Why Bother with Ball?
July 19, 2016
I have referred to the puritan John Ball in a number of posts thus far. He is not exactly a household name, even within the relatively small Reformed world. Mention the term puritan and the names William Perkins, Richard Baxter, John Owen, James Ussher, and John Bunyan come to mind, not John Ball. A number of publishers, including the Banner of Truth Trust, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, and Reformation Heritage Books, have republished many puritan works, but not those of John Ball. The only modern reprints that I have come across is a print-on-demand facsimile of the original 1645 edition of his book on the covenant of grace by Peter and Rachel Reynolds, and one sermon that was published in a small collection of sermons by Soli Deo Gloria in 1997. So in light of his obscurity, why should we bother with Ball?
Well, besides the fact that he is one of my favorite puritans (a compelling reason no doubt), Ball was a highly regarded theologian among his peers and a very popular author during his lifetime and beyond. He was especially well thought of by the Westminster divines. B.B. Warfield said that “no one probably was more highly esteemed as a judicious divine by the fathers of the Assembly” than John Ball. Five notable members of Assembly, including Edward Reynolds, Anthony Burgess, and Edmund Calamy, wrote a preface to Ball’s A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace that was posthumously published in 1645. In it they praised him for his “great abilities and Pietie,” as evidenced by his works, especially his catechism and book on faith. In fact, these divines thought so well of Ball that they were willing to give their approval of his book on covenant theology even though they did not have the time to carefully read it as they would have liked before it went to press.
Ball’s two main catechisms were bestsellers. His smaller catechism, A Short Catechisme contayning the Principles of Religions, was reprinted thirteen times by 1630 and thirty-four times by 1653. It was translated into many languages, including Turkish by Lazarus Seaman, a member of the Westminster Assembly. His larger catechism, A Short Treatise contayning all the principall Grounds of Christians Religion, was according to B.B. Warfield “one of the chief popular dogmatic handbooks of the age,” and as such it was “a very fair representative of the Puritan trend of thought.”
A number of scholars have noted Ball’s influence on the Westminster Standards. Alexander Mitchell argued that Ball’s book on the covenant of grace “contains all that has been admitted into the Westminster standards, or generally received on this head among British Cavlinists.” Similarly, Andrew Woolsey has said that Ball was a main source for chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of faith and that his work provides “a contemporary understanding and interpretation of the more compressed confessional statements.”
The works of John Ball are thus worthy of study today because if for nothing else they provide a glimpse into puritan thought around the time of the Westminster Assembly. If you are interested in reading John Ball, I would encourage you to consider reading his two Catechisms, his Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, and his Treatise of Faith. The last two are technical and polemical at times, but you will be richly rewarded if you persevere through the more difficult sections.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this article on John Ball is to recount a story at the end of his life. As he was approaching death, his friends attempted to encourage him by recalling his “extensive usefulness.” Ball, however, turned the focus away from what he had done to God’s mercy. He replied, “If the Lord be not a God pardoning sins, I am in a miserable condition.” Indeed, if God be not a merciful God, we are all in a miserable condition. But praise be to our God that in Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Eph. 1:7).