and his fleshly nature are particularly noteworthy.

Volume 10 gathers together various works on callings (or vocations) and the various estates of life, exhibiting Perkins’s conviction that Christian piety is integral to every aspect of human society. These include a treatise on vocations, another laying out the proper ordering of a Christian family, and works on the calling of the ministry and the task of preaching. His work on preaching, Nature of Prophesying (1592, translated 1607), was the first book on preaching in English, and the clarity and simplicity of both his works on the ministry are of value to pastors and students today. This volume also includes treatises on living well in all the estates of life, the importance of the principle of equity to social order, and instruction on how to die well.

This set of Perkins’s works makes two notable omissions, both justified in this reviewer’s opinion. Perkins’s astrological critique, Resolution to the Countryman (1587; included in volume 9), was originally published as an appendment to a work entitled Four Great Lyers. This latter work aimed to debunk astrology by publishing the conflicting predictions of four popular astrological almanacs alongside one another. Such data is only of interest to historians and thus is appropriately excluded from the present set. Secondly, a seventeenth-century work entitled Death’s Knell (1628) was excluded, though it bears Perkins’s name. This work first appeared decades after Perkins’s death, and I was pleased to see it excluded lest it continue to be falsely attributed to him. It was not the first time that others had sought to make underhanded use of Perkins’s name for income. His publication of his lectures on the Lord’s Prayer was only released after an unauthorized and flawed edition appeared in print in 1592. After he died, Perkins’s publisher and the executors of his will had some difficulty with others seeking to make a profit through the publication of imperfect and distorted texts allegedly from Perkins’s hand (10:37–39, 201–2).

It is perhaps inevitable that a publication of this scale will contain occasional errors. For example, some text is missing and misplaced in the table adjoined to the exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (5:422), and one of the titles of Perkins’s works on conscience is confused for another on a title page (8:ii). However, errors like this are relatively few and minor.

One point of disappointment is that there are not more extensive footnote comments in the volumes, nor are Perkins’s shorthand footnote references uniformly expanded. For example, Perkins’s original shorthand Latin citations in volume 6 are expanded and translated in brackets after Perkins’s original citation, along with occasional brief explanatory comments about the work or its author. Such expansion and commentary are completely absent from volume 7, even though the works in it are especially full of patristic citations and marginal Latin phrases and titles. Yet these remain in their original state without expansion or translation, making this material less accessible to non-scholarly readers.

However, these minor points of criticism do not detract from the significance of these volumes. They deserve the widest possible readership among Reformed Christians and promise to enrich the lives and ministries of those who engage with them. Perkins’s abiding concern throughout his career was that the riches of Reformed theology would be made accessible to ordinary Christians, who might thereby find spiritual nourishment through genuine faith and repentance unto a life of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. These works will now have the opportunity to bear fruit among a new generation of readers.

Matthew N. Payne

Matthew N. Payne
University of Sydney
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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