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"A Reformed Catholic", William Perkins (8) Of Traditions

We must not be mistaken in thinking that the Reformed religion strikes at all traditions, for as Archbishop Ussher rightly notes "... it acknowledges that the word of God, which by some of the Apostles were set down in writing, was both by themselves and their fellow labourers delivered by word of mouth; and that the Church in succeeding ages was bound not only to preserve the sacred writings committed to her trust, but also to deliver unto her children the form of wholesome words contained therein." The Reformed Church does not therefore have any controversy with traditions of this sort, but rather the question between us and Rome, touches upon "the substance of the doctrine delivered, not the manner of delivering it.” (Ussher, Answer to a Jesuit, Ch 2).

For we affirm that:"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." WCF Ch1. VI.) And reject such traditions from being: obtruded on the Church for articles of religion; admitted as elements of God’s worship; or counted as or equal to God’s Word.

It is therefore in this chapter of A Reformed Catholic that Perkins sets out the matter of our dissent from Rome and the reasons and testimonies for such dissent, answering also the common objections of the papists. Perkins ever the pastor takes time to warn of man's natural inclination to hold mere traditions above the perfect and sufficient Word of God, and that though we may deny popery with the mouth, yet we are to examine and prove ourselves lest it abides still in the heart.


What are Traditions?

Traditions, are doctrines delivered from hand to hand, either by word of mouth, or by writing, beside the written word of God.

Our Consent with Rome

Conclusion. I.

We hold that the very word of God, has been delivered by tradition. For first God revealed his will to Adam by word of mouth: and renewed the same unto the Patriarchs, not by writing, but by speech, by dreams, and other inspirations: and thus the word of God went from man to man for the space of two thousand and four hundred years, unto the time of Moses, who was the first pen-man of holy Scripture, for as touching the prophesy of Enoch, we commonly hold it was not penned by Enoch, but by some Jew under his name. And for the space of this time, men worshipped God and held the articles of their faith by tradition, not from men but immediately from God himself. And the history of the New Testament (as some say) for eighty years, as some others think, for the space of twenty years and more, went from hand to hand by tradition, till penned by the Apostles, or being penned by others was approved by them.

Conclusion. II.

We hold that the Prophets, our Saviour Christ, and his Apostles, spake and did many things good and true which were not written in the scriptures: but came either to us, or to our ancestors only by tradition. As 2. Tim. 3. 20. it is said, that Jannes and Jambres were the magicians that withstood Moses: now in the books of the Old Testament we shall not find them once named, and therefore it is like, that the Apostle had their names by tradition, or by some writings then extant among the Jews. So Heb. 12. 21. the author of the Epistle records of Moses, that when he saw a terrible sight in Mount Sinai, he said, I tremble and am afraid: which words are not to be found in all the books of the Old Testament. In the Epistle of Jude mention is made, that the devil strove with Michael the Archangel about the body of Moses: which point (as also the former) considering it is not to be found in holy writ, it seems the Apostle had it by tradition from the Jews. That the Prophet Isaiah was killed with a fullers club is received for truth, but yet not recorded in Scripture: and so likewise that the Virgin Mary lived and died a virgin. And in Ecclesiastical writers many worthy sayings of the Apostles and other holy men are recorded, and received of us for truth, which nevertheless are not set down in the books of the Old or New Testament. And many things we hold for truth not written in the word, if they be not against the word.

Conclusion. III.

We hold that the Church of God has power to prescribe ordinances rules, or traditions, touching time and place of God's worship, and touching order and comeliness to be used in the same: and in this regard, Paul, 1. Cor. 11. 2. commends the Church of Corinth for keeping his traditions, and Act. 15. the Council at Jerusalem decreed that the churches of the Gentiles should abstain from blood, and from things strangled. This decree is termed a tradition, and it was in force among them so long as the offence of the Jews remained. And this kind of traditions whether made by general Councils or particular Synods, we have care to maintain and observe; these caveats being remembered: first that they prescribe nothing childish or absurd to be done: secondly that they be not imposed as any parts of God's worship: thirdly, that they be severed from superstition or opinion of merit: lastly that the Church of God be not burdened with the multitude of them. And this much we hold touching Traditions.

