William Ames: On Observance in General (Summary of Ch. 1)

Discussion in 'Puritan Literature' started by Prufrock, Jun 8, 2010.

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  1. Prufrock

    Prufrock Arbitrary Moderation

    (This is from a project I had to prepare some time ago; I will post each chapter over the next few weeks, and hope that it will be beneficial for those who do not have access to the actual work)

    When Reformed divines would provide definitions of theology, it was with near unanimity that they made use of 1 Tim. 6:2-3, which refers to the "doctrine which is according to godliness," and wherein Timothy is commanded, "These things teach and exhort." Our theologians took this to indicate that theology was not only something which is to be taught, but which also must be exhorted: the system of doctrine must be according to godliness, or it must yield a program of piety. For this reason, systems of theology generally also included a system of piety -- they could not separate theology from moral or ascetic exercise. Today's evangelical environment, wherein the so-called "New Calvinist" movement seeks to wed elements of the Reformed theological system to a modern "broad-evangelical" form of corporate and private piety suggests that the close understanding between system and practice has been, at least to a substantial degree, lost. Circumstances warrant our consideration of a classic work of Reformed piety. William Ames will provide a work most commodius to this purpose. Ames wrote his Medulla Theologiae in the first half of the 17th Century as a manual of Theology and Practice for his students; the work, following standard Ramist patterns of Bifurcation, is divided into two books: the first concerns theory or faith, the second practice or observance. In addition to the clear and concise nature of Ames' work, one further consideration commends his work to our consideration for this purpose -- its influence. Ames stood in a very influential position with reference both to subsequent British, Dutch, and American theology and practice, as he stood near the head of a long line of influential Puritan teachers and casuists.

    Ames' work on Observation follows a fairly unique pattern. This post will consider the first chapter of the work, which is entitled "Of Observance in General," and consists of 39 Theses. The first twelve of these concern the definition which Ames provides, which he makes to be, "Observance is that whereby the Will of God is performed with subjection to his glory" (Thesis 1 [Hereafter, the theses will simply be designated by their numeral]). In the next two theses, Ames specifies that the will of God in view here is not God's secret will (3), but his revealed will such as can be considered as a rule or pattern (2); it is not strictly God's revealed will, for many things are revealed in a manner which are not the rule of our obedience (23), as he provides the example of Jeroboam citing 1 Kings 11:31 in comparison with 2 Chronicles 13:5-7. In theses 4-11 our author describes the nature of this observance as it is subjection and obedience. He describes how our obedience can be both filial and servile: it springs from a filial principle and has the readiness of mind which belongs to sons, yet with regard to the strict obligation to subjections, "it is the obedience of servants" (7). He describes how the same obedience is called obedience insomuch as it respects subjection to the will of God, righteousness insomuch as it performs what is due unto God, and holiness insomuch as it respects the conformity and likeness of our wills to him (9).

    Ames then proceeds to discuss the mediate and immediate principal efficient causes of our observance: the former being faith, and the latter being sanctifying grace; for while faith is the means, sanctifying grace must go first to incline our wills unto God and his will (16-17). He cites Heb. 10:22 to the end that it is by the assurance of faith that we draw near unto God (14); and then cites three ways in which faith is the mediate efficient cause of our obedience:
    1.) It apprehends Christ who is the fountain of life, and the spring of all power to do well; and, 2.) As it receives and rests in those arguments, which God hath propounded to us in scripture to persuade obedience, namely by promises and threatenings; 3.) As it hath power to obtain all grace, and so that grace whereby obedience is performed (15).​
    He notes also that, however much a work might come from a man or from spiritual life, it is not accepted of God except it be done by faith in Christ. Finally (18), he notes that though true observance must and can arise only from faith, nevertheless men without faith are not excused from such works, noting also that "they are often recompensed with divers benefits from God, although not by force of any determined Law, but by a certain abundant and secret kindness of him."

