An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Greetings! I’m Fred Zaspel, and welcome to another Author Interview from Books At a Glance. We are pleased to have Andrew Ballitch and Stephen Yuille with us today to talk about their excellent book, “The Wholesome Doctrine of the Gospel”: Faith and Love in the Writings of William Perkins.” It’s the latest installment in the Profiles in Reformed Spirituality series from Reformation Heritage Books.
Andrew, Stephen, welcome, and congratulations on you book!
Thank you very much.
Before we get started, I want to have each of you introduce yourself. Tell us your name and where you serve so people can identify your voice.
My name is Andrew Ballitch. I am currently serving as Associate Pastor of Preaching and Ministries at Westwood Alliance Church in Mansfield, Ohio.
My name is Stephen Yuille. I currently serve as the VP of Academics at Heritage College and Seminary located in Cambridge, Ontario; I also serve as an Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
First, give us a brief introduction to the Puritans broadly—these men collectively, their situation politically and ecclesiastically, and so on. What can you tell us about them?
I will tackle that one. When we speak of Puritanism, it is potentially confusing because the word has multiple meanings. In the original literature, as we go back into the 1500s and 1600s, the word was never used favorably. There was no one who ever walked around in the 16th and 17th century saying, “I am a Puritan.” That is the designation that we have today that we have ascribed to certain individuals. It is a complex word with the following different meanings.
We need to recognize that there is Puritanism as an ecclesiastical movement. Basically, people within the Church of England were very dissatisfied with the extent of the Reformation within the Church of England. They wanted to purify the Church. Some of these individuals were therefore daubed, or designated, “Puritans.” It was a derogatory term and a battle for change to varying degrees within the Church. We can also think of Puritanism as a political movement of those who were perhaps against the king and more in favor of a parliamentary form of governance.
We can also think of the word “Puritan” as a movement in theology and piety, to those who really bought into a Reformed understanding of the nature of grace. They were very concerned about how God’s sovereign grace impacts the life of the individual. What became known as an experiential piety comes this part of the movement. They are sometimes called Puritans for those who led the way in this part of the movement. Due to the potential confusion, some people argue that we should throw the term out altogether. I do not go that far, but I do acknowledge that when we use it, we need to be very clear on how we are using it.
In the case of William Perkins, strictly speaking, he was not a Puritan in the ecclesiastical sense. He was perfectly happy staying in the Church of England. We can refer to him as a Puritan in a more spiritual sense, or in terms of his piety whereby he really emphasized this idea of experiential spirituality—what it means for God’s sovereign grace to break into life’s experience.
That is a very simple understanding and introduction to the world of Puritanism and how they use the word “Puritan” when we speak of William Perkins.
Give us the dates, just briefly as well. When are we talking about the Puritans generally and then Perkins?
Generally, as an ecclesiastical movement, with the ascent of Elizabeth I to the throne in 1558 is when you get this movement. The return of the exiles from the reign of Mary from the continent to England happened then. Some of them want to purify the Church and begin working to those ends in beginning in 1558. The movement, ecclesiastical speaking, is done by 1662 when you have the great ejection in the Church of England—over 2,000 ministers leave. The ecclesiastical movement spans 100 years, and it is done in 1662.
Okay, introduce us to William Perkins—who he was, when did he live, and what was his career like?
William Perkins was born in 1558, the same year that Elizabeth I, who was just referenced, came to the throne. His years spanned just about the same time of her reign. He was born under her reign during 1558, and he died in 1602.
He was a man of humble beginnings. We do not really know much about him because the historical record does not have a lot. He became a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge. His tutor was a man by the name of Lawrence Chatterton, who was known for his Puritanism as far as concerns the movement of piety, that we just discussed. Christ’s College, Cambridge, was very much a place that turned out Puritan ministers.
He later became a fellow there and taught at Christ’s College. He also became the pastor of a church there in Cambridge called Great Saint Andrews. He was a lecturer there. His career was both as an academic and as pastor until in the middle the 1590s. He was married, and at that point had to give up his position as a fellow at Christ’s College. He was a large presence there at Cambridge throughout his life. His life was cut short, humanly speaking. Like I said, in 1602, at the age of 44 years old, he died an excruciating death from complications from kidney stones. He left behind a wife and several children as well. He was a very gifted preacher. That is for what he is primarily remembered.
As for his Art of Prophesying, it was a preaching manual that influenced generations within the Puritan movement and the English-speaking world. It remains influential in preaching to this day. He was a prolific writer; a lot of what he wrote was academic treatises. He wrote about cases of conscience that answered pastoral questions.
He did a lot of preaching. Much of what we have are his sermons that are collected into two commentaries. He is known as the Father of Puritanism, in the sense of shaping Puritanism as a spiritual movement. He was one of the early proponents of an experiential Reformed faith that we just discussed. He had a major influence on the generations of the 17th century.
