Historical Theology (Post-Reformation)

Puritans and 17th Continental Reformed Theology

Genetic Tradition

The post-Reformation period defines "Reformed". Your teachers don't. R.C. Sproul doesn't. I don't. You don't. The Confessions of the English and Dutch traditions do. When making Confessional exceptions, we need to make sure we're not siding with one of the groups the Westminster divines as a whole were writing against. This isn't "No True Scotsman". This is "XX and XY have meaning".

For example, while we don't need to copy the views of civil government, we can't really argue with the Puritans on the moral law. One of the core purposes of the Westminster assembly was to fight antinomianism. A popular, yet pernicious form of antinomianism during the days of the assembly can be characterized by "the New Covenant has no conditions, so we don't need to obey the moral law, our obedience is merely like a thank you note". One wonders how antinomians deal with 2 Cor. 5:10, Matt. 16:27, Jn. 5:28-29, Gal. 6:7-9, Rev. 20:13 and Rev 22:12. If we defend antinomianism or side with the Lutherans against the Reformed, we're outside the bounds of Confessional orthodoxy in both spirit and letter.

Calvin, basing his work on that of Oecolampadius (d. 1531), developed the core Reformed doctrines. Reformed theology is inherently deeply experiential. This is reflected in both the words of Calvin as well as the later Puritans. While Calvin, Luther, and Beza were reforming the church, their grandchildren reformed the church, now we're bound by semper reformanda: always being reformed. We're meant to constantly be molded back to the norming norm (Scripture) within the context of the normed norms (confessions, catechisms, and creeds).

The post-Reformation period is largely English, but it does extend to the Dutch reformed tradition (e.g. Canons of Dort, Belgic Confession). After the 16th century, there's an important transitional point of secular history in England. The English reformation was not directly related to the reformation we know. It came about because Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and the pope refused. The Church in England became the Church of England. This created a third choice that was neither Catholic nor protestant: Anglicanism. However, through the providence of God, the protestant reformation was imported to England and did strongly influence the Church of England.

The Puritans we know and love started in Anglicanism, and tried to stay as long as possible. They, including Richard Sibbes, were able to stay in the Church even under Queen Elizabeth. However, when the King started to force candles in worship and other blasphemies onto the church, the English parliament declared war on the King. This war was both bloody and theological. Parliament took the opportunity to reform the church's 39 articles. Along with the Scottish military support came deeper theological changes culminating in the Westminster assembly. Because worship was the highest priority, the directory of public worship was published first, then the catechisms, finally the confession.

The Puritans we know stayed in the church, even more comfortably. The King was caught, tried, and executed. After a time of relative peace under Oliver Cromwell's military dictatorship, his death caused parliament to bring the King's son to the throne. This new King forced the worship blasphemies (e.g. candles) back into the church with an additional requirement that this style of anti-Reformed worship be done, not just in act, but from the heart. The Reformed, like John Owen, could not tolerate this. This ended the reformation project in England. The reformation was now the Reformed period.

Sadly, today the thing where people are most OK to "agree to disagree" was the #1 priority (i.e. worship) of the Westminster assembly. It lead to war and we laugh it off. The Reformed regulative principle of worship is meant to mirror the reverence and care worship is handled under Moses: Numbers 25:6-7 represents how Adam should have dealt with the serpent. Purity of worship represents the center of the Reformed faith, especially the Westminster standards. Advent candles (Lev 10:1-3) and images of Christ must be left to the Lutherans and Anglicans. Protecting the place of God was exactly how the Reformed faith was created. Above all else, this is what being Reformed means.

Sadly, the concept of "Reformed" has been watered down in American theology by evangelicalism so much so that many even equate "Reformed" with "predestination". This is incredibly odd considering that the Reformed tradition explicitly includes amyraldianism2, and many groups outside of the Reformed tradition hold to divine election. A quick look at a timeline will show us where Augustine, Gottschalk of Orbais, and the Jansenists exist in relation to the 17th century confession writers.

Many today falsely wearing the "Reformed" label would actually condemn the confession writers themselves. It's simply odd to watch people defend originalism when it comes to a nation's constitution, but ignoring it regarding their own confessions. It's hard to see how taking exception to the 2nd amendment is worse than taking exception to their confession's words on the 4th commandment.


By the grace of God, the 17th century Reformed theology has had a tremendous resurgence in the 20th century, from both a Dutch and English tradition perspective. From the Dutch tradition comes the 19th century work of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. Extending from this is a bridge back to the English tradition via Geerhardus Vos. This "Old Princeton" theologian sets out the foundation for a restoration and repackaging of Reformed thought in both the areas of Pneumatology and Biblical Theology.

Vos' developments set out the foundations for multiple significant developments, or rather, repackaging and revival of Puritan thought. For example, Cornelius Van Til built on Vos' understanding of special revelation to build out a Reformed apologetics and John Murray built on Vos' focus on the history of special revelation to develop the redemptive-historical subtradition. Furthermore, Vos' development of the resurrection directly influenced Murray and indirectly influenced Richard Gaffin to reexamine the resurrection. Of course, subsequent development has shown that Vos' contributions are definitely more rediscoveries than novelties.

Starting at Calvin Theological Seminary, and later moving to Princeton Theological Seminary3, Vos acts as somewhat of a bridge between the Dutch and English traditions. From Vos flows the whole of the American Westminster tradition4, specifically Westminster Theological Seminary and Redeemer Theological Seminary.

