Understanding the Confession: William Perkins’ A Golden Chain
J. V. Fesko
William Perkins, A Golden Chain, or The Description of Theology (1597; Birmingham: Puritan Reprints, 2010). 271pp. Cloth. $40.00.
Sometimes some of the best books go out of print, but then again sometimes those books are reprinted, giving them new life and a new readership. The republication of William Perkins’ (1558-1602) A Golden Chain is definitely a book worthy of reading. To say the least, Perkins’ influence in his own day was significant. He was one of the leading Reformed theologians of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, whether in his native England or on the continent. Perkins wrote a number of works but perhaps none so famous as his Golden Chain.
Perkins sets out to describe the causes of salvation and damnation and therefore covers the whole gamut of theological subjects ranging from the creation and fall of man to his redemption. He also includes a treatment of the Decalogue, as well as the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But what makes Perkins’ treatise especially interesting is that he sets forth his understanding of the doctrine of salvation. What is interesting about this is that Perkins’ work was influential upon a number of divines that participated in the Westminster assembly. In other words, A Golden Chain provides the reader with a window into the soteriology, among many other doctrines, of the period in which the Westminster Standards were written.
To illustrate the relevance of Perkins as a window into the historic understanding of soteriology, one can draw upon the present debates over the doctrine of union with Christ. Many are of the opinion that the order of salvation and union with Christ are alternative and mutually exclusive ways of conceptualizing the doctrine of salvation. For Perkins to discuss the order of salvation (or the golden chain) was also to discuss union with Christ—they are one and the same. This understanding of union with Christ is no more evident than in Perkins’ famous chart of the causes of salvation and damnation. This chart is famous and infamous, as it has been praised and criticized by fans and critics alike. Briefly, the chart is definitely not a diagram of a system of theology but rather an “ocular catechism” aimed at giving the believer an assurance of his redemption in the face of doubts. What is particularly striking about the chart (a beautiful loose-leaf reproduction of the chart is included in this reprint edition) is how every element of redemption (effectual calling, justification, sanctification, glorification, et al) is connected to the person and work of Christ. In this easy-to-read chart, then, one can quickly and visually see how central union with Christ is for Perkins’ understanding of salvation.
This republication of Perkins’ key work is long overdue and Puritan Reprints should be commended on giving the church an excellent volume, one that has an excellent binding as well as an easy-to-read font. Students of Scripture and Reformed historical theology would do well to read, study, and devour Perkins’ Golden Chain both for their personal edification but also to obtain a better understanding of the theology of the Westminster Standards.