The term scholasticism is often used in a derogatory manner to describe theology which is abstract, pedantic, or obscure. While there are theologians (both ancient and modern) who have justifiably earned such a moniker, we must be careful to distinguish between this pejorative usage of the term and its more technical meaning. In brief, the word scholasticism comes from the Latin schola (school), and it describes those theologians who lectured in universities and were committed to the integration of three principal domains (the theological, exegetical, and metaphysical) by means of a particular method of study (the syllogistic argument, the quaestio format, etc.). Those Reformed theologians who adopted and applied this theological method at the time of the Protestant Reformation and shortly thereafter are known as Reformed scholastics—men such as Francis Turretin, Peter Vermigli, Martin Bucer, and Amandus Polanus. Many of the Reformed scholastics were also pastors, deeply concerned about promoting worship and cultivating godliness among God’s people. Click To Tweet
What surprises many people today is to hear that the Reformed scholastics were anything but abstract, pedantic, or obscure. While their writings are intellectually demanding, they are marked by a clarity and vitality that is noticeably absent from much contemporary theology. It also comes as a surprise to many when they discover that most of the Reformed scholastics were also pastors, deeply concerned about promoting worship and cultivating godliness among God’s people.
A notable example of this pastoral focus among the Reformed scholastics is William Perkins (1558–1602). While serving as a fellow at Christ’s College in Cambridge, he was installed as a lecturer, across the street, at Great St. Andrew’s Church. His popularity as a preacher is explained in part by his ability to adapt his scholastic learning to the needs of those in the pew. As one biographer observed, “His sermons were not so plain but that the learned did admire them, nor so learned but that the plain did understand them.” Another factor that contributed to Perkins’s popularity was his emphasis on spiritual dynamics.
Targeting the Conscience
The apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to “war a good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:18-19). This simple command captured Perkins’s attention. As a preacher, he was concerned about imparting the “faith” (sound doctrine) to those under his watch, and he was equally concerned about promoting “a good conscience.”
Central to Perkins’s understanding of the conscience is his belief that the soul consists of two main faculties: understanding and will (including affections). The faculty of understanding, in turn, has two parts: the “theoretical” which contemplates what is true and false, and the “practical” which compares our words, thoughts, affections, and actions against what is true and false in order to determine whether they are good or bad. According to Perkins, God has placed this conscience between Him and us, to serve as an “arbitrator” to pass sentence either for us or against us. Central to Perkins’s understanding of the conscience is his belief that the soul consists of two main faculties: understanding and will (including affections). Click To Tweet
The conscience “gives testimony” by determining what we have done or not done, and it “gives judgment” by determining what was “well done or ill done.” It makes this determination based on God’s Word—the “binder” of the conscience. Of particular significance to Perkins is the fact that the mind and memory function as “assistants” to aid in this process. The mind stores God’s Word, and it presents the “rules of divine law” to the conscience, whereas the memory recalls our particular words, thoughts, affections, and actions. Conscience then compares what the mind presents and the memory recalls. Having done so, it gives judgment, either “accusing and condemning” or “excusing and absolving.”
When Perkins preached, he took direct aim at the conscience, seeking to agitate it by means of the law and assuage it by means of the gospel. He emphasized careful self-examination and faithful scriptural application, seeking to persuade his listeners (from the common worker to the college professor) to enter “into judgment” with themselves.
Humbling the Heart
When a person’s conscience is confronted with the discrepancy between his conduct (in word, thought, or deed) and the demands of God’s Word, it accuses and condemns. The result is the “humbling and softening” of the heart. Perkins notes that in Scripture a sinner is often compared to a sick man, and that the forgiveness of sin often resembles the healing of disease. To be cured of a disease, we must see it, perceive its danger, and surrender ourselves into the doctor’s hands to do as he says. Perkins believes the same is true when it comes to the forgiveness of sin. We must be “weary and heavy-laden” before we will rest in Christ (Matthew 11:28–30), we must be like a “battered reed” (easy to break off) and a “smoldering wick” (easy to put out) before we will turn to Christ (Matthew 12:20). In short, there must be humiliation for sin before there will ever be surrender to Christ.
At first glance, Perkins’s emphasis on humbling the heart seems to open the door to preparationism—the idea that people must fulfill certain requirements prior to believing in Christ. For this reason, we would be well advised to interpret him while keeping two additional emphases in mind.
The first is Perkins’s insistence that humiliation is a fruit of faith. When describing how God works faith in the heart, he puts humiliation before faith, not because it is first, but because we are aware of it first. “Faith lies hid in the heart, and the first effect whereby it appears is the abasing and humbling of ourselves.”
The second emphasis is Perkins’s conviction that we become children of God at the very moment we have any awareness of our need for Christ. He writes, “In the parable of the prodigal son, the father with joy receives his wicked child. But when? Surely, when he saw him coming afar off, and when as yet he had made no confession or humiliation to his father, but only had conceived within himself a purpose to return and to say, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against thee’ (Luke 15:21).”
