William Perkins Has Entered the Chat

It seems like everyone is talking about the doctrine of God these days. Debates surrounding theology proper continue raging on with no end in sight. Overall, I believe this is a good thing. For many in the church, these discussions promote sharper doctrinal formulation, greater awareness of creedal and confessional statements, and clarity in teaching.

Thankfully, these discussions have also revealed the immense value of theological retrieval. As we seek to retrieve the doctrine and teachings of those eminent saints of the past and bring them into current conversation, we find that these issues were already debated and clearly defined. Those things that may seem new to us are not so new after all. Faithful theologians have set the course for us to follow, allowing for a true catholicity as the Holy Spirit continues to work in the school of Christ.

For that reason, I again suggest that we let William Perkins enter the chat, if you will, to briefly comment on two issues currently being hotly debated: Divine Simplicity and Inseparable Operations.

Divine Simplicity

Confessional theologians, both Reformed and Baptist alike, confess the doctrine of divine simplicity. Both the The Westminster Confession and the London Baptist Confession in 2.1 teaches that God is “without body, parts, or passions” and “most absolute.” Similarly, the first article of the Belgic Confession says that “We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God.” To say that God is simple in being is not a controversial statement for confessional Protestants. The question of late though, if I can put it simply, is whether each of the attributes of God are ontologically identical with his essence and with every other one of his attributes.[1] Some critics argue that this view is inconsistent with Scripture, and that it comes exclusively from a Thomistic metaphysic that wasn’t articulated as such until Thomas “baptized Aristotle.” 

William Perkins, who no doubt cited Thomas favorably at different times, affirms this classical definition of simplicity. Drawing upon various texts, such as Exodus 3:14, Acts 17:24-25, and several in John, he writes “Hence it is manifest that to have life and to be life, to be in light and to be light in God are all one…Therefore, whatever is in God is His essence; and all that He is, He is by essence.”[2] Perkins first and foremost viewed the doctrine of simplicity as chiefly a biblical doctrine.

After giving a handful of scriptural references, the reformed catholic theologian then cites a major theologian of church history, showing that this doctrine is truly catholic and to be accepted. Yet he doesn’t quote Thomas, but one who precedes Thomas by several centuries. He writes:

The saying of Augustine is fit to prove this: “In God,” says he, “to be and to be just or mighty are all one; but in the mind of man, it is not all one to be and to be might or just. For the mind may be destitute of these virtues and yet be a mind.”[3]

Perkins finds no contradiction in his understanding of the biblical data and the historical interpretation. He, like many before and after him, sought to carry on the catholic tradition that had been handed down through the centuries. As a Protestant, he believed in Reformation, but not in revolution. He gladly upheld the traditional doctrine of God, and did so not in spite of his criticism of Rome.

Inseparable Operations

The doctrine of inseparable operations didn’t begin with Adonis Vidu. For Perkins, the reality of inseparable operations is closely tied to simplicity. Perkins argues that the distinction of persons of the Godhead is “that by which albeit every person is one and the same perfect God” yet the persons are not identical nor can they be divided “by reason of the infinite greatness of that most simple essence…”[4] These distinct persons commune with each other and “each one is in the rest and with the rest by reason of the unity of the Godhead. And therefore, every each one does possess love and glorify another and work the same thing (emphasis mine).”[5] Perkins’s biblical and historical doctrine of simplicity leads him to recognize the truth that is set before us in scripture, as he cites John 14:10, Proverbs 8:22, 30, John 1:1, and John 5:19).

Though he recognizes personal properties and proper actions of each person, he nevertheless recognizes each person share the same agency. In this way, the Trinity is not broken, but rather, the Triune God is the one who works all things. This is not an isolated statement from Perkins, but it is an idea that shows up elsewhere in his theology. In formulating his doctrine Christ as mediator, Perkins recognizes the Father alone did not predestine or choose Christ to be mediator, because “to design the mediator is a common action of the three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”[6] The reason the Father is said “especially to design” is because He is “first in order and therefore has the beginning of the action.”[7]

This is perhaps most clearly seen in the act of creation. Though in the Apostle’s Creed we confess the Father as the creator, we see that creation is a work that is attributed to each divine person. In fact, according to Perkins, to attribute creation only to the Father “may seem strange to some” since the Bible clearly teaches that it is “common to them all three equally.”[8] Unlike the act of begetting which is an “inward action” peculiar to the person, creation, like redemption, is an outward action of God to the creature. “These,” writes Perkins, “and all such actions are common to all three persons.”[9] Why then, in the Creed, and in common terminology is the Father attributed with the act of creation? Because He is first in order. Yet, “the work of creation is not so proper to the first person as that it cannot also be common to the rest.”[10]

Why This Matters

Some who are new to these discussions may wonder why things like this matter, and whether these are merely just erudite musings for the more scholastic-minded who like to parse every jot and tittle they can. This is not so, however. These things matter because, if Perkins and others are right, then these truths are at the very heart of who God is and how He has acted in creation and redemption. To know God’s nature and His works are essential to a blessed and full life. As we peer into simplicity and inseparable operations, our creaturely mind collides with divine truth that is so grand that we, like Job, must place our hands over our mouth as we see this simple and magnificent God who is three persons working to glorify His name to bring a wicked people like us to glory. No study of theology should be merely academic, but should be something that causes the heart to rejoice and the mouth to praise. The study of true theology accomplishes just that.

Or, as our esteemed interlocutor would say, “theology is the science of living blessedly forever.”


Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Related Links

Podcast: "The Unmanipulated Trinity" 

"Hilary's View of the Trinity" by Todd Rester

"Is the Son Eternally Begotten?" by Ben Franks

Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen & Scott Swain

William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, ed. by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar


Notes

[1] See James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

[2] William Perkins, “A Golden Chain” in The Works of William Perkins, Vol. 6, eds. Joel R. Beeke and Greg A. Salazar (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 12-13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] William Perkins, “An Exposition of the Creed,” in The Works of William Perkins, Vol. 5, ed. Ryan Hurd (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 104.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Ibid.