Meet a Puritan: William Ames
February 29, 2016
William Ames (1576-1633)
William Ames was born in 1576 at Ipswich, Suffolk, then a center of the robust Puritanism. Ames’s father was a well-to-do merchant with Puritan sympathies; his mother was related to families that would help to found Plymouth Plantation. Since both parents died when he was young, he was reared by his maternal uncle, Robert Snelling, a Puritan from nearby Boxford.
Ames’s uncle sent him in 1594 to Christ’s College, Cambridge University. He graduated with a B.A. in 1598 and in 1601 with a M.A., after which, was elected Fellow at Christ’s College and ordained to the ministry. He underwent a dramatic conversion under the “rousing preaching” of William Perkins. Following his spiritual transformation, Ames declared that “a man may be bonus ethicus—a moral person in outward religion—and yet not bonus theologus—a sincere-hearted Christian (Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies, 1:131).
Ames quickly became the moral compass and conscience of the College. But this was short-lived. King James’s edict at the 1604 Hampton Court Conference strengthened the conviction that any Puritan activity at the colleges that involved criticism of the Church of England must be suppressed. Puritan spokesmen were soon stripped of their degrees and dismissed. The process culminated in 1609 with the appointment of Valentine Cary, who hated Puritanism, to the mastership rather than William Ames. On December 21, 1609, when Ames preached a stinging sermon on St. Thomas’s Day—an annual festivity at Cambridge which had become increasingly raucous over the years—and denounced gambling, administering the “salutary vinegar of reproof,” the college authorities had him taken into custody and suspended him from his academic degrees and ecclesiastical duties. After a brief period as city lecturer in Colchester, Ames was forbidden to preach by George Abbott, Bishop of London. In 1610, Ames decided to seek the freer academic and ecclesiastical climate of the Netherlands where he remained for the rest of his life.
Ames first went to Rotterdam where he met John Robinson, pastor of the English Separatist congregation. Some of the congregation’s members were soon to establish Plymouth Plantation. Ames could not persuade Robinson to abandon his Separatist sentiments that the Puritan churches should separate “root and branch” from the Church of England, but did succeed in tempering some of his more radical views. Following a brief stay in Rotterdam and Leiden, Ames was employed from 1611 to 1619 by Sir Horace Vere, commander of English forces stationed at The Hague, to serve as military chaplain. Here Ames presided over a small congregation, acted as spiritual counselor to the Vere family, ministered to the troops during military campaigns, and wrote four books against Arminianism. Ames’s skill as a theologian won him considerable acclaims as the “Augustine of Holland” and “the hammer of the Arminians” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1:943). Eventually, the Arminian issue was addressed at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Because of his expertise in addressing issues of the Arminian struggle, Ames, while a non-voting member of the synod, was called to be chief theological advisor and secretary to Johannes Bogerman, the presiding officer. An anti-Arminian purge in academic circles left a professorship vacated at Leiden University. Ames was elected to fill the chair, but the long arm of the English state prevailed. Ames, recently dismissed from his post in The Hague under pressure from the English authorities, found the post at Leiden University closed to him as well. To support his family, Ames turned to private lecturing and tutoring university students for three years, running a private “house college” at Leiden, where students lived in Ames’s home as he taught them theology. He later developed some of these lectures into his famous Marrow of Theology.
In 1622, officials at relatively new institution, Franeker University, ignored the English authorities and appointed Ames as professor of theology. On May 7, 1622, Ames gave his inaugural address. Four days later he received the Doctor of Theology degree upon successfully defending 38 theses and four corollaries on “the nature, theory, and practical working of Conscience” before Sibrandus Lubbertus, senior professor on the faculty. In 1626, he was appointed Rector Magnificus, the highest honorary academic office in the university. During his eleven-year tenure at Franeker, Ames became known as the “Learned Doctor” who tried to “puritanize” the entire university. Ames acknowledged the university was orthodox in doctrine, but did not feel that a majority of the faculty and student body were sufficiently Reformed in practice. Therefore, Ames once again organized a kind of rooming house or “college” in his house within the university where tutorial sessions, lectures, and numerous theological discussions took place. Students came from all over Europe to study under him with his most famous pupil being Johannes Cocceius, who would later develop covenant theology beyond Ames. Yet some students and faculty members did not appreciate Ames’s efforts to achieve further reformation. A clique of professors, led by Johannes Maccovius, sabotaged Ames’s efforts.
