Learning from William Ames


They called him by the Latin name Guilliamus Amesius, but if we talk about this British-born theologian at all now, we call him William Ames (1576-1633). Dust him off and read him. Here are some lessons I learned from Ames years ago that have stuck with me ever since.

Ames was educated at Cambridge (Christ’s College) under William Perkins, “the architect of Elizabethan Puritanism.” Ames distinguished himself as a scholar and preacher, and appeared to have a promising career ahead of him. But because of his strict nonconformist beliefs, he found every chance for promotion blocked by anti-Puritan officials. Finally, under the persecutions of James I, Ames was forced to flee for his life to Holland. After moving from one position to another, he finally entered his most productive period of work when he was appointed professor at the University of Franeker from 1622-1633. Ames longed to move to the new world, but was never able to finance the trip. When he died, however, his wife and children came to America, bringing with them his library.

His books, especially his Marrow of Sacred Divinity, were very influential in America; the Marrow was used for years as a textbook of theology at Harvard and Yale. His work was an important part of the education of Jonathan Edwards, and Ames’ theology of the covenant was one of the most powerful influences on early American political thought. So Ames belonged to the British, to the Dutch, and to the Americans: he was a uniquely international theologian for the 1600s.

The theology of the seventeenth century was nothing if not polemical, and Ames was a man of his times, a theological fighter. He was an important advisor at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), a firm five-point Calvinist committed to refuting the Remonstrants. He also wrote several books against Roman Catholic theology, and was especially engaged in debate with the Jesuits.

So Ames was not above getting into a good theological fight or two. But to his way of thinking, the proper business of theology lay elsewhere: in the upbuilding of the spiritual life. “Heretics,” he wrote in his Exhortation to Students of Theology, “have made controversial learning necessary to us, but God himself has committed to us, as an absolute necessity, the study of the religious life.” Our controversies are assigned to us by false teachers, but our real theological work is assigned to us by God. Both are necessary, but theology aimed at spiritual life is higher.

In his inaugural address at Franeker, he described his goal as a professor: “To see whether at least in our University I could in any way call theology away from questions and controversies, obscure, confused, and not very essential, and introduce it to life and practice so that students would begin to think seriously of conscience and its concerns.” He wanted to teach in such a way that lives were transformed. That led him to teach theology differently, and even to think about doctrine differently. He was definitely a systematizer, but what he systematized was an emphasis on spiritual experience.  This was Ames’ contribution to theology in general:  He was the first and greatest systematizer of the theology of pious experience.

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