Reflections on re-reading R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Part 2 – John Preston and the Search for Assurance.

Kendall says:

In Preston’s thought federal theology has made full circle, now becoming in effect a covenant of works… The upshot is that we must concentrate on our attitude towards the Law rather than our receiving the righteousness of Christ . Preston urges that we must ‘labour’ to ‘grow to assurance of the forgiveness of our sinnes’. This assurance is in the end derived entirely from the reflective knowledge of our ‘sincerity’ to keep the Law.

The reality is not quite so straightforward, nor so helpful for Kendall’s argument. Whilst Preston can be considered an experimental predestinarian, and whilst there are passages in his writings that speak of the marks of sanctification testifying to the believer’s regeneration, there is another side to his thought that Kendall overlooks.

For example, having discussed the testimony of sanctification, he notes that many fail to persevere in the ways of godliness because they lack faith, ‘this maine grace, this root and foundation of all the rest’. Their good intentions come to nothing because they lack that ground. He continues (The Breast-plate of Faith and Love, 5th ed., 1637, I.183f),

Therefore labour to beleeve the promises, to be assured of salvation, that you are translated from death to life by an effectual faith: when this is done, you shall find that your purposes will hold, and till then they are in vaine.

And so againe, this should teach us, seeing all depends upon faith, when wee come to search, to consider what assurance wee have, that so wee may goe the right way to worke. For commonly, when we consider our estates, we look what fruits we have, what sincerity hath appeared in our life, and if wee finde that weake, we commonly conclude that our faith is weake also; and so the weaknesse of our sanctification weakeneth our assurance; but we should goe another way to worke: When we finde a weaknesse, we should goe to the promises, and strengthen our assurance: for there be two wayes to encrease assurance.

One is by the promises, the sure word on which faith is built.

The second is by the fruits of sanctification in our selves.

In a nutshell: ‘so assurance grounded upon the promise, it enableth, and inlargeth, and encreaseth sanctification, and sanctification encreaseth assurance’. Faith is the ground of all.

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…