Monday, May 8, 2006

Early Puritan teaching on the means of grace

The means of grace, loosely defined, are the channels through which, or instruments by which God chooses to communicate grace (kindness, help, growth) to the redeemed. Representatives from virtually all Christian denominations have used the term—Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—though each has approached the doctrine and delineated the means in a slightly different way. Even theologians within a single tradition have differed on the subject. Thus Charles Hodge included prayer in his list of the means, while Louis Berkhof limited them to two, namely the Word of God and the sacraments.

Richard Rogers (1550-1618) wrote the first comprehensive handbook on the spiritual life for Protestants in post-Reformation England—a lengthy, seminal and fairly popular tome called Seven Treatises, containing such direction as is gathered out of the holie Scriptures, leading and guiding to true happines (1603; believe it or not that’s only a fourth of the title). Rogers was one of several godly Elizabethans who studied the art of parish ministry from the early ‘arch-Puritan’, Richard Greenham (early 1540s-1594). (John H. Primus has written a book on Greenham, for those who want to know more about him). Rogers’s famous contemporary, William Perkins (1558-1602), also wrote spiritual works that appealed to both clerical and lay audiences, but he released these in the form of a series of shorter treatises over several years, which were not compiled and released together (as his Works) until 1597. Thus at the time of its release no single work, to my knowledge, had been written to compare with Rogers’s Seven Treatises.

Rogers’s purpose was to provide readers with one volume that addressed just about everything they might need in order to understand and grow in the Christian life. The Seven Treatises comprising his work treated:
  1. the identification of true (and false) believers;
  2. a general description of the Christian’s life and conduct, as intended by God;
  3. the means of grace;
  4. the manner in which the Christian should proceed through the days of the week;
  5. the obstacles that typically confront Christians in the course of their pilgrimage;
  6. the privileges Christians enjoy (and how to appropriate them); and
  7. the various objections “and cavils” readers might have against the work itself.
Rogers’s teaching on the means of grace represents an early Reformed approach that will appear to some to be relatively unrefined compared with those of later figures like Berkhof. This is to be expected. (We must also remember he was writing for laypeople and not other ministers, primarily.) “These means”, wrote Rogers, “whereby God hath appointed that his people shall continue, and grow in a godly life, are such religious exercises, whereby Christians may be made fit to practice it.” He drew two divisions to categorize the means of grace:
“… They are partly ordinary, that is, such as are commonly and usually to be practiced, of which sort there are many: and partly extraordinary, at some special time, as fasting, and some rare solemnities in feasting and thanksgiving. And both of these are either public or private.”
He then went on to list the means according to the latter delineation (public vs. private):
“The public (such as are used in our open assemblies ordinarily) are these three: First, the ministry of the Word read, preached, and heard, as the Lord prescribes. Secondly, the administration of the holy sacraments, and worthy receiving of the same. Thirdly, the exercise of prayer, with thanksgiving and singing of Psalms. But because the public cannot be daily had and enjoyed, (and yet we need daily relief and help) neither although they could, were they sufficient to enable us, to honor God as it becomes us, therefore God hath commanded us to use private exercises, whereof these seven be chief. First, watchfulness, meditation, and the armor of a Christian, unto which is to be added our own experience: and these properly belong to every one alone by himself. The next are the use of company by conference and family-exercise, and these are properly to be used of a mans self with others: the last two, which are [private] prayer and reading, are common to both.”
In the remaining ninety pages of the third treatise Rogers provided thorough descriptions of these various means, and instruction on their proper use in the believer's life. I hope to share these in more detail myself, in later posts. This brief introduction will have to suffice for the time being.

For those who are interested in reading Richard Rogers’s Seven Treatises for themselves, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that no modern edition of the work has been printed—yet. The good news is that Francis Bremer (Millersville Univ.; author of John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father) is working on one with Susan Ortmann, which will be published soon, hopefully. Those with access to EEBO
(Early English Books Online) or a library with substantial sixteenth- and seventeenth-century holdings can find it in one of those places.

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