William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
Feb 8, 2018
My recent posts (1, 2) on Puritan Theology in connection with William Ames made a little light go on in my head (that happens every once in a while!) while reading Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity, his commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647, hereafter WSC) that was published posthumously in 1692.
I may not be the first to notice this, but I was blessed to see the connection between the first answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) and the first of the Larger Catechism for that matter (both published in 1647) and Ames’s pronouncement, “Theology is the doctrine of living to God” (Theologia est doctrina deo vivendi). Remember, we said that Ames’s elaboration on this life (twenty years before the catechism) called it one “according to the will of God, to the glory of God, God inwardly working.” Ames also considered it as the “good life whereby we live to God” and how ‘doing’ theology demands “a spiritual act of the whole man, whereby” we are “carried on to enjoy God.” In other words, we do not get a good life as a result pursuing God, our enjoyment of him is the good life.
Well, this certainly sounds to me like the thoughts underlying the answer to the very first question of WSC. People with any exposure at all to this catechism usually know the answer to this beauty of a question.: "What is the chief end of man? A: man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
Of course, the Catechism never asks, “What is theology?” and the Confession, as somewhat of a mini systematic theology, does not start with the detailed prolegomena (intro to theology) that Ames does in The Marrow of Sacred Divinity. Still, the Catechism, which seeks to impart essential theological truths to the common man, begins with a foundational question on the relationship between God and man related to the rest of its theology by catechesis. It is as if the Catechism suggests, “Listen, in the study of God, life unto him is what matters most.” To begin with this question and answer, I believe, unmistakably and organically links Westminster theology to the “living unto God” (deo vivendi) experiential Calvinism of William Ames with its roots extending back through Perkins, Ramus, Beza, and Calvin.
In his Body of Divinity, Watson substantially manifests this connection in his comments on WSC#1, even if he does not mention Ames explicitly. He calls pursuing the glory of the triune God “a silver thread which must run through all of our actions” (1 Cor 10:31). Such a pursuit involves appreciation, or setting God “highest in our thoughts;” adoration, or worshipping him according to his Word; affection or the “love of delight” in which we set our hearts upon God as our greatest treasure; and subjection, or devotion to his service.
One of the ways we pursue God’s glory, claims Watson, is by “living to God” and not unto ourselves. He sees Christ as the foundation for such a life, since he died for us that we may no longer live for ourselves (e.g. pursuing money, satisfying appetites, or gratifying lusts) but for him who died for us (2 Cor. 5:15). In the end, we can never ultimately pursue that which benefits us or claiming for ourselves the glory that belongs to God with the “oil of vainglory” feeding our “lamp.” We live to him as we pursue his service and “lay ourselves out wholly” for him.
The pursuit of God’s glory naturally leads us to “the blessed enjoyment of him” in this life and the one to come. He is the “universal good” we seek, “bonum in quo omnia bona, a good, in which are all goods.” God as the good we seek always satisfies, and enjoying him “is the highest felicity of which the soul is capable.” Even when we get to heaven, our greatest delights “are not carnal but spiritual” as we look forward to the eternal enjoyment of God.
In this development, we have all of the essentials of Ames’s “doctrine of living to God.” In such a life, God acts on the soul which in turn willingly responds to and seeks him not so much for but as the good life. In this way, we enjoy him for his sake not even (ultimately) for the pleasure that we get out of the experience of such communion. May the Lord graciously provide such a good life to us all.