Book Review: The Marrow of Theology, by William Ames
Synopsis: The Marrow of Theology, by William Ames, is a comprehensive and minutely-reasoned dogmatic theology of the Puritan worldview. In its own time, it was commended by such Puritans as Thomas Hooker and Increase Mather as the only book outside the bible needed for making one a sound theologian. And today, there may be no other single volume which will give as broad and insightful an understanding of Puritan theology as this.
Although the Puritan authors tended to be quite prolific in their devotional writings, extended sermons, and vast treatises on specific theological questions; in the realm of systematic theology, they were actually somewhat sparse. Although their writings, as a body, covered the whole gamut of theology, it is rare to find the typical Puritan understanding of theology in all of its particulars in one volume. The Marrow of Theology is a notable exception, covering the entire systematic understanding of the Puritan theologians in a single, concise volume.
Not only is this work systematic: it is also intentionally dogmatic. William Ames exhaustively studied the writings of other notable Puritans, and was determined to carry forth their common understanding in this single volume â€“ with just a few minor variations of opinion on non-essential matters. For this reason, it is perhaps the best single-volume reference for the basic theology and worldview of the Puritans; especially the Puritans of America, where it had an especially wide influence.
Furthermore, this is intended to be a catechetical tool. Although not in the question/answer format of the typical catechism, it is nevertheless composed of short propositions, gathered under general headings, and individually numbered so as to facilitate ready learning and memorization. For all of these reasons, it is perhaps the first volume one should acquire, if he is seeking a thorough yet concise introduction to Puritan theology.
Apart from these general considerations, the most outstanding feature of the volume is its minutely-reasoned and intricately-structured method of proceeding. In this respect, it almost resembles the old scholastic writings of the Middle Ages. In fact, William Ames was one of the outstanding logicians of his day. He was formally trained in Ramesian logic, which adds to the basic unit of the Aristotelian syllogism a dialectical process, by which truths may be, not just affirmed, but further followed and connected to other, related truths.
At times, this can make Ames's precise reasoning difficult to follow â€“ particularly if one is not familiar with technical logical terminology. With a â€œnarrow-lensâ€ focus, it may make it difficult to understand why he proceeds from one particular point to the next. But with a wider perspective, this intricate attention to following a consistent flow of logic results in a very well-ordered and helpfully arranged work. Beginning with the first elements of the biblical faith, he proceeds systematically until he has covered the entire spectrum of theological knowledge. And, to assist in following this structured arrangement, he has a â€œMethod and Chart of the Marrowâ€ prefixed, which has the dual purpose of allowing a reader to find Ames's treatment of any particular subject in short order; and of assisting him to appreciate the coherence and orderliness of the whole.
In conclusion, anyone who would either acquaint himself with the basic theological understanding of the American Puritans; or who would obtain a well-ordered and easily-remembered outline of the most important elements of biblical teaching; could make very good use of Ames's Marrow of Theology.
This book is available at the Monergism Bookstore.