Covenant and Conscience in English Reformed Theology: Three Variations on a 17th Century Theme -- By: Richard A. Muller

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 42:2 (Spring 1980)
Article: Covenant and Conscience in English Reformed Theology: Three Variations on a 17th Century Theme
Author: Richard A. Muller


Covenant and Conscience in English Reformed Theology:
Three Variations on a 17th Century Theme

Richard A. Muller

Reformed theology in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century was not so rigidly scholastic that it failed to relate doctrine to piety. The system of faith was coordinated with a system of obedience. In English Reformed theology in particular doctrinal logic forged an intimate bond with moral casuistry. Positive doctrinal structures undergirded pious self-examination. The key to this conjunction of interests was the Augustinian, introspective character of the doctrine of assurance in Reformed theology. Augustinian piety stressed the sovereign grace of God in the work of redemption, causing those who accepted its tenets to look away from human actions to the inward man for signs of salvation.1

In England more than on the continent the complex analysis of “cases of conscience” became characteristic of Reformed piety. The English Puritans contributed a wealth of treatises and

sermons on problems of individual conduct and piety, to the point that several seventeenth century thinkers observed with pride that the continent looked to England for definitive formulations of practical theology.2 In these works the Puritan moralists examined each problem, anxiety, and temptation confronting the Christian life as a case to be tried at the bar of God’s saving will and its pattern of operation in the human soul. Inward moral controversies might thereby become grounds for personal assurance of salvation—or, more specifically, evidences of personal communion with God’s saving will under the terms of the covenant of grace. Although he was not the first to produce a treatise describing this moral cauistry William Perkins (1558–1602) was the first great master of the form. He wrote three works on the subject, A Case of Conscience, A Discourse of Conscience, and the Three Bookes of Cases of Conscience, each devoted to the methodical examination of the inward man and the delineation of grounds of assurance.

Perkins also set the pattern for his successors by developing not only a system of casuistry but also a system of doctrine, which he developed at considerable length in his An Exposition of the Creede. The link between his piety of conscience and his system of theology he made explicit in the hortatory excurses of his Exposition and in the structure and content of his most famous work, Armilla Aitrea or A Golden Chaine. This latter treatise was in fact a doctrinal version of the “greatest case of conscience” which demon...

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