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The works of William Perkins

April 2016 | by Stephen Yuille

Recently, Christian literary organisation ‘Books At a Glance’ interviewed Stephen Yuille and Joel Beeke about the recent publication of The works of William Perkins. Here is the substance of that interview.

Books:

The publication of The works of William Perkins is a landmark event in Christian publishing. Long overdue, the republishing of this ‘father of the Puritans’ will give new life to Puritan studies. Edited by J. Stephen Yuille (Review editor for ‘Spirituality and Christian living’ here at Books At a Glance), under the general editorship of Joel Beeke and Derek Thomas, volume 1 is now available.

We are pleased to have Drs Yuille and Beeke with us today to talk about their new work, and their fascinating subject.First, let’s talk about William Perkins himself. Perhaps you could introduce our readers to him briefly. Who was he?

Yuille & Beeke:

Perkins was born in 1558 in the village of Marston Jabbett (near Coventry), in Warwickshire. No parish registers exist, so it’s impossible to trace his family ancestry. We do know that he was lame in his right hand. This must have presented a significant challenge for a young boy living in the world of plough and harness.

He demonstrated sufficient promise as a student that his family enrolled him in Christ’s College, Cambridge, when he was 19 years of age. He was converted to Christ during his early years at Cambridge.

After receiving his master’s degree in 1584, he was ordained to the ministry. He preached at Great St. Andrew’s Church, from 1584 until his death. He was also elected to a fellowship at Christ’s College. He held this position from 1584 to 1595.

He married a young widow, Timothye Cradocke, in 1595. During their seven years of marriage, they conceived seven children, three of whom died in infancy. He succumbed to complications arising from kidney stones in 1602, aged 44.

Books:

Give us a sense of Perkins’ significance, historically and theologically. What kind of influence did he have, in his own day and after?

Yuille & Beeke:

Perkins’ legacy is multi-faceted. He was instrumental in securing the Reformation in England. The English Reformation was a drawn-out process, in which the country moved back and forth on multiple occasions between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as monarchs came and went.

In a span of 20 years, the religion of the land shifted four times. But the reign of Elizabeth I brought stability, and provided the much needed climate for English Reformers to solidify the church’s position. Perkins played a pivotal role in this, and his works became the standard polemic against Rome.

In addition to the English Reformation, Perkins made an incalculable contribution to the advancement of Reformed theology. Jacob Arminius’ treatment of predestination was predicated to a large extent on Perkins’ writings. This factor ensured that many of the theological ideas at the heart of the debate at the Synod of Dort actually were well-grounded in Perkins’ writings.

Unknown to him, he left a discernible imprint upon what would later be called ‘the five points of Calvinism’. Finally, Perkins shaped the future of pastoral ministry on both sides of the Atlantic. His role as a physician of the soul became paradigmatic for succeeding generations of ministers.

His emphasis on expounding the text, deriving doctrines from the text, and applying those doctrines through a plethora of uses, is clearly evident in the collected sermons of subsequent Puritan preachers. His method of preaching shaped the English pulpit well into the eighteenth century, and is still felt in some quarters of the church today.

Books:

You mention in your book that Perkins both was and was not a Puritan. Can you explain that to us?

Yuille & Beeke:

Strictly speaking, Perkins was not a Puritan in terms of his ecclesiology, because he refused to align himself with the more militant figures of his era. He understood the church’s most pressing need, not in terms of ecclesiastical innovation, but theological instruction.

He viewed the church as being sound in its official doctrine and worship, yet woefully hampered on account of inadequate teaching. He understood his calling in terms of filling this void, thereby bringing others to a better understanding of the faith. When we say that Perkins was a Puritan, we’re referring to his piety.

He would never have described himself as a Puritan, given its negative connotation, yet it’s the very term that others used, favourably or not, to describe that experimental theology so prevalent in his life and ministry.

Books:

You mentioned in the book that Perkins was a ‘master of experimental theology’. Would you explain that for us? What is ‘experimental theology’? And is this characteristic of Perkins’ teaching and writings throughout, as well as his preaching?

Yuille & Beeke:

The term ‘experimental’comes from the Latin verb experior, ‘to know by experience’. Although Perkins preached about God’s sovereign grace in salvation, he was particularly concerned about how this grace breaks through into our experience.

He wanted to explain how we respond to God’s sovereign grace in humiliation, faith, repentance, obedience and assurance. This conviction is evident throughout Perkins’ works.

He was convinced that the gospel (union with Christ through faith) is always transformative: producing godliness, cultivating new obedience, making a divorce between sin and the soul, moderating inordinate affections, stirring a desire for holiness, setting the soul upon the means of grace, and producing zeal in religion.

He was also convinced that people must experience an affective appropriation of God’s sovereign grace, moving beyond intellectual assent to heartfelt dedication to Christ.