In this manner, Christ is said “to be made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption” Click To Tweet Aware of our need for Christ, we rest in His atoning sacrifice as the basis for God’s acceptance of us. As the apostle Paul writes, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8). From Paul’s example Perkins derives a simple (yet profound) doctrine—namely, we must come to Christ without any “virtues or works” of our own and we must esteem ourselves to be “wretched and miserable” sinners while simply praying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
By means of faith, we become one with Christ, thereby gaining “the whole Christ … according to both natures.” We gain His Godhead “in respect of virtue and operation showed in (or upon) the manhood of Christ,” and we gain His manhood which is “really communicated to the believing heart.” In this manner, Christ is said “to be made unto us of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Christ is our wisdom because “from His wisdom there is wisdom derived in some measure to all who are mystically united to Him.” Christ is our justice “because that justice which is in the manhood … whereby He obeyed His Father’s will and suffered all things to be suffered for us … is imputed to us and accounted ours.” Christ is our sanctification because our holiness is derived from His holiness and “springs as a fruit.” And Christ is our redemption because He “lives in the estate of exaltation and glory … not only for Himself, but also for us, that we, being partakers thereof, may live together with Him.” Given Christ’s inestimable worth, we (like Paul) desire to be “found” in Him—that is, “to be taken out of the first Adam and to be united unto Christ as His very flesh or as a true member of His mystical body.”
It is God’s grace alone that makes our faith possible. Perkins explains, “Faith does not justify in respect of itself because it is an action or virtue or because it is strong, lively, and perfect, but in respect of the object thereof, namely Christ crucified, whom faith apprehends as He is set forth unto us in the Word and sacraments. … As for faith in us, it is but an instrument to apprehend and receive that which Christ for His part offers and gives. … Though our apprehension is necessary, yet our salvation stands in this, that God apprehends us for His own rather than that we apprehend Him.”Perkins’s reference to faith as an “instrument” is significant, for it means that faith is a gift of God’s grace that moves us to respond to Christ through the preaching of the Word. In sum, it is a passive “instrument” by which we receive Christ; but, at the moment we receive Christ, it actively responds to the gift of grace.
This response is evidenced in repentance. According to Perkins, faith is the means through which we become “a true member of Christ’s mystical body” by which we receive what is “given by the Father, procured by the Son, [and] applied by the Holy Spirit.” However, when it comes to a “way” to eternal life, faith is not alone, but is accompanied by other works and virtues. “If we speak of the way to life,” says Perkins, “then we are not saved only by faith. For though faith is the only instrument to apprehend Christ, yet it is not the only way to life. Repentance also is the way, yea all virtues and all works are the way.”
According to Perkins, repentance is “a work of grace arising from a godly sorrow, whereby a man turns from all his sins unto God and brings forth fruit worthy amendment of life.” His definition is carefully crafted to address what he perceived to be the prevalence of “counterfeit” repentance in his day. Far too many rested in their “ceremonial” repentance (“an outward show”) or “desperate” repentance (“a horror of conscience”). Yet, these lacked one essential ingredient—namely, “godly sorrow.” When this “disposition” takes root, we see sin as the greatest evil and we sorrow because of it. Perkins elaborates, “If there were no conscience to accuse, no devil to terrify, no judge to arraign and condemn, no hell to torment, yet he would be humbled and brought to his knees for his sins because he has offended a loving, merciful, and longsuffering God.”
The “principal cause” of such “godly” sorrow (and, therefore, of repentance) is the Holy Spirit. By the ministry of the Word, He enables us to gain some “knowledge” of the law of God, the judgment of God, and the guilt of sin. He then assists us in our application of this knowledge to ourselves, thereby producing “fear and sorrow” in respect of God’s judgment. At this point, the Holy Spirit enables us to see God’s mercy in the offer of the gospel. Once we apply this to ourselves, we experience joy (as we see our sins pardoned in Christ) and sorrow (as we see how much our sins displease Christ). The result is repentance whereby we resolve within ourselves “to sin no more as [we have] done, but to live in newness of life.”
It is evident that Perkins had no place for a truncated gospel—a Christ who fails to transform. Click To Tweet The final spiritual dynamic is the cultivation of godliness. Paul’s desire was to “know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection” and to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). For Perkins, we do so when, by faith, we spread ourselves “upon the cross of Christ,” applying our hands and feet “to His pierced hands and feet,” and applying our “wretched heart to Christ’s bleeding heart.” As we do, we feel ourselves “warmed by the heat of God’s Spirit, and sin from day to day crucified with Christ, and [our] dead heart quickened and revived.” By means of this application, God’s tender mercy in Christ compels us to “endeavor to keep [our] heart and life unblameable, so that [we] do not offend Him hereafter in word or deed.”
