William Perkins, Cambridge scholar and preacher, was one of the most popular theologians of the Elizabethan age, eventually outselling even John Calvin. His scholarship formed his ministry; in the words of a contemporary, “Perkins brought the schools into the pulpit, and, unshelling their controversies out of their hard school terms, made thereof plain and wholesome meat for his people.” And his ministry informed his theology, which he defined as “a science of living well and blessedly for ever.” He is often labeled the father of Puritanism because of his zeal for precise Christian living, in contrast to those whom he called “drowsy Protestants, and lukewarm gospellers.”
This precise living required precise moral reflection. For Perkins, the standard for such ethics is the Bible, specifically the moral law of the Old Testament (omitting the judicial and ceremonial law, following Calvin). This use does not preclude the natural law. Perkins affirms the validity of the natural law but notes that the more reliable moral law encompasses it; therefore, for Perkins, the revealed moral law is sufficient for moral reflection. In his words, “The word of God must be our rule and square, whereby we are to frame and fashion all our actions.” Using this rule and square, Perkins frames and fashions his personal and social ethics.
For example, Perkins considers at length the right use of possessions and riches. Belying the caricature of Puritan asceticism and legalism, Perkins insists that Christians are at liberty to use material goods, without scruple of conscience, both to “relieve our necessities” and “for honest delight,” insofar as those goods are used in accordance with biblical principles. Further, Perkins affirms the Christian duty of good stewardship under God’s sovereignty: “We must so use and possess the goods we have, that the use and possession of them, may tend to God’s glory, and the salvation of our souls.”
Finally, general ethical principles find specific form as Christians “walk in [their] particular callings, doing the duties thereof to the glory of God.” A calling, according to Perkins, “is a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good.” Further, God’s ordination and imposition of all callings bears a “notable resemblance of God’s special providence over mankind.” Participation in one’s calling is participation in God’s governance of the world. As Perkins concludes, “Therefore this must be always remembered and practiced carefully, that we do take nothing in hand, unless we have first ranged our selves within the precincts of our callings.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: British – School Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923