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The William Perkins Conference, Cambridge

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Category Articles
Date July 3, 2017

An unusual conference was held in the Round Church in Cambridge on May 19th and 20th. It was organised by Dr Joel Beeke and Reformation Heritage Books, who are currently publishing the complete works of William Perkins in 10 volumes (volume 4 appeared just before the Conference).

The library at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary has been named the William Perkins Library (one prize exhibit being a set of Perkins’ folio books, once owned by Spurgeon and then by A.W. Pink who made extensive notes in them).

Dr Beeke had brought 55 North Americans to Britain for a short tour that climaxed in this conference in the historic Round Church and a general invitation, free of charge, was given to anyone who wished to attend to join the tour party. Over 150 people from the UK took up the invitation. It was an excellent conference.

On Friday night Sinclair Ferguson spoke on Perkins as a Plain Preacher, making four points – his influence (including a fascinating anecdote from South Korea during the nineties in which he recounted acquiring the two folio volumes of Perkins’ Word very cheaply); his understanding of preaching; his emphasis on the plain style, and his grids (as described in the Banner paperback edited by Dr. Ferguson, The Art of Prophesying).

Dr Joel Beeke opened the Saturday morning on William Perkins’ ‘Largest Case of Conscience’: assurance. Dr Beeke is an authority on this subject and he helpfully told us about Perkins’ writings and why he had written them. Like Dr Ferguson he began with some biographical background material stressing Perkins’ powerful influence. He then explained his doctrine of assurance, itemising his several writings on this subject and finishing with a summary of Perkins’ little book A case of conscience, the greatest that ever was: How a man may know whether he be the child of God or not  (6 folio pages).

In the second part of the morning my esteemed father-in-law, Geoff Thomas, spoke on the pursuit of godliness in the ministry of Perkins. He highlighted

  1. How Perkins pursued godliness (through conversion, study, following providential leadings [for example evangelising prisoners in Cambridge jail] and by becoming a minister)
  2. How preaching encourages godliness
  3. Three essential marks of godliness (the faith that saves [knowledge, assent, trust – with which there must be a right beginning, credible fruit and a life of trusting the Lord] the repentance that saves and a new saving obedience, which includes an outward and inward obedience and a seeking to promote better affections).

The fourth speaker, on Saturday evening, was J. Stephen Yuille. He message was entitled ‘Contending for the Faith: Faith and Love in his Defense of the Protestant Religion’, observing that although he is called the father of Puritanism, Perkins is a Reformer rather than a Puritan. He was an apologist both for the truth and for the Church of England.

The following are a summary of the fifteen reasons Yuille gave us as to why we should read Perkins:

  1. His unwavering commitment to the truth of Scripture in contrast to ancient and modern scepticism.
  2. His exegetical method which highlights the problems with current accepted (but flawed) methods of interpretation.
  3. His conviction that the principal work of the Holy Spirit is to illumine what is in Scripture rather than to mystically bring about some immediate knowledge of God within.
  4. His insistence on preaching as something that should be emphasised in the church today- once more, an excellent corrective to some of the ideas that are prevalent in our present time.
  5. His plain style of preaching which provides a glimpse into the Reformed conviction that Scripture both informs and transforms us, but also delivers us from ceaseless homiletical innovation.
  6. His experiential preaching, addressing the matter of Scripture and so providing a paradigm for preachers who want to bring the mind into contact with the real meaning of Scripture. (He was careful to distinguish law and gospel throughout Scripture and to preach both).
  7. His detailed description of the doctrine of predestination and his preaching of the gospel – a corrective to those who say they admire him but fail to show the same balance (Unlike some of his successors he never lost sight of the free offer).
  8. His delight in Christ as the all sufficient Saviour, a great tonic for those who say that Christ is the answer but do not truly believe it and offer all sorts of lesser alternatives.
  9. His portrayal of Christ our righteousness which provides relief to the sinner aware of his sin and of his need for a Savour.
  10. His handling of the doctrine of justification and sanctification which sheds light on the current (often recurring) debates over the relationship between the two.
  11. His realism as to the difficulties of the Christian life, a refreshing encouragement to those trapped in the false teaching of a two-tiered form of Christianity.
  12. His theological acumen provides a great theological, exegetical and philosophical example to us of how to handle doctrine in a balanced way.
  13. His repudiation of the dualistic Spirit/matter view provides warning against the temptation to follow a disembodied pietism.
  14. His view of theology as the science of living blessedly forever. This proves a great antidote to some of the Enlightenment ideas that diminish theology to a mere academic exercise (Perkins quotes Psalm 144:15 again and again).
  15. His defence of the wholesome doctrine of love speaks to a church that still struggles to harmonise faith and love, etc.

Our final paper was from Greg Salazar, currently studying for his PhD in Cambridge. He had four main points as he spoke on ‘Conviction, Conformity and Conscience: William Perkins, Dual Allegiance and the Dilemma of the Moderate Puritan Tradition in Elizabethan Cambridge’:

  1. The Puritan defence of the sole authority of Scripture as against Roman Catholicism: Here he touched on the centrality of the Bible, the Catholic assault on the sole authority of Scripture, and the Puritan response.
  1. The Puritan defence of the centrality of preaching against conformists: Here he brought to our attention attempts to supplant the centrality of preaching by emphasis on the sacraments and reading Scripture and prayers.
  1. The Puritan defence of the pursuit of holiness against antinomianism: Here he spoke of the Puritan pursuit of holiness and the influence of Emmanuel College, prophesyings, lectureships, etc. He also spoke of the assault on this position by Tobias Crisp, John Saltmarsh and others and the counter response from Samuel Rutherford.

Salazar concluded by making four final, helpful applications :

  1. Be zealous for the authority of God’s Word and on guard against supplemental authorities.
  2. Be convinced of the centrality of preaching and the folly of alternative forms of grace.
  3. Look for God’s smiling face in frowning providences.
  4. Pursue disciplined holiness in community and be on guard against antinomian tendencies.
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