The Difference

Papists teach, that beside the written word, there be certain unwritten traditions, which must be believed as profitable and necessary to salvation. And these they say are two fold; Apostolical, namely such as were delivered by the Apostles and not written; and Ecclesiastical, which the Church decrees as occasion is offered. We hold that the Scriptures are most perfect, containing in them all doctrines needful to salvation, whether they concern faith or manners: and therefore we acknowledge no such traditions beside the written word, which shall be necessary to salvation; so as he which believe them not, cannot be saved.

Our Reasons

Testimony I.

Deut. 4. 2. Thou shalt not add to the words that I command thee, nor take any thing there from, therefore the written word is sufficient for all doctrines pertaining to salvation. If it be said that this commandment is spoken as well of the unwritten as of the written word, I answer: that Moses speaks of the written word only: for these very words are a certain preface which he set before a long commentary made of the written law, for this end to make the people more attentive, and obedient.

Testimony II.

Isa 8. 20. To the law and to the testimony. If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. Here the prophet teaches what must be done in cases of difficulty. Men must not run to the wizard or soothsayer, but to the law and testimony, and here he commends the written word as sufficient to resolve all doubts and scruples in conscience whatsoever.

Testimony III.

John, 20. 31. These things were written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and in believing might have everlasting life. Here is set down the full end of the Gospel, and of the whole written word: which is to bring men to faith and consequently to salvation: and therefore the whole scripture alone is sufficient to this end without traditions. If it be said, that this place must be understood of Christ's miracles only: I answer, that miracles without the doctrine of Christ and knowledge of his sufferings, can bring no man to life everlasting, and therefore the place must be understood of the doctrine of Christ and not of his miracles alone, as Paul teaches, Gal. 1: 8. If we or an Angel from heaven preach unto you any thing BESIDE THAT which we have preached, let him be accursed. And to this effect he blames them that taught but a divers doctrine to that which he had taught, 1. Tim. 1. 3.

Testimony IV.

2. Tim. 3. 16, 17. The whole Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable to teach, to improve, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness, that the man of God may be absolute, being made perfect unto every good work. In these words be contained two arguments, to prove the sufficiency of Scripture without unwritten verities. The first: that which is profitable to these four uses; namely, to teach all necessary truth, to confute all errors, to correct faults in manners, and to instruct in righteousness, that is, to inform all men in all good duties; that is sufficient to salvation. But Scripture serves for all these uses: and therefore it is sufficient: and unwritten traditions are superfluous. The second: that which can make the man of God, that is, prophets, and apostles, and the ministers of the word, perfect in all the duties of their callings: that same word is sufficient to make all other men perfect in all good workes. But God's word is able to make the man of God perfect. Therefore it is sufficient to prescribe the true and perfect way to eternal life, without the help of unwritten traditions.

Testimony V.

The judgement of the Church.


Take from hereticks the opinions which they maintain with the heathen, that they may defend their questions by SCRIPTURE ALONE, and they cannot stand. Againe, We neede no curiosity after Christ Jesus, nor inquisition after the Gospel. When we believe it, we desire to BELIEVE NOTHING BESIDE: for this we first believe that there is NOTHING MORE which we may believe. (de resur. cranes)


On Matth. 23. writing of an opinion that John Baptist was killed, because he foretold the coming of Christ, saith thus: This, because it hath not authority from Scriptures, may as easily be contemned as approved. In which words, there is a conclusion with a minor, and the major is to be supplied by the rules of logic thus. That which has not authority from Scriptures, may as easily be contemned as approved: but this opinion is so: therefore behold a notable argument against all unwritten traditions.


In those things which are plainly set down in Scripture, are found ALL THOSE POINTS WHICH CONTAIN FAITH AND MANNERS of living well. (Book 2. c. 9. de doct. Christ)

Vicentius Lirinen.

