There are truly important works that have simply been forgotten or unjustly ignored. One of those is William Ames’ Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in defense of the Reformed theology and practice of worship. Another is William Perkins’ 1597 treatise, A Reformed Catholic subtitled Or a Declaration Showing How Near We may Come to the Present Church of Rome in Sundry Points of Religion and Wherein We Must Forever Depart From Them. To this he added, With An Advertisement [a statement calling attention to something] to All Favorers of the Roman Religion Showing How the Said Religion is Against the Catholic Principles and Grounds of the [English] Catechism.
William Perkins (1558–1602) is worthy of our attention for a few reasons. First, he was one of the most important English Reformed theologians of the Reformation/post-Reformation periods. The other is John Owen. Arguably Perkins should be on anybody’s short list of Great English Theologians. Second, his teaching was a great influence on the Westminster Assembly, and thus to understand Perkins is to understand our own confession more fully. Third, he articulated Reformed theology at a time when the Reformation was under assault from the Socinians, the Arminians (Remonstrants), and a renewed Romanism. We still face these challenges in our day. We know the Socinians as “The Unitarians” today but they were influential upon many of the followers of Arminius (post-Episcopius) and their methodological influence is still felt in American Evangelical circles. The advocates of Open Theism rely on essentially a Socinian view of God and biblical hermeneutic (approach to reading Scripture). “Biblicism,” i.e., the idea that one is going to read the Bible as if no one has ever read it before, is not only deliberately ignorant and contrary to the Reformation approach to reading Scripture with the church past and present, is essentially a Socinian approach to Scripture that yielded a denial of Christ’s divinity, the Trinity, and the atonement, among other things.
Most Reformed folk who are familiar with Perkins might think of his Golden Chaine, his exposition of the doctrine of predestination, and the criticism he received from Jacob Arminius but Perkins was much more than a theologian of predestination. He was a member of the “Spiritual Brotherhood” at Cambridge. He was a Reformed churchman who understood that theology is not mere theory. He defined it as the “science of living blessedly forever. ” He was as devoted to cultivating true piety as he was to defending true theology. For Perkins the two were inseparable. For more on his life and setting see Paul Schaefer’s The Spiritual Brotherhood, 49–107.
Were the Reformation a boxing match, it appeared in the first half of the sixteenth century that Rome was flat on the canvas. Beginning with Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) in the 1540s, Rome got off the canvas, as it were, and began counter-punching theologically and militarily. Rome would try to recover her geo-political influence and the struggle would not end until the close of the Thirty-Years War (1648). The Jesuits and others proved to be a genuine difficulty for the Reformation. They began to make more sophisticated appeals to tradition and to Scripture that required increased sophistication from the Reformed.
This treatise is an interesting and useful example of the way the Reformed responded to the Roman response (the “Counter Reformation” or the “Catholic Reformation”). Perkins responded by challenging a central Romanist assumption: that the Roman communion is the “Catholic Church.”
Perkins began his assault on Rome in the dedicatory epistle. [NB: I’ve modernized the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation on C. S. Lewis’ theory that we tend to impute ignorance to older writers when we see variance from our practice.]
RIGHT worshipful, it is a notable policy of the devil, which he has put into the heads of sundry men in this age, to think that our religion, and the religion of the present Church of Rome are all one for substance: and that they may be re-united as (in their opinion) they were before. Writings to this effect are spread abroad in the French tongue, and respected of English Protestants more then is meet, or ought to be. For, let men in show of moderation, pretend the peace and good estate of the Catholic Church as long as they will; this union of the two religions can never be made, more then the union of light and darkness. And this shall appear, if we do but a little consider, how they of the Roman Church have razed the foundation.
For though in words they honor Christ, yet in deed they turn him to a Pseudo-Christ, and an idol of their own brain. They call him our Lord, but with this condition, that the Servant of Servants of this Lord, may change and add to his commandments: having so great power, that he may open and shut heaven to whom he will; and bind the very conscience with his own laws, and consequently be partaker of the spiritual kingdom of Christ.
Again, they call him a Savior, but yet in us: in that he gives this grace unto us, that by our merits, we may partake in the merits of the saints. And they acknowledge, that he died and suffered for us, but with this caveat, that the fault being pardoned, we must satisfy for the temporal punishment, either in this world, or in purgatory. In a word, they make him our Mediator of Intercession unto God: but withal, his Mother must be the Queen of Heaven, and by the right of a Mother command him there.
Thus, in word, they cry Hosanna, but indeed they crucify Christ. Therefore we have good cause to bless the name of God, that hath freed us from the yoke of this Roman bondage, and hath brought us to the true light and liberty of the Gospel. And it should be a great height of unthankfulness in us, not to stand out against the present Church of Rome, but to yield our selves to plots of reconciliation.
To this effect and purpose I have penned this little treatise, which I present to your worship, desiring it might be some token of a thankful mind, for undeserved love. And I crave withal, not only your worshipful (which is more common) but also your learned protection; being well assured, that by skill and art you are able to justify whatsoever I have truly taught. Thus wishing to you and yours the continuance and the increase of faith and good conscience, I take my leave.
Cambridge, June 28. 1597.
Your W. in the Lord,
Notice the issues that Perkins highlighted: the unique authority (and Spirit-wrought) clarity of the Scriptures, its corollary Christian freedom, the uniqueness of Christ’s once-for-all work, and the Roman denial of the assurance of faith that is gift of God to believers as a consequence of the first two.
These are the issues that face us today. Perkins was concerned about a false ecumenism then and we have just as much right to be concerned about it now. As Rome begins its year-long celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II it is well to remember that Vatican II changed none of the doctrines against which the Reformation reacted. The issues remain. The popular, informal role of Mary as mediatrix has become formalized. The Roman doctrine of the necessity of cooperation with grace as part of progressive sanctification unto eventual justification (after purgatory), the mediation of the saints, the authority of the church, all these issues are as divisive today as they were at Trent and Perkins’ re-assertion of the genuine catholicity (university) of the Reformed faith, against the pretension of the Roman Bishop and councils, is as relevant today as the day it was first published.