From this, it is evident that Perkins had no place for a truncated gospel—a Christ who fails to transform. The instrument by which we lay hold of Christ is faith alone (without any works). However, when we speak of the way of salvation, good works are essential. In short, there must be a transformation in word and deed. Perkins was driven by concern for those who possess a mere “knowledge swimming in the brain.” For Perkins, true knowledge “alters and disposes the affections.” It is, firstly, to feel “our sins” so profoundly that we dislike “ourselves and our past lives” and seek “conformity with Christ in all good duties.” It is, secondly, to comprehend the Father’s love in giving “His own dear Son to death” and the Son’s goodness in loving “His enemies more than Himself” to such a degree that our hearts are “inflamed to love God.”
For Perkins, we cultivate such “lively, powerful, and operative knowledge” by following three steps. The first is “consideration” whereby we see Christ as He is “revealed in the history of the gospel” and “offered in the ministry of the Word and sacraments.” This sight makes us feel our need of Him and correspondingly long for Him. The second step is “application” whereby we recognize that Christ was crucified for us, meaning He stood in our “very room and place” while our “very personal and particular sins were imputed and applied to Him.” The third step is “affection” whereby we are “carried to Christ,” esteeming Him at “so high a price” that all else pales in comparison.
For these three steps to produce their desired effect, Perkins was convinced that we must meditate on “the passion of Christ.” We do so, not by means of “the wooden crucifix after the popish manner,” but by means of “the preaching of the Word and in the sacraments.” As we hear of Christ agonizing in the garden, we think of our sins that “brought such bloody and grievous pains upon Him.” As we hear of Him bound and led away, we remember our sins that “brought Him into the power of His enemies and were the very bonds wherewith He was tied.” As we hear of His condemnation, we consider “the wrath and fury of God against sin, and … His great and infinite mercy to sinners.” As we hear of Christ clothed in purple and crowned with thorns, we behold “the everlasting shame that is due unto us.” As we hear of Him naked upon the cross, we remember that He covered our deformity “with His most precious and rich nakedness.” As we hear of His cry from the cross, we think of “how He suffered the pangs and torments of hell as our pledge and surety.” As we hear of His death, we consider that “our sins were the cause of it.” As we hear of the trembling of the earth, we think of how we “deserved to be swallowed by the earth and to go down into the pit alive rather than to have any part in the merit of Christ crucified.”
By applying ourselves to this “history of the passion of Christ,” we move purposefully and deliberately through the three steps of “consideration,” “application,” and “affection,” until our knowledge becomes “lively, powerful, and operative.” For Perkins, the result is change (i.e., growth in godliness) as we experience what it means know “Christ crucified.”
Perkins stressed the above spiritual dynamics because he was determined to lead people to a greater awareness of the holiness of God, the depth of their sin, the sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ for their acceptance with God, the necessity of a life of repentance flowing from union with Christ, and the cultivation of a solid assurance rooted in the work of Christ.
 Thomas Fuller, The Holy State (Cambridge, 1642), 89–90.
 William Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience: Wherein is set down the nature, properties, and differences thereof, as also the way to get and keep a good conscience, in The Whole Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 1:517.
 Discourse of Conscience, 1:517.
 Discourse of Conscience, 1:518.
 Discourse of Conscience, 1:518.
 Discourse of Conscience, 1:535.
 William Perkins, The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience, in The Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 2:1.
 William Perkins, A Treatise Tending unto a Declaration, whether a man is in the estate of damnation, or in the estate of grace; and if he is in the first, how he may in time come out of it; if in the second, how he may discern it, and persevere in the same to the end, in The Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 1:363.
 Tending unto a Declaration, 1:365–66.
 Treatise of Cases of Conscience, 2:14.
 William Perkins, A Grain of Mustard Seed, or the least measure of grace that is (or can be) effectual to salvation, in The Whole Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 1:637.
 William Perkins, The True Gain: More in Worth than All the Goods in the World, in The Whole Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 1:648–49.
 True Gain, 1:652.
 True Gain, 1:654.
 True Gain, 1:655–57.
 Grain of Mustard Seed, 1:641.
 Treatise of the Cases of Conscience, 2:15.
 True Gain, 1:650.
 William Perkins, Two Treatises: The Nature and Practice of Repentance; and The Combat of the Flesh and Spirit, in The Whole Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 1:455.
 Two Treatises, 1:468.
 Two Treatises, 1:455.
 Two Treatises, 1:456.
 Two Treatises, 1:440.
 William Perkins, A Declaration of the True Manner of Knowing Christ Crucified, in The Whole Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legate, 1631), 1:627.
 True Manner, 1:627.
 True Manner, 1:626–27.
 True Manner, 1:630.
 True Manner, 1:632.
 True Manner, 1:633.