By Olive Tree Employee: Harold Coleman
Who is William Perkins and why are his writings relevant to us today? These are fair questions to ask about a man who wrote over 400 years ago. His life and writings spanned the early decades of English Protestantism during the Elizabethan period. He is thought by many to be the father of Puritanism, not as its founder but as its defender and as a developer of its theological positions. As a moderate Puritan, he worked from within the Church of England, slowly influencing the church towards Protestantism. His writings were so popular that the numbers of copies sold often outnumbered many contemporary Reformed writers combined.
Perkins held to the doctrine of Solus Christus (Christ alone) and Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) as the twin foundations of biblical preaching. He was an advocate of unclear Scriptures being interpreted by clearer portions of Scripture, rather than by tradition or speculation. He was a strong proponent of double predestination, which was criticized by his contemporary, Jacobus Arminius. As a reformer, he speaks to our use of Scripture today. Is understanding Christ the focus of our study in the Old as well as the New Testament? Do we rely on traditional understandings of tough passages or do we dig into Scripture in light of other Scriptures that are clearer?
Volume one of his works contains three sections: “A Harmony of the Books of the Old and New Testament”, “The Combat between Christ and the Devil”, and “A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount”.
A Harmony of the Books of the Old and New Testament lays out how biblical history intersects with the history of the world during biblical times. Perkins believed in the inerrancy of Scripture and that the Holy Spirit accurately represented God’s intent through Scripture’s human authors. This section begins with an unbroken progression of years from Adam to Solomon. At that point, he could tie in secular historical facts as they were known in his time in order to date the Bible from Solomon through the New Testament book of Revelation. With updated archaeological information, modern readers may have different understandings of those dates, but seeing Perkins’ dates is informative.
What I find most important in this section is the extensive timeline of events through biblical history that correspond to chapters about these events. These chapters are particularly helpful in putting together the bigger picture of 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles. These scriptural links can be accessed through the commentary notes in the Resource Guide as you study passages of the Bible in your main window. By adding a note to the dating of an event with a calculation to the Julian calendar, I can add my own estimated B.C. or A.D. dating of the event according to Perkins. This gives me a point of comparison with date estimates that have come since Perkins’ time. While this timeline doesn’t serve as an outline of any book, particularly in subject or doctrinal matters, it helps to put any biblical event in perspective with other events.
The Combat between Christ and the Devil considers the battle waged in heaven and on earth through the end of Revelation. It is an extensive commentary on Matthew 4:1-11, with implications for individual believers and the church as they too are assaulted by the schemes of the Devil. In reading this section, modern believers will see that we experience similar temptations and assaults but also have a high priest who knows our troubles from his own experience.
A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is crucial to Perkins’ understanding of the Gospel. He saw the Sermon on the Mount as the cornerstone to the Gospel because it is authored by Jesus himself after a whole night in prayer. He breaks the sermon into twelve branches. In this commentary, he has a style of making points, arguments, answering objections, and then expounding on ‘The Use’ (application) of the section covered. His style offers a model for preaching or teaching directly from Scripture. His commentary is lengthy in its analysis and explanations of points and objections but is very readable. Although Perkins taught at Cambridge, he doesn’t lose the reader in deep discussion of Greek or theological fine points. His intention is to instruct the pastor or devoted student of God’s Word thoroughly and practically, as he saw modeled by Jesus. In sermon preparation, you can find years of material in this single commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that will provide insights for returning to this most famous sermon many times.
Volume Two of Perkins’ works is a commentary on Galatians. It is the compilation of three years of sermons by Perkins on Galatians 1-5. After his death, Ralph Cudworth edited the sermon notes into this commentary and added his own commentary of chapter six to complete it. Much like Luther and Calvin, Perkins saw the importance of this letter as differentiating between the old Law of Moses and the new law of grace as given through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Writing at the early stages of Protestantism, he draws out the importance of a biblical view of law and grace and argues against traditions that may be as relevant today as they were in his time. He believed that as Christ taught in plain speech, his sermons should also be plain to understand.