In what ways was he one of the more outstanding of the Puritans?
When you think of Puritanism as a movement, what makes Perkins unique in terms of his contribution is the time period in which he lives. He is a first-generation Puritan, as a theological movement, or movement of spirituality or piety. Much of what we get later on, whether it be expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith or in the writings of the likes of John Flavel, Thomas Manton, or George Winick, who come much later in the 1600s and build upon William Perkins’ work. He laid the foundation theologically in terms of his emphasis on experiential piety. Much of what we get later is the development of his thoughts. In that way, he looms large.
We already talked about his emphasis on preaching. That was a specific way that he impacted the world—through his preaching manual and preaching ministry. We also know that he was an early proponent of the literature that we call casuistry, one of the famous ones is by Richard Baxter. It is called a Christian Directory, but that was kind of the blossoming of cases of conscience of which Perkins was an early proponent. I would say that teaching those cases of conscience is pastoral counseling.
He was a shaper of the movement of what we would call Calvinism, or the Reformed faith. He was in several controversies. He participated in several controversies while he was a teacher in Cambridge. He wrote a treatise on predestination that was going to be responded to by no less than Jacob Arminius. But when Perkins passed, Arminius decided not to publish his response.
He was also a significant figure internationally, which sets him apart, not making totally unique, but his writings were read internationally. He was part of the broader Reformed tradition, and so he was appreciated on the Continent. He wrote in Latin much of the time. In England, his writings surpassed and sold more than John Calvin’s towards the end of the 16th century. He was extremely well-read in England, but also internationally.
Talk to us about Perkins’ theology and how he went about doing theology. What is distinctive about his approach and his preaching and teaching? What stands out?
One of the things that stands out in the work that I’ve done on William Perkins is no matter what he is doing, whether he is writing a polemical treatise, or whether he is writing an academic treatise, or he is preaching, or writing something for lay-people—it really doesn’t matter—he is always expounding Scripture. He is never far removed from the biblical text. That is one the things that marks his ministry of preaching and writing is that it is thoroughly biblical.
Stephen—do you have anything to add on that?
I would add the practical: this whole idea of theology as the science of living blessedly forever would shock most theologians today. We are in the post-Enlightenment era where theology has become what we perceive to be a rational, detached study of abstract notions and ideas. That would be completely foreign to William Perkins. It would be completely foreign to the Reformers. It would also be completely foreign to most believers throughout Church History—that we would actually study God as some sort of detached set of propositional statements. They would not have put up with that. The science of living blessedly forever is to worship God, and to do theology is to obey God. They are inseparable.
This is something that I have greatly appreciated from Perkins, despite not always agreeing with every point of his theology. Most of it I do, but I certainly appreciate this emphasis on the inseparable link between theology and life. So, doctrine and practice, or the title of the little book were going to get to, Faith and Love. We cannot divorce these two—to know God is to embrace God and to embrace God is to live for God.
As you read Perkins, even when he is dealing with the most complex doctrinal systems, or waxing eloquent on difficult theological motifs, he always brings it back to “uses.” This was the Puritan way of focusing on why this matters, why different significant doctrines matter, and why and how they should impact us. That is something I greatly appreciate in his writing, and that becomes typical of the entire Puritan movement. The movement in its entirety does a great job of bringing together theology and life. What we believe (our knowledge), and how that impacts the heart and then shapes the life stands out in Perkins.
What do we know about his personal piety? And what about his family life?
Sadly, we do not have much in the historical documents about William Perkins’ person like you would when you write a traditional biography. We do not have correspondences, letters, or any type of autobiography. We have to glean from his own works and from the few times that he does show up in the historical record.
From his published writings, we know that he came to faith after he was in Cambridge. He had an experience—and we don’t know if the story is apocryphal—but he was a drunkard, stumbling through the streets of Cambridge. Some mother whose child was acting out said, “You’d better behave, or I will give you over to the drunken Perkins over there.” He overhears this, and the Lord uses this to convict him. He had a real conversion experience. After that is when he really started to pursue depth in his understanding of God’s Word and relationship with God. This experience transformed his life.
He clearly was a man who understood Scripture and was remarkably familiar with Scripture. When you read his sermons, there is a lot Scripture contained therein. There are all kinds of cross-references. He alludes to parts of Scripture and quotes freely. He was a man that was saturated with Scripture and emphasized application in preaching. That’s actually one of the places where I found it most helpful, as a pastor and preacher, is his relentless reminding and focusing on application, or what he would call “uses.” He wanted application to be specific. In his preaching manual, he wants you to think about the people that you’re preaching to, and he takes the promise from 2 Timothy 3:16–17, that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable.” He always wants to move back to applying things. I have no doubt that he was very much applying those things to his own heart and life, as he was trying to do for his hearers.
