Evangel and the Evangelists?

May 8, 2009

Reflections on re-reading R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Part 1 – Evangel and the Evangelists?

I recently re-read Kendall. This is a key text in the ‘Calvin and the Calvinists’ debate so getting a handle on it is important. I think I understood him better second time round, but there are things about this book which still mystify me. It’s not all bad and he did make me think hard but there are things here with which I strongly disagree and others which are beyond my understanding, at least in the sense of my being unable to fathom why he makes some of the assumptions and connections he does.  Perhaps some posts to follow on these. 

For now, an example of how his aversion to ‘voluntarism’ colours his reading of texts. He is discussing William Ames and the idea that assurance cannot be expected to come readily.

…he comes next to the question, ‘what a man ought to do that he may be a partaker of his grace?’. Ames gives a fourfold answer to show that there are ‘diverse duties, which ly upon a man about his vocation, and which both ought, and are wont ordinarily to be performed before the certainty of this grace can be gotten’. (1) One must have an estimation of God’s word ‘above all riches’. (2) One must ‘imploy his greatest care labour and industry, about this businesse’. (3) He must ‘with all diligence, care, and constancy, apply himselfe to the use of all those meanes’ which God hath provided. And (4) one must ‘sell all that he hath to buy this pearle’.

So far so good, but look where he goes with this.

Obviously this fourth statement suggests that we bargain with God in order to obtain grace. Ames realizes what is implied in these lines, and comments:

For although God doth freely bestow life upon us, and receive nothing at our hands in liew of it…Yet we ought to forsake all unlawfull things actually, and all externall and naturall goods also, in the purpose, and disposition of our minds, else we cannot obtaine the grace of God.

One may thus see how far the experimental predestinarian tradition has come towards an anthropocentric doctrine of faith. William Ames has taken the voluntarism that was begun in Beza’s theology and popularized by Perkins, and brings it to a logical conclusion. Man is thus seen earning God’s grace by a willingness to consecrate himself to a godly life. The irony is that this theology purports to lie in a thoroughly predestinarian system.

It’s so obvious isn’t it! And we must infer that the Apostle Matthew (13:45f) betrayed the pure unadulterated gospel of John Calvin. Also betraying the first generation Reformers is the Apostle John (Rev. 3:18). They’ve both been Beza’ed. Ok. Let’s remove tongue from cheek. It seems that Ames and many Puritans were prepared to go with the grain of Scriptural metaphor. They recognised that the Bible spoke of the human response to the divine offer of grace in both passive and active terms. Whatever else one may find objectionable in Ames, allow him to use biblical language unless able to prove that he does so in an unbiblical way. I’m not at all convinced that he does so at this point. Looks like a particular configuration of systematic theological concerns jumped the gun here!

More to follow…if I can find all those little scraps of paper…


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