Books:

Talk to us about Perkins’s popularity both as a preacher and as an author. I think many will be surprised to learn that Perkins’ writings became more popular than Calvin! What accounts for this? Perhaps you could also mention something about those with whom he was popular. Did he write for fellow theologians only?

Yuille & Beeke:

In seeking to account for Perkins’ popularity, one scholar identifies two unique features in his writings: first, ‘an ability to clarify and expound complex theological issues which aroused the respect of fellow scholars’; and, second, ‘a gift for relating seemingly abstruse theological teaching to the spiritual aspirations of ordinary Christians’.

To state it simply, Perkins was able to merge intricate theology with practical piety — a rare gift indeed. This made his writings appealing to a large audience, and, as a result, the name of no preacher recurs more often in later Puritan literature.

For example, in New England, close to 100 Cambridge men, including William Brewster of Plymouth, Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay and Roger Williams of Rhode Island, lived in Perkins’ shadow.

It has been said that ‘a typical Plymouth colony library comprised a large and small Bible, Henry Ainsworth’s translation of the Psalms, and the works of William Perkins’.

Books:

Okay, what about Perkins’s Works? Just how extensive was his literary output? Do the 10 volumes projected in this series comprise all he published? Were these volumes originally published in Perkins’ own lifetime? And tell us how your republication of them is significant.

Yuille & Beeke:

While living, Perkins published 21 books. After his death, friends and students published 27 new books in his name. These were edited from his many manuscripts. John Legate gathered Perkins’ works into three volumes in 1608-09, and these were reprinted more than a dozen times. They were also translated into Latin and published eight times by 1668.

At least 50 editions of Perkins’ works were printed in Germany and Switzerland. There were 185 seventeenth-century printings of his individual or collected works in Dutch. Furthermore, his writings were translated into Spanish, Welsh, Irish, French, Italian, Hungarian and Czech. The international popularity of Perkins’ works led one biographer to declare that ‘his books spoke more tongues than the author ever knew’.

One of the great puzzles of church history is that Perkins’ works have not been published in English since the seventeenth century. The goal of the Perkins project is to fill this major gap in Puritan/Reformed literature by publishing his complete works, in a 10-volume set.

Books:

Tell us about the two volumes now available. What kind of things await the reader? And what, in particular, do you find especially valuable as a contribution to biblical studies today?

Yuille & Beeke:

Volume 1 contains three of Perkins’ books. The first is A digest or harmony of the books of the Old and New Testament.It made a significant contribution in his day to the long standing debate surrounding biblical chronology.

The second book is The combat between Christ and the devil displayed. Here, Perkins expounds Matthew 4:1-11. It’s a great resource for understanding the devil’s stratagems and appreciating the believer’s calling to look to his ‘merciful and faithful High Priest’ in the midst of temptation.

The third book is A godly and learned exposition upon Christ’s Sermon in the Mount. This is the most significant treatise in volume 1. Perkins did not view Christ’s sermon as a legalistic system of morality, a paradigm for the establishment of new society, or a standard of ethics for a future millennial kingdom, but as the definitive word on the nature of true godliness.

Volume 2 is a massive, masterful treatment of Galatians. Throughout this large commentary (more than 600 pages), Perkins’ pattern is to explain the text, deduce a few points of doctrine from it, answer objections raised against the doctrine, and then give practical uses of what the passage teaches.

As for his contribution to biblical studies, Perkins believed the ‘canonical’ Scriptures constitute the ‘wisdom of God concerning the truth’. For this reason, he championed what he called Scripture’s ‘infallible certainty’, meaning, ‘the testimony of Scripture is the testimony of God Himself’.

Owing to this conviction, he adopted Scripture as the axiom of all his thinking and the focus of all his teaching.

Books:

Can you give us a glimpse of the kind of material awaiting us in future volumes?

Yuille & Beeke:

Perkins’ books include expositions of Matthew 5-7, Hebrews 11, Jude, and Revelation 1-3; discourses on various cases of conscience; treatises on worship, preaching, assurance, predestination, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer; and the errors of the Roman Catholic Church.

We’ve organised these according to three major sections: volumes 1-4 include his expositional works; volumes 5-7 his doctrinal and polemical works; volumes 8–10 his practical works.

Books:

When do you expect this project to be complete? Do you have a projected date for the final volume?

Yuille & Beeke:

The plan is to publish the remaining volumes at 6-9 month intervals. God willing, we are hoping the set will be complete by 2019.

The works of William Perkins, Volumes 1 and 2, are published by Reformation Heritage Books; editor, J. Stephen Yuille; general editors Joel R. Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas. Each volume 832 pages, £34.00, ISBNs: 978-1601783608 and 978-1601784230.