William Perkins: The Making of a Protestant England

William Perkins

The Making of a Protestant England

By Revd Canon Chuck Collins

William Perkins (1558-1602) defined theology as “the science of living blessedly forever.” “Science” shows the seriousness and care he gave to classical learning. And “living blessedly forever” reveals his commitment to applied Protestant piety. He was a Cambridge professor, a brilliant scholar and theologian, and the most widely read religious writer of his day. He had an extremely large impact on the newly formed Church of England. Perkins was every bit the intellectual equal of John Jewel and Richard Hooker, and even more influential than his contemporaries in grounding Anglicanism in the Reformation. He lived during the years that literally defined Anglicanism – the years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and the Elizabethan Settlement, with its traditional Anglican formularies.

Perkins’s books were best sellers in England, and he was nearly as popular on the continent with fifty editions published in Switzerland, almost sixty in Germany, and over one hundred in Holland. He has been written off by some as a puritan, sometimes called “the prince of Puritan theologians.” This was, of course, a pejorative label that stuck, even though he didn’t fit the traditional definition. Like the puritans of his day, Perkins was God-entranced and completely serious about God’s greatness, but unlike many of them, he supported episcopal church governance over a presbyterian system, upheld the use of set prayers in the worship of the church, and he fully supported the Elizabethan Settlement against those who argued for more reform. 

True to the formularies (Thirty-nine Articles of Religion 1571, the 1559/1662 Book of Common Prayer, and two books of Homilies), Perkins had a very high view of the authority of Scripture and the power of the preached word, emphasised the sovereignty of God for salvation (election and predestination), and enthusiastically supported the traditional Anglican understanding of the sacraments as “means of grace.” In these ways he was “England’s Calvin”: the populariser of Calvin’s doctrines in the Church of England.

Like John Jewel in his famous Apology, Perkins claimed that Protestants are the true catholics whose faith is that of the Bible and the ancient consensual faith of the church (A Reformed Catholicke, 1597). He produced the first study of the church fathers in English for the purpose of showing how the papacy had departed from the teaching of the early church and how Protestants had recovered to the Bible and rescued the ancient faith of the church from captivity.

Exposition of the Symbole or Creed of the Apostles (1595) was Perkins’ most comprehensive treatment of Christian doctrine. He stated that the Creed contains the “very pith and substance of Christian religion” and is the perfect place to expound on a wide range of theological topics, especially the person and work of Jesus Christ. While the continental reformers spoke of three marks of the true church, Perkins maintained there was really one infallible mark: the preaching of the gospel. Administration of the sacraments and the church discipline are important for the church’s well-being, but they follow from the one reason for the church’s existence. The centrality of Christ, his life, death and resurrection, is evident in everything Perkins writes.

In all of Perkins’s writings he shows that God is sovereign: the author and finisher of salvation and sanctification. The Reformed emphasis on predestination and election is not fatalistic or deterministic as some have made it, but rather the grounds of our assurance of salvation. He defined predestination, what Anglicans call the doctrine that “is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons” (Article17), as “the decree of God by which he hath ordained all men to a certain and everlasting estate, that is either to salvation or condemnation for his own glory.” Perkins focused most exclusively on predestination in his Latin work translated into English: A Christian and Plaine Treatise of the Manner and Order of Predestination, and the Largenesse of Gods Grace (1598). This important work was what Jacobus Arminius argued against in objecting to the traditional understanding of predestination in his support for a synergistic view of salvation – as a cooperative effort of God and his people. Anglicanism was essentially settled Calvinist in its understanding of election and predestination from it’s beginning until the late 1590s when Montague, Laud, Andrewes and others began to raise their Arminian hands and objections. Perkins’ treatise played an important role in the controversy over predestination that led to the Synod of Dort (1618-19) which determined that Arminianism fell outside the boundaries of the reformed church, including Reformation Anglicanism.

Perkins was forty-four years old when he died. He wrote forty-eight books (21 published in his lifetime). He was a serious theologian who had a gift for plainly explaining complicated matters. He had a powerful impact on church and society in his day, and a lasting impact, even though history has not treated him well. “Some key leaders associated with the Laudian movement challenged his legacy during the reign of King Charles I, but Perkins’s ideas helped to shape a Protestant religious culture that became firmly rooted during the seventeenth century . . . he should be seen as one of the most important English reformers” (Patterson). Anglicanism is a Christ-centred, Bible-believing church in the reformed tradition as is wonderfully seen in our historic formularies. William Perkins knew this and lived it to the strengthening and furtherance of our Reformation Anglican heritage.

The Revd Canon Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism: (www.anglicanism.info).