Headline | Ames on Chastity

William Ames (1576 – 1633) was one of the important figures of the Reformation both in England and on the Continent. His Medulla Theologica (Marrow of Theology) was an important work for training ministers both in Puritan Britain as well as the Nadere Continent, and in this way his teaching connects early lights such as William Perkins with successive generations.

Ames is noted for his employment of Ramist divisions, which is a methodology that carefully considers a dialectic logic (though this claim should be carefully qualified as not embracing all accents which are associated with Ramism). Its especially helpful to see this when Ames considers “chastity.”

By carefully considering chastity in Scripture, Ames brings many qualities to light that seem all but forgotten by Christians (not to mention the world) today. Chastity, he notes, is “justice which relates to the purity of my neighbor.” By justice, Ames is carefully relating the Law, and specifically the 7th Commandment, to love for neighbor in Jesus’ commands. Many would benefit from Ames’ careful defining and employment of categories like “shame,” “decency,” and “honor.” So often those terms seem to refer to a bygone, chivalrous time, but Ames draws out their biblical use, and how it applies to God’s Law and our lives.

Chastity is to be thought of as virginal (I Corinthians 7:34), conjugal (for spouses; Titus 2:5), or vidual (for widows; I Timothy 5:7). (Ames displays his careful thinking by noting, “This division is not of the genus into species but of the adjunct into subjects.” These kinds of important distinctions seem so rarely made by theologians today!)

Part of the fruit of such careful thinking leads Ames to some incredibly helpful pastoral observations. For example, in speaking to the conjugal aspect:

The perpetuity of marriage does not depend only upon the will and covenant of the persons contracting, for then by consent of both a covenant so begun might be broken, as is the case between master and servant. Rather, the rule and bond of this covenant is the institution of God and thus it is sometimes called in the Scriptures the covenant of God (Proverbs 2:17). 

So “at will divorce” should never be known among God’s people, as the marital bond does not exist solely because of the will of the spouses, but also of the divine component. I’ve been exasperated in the past at how quick people are to run to the minister when they get engaged for premarital counseling or to secure the details for the wedding ceremony, but on the contrary how quick they are to run to the lawyer for a divorce. Ames reminds us of the divine perspective even in marriage.

But while emphasizing the permanence of the marital bond, Ames is fair to point out abandonment – “if one party separates with obstinate resolution, the other party is free (I Corinthians 7:15) – and adultery – “adultery… by its very nature … breaks the bond and covenant of marriage” – as grounds for a legal divorce. But again, for Ames the legality of a divorce is determined by the Session or Consistory, not a lawyer or judge.

Many scholars encourage pastors and thoughtful Christians to stay grounded in “the whole counsel of God” by referring to a dogmatic or systematic theology on an annual basis. Ames’ Marrow, with its brevity, piety, and precision, would make a terrific selection for anybody.

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