William Perkins on Keeping It Catholic

Reformed Catholicity. Depending on where you are in the Reformed-Evangelical world, this label may prompt songs of joy or cries of disdain. Those who adopt the term for themselves wish to retrieve the best of the catholic tradition, or perhaps seek to confess doctrinal truths with the Great Tradition. Against this view, some have begun to adopt the label of “Reformed Biblicism.” A Reformed Biblicist is typically suspicious of the Great Tradition and of men like Thomas Aquinas. To them, the theology of Thomas led to the Council of Trent, and therefore he must be rejected. Among those who count themselves as reformed Biblicists, there is a growing concern over the loss of sola scriptura and a fear of losing the truths recovered during the Reformation.[1]

How should we approach Aquinas (and others like him) in light of Trent? It’s a fair question, and to answer it we need look no further than the father of Puritanism, William Perkins.

Perkins himself wrote polemically against Trent, recognizing just how much corruption had seeped into the Catholic church. Writing to Sir William Bowes, Perkins states that “it is a notable policy of the devil” to have men think that the church of Rome and the Protestant faith “are all one for substance; and that they may be reunited.”[2] All throughout his works, Perkins goes to great lengths to show the various blasphemies and errors of Tridentine theology. This Puritan pulled no punches, declaring that the church of Rome had turned Jesus into a “pseudo-Christ and an idol of their own brain.”[3]

Yet the purpose of his treatise was not just to show the errors of Rome, but also to show where there may be agreement. According to Perkins, a Reformed Catholic is “anyone that holds to the same necessary heads of religion with the Roman Church; yet so as he pares off and rejects all errors in doctrine whereby the said religion is corrupted.”[4] For Perkins, doctrines such as justification, sanctification, and the sacraments are clear points for paring, yet there are many other issues (e.g. the Trinity, the two natures of Christ) that we can find true agreement on. These are doctrines that have not been wrecked by Trent’s touch.

In his defense of the true faith against Trent, Perkins employs a myriad of men from church history, such as Augustine, Jerome, Anselm, Peter Lombard, and yes, even Aquinas. He even manages to favorably cite Aquinas when discussing predestination and the extent of the atonement![5] How is Perkins able to employ so many resources in defense of the Reformed faith when so many today are either unable or unwilling? Because he understood that “No apostle, no holy father, no sound catholic, for 1200 years after Christ, did ever hold or profess that doctrine of all the principles and grounds of religion, that is now taught by the Church of Rome, and authorized by the Council of Trent.”[6] Yes, Aquinas and many others had views that were either inconsistent or wrong in light of Scripture. However, Trent’s abuse does not negate the proper use. Perkins had no problems retrieving that which was true and rejecting that which was false in any past theologian.

Perkins is not alone in this, either. Men like Jerome Zanchi relied heavily upon Aquinas in various areas. As has been pointed out elsewhere, there was a time when reformed theologians “felt no need to apologize for quoting Thomas favorably.”[7] Therefore, on subjects such as philosophy, the doctrine of God, natural law, natural theology, etc. we need not to reject Thomistic methodology outright. This is because, as John Bolt rightly says, “In general, the Reformed tradition matches the Roman Catholic in its philosophic interest and practice like no other does.”[8]

Despite where your sympathies may lie, ignoring the historical reality that a majority of our reformed heritage has appropriated Thomas and other medieval catholic theologians is not an option. Reformed Biblicism attempt to separate from this reality is akin to amputation. Let us not fall into the trap of sectarianism or of theological syncretism. Rather, let us properly retrieve that which is good and right, claiming all truth (wherever it is found) for Christ while heed the words from Jeremiah: “Stand ye in the ways, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).


Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Related Links

Podcast: "The Unmanipulated Trinity" 

"Hilary's View of the Trinity" by Todd Rester

"Is the Son Eternally Begotten?" by Ben Franks

Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen & Scott Swain

William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, ed. by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar


[1] I have sought to be concise and fair in these descriptions. I recognize this particular topic can be complicated and there are those who would be cautious of both positions. Note, I am also not talking about Van Tillians in toto, but rather a specific stream that has recently emerged.

[2] William Perkins, “A Reformed Catholic” in The Works of William Perkins, Vol. 7, eds. Shawn D. Wright and Andrew S. Ballitch (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 5

[5] See William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, Vol. 6, eds. Joel R. Beeke and Greg A. Salazar (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018).

[6] William Perkins, “The Problem of Forged Catholicism” in The Works of William Perkins, Vol. 7, eds. Shawn D. Wright and Andrew S. Ballitch (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 410.

[7] Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen, “Introduction: The Reception, Critique, and Use of Aquinas in Protestant Thought” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, eds. Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018), 1.

[8] John Bolt, “Doubting Reformational Anti-Thomism” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, eds. Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018), 130.

Derrick Brite