In 1632, Ames accepted an invitation from his friend Hugh Peter to join him in co-pastoring the church of English refugees at Rotterdam. Ames was attracted to the post because of Peter’s vision of a covenant-centered congregation that strove for a purged membership of regenerate believers who truly practiced their faith. He was desired to help the church develop a Puritan college in Rotterdam. In late summer, 1633, Ames finally headed south to Rotterdam. In the fall, the Maas River breached its banks, and Ames, already unwell, became even more ill after his house was flooded. He died of pneumonia on November 11 at the age of fifty-seven in the arms of Hugh Peter. To the end, he remained firm in faith and triumphant in hope. Shortly before his death, Ames seriously considered joining his friend John Winthrop in New England. Four years after Ames’s death, his wife and children went to live in the Puritan settlement of Salem, Massachusetts. They brought Ames’s library with them, which formed the nucleus of the original library for Harvard College, though fire later destroyed most of the books.
Ames’s influence was perhaps greatest in New England, where his Marrow became the primary text at Harvard and was often and read and quoted throughout the colonies. Then, too, his writings on church issues laid the groundwork for non-separating Congregationalism in New England, a movement that maintained that the Congregational churches of Massachusetts Bay Colony ought to support the further reformation of the Church of England rather than separation from it. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 in particular reflects Ames’s thought. Cotton Mather called Ames “that profound, that sublime, that subtle, that irrefragable—yea, that angelic doctor.” Ames’s influence was also great in the Netherlands, where he became known for his opposition to Arminianism. He influenced Dutch thinking in many ways, especially in his development of casuistry, that is, how to deal with specific “cases of conscience.” Gisbertus Voetius, professor at Utrecht, was profoundly influenced by Ames’s ideas. Petrus van Mastricht also drew heavily on Ames, particularly his covenantal thinking and casuistry. Nearly all of Ames’s books were printed in the Netherlands, many in Latin for the international scholarly community. The Marrow of Theology and Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof were soon both translated into Dutch and reprinted at least four times in the seventeenth century. Ironically, Ames was least influential in his homeland of England, although there, too, he was considered Perkins’s most important disciple and heir. Ames’s major works were widely circulated, and influenced Calvinistic theology in England throughout the seventeenth century. His Marrow was particularly highly esteemed by the Puritans. Thomas Goodwin said that “next to the Bible, he esteemed Dr. Ames, his Marrow of Divinity, as the best book in the world.”
Conscience, with the Power and Cases Thereof (Latin, 1630; English, 1639). Harvard historian Samuel Morrison describes this important manual as “one of the most valuable sources of Puritan morality.” It passed through nearly twenty printings in less than thirty years. Ames mentions in the preface how he listened to William Perkins expound the Puritan way of handling cases of conscience, which profoundly impacted him, and directed the course of his life and ministry. Conscience naturally flows from and serves as a commentary, as it were, on Book 2 of the Marrow. Ames himself stated as much: “If there are some who desire to have practical matters better explained, especially those of the latter part of this Marrow, we shall attempt, God willing, to satisfy them in a special treatise, which I mean to write, dealing with questions usually called ‘cases of conscience.’” A collection of five books, Conscience moves from a theoretical treatment of the nature of conscience to very practical applications. Richard Baxter, who built his own Christian Directory on Ames’s casuistry, said that Perkins did valuable service in promoting Reformed casuistry, but Ames’s work, though briefer, was superior: “Ames hath exceeded all.”
- Book 1 defines conscience as “a man’s judgment of himself, according to the judgment of God of him.”
- Book 2 describes what a case of conscience is: “a practical question, concerning which, the Conscience may make a doubt.” This section explains sin, entry into the state of grace, the ongoing battle between flesh and spirit, and conduct in the Christian life.
- Book 3 is titled, “Of Man’s Duty in General,” asks about “the actions, and conversation of [man’s] life.” Ames says the sign of true obedience is submissively placing God’s will ahead of the will of the creature, even when that will does not appear to work towards the creature’s advantage. This is accomplished by exercising the disciplines of an obedient life—humility, sincerity, zeal, peace, virtue, prudence, patience, temperance—and by avoiding practices that hinder an obedient walk, such as drunkenness, sins of the heart, and sins of the tongue.
- Books 4 and 5 ask how cases of conscience are to be adjudicated. The answer is by proper understanding and application of the moral law. Ames goes on to elucidate the moral law regarding one’s duty toward God and one’s neighbor. Man’s duty to God covers the entire spectrum of the obedient Christian walk, from love towards God in public and private worship to the keeping of the Sabbath. Ames discusses general topics such as the church, but he also covers specific topics such as prayer and singing. He properly prepares the reader for Book 5 on interpersonal relations by first settling any uncertainty the believer may have about his relationship to God. Book 5 is twice as long as book 4 as Ames discusses cases of conscience that might come up in interpersonal relationships. He grounds all his teaching in the last six of the Ten Commandments.
