The Rise of Reformed System: The Intellectual Heritage of William Ames

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Puritanboard Clerk
Van Vliet, Jan. The Rise of the Reformed System: The Intellectual Heritage of William Ames. London: Paternoster, 2013.

Jan van Vliet sees William Ames as the connecting link between William Perkins, the Father of English Puritanism, and the Westminster Confession, the high point of Puritan theology.

The Pactum Salutis

Calvin: God “compacted within himself” (Institutes 3.21.5)
Ames: “This agreement between God and Christ” (Marrow 1.24.3).

Ames “moves covenant theology forward significantly” by explaining that God’s governance is two-fold, general and specific (Van Vliet 34). His general governance includes the law of nature. It also includes, and this is important, how creatures respond to God in reason and obedience.

Key idea: “Ames holds to a covenant of grace that is one-sided and absolutely unconditional” (39). Anticipating some of Cocceius’s developments, he sees biblical history unfolding in a way that progressively removes the works typology.

Ames’s Voluntarism

If one wants to speak of voluntarism, there are certain parameters that must be followed. No Reformed theologian, certainly not Ames, believed that voluntarism was God’s raw will–a crude divine command ethic. Neither intellectualism nor voluntarism had in mind any “idea of huan thinking, willing, or acting outside of grace” (60).

Ames wants to unify head and heart. It’s not that he prioritizes will over intellect. Rather, he places both in the heart. There is first a “passive receiving of Christ [whereby] a spiritual principle of grace is generated in the will of man” (Marrow, 1.26.21-25). It is Ames’s contention that the mere enlightening of the mind doesn’t take away the corruption of the will.. It seems this is problem with intellectualism: the will can’t follow a renewed mind if it itself is corrupt.

Van Vliet has an extended discussion on how Ames’s voluntarism dovetails with his Ramism (72-78).


Both Ames and Perkins drew heavily upon medieval ethics. This is even more acute with Ames in light of his emphasis on covenant and obedience. Casuistry, however, isn’t simply rule-making. It involves nuanced and technical discussions on the nature of the soul and the human person, beginning with man’s conscience. Conscience “is man’s judgment of himself, according to the judgment of God of him” (115). Conscience either accuses or excuses. That is why medieval accounts of conscience as a moral habit are inadequate. Habits don’t accuse.

Van Vliet gives a nice picture of the Puritan model.

Major Premise/Proposition. This is the law, usually taken from Scripture.
Minor Premise/Assumption/Index. Assertion of the state of things.

Not to be missed, but perhaps not as obvious, is that Ames has moved “conscience” from the realm of “faculty” to that of “act” (118).

Nadere Reformatie

It is not surprising that there is a chapter on the Nadere Reformatie, given Ames’s sojourn in the Dutch Republic. While his controversy with Maccovius is interesting, of particular important are those who came in Ames’s footsteps: Wilhemus a’Brakel and Petrus Van Mastricht.

A’Brakel drew heavily from Ames’s casuistry with only slight variations.

Proposition: Knowledge of the will of God
Acknowledgement of God’s “cognizance of the action under review” (191).

Petrus Van Mastricht is interesting because he seems to be the connecting link between Ames and Jonathan Edwards. I say “seems” because despite Edwards’ own high praise for Van Mastricht, Edwards’ own bizarre views aren’t present in Van Mastricht. Van Vliet gives a good summary of Van Mastricht’s work. We will focus on his use of faith and the will.

Faith, as Van Vliet reads the Amesian tradition, “is a volitional act of reception” (221). Van Mastricht concurs: “faith is an act of accepting God as the ultimate end or object and Christ as the only mediator” (221).

This book is a masterful summary of Ames’s theology. My only quibble is that a bit more work could have been done on Ames’s view regarding obedience in light of an unconditional covenant.
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