Monday, September 01, 2014

WiIlliam Ames's virtues

Here is what I think, (without much research to back it up - a hunch, therefore). In the period of Puritanism (or confessional Calvinism) in England between the 1620’s (when Ames’ Medulla, first given as lectures in Holland while an exile there, was published), and the calling of the Westminster divines, a significant change seems to have occurred. The divines were assembled by the Long Parliament to revise the 39 Articles of the Church to England and in time they were charged with the task of promoting it as the ‘church established’ with a presbyterian polity. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were the most significant lasting consequences.

Of course in this period of upheaval very many changes occurred, but the one that concerns me here is the expression of sanctification, and particularly the prominence that the place of the law as a rule of living in the Christian life, the so-called third use of the law, was emphasised. There was a conflation of the law in its function of keeping order in society, and its place in the life of the church. The Reformed view is that the law is to restrain evil, and to show men and women their need, and to be a rule of life. So chief among the  requirements of the Christian life is the duty to keep the moral law expressed in the Decalogue and endorsed by Christ and the apostles.

We shall not be concerned with any real or imagined substantive change in what were regarded as the ethical norms of the law, and their place in the Christian life, and with how such norms should be conceptualized and expressed. The hunch that I have, which is certainly not the result of the deep trawling of documents, but fed by a comparison of only two documents, though each may fairly be called representative, though in different ways. Ames is known for The Marrow of Sacred Theology, originally published in Latin and then translated into English in 1623. Comparing that with the Westminster standards reveals significant differences. It is the difference between the outlook of one such as Ames, who experienced exile, and that of the establishment, or of prospective establishment, of the church. I shall try to explain.

In the time of Ames, the Puritans, who when they were allowed freedom and not being persecuted or repressed, were a vigorous, reforming party of the Elizabethan Church of England, interrupted by Mary, and harassed by Charles I. Ames’s life (1576- 1633) initially followed this sort of trajectory. Prosecuted by the bishop of London, the stalwart Calvinist George Abbot, for various Puritan leanings, Ames went to Holland in 1610, serving churches of English merchants. Some of his lectures became his Medulla, The Marrow of Theology, dedicated to them. There was an English translation, and numerous reprints. But as the arm of the bishop reached as far as The Hague, Ames lost support. However, he gained a Dutch appointment as professor of theology at Franeker. Efforts to move to Leyden were thwarted, again because of interfering English authorities. At Franeker Ames had Sibrandus, Lubbertius, Maccovius and Batholemew Keckermann as colleagues. Ames, a covenant theologian and supralapsarian,  wrote extensively against Bellarmine, and produced his famous book Conscience: Its Law or Cases, translated into English and Dutch. Living in Holland during the period of the Synod of Dort, he wrote extensively on Arminianism. In the Medulla his own scholasticism is muted. In English translation the work largely consists of brief summaries of  theological positions in what was a compendium of theology, not a set of elaborate discussions. What is certain is that Ames was concerned with the application of theology to Christian life.

During this time Ames was urged to join the exodus to New England. Instead he became pastor of the Independent congregation in Rotterdam. After his home suffered flooding Ames suffered from fever and he died shortly after. (1633).

His Medulla consists of two Books, the first on theology proper, and the second on practical theology. It is a work of covenant theology, though mildly so. In the first book there is a chapter on sanctification (29), and In book two one on virtue (2) and the graces of faith, hope, and love (5-7), and on justice and charity and honour to our neighbour, (16-18). There is no chapter on the law of God as expressed in the Decalogue.

A comparison

Compare this with the Longer Catechism of the Westminster Divines. In this Catechism there are 196 questions and answers, of which 62 (sixty-two!) are devoted to an exposition of the law of God, about a third of the whole. Question 91, which begins the questions on the law,  is headed ‘HAVING SEEN WHAT THE SCRIPTURES  PRINCIPALLY TEACH US TO BELIEVE CONCERNING GOD, IT FOLLOWS  TO CONSIDER WHAT THEY REQUIRE AS THE DUTY OF MAN’.  The emphasis is on the duty of men as men in law-keeping, not as members of the church, or as professors of Christ. The questions and answers that follow have to do with each of so-called three uses of the law; of civil restraint, for a rule of life, and for the purpose of conviction of sin, showing us our need and weakness. (Q.95) There is also some conflation between the Moral Law and the Judicial Law. It is highly likely that the divines saw their task as the exposition of the law to mirror the law of the state. So (for example) the seventh commandment forbids ‘lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays…..’(Q.140); the eight commandment forbids, inter alia, ‘false weights and measures, removing land-marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man….’(Q.142) And so on. (In the Shorter Catechism, questions 39-94 deal with the law, out of a total of 107 questions, just over a half.)

This is a dramatic change, the change from thinking of the Christian life as the pursuit of and formation of graces or virtues, with the emphasis on the Christian’s freedom (as in Paul in Galatians),  and his or her resurrection with Christ, to thinking of  Christian life it in terms of keeping the law, and of duty. If it is thought primarily in terms of keeping the law, then no wonder that the catechisms and filled with lists of new duties, and not at all surprising that the divines looked back to the Old Testament for these lists.

Next time I shall look at this contrast between Ames's emphasis on virtue and Westminster's emphasis  law in more detail, and consider  each in relation to the balance of the NT between the two. I shall suggest that Ames’s approach, the approach of the exile, keeps the NT balance better than do the Westminster divines, working (as they were) on a blueprint for the establishment of a Reformed church, and with the prospect of such an establishment (as they thought) just around the corner.