The Marrow of Theology (Latin, 1627) was the standard theological textbook for New England Puritans for over a hundred years. It was generally regarded as the best succinct summary of Calvinistic theology ever written. Thomas Hooker and Increase Mather recommended the Marrow as the most important book beyond the Bible for making a sound theologian. Mather said it was the only book other than the Bible that was a necessary prerequisite to entering the ministry. Ames’s work was replaced eventually by Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology and Charles Hodges’s Systematic Theology. The theology of this book is all about practical Christianity—a Christianity of the whole man, not just the intellect, will, or affections. It demonstrates Ames’s passion that thought and life should represent a single system of practical, vital Christianity. Ames tried to show that theology does not deal primarily with statements about God, but rather with knowledge of how to live to God, i.e., “in accord with the will of God.” Ames held to the primacy of volition. Faith involves “an act of the whole man—which is by no means a mere act of the intellect,” he wrote, but the act of the will in believing the gospel is that which, by the Spirit’s grace, makes knowledge saving. Saving knowledge, therefore, differs from mere knowledge by involving the wholehearted commitment of the will. Ames writes, “Although faith always presupposes a knowledge of the gospel, there is nevertheless no saving knowledge in anyone ...except the knowledge which follows this act of the will and depends upon it” (1.1.3-4). By focusing on the will as the center of faith, Ames wanted to demonstrate that true piety takes place in a covenant relationship between the sinful creature and the redeeming Creator. Faith as an act of the will is a true mark of covenant obedience as the creature is asked to respond with faith and obedience to the covenant promises offered freely in Christ. Covenant theology is the heart of Ames’s theological system. The Marrow is organized according to the Ramist system of dichotomies in which the theme is pursued that theology, the doctrine of living to God, consists of “faith” (Book 1, chapters 1-41) and “observance” (Book 2, chapters 1-22). Such works flow from and add life and meaning to faith. Those two major categories—faith and observance—comprise the fountainhead from which Ames’s entire theological system flows.
- Book 1 defines faith as “the resting of the heart on God” and sets forth faith as an act of the whole man. Ames discusses the object of faith, which is God. Following his teaching on the knowledge and essence of God (Book 1, chapters 4-5; hereafter, 1.4, 5), Ames sets forth God’s “efficiency,” which he defines as the “working power of God by which He works all things in all things (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 11:36)” (1.6). He then discusses God’s decree as the first exercise of God’s efficiency (1.7). He establishes that everything happens because of God’s eternal good pleasure as demonstrated in His creation and providence (1.8, 9). God’s preserving grace extends over the created order, while the special government that God exercises toward humanity, the “intelligent creature,” is the covenant of works (1.10). By violating this conditional covenant, humanity tragically fell into sin. That fall had serious and eternal consequences, including spiritual and physical death and the propagation of original sin (1.11-17). But there is still hope. Condemnation is overturned by restorative grace through redemption. Through the person and work of Christ, fallen humanity can have renewed fellowship with God. All of this happens solely for God’s good pleasure and out of His “merciful purpose” (1.18-23). In chapter 24, titled “The Application of Christ,” Ames’s covenant theology becomes more obvious. The means through which the covenant of redemption between God and Christ comes to fruition is the covenant of grace, which the Scriptures call the “new covenant.” In other words, the “application of Christ” is administered covenantally. After explaining how the new covenant differs from the old, Ames asserts that the essence of the covenant of grace continues through different historical dispensations until, finally, in the last day, believers will be swept up into glory, and the covenant of grace inaugurated at the fall will finally be consummated. Ames places the doctrine of predestination as part of the doctrine of assurance (1.25). For Ames, assuring grace belongs with his examination of the order of salvation, before moving through “union by calling,” justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification (1.26-30). Ames then devotes two chapters to the subject of the application of redemption, the church (1.31-32), then addresses the way or means of the application of redemption, devoting chapters to Holy Scripture (1.34), the ministry (1.33, 35), the sacraments (1.36, 41), and ecclesiastical discipline (1.37). Finally, Ames explains how God administers the covenant of grace (1.38, 39, 41).
- Book 2 offers the observance or obedience that accompanies faith. Obedience is accomplished through virtue and good works, and is manifested in religion (love to God) as well as justice and charity (love to neighbor). Here Ames explains how the first table of the law and its theological virtues are the foundation of religion and worship of God, while the second table of the law and its charitable virtues constitute the paradigm for interpersonal behavior. This blueprint for the Christian life is expressed by acting toward God and each other as the Ten Commandments prescribe (2.1-22). Ames worked out Book 2 in detail in his Conscience.
Excerpted from Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 11–14.
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