The Canon of the Scripture is perfect, and fully sufficient to it self FOR AL THINGS.

Beside these testimonies, other reasons there be that serve to prove this point.

I. The practise of Christ & his Apostles, who for the confirmation of the doctrine which they taught, used always the testimony of Scripture, neither can it be proved, that they ever confirmed any doctrine by tradition. Act. 26. 22. I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying, NONE OTHER THINGS THAN THOSE which the prophets and Moses did say should come. And by this we are given to understand, that we must always have recourse to the written word, as being sufficient to instruct us in matters of salvation.

II. If the believing of unwritten traditions were necessary to salvation, then we must as well believe the writings of the ancient Fathers as well as the writings of the Apostles, because Apostolical traditions are not else where to be found but in their books. And we may not believe their sayings as the word of God, because they often err being subject to error: and for this cause their authority, when they speak of traditions, may be suspected: and we may not always believe them upon their word.

Objections for Traditions

Objection 1

First they allege, 2. Thess. 2. 15. where the Apostle bids that Church keep the ordinances which he taught them either by word or letter. Hence they gather, that beside the written word, there be unwritten traditions, that are indeed necessary to be kept and obeyed.


It is very likely, that this Epistle to the Thessalonians was the first that ever Paul writ to any Church, though in order it have not the first place; and therefore at the time when this Epistle was penned, it might well fall out, that some things needful to salvation were delivered by word of mouth, not being as yet written by any Apostle. Yet the same things were after∣ward set down in writing, either in the second epistle or in the epistles of Paul.

Objection 2

That, Scripture is Scripture, is a point to be believed, but that is a tradition unwritten; and therefore one tradition there is not written, that we are to believe.


That the books of the Old and New Testament are Scripture, it is to be gathered and believed not upon bare tradition, but from the very books themselves, on this manner. Let a man that is endued with the spirit of discerning, read the several books, withal let him consider the professed author thereof which is God himself, and the matter therein contained, which is a most divine and absolute truth full of piety: the manner and form of speech, which is full of majesty in the simplicity of words. The end whereat they wholly aim, which is the honour and glory of God alone, &c. and he shall be resolved that Scripture is Scripture, even by the Scripture itself. Yea, and by this means he may discern any part of Scripture, from the writings of men whatsoever. Thus then Scripture proves itself to be Scripture: and yet we despise not the universal consent or tradition of the Church in this case: which though it do not persuade the conscience, yet is it a notable inducement to move us to reverence, and regard the writings of the prophets and apostles. It will be said, where is it written that Scripture is Scripture? I answer, not in any one particular place or book of scripture, but in every line and page of the whole bible to him that can read with the spirit of discerning, and can discern the voice of the true pastor, as the sheep of Christ can do.

Objection 3

Some books of the canon of the scripture are lost, as the book of the Wars of God. Num. 21. 14. The book of the Just. Josuha. 10, 13. the books of Chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah 1. King. 14. 19. the book of certain prophets, Nathan, Gad, Iddo, Ahiah, and Semiah: and therefore the matter of these books must come to us by tradition.