You asked about his family life, and we do not know that much. As Andrew alluded to, in terms of biographical information, there is a great deal we do not know. We do know he married a widow. Her name was Timothye Craddick. They married in 1594–95. Perkins was in his 30s at this point. We know there are a number of children in the home. How many of those children were from her first marriage, we are not sure; how many were William’s and her children, we are also not certain. What the home life was like, we can only guess.
He wrote an interesting book—not a big book, but a little treatise the year before he was married. It was called, How to Manage a Household Well. I like to think it was him prepping himself for getting married. He started his own premarital counseling course. In it he deals with family life, the roles of husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children.
These are subjects that the Reformers started to look into in the early-mid 1500s, coming out of Roman Catholicism. They had to come up with their own household theory. That book probably reflects some of his convictions as to what a household should look like, and I certainly hope he was practicing what he preached and that it is reflective of his own home life. He was certainly very biblical in his approach and very hands-on as he sees the role of the father/husband in the context of the family in the context of the home.
I never made that connection before, that he wrote that little treatise the year before he was married. It makes me curious if he would have changed anything after marriage and family life. It reminds me of the first church I served in. I was given the passage in Ephesians about children and parents before I had any kids, and I was very nervous to try to preach it.
What is Perkins’ legacy? How do you say what stands out? You have got the thirty-second elevator speech—who is William Perkins, what was he all about, and what you would you zero in on?
I would zero in on some of the things that we already talked about. In my mind, one of the biggest areas that he had influence on was preaching, and that extends through the dissenting traditions later on in the 17th century and beyond. I would affirm him as faithful pastor-theologian, one who had major influence enough to be given the title the Father of Puritanism. His legacy, in fact, should be much more obvious than it is. William Perkins was a big deal in his own day. The last publications of his works were in the 1630s and the 50s. It is not until recently that his publications are republished. It seems like he is kind of getting the interest and the attention that he deserves.
That is very interesting.
I would add that historically when people have looked at William Perkins, people have normally focused on his preaching, and rightly so. They have also focused on his understanding of the doctrine of predestination, which is significant. He wrote several treatises on the subject.
In terms of his lasting impact, as we read William Perkins today, the two things that leap off the page for me are number one, his emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ. He stands with John Calvin on this. His emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ is central to his doctrinal system. It is also central his piety, what it means to be one with Christ, and what it means to close with Christ. Therefore, what it means to live out our union with Christ can be summed up in four words: what it means to believe, what it means to repent, what it means to obey, and what it means to be assured the assurance of salvation.
This is everywhere when he is expounding Scripture. These motifs are like a thread that runs through all his treatises, small and large—anything doctrinal, expositional, or polemical. They are always there, never far from you, what it means to be one with Christ, and what that means for living out our union with Christ. Our identity in Christ, faith, repentance, new obedience, and assurance are all routinely covered. All that is extremely valuable for today. He has a lot to say, and we can glean from him in those areas.
Okay, we have been talking about Perkins himself—now tell us what your book is all about. Maybe you can give us a brief overview so our listeners can know what to expect.
What we did in this book is focus on his sermons on Jude. He is expounding what Jude says we should “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” And he talks about what that faith is. It is what he calls the “wholesome doctrine of the gospel,” which is of course where we get the title of the book.
Then he goes on to describe 21 doctrines, or grounds of doctrine to be believed. That is the faith portion. There are also 11 grounds of doctrine to be practiced that is the love portion. There are 32 topics in total. We cover those topics from all throughout his works, so that we have small digestible chunks from all over his wide array of writings. They are about 2 to 4, maybe 5 pages each, to be digestible introductions to what Perkins has to say on these various heads of doctrine and the practice of the Christian life. After a short biography and a discussion of his piety and theology, we present William Perkins himself with updated language from all over his works as an initial foray into the man, his thought, and his writings.
I should mention that your introduction in the first chapter, whichever one of you wrote it, you give just a good introduction to Perkins himself with an overview of his life and career. Other than the rest of the books from Perkins himself, it is an outstanding introduction to William Perkins. If someone out there is not familiar with Perkins, I do not know a better place to begin.
We are talking to Andrew Ballitch and Stephen Yuille about their new book, “‘The Wholesome Doctrine of the Gospel’: Faith and Love in the Writings of William Perkins.” It’s a delightful introduction to William Perkins and a delightful read. We encourage you to get a copy, read, and enjoy.
Andrew and Stephen, thanks much for talking to us today.
Ballitch and Yuille:
Thank you, Fred!
Buy the books
"THE WHOLESOME DOCTRINE OF THE GOSPEL": FAITH AND LOVE IN THE WRITINGS OF WILLIAM PERKINS, introduced and edited by Andrew S. Ballitch and J. Stephen Yuille