- Reforming the Reformation
G. K. Chesterton would have preferred that the Reformation never happened. In The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, he quipped: “The Renaissance produced a number of large and liberal views on all sorts of things. The Reformation produced numberless narrow views divided among all sorts of sects.” If only it were this simple. Historical and theological studies of the Reformation, however, like Chesterton’s view of it, continue to be generated in such a steady stream that one wonders whether anything truly new and substantive remains to be said. W. B. Patterson’s latest book is just such a rara avis. Drawing on decades of meticulous research in the pedagogical culture of Renaissance humanism and the controversies of the nascent Church of England, Professor Patterson has changed how we are to understand the Reformation. He does so by placing William Perkins (1558–1602), the renowned Cambridge scholar and teacher, in a position of justified prominence.
Patterson begins by reminding readers of what has been known about Perkins for some time but which has been misunderstood or underestimated. He goes on to build a compelling case for Perkins as the best-known English religious writer of the Elizabethan Renaissance. Many of Perkins’s manuscript sermons were published posthumously; his collected works came out in three volumes in 1608–9 (reprinted at least a dozen times) and were translated into Latin and published in Geneva, the seat of Calvin’s reformation, no fewer than eight times by 1668. At least fifty editions of Perkins’s books were published in Switzerland and the same again in Germany, and nearly ninety editions in the Netherlands, such that the “issues discussed and ultimately resolved” at the 1618–19 Synod of Dort were those raised by Perkins and the Dutch Reformer Arminius at the turn of the century. In addition to versions of his works appearing in Latin, French, German, and Dutch, they were also published on the continent in Czech and Hungarian. Perkins’s activities as a theologian, teacher, and preacher made him a preeminent reformer of the age, and, as Patterson argues further, “the most important and influential contemporary theologian of the Elizabethan Church of England in advancing its teachings and values and in shaping the Protestant religious culture of the nation.”
As Patterson points out in the fifth chapter, “Biblical Preaching and English Prose,” Perkins’s role “as a significant theorist of the sermon and an influential example to preachers” had a significant impact on the use of English in both speaking and writing, and set in motion literary, cultural, and religious changes “that were of profound and lasting importance.” For example Perkins’s book on prophesying (a term chosen by his translator referring to the dialogic process whereby a sermon was discussed in terms of its form, content, and contemporary relevance) provided a [End Page lxv] model for preachers to apply biblical teachings to fit the diverse needs of a congregation. He admonishes preachers not to take the stance of a judge, but of a fellow sinner and penitent. He cautions against using stilted language, rhetorical flourishes, and far-fetched analogies since the word, “which is the ‘Testimonie of God, and the profession of the knowledge of Christ,’ needs no enhancement.” This is advice he seems to have put into practice himself, which contributed to his being an astonishingly popular preacher, whose published writings “remained ‘a best-selling commodity for half a century’ after his death.”
Patterson’s straightforward presentation of the evidence (backed up by a thirty-four page bibliography), coupled with his lucid prose style, gently leads readers to see the extent to which the English Reformation, in which Perkins emerges as a key player, is significant for the development of the nation’s thought and artistic expression, including the poetry of Milton as well as of devotional writers like Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne. This opens the way to Patterson’s shedding new light on the importance of the Elizabethan phase of the Reformation as having repercussions for the British Isles...