Though it be granted that some books of canonical Scripture be lost: yet the scripture still remains sufficient because the matter of those books (so far as it was necessary to salvation) is contained in these books of Scripture that are now extant. Again, I take it to be a truth (though some think otherwise) that no part of the Canon is lost: for Paul says, whatsoever things were written afore-time, were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, &c. Rom. 15. 4. Where he takes it for granted, that the whole canon of holy Scripture was then extant. For if he had thought, that some books of scripture had been lost, he would have said: whatsoever was written and is now extant, was written for our learning and comfort. For books that are lost serve neither for learning nor comfort. Again to hold that any books of scripture should be lost, calls into question God's providence, and the fidelity of the Church, who has the books of God in keeping, and is therefore called the pillar and ground of truth. And touching the books before mentioned, I answer this: The booke of the Wars of God, Num. 21. 14. might be some short bill or narration of things done among the Israelites, which in the days of Moses went from hand to hand. For sometime a book in Scripture, signifies a roll or catalogue, as the first chapter of Mathew, which contains the genealogy of our Saviour Christ, is called the book of the generation of Jesus Christ. Again, the book of the Just, and the books of Chronicles, which are said to be lost, were but as the Chronicles of England are with us; even politic records of the acts and events of things, in the kingdom of Judah and Israel: out of which the Prophets gathered things necessary to be known; and placed them in holy Scripture. As for the books of Iddo, Ahiah, Semiah, Gad, and Nathan, they are contained in the books of the Kings and Chronicles, and in the books of Samuel, which were not written by him alone, but by sundry prophets, 1. Chr. 29. 29. as also was the book of Judges. As for the books of Solomon which are lost, they did not concern religion and matters of salvation, but were concerning matters of philosophy and such like things.

Objection 4

Moses in Mount Sina, beside the written law, received from God a more secret doctrine, which he never writ, but delivered by tradition or word of mouth to the prophets after him: and this the Jews have now set down in their Cabala.


This indeed is the opinion of some of the Jews, whom in effect and substance sundry Papists follow: but we take it for no better then a Jewish dotage. For if Moses had known any secret doctrine beside the written law, he would never have given this commandment of the said law, thou shalt not add any thing thereto.

Objection 5

Heb. 5. 12. God's word is of two sorts milk and strong meat. By milk we must understand the word of God written wherein God speaks plainly to the capacity of the rudest: but strong meat is unwritten traditions, a doctrine not to be delivered unto all, but to those that grow to perfection.


We must know, that one and the same word of God is milk and strong meat, in regard of the manner of handling and propounding of it. For being delivered generally and plainly, to the capacity of the simplest, it is milk; but being handled particularly and largely, and so fitted for men of more understanding, it is strong meat. As for example: the doctrine of the creation, of man's fall, and redemption by Christ, when it is taught overly and plainly, it is milk: but when the depth of the same is throughly opened, it is strong meat. And therefore it is a conceit of man's brain, to imagine that some unwritten word is meant by strong meat.

Objection 6

Sundry places of Scripture be doubtful: and every religion has his several exposition of them, as the Papists have theirs, and the Protestants theirs. Now then, seeing there can be but one truth, when question is of the interpretation of Scripture, recourse must be had to the tradition of the Church, that the true sense may be determined and the question ended.


It is not so: but in doubtful places Scripture itself is sufficient to declare his own meaning; first by the analogy of faith, which is the sum of religion gathered out of the clearest places of Scripture: secondly, by the circumstances of the place and the nature and signification of the words; thirdly by conference of place with place. By these and like helps contained in Scripture, we may judge which is the truest meaning of any place. Scripture itself is the text and the best gloss. And the scripture is falsely termed the matter of strife, it being not so of itself, but by the abuse of man.


And this much for our dissent concerning traditions, wherein we must not be wavering but steadfast, because notwithstanding our renouncing of popery; yet popish inclinations and dispositions be rise among us. Our common people marvellously affect human traditions: yea man's nature is inclined more to be pleased with them, than with the Word of God. The feast of the nativity of our Saviour Christ, is only a custom and tradition of the Church, and yet men are commonly more careful to keep it than the Lord's Day, the keeping whereof stands by the moral law. Positive laws are not sufficient to restrain us from buying and selling on the Sabbath: yet within the twelve days no man keeps market. Again see the truth of this in our affection to the ministry of the Word: let the preacher allege Peter and Paul, the people count it but common stuff, such as any man can bring: but let men come and allege Ambrose, Augustine, and the rest of the fathers: oh, he is the man, he is alone for them. Again, let any man be in danger any way, and straight he sends to the wise man or wizard: God's word is not sufficient to comfort and direct him. All this argues that popery denied with the mouth, abides still in the heart: and therefore we must learn to reverence the written word by ascribing unto it all manner of perfection.

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