    Following this, Ames notes six moving causes to observance: 1.) The dignity and majesty of God; 2.) God's kindness and mercy to us; 3.) His authority in commanding; 4.) The equity and profit in the thing commanded; 5.) The rewards and promises made to obedience; and 6.) The misery of those who do otherwise (19). The matter of this obedience is the will of God as expressed in the law (20), and its form is conformity to God's will that it might be fulfilled by us (22); therefore, knowledge of God's will is most necessary and so the desire of this knowledge is in itself part of that obedience which we owe (25), and should be accompanied by a certain fear and trembling against transgressing it (26). This fear is not servile, since it looks not chiefly to fear of punishment.

    Moving to the ends of theology, Ames states in Thesis 27:
    The chief end is God's glory; for we tend unto him by obedience, upon whom we lean by faith: otherwise obedience should not flow from faith. Seeing also that faith is our life, as it doth join us to God in Christ, it is necessary that the actions of the same faith, which are contained in obedience, should be carried also to God, that is, to his Glory.​
    We should note Ames' careful language here. Faith is, indeed, an action, but it does not justify as it is an action; this faith is carried unto God, and so also those actions which spring from faith must tend toward him and his glory. After this, our author notes that the less principal end is our own salvation and blessedness (28). This is in keeping with the first chapter of the first book of Ames' work, where he notes that to live well is better than to live blessedly. He then provides three carefully worded theses regarding obedience and reward:
    29. For although that obedience which is performed only for fear of punishment or expectation of reward is rightly called mercenary; yet that any should be secondarily stirred up to do his duty, by looking on the reward, or for fear of punishment also, this is not strange from the sons of God, neither doth it in any part weaken their solid obedience.

    30. But our obedience is not the principal or meritorious cause of life eternal. For we do both receive the privilege of this life, and also the life itself, by grace and the gift of God for Christ's sake apprehended by faith...But our obedience is in a certain manner, the ministering, helping and furthering cause toward the possession of this life, the right whereof we had before; in which respect it is called the way wherein we walk to Heaven, Eph. 2:10.

    31. But it furthers our life, both in its own nature; because it is some degree of the life, itself always tending to perfection; and also by virtue of the promise of God who hath promised life eternal to those that walk in his precepts, Gal. 6. ​
    He then notes that the above is possible because, though our obedience in this life is imperfect and defiled, it is nevertheless acceptable to God in Christ (32). This leads to a most important statement: "Therefore the promises made to the obedience of the faithful are not legal, but evangelical, although by some they are called mixed" (33). Such a statement well addresses several controversies currently at work within our churches, whether they pertain to the so-called NPP or even to controversy over the nature of the Mosaic covenant.

    In Theses 34-37, Ames discusses the manner of obedience, that it pertains chiefly to the will, and is chiefly characterized by sincerity and zeal; and because sincerity of the will "doth most appear in readiness, alacrity and cheerfulness of mind, therefore that cheerfulness doth most of all pertain to the very essence of obedience" (36). Finally, Ames brings in what is often called the practical syllogism. Such obedience does not simply declare our faith to others, but serves to confirm our faith to us. For, while we do not rest in any manner in our obedience, it nevertheless gives to us a good conscience by which we find spiritual peace.

    Thus is a brief summary of Ames' first chapter of his book on observance, which will serve as an introduction to the remaining matter of the book. One is struck by the close relationship between faith and observance, which also serves to explain his emphasis on the revealed will of God as the only rule of our obedience. The spirituality of Ames' piety does not come into conflict with his emphasis upon law as the rule of our obedience: quite the opposite, in fact. It is because the Law is divinely revealed and is spoken with divine authority that we are capable of giving divine faith to the words, and so are able to depend with that faith upon the power of Christ as ministered by his Spirit to perform it.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2010
  2. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    Paul, is this expanded upon later on in the work, or are there other works available that explore these topics in more depth?

    In your last paragraph, I think the opening word was meant to be a demonstrative pronoun, not an adverb.
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