The presence of either the Dutch (e.g. Calvin Theological Seminary) or the English (e.g. Westminster Theological Seminary) traditions can be seen in the works of Sinclair Ferguson, Richard Gaffin, Richard Muller, Mark Garcia, Lane Tipton, and Cornelius Van Til. This is in contrast with traditions stemming more from general evangelicalism with hints of Reformed like R.C. Sproul. Even the most surface level comparison of R.C. Sproul (Evanglical, Thomistic) with Sinclair Ferguson (English, Vossian) will highlight the differences. The same goes for organizations: compare Ligonier Ministries ("reformed" Evangelical)5 with Reformed Forum (strongly Vossian).


Studying the 17th century Puritans is a serious endeavor. There's a sense of breadth in Reformed thought, but it's the depth which truly grabs you. You can spend a lifetime diving into the history of theological development in the post-reformation period. You will undoubtedly be impressed by how nuanced 17th century authors are in correcting today's heterodox views.

Within the Reformed camp, there's incredibly widespread diversity amongst the various sub-traditions. The confessions are lowest-common denominators, not exhaustive systematic theologies. Sinclair Ferguson reminds us:

...within generic Reformed theology there has always been a diversity of viewpoint on various issues. Being aware of this saves us from naïvely (but dogmatically!) saying, “The Reformed view is  .  .  .  ,” when all we are entitled to say is, “The view held by a number of Reformed writers with whom I agree is  .  .  .”!6

Furthermore, Jeffery Jue says:

...any seventeenth-century doctrine must be examined within a nexus of theological opinions and articulations (and doctrinal solidarity may vary from issue to issue) in order to understand the motivations and intentions of various English divines.7

While Christological-Pneumatology is the underlying defining attribute of "Reformed"8, there are other features which are almost universally attached to the term. It's ultimately a tradition with myriad subtraditions (e.g. Redemptive-Historical). Theological diversity exists at nearly every level. The post-Reformation period helps us to see how our forefathers handled this diversity.

Core Reading

Article The Fundamental Meaning Of Theology: Archetypal And Ectypal Theology In Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought (Willem van Asselt)

Start here if you can get access to the Westminster Theological Journal archives -- if not, get access! This article is a solid gateway into post-reformation thought. If you don't have a strong grasp on the archetypal/ectypal distinction, your studies will not go far in this period -- and you are missing a critical guard rail against heresy.

The archetypal/ectypal went on to fuel Westminster Confession of Faith section 7 and shows up in the Van Til creator-creature diagram, which is the logo for this website. You can read the Hermeneutics page on this website for an introduction.

If you're a Westminster Theological Journal subscriber (and you should be), you get access to the entire online archive. You just have to ask for it.

Book Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Richard Muller)

With a general understanding of a topic, you're ready to begin your studies. The first step is always terminology. Keep this volume with you during your studies. You're not going to get far without this.

Book A Puritan Theology: Doctrine For Life (Joel Beeke and Mark Jones)

Every person serious about Reformed theology must own this book. It will help you distinguish actual Reformed theology from theology that leaked in from evangelicalism (e.g. Ligonier).

This book covers some of the major doctrinal developments in the puritan era. Puritan is a largely undefinable term, but "puritan era" gives you a pointer to the 17th century.

Book Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Willem van Asselt)

Reformed Scholasticism is a term much easier to define than "puritan". It just deals with Reformed theology as developed in and for the seminaries. It's not the opposite of "stuff Pastors do" as is often supposed; it's simply the way doctrine is packaged in Pastoral theological training. The cold feeling some get reading some literature relates more to a lower emotional intelligence than it being related to "scholasticism".

Book Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Richard Muller)

This is the standard series for historical theology. It's a four volume set which is in and out of print often. You'll want to buy it the moment you see that it's available, but it's so big, that the Logos edition is probably a better choice for most people.

Compendia Reading

You're meant to read the following resources topically.

Book Drawn into Controversie (Michael Haykin, Mark Jones, ed.)

This book is similar to A Puritan Theology, but it's theme thematic. It's a set of essays written by various authors relating to debates around the 17th century.

Book Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carl Trueman and R. Scott Clark)

This book crosses the boundary between reformation and post-reformation. It consciously covers various time periods.


With a framework for the time period, and a solid set of compenia, you're ready to zoom in on various special topics.

Book After Calvin (Richard Muller)

What's the relationship between the Reformers and the Reformed? This relationship is the relationship between Calvin and his students.

Book The Doctrine of The Pactum Salutis In The Covenant Theology of Herman Witsius (J. Mark Beach)

A topic which will come up repeatedly in this time period is the pactum salutis. The parallel developers of covenant theology usually stream from an understanding of the pactum salutis.

Book Toward the Pactum Salutis: Locating the Origins of a Concept (Richard Muller)

Where did the development of a pactum salutis originate?

Muller Topical Reading

The following three books are part of Muller's smaller compendium series. These represent excellent scholarly examples of how far you can zoom into a topic and still not exhaust it. I worked through these a very long time ago -- I can't recall if I even finished all three; only two of them are highlighted.

Book Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Richard Muller)

Book Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Richard Muller)

Book Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Richard Muller)

Primary Sources

This section is light, because your primary sources should come from how your interests are piqued during your core and compedia readings. However, the work of Junius is important enough to highlight and the Thomas Goodwin book listed gives a good example of how intense, yet practical the Puritans can be.

Book A Treatise on True Theology (Franciscus Junius)

With an introduction by Willem van Asselt and a forward by Richard Muller, you know you're dealing with something that needs to be on your required reading list.

This is the primary source the article titled "The Fundamental Meaning Of Theology" was referring to. It will help orient you to the correct model of thinking about theology.

Book The Heart of Christ in Heaven (Thomas Goodwin)

Goodwin's treatment on the intercession of Christ in heaven is amazing. He deduces from Scripture how the glorified humanity of Christ is able to sympthaize with us as Hebrews tells us.

I consider Thomas Goodwin to be the crown jewel of the Puritans. He was core to the Westminster assembly, and was also one of the Savoy Declaration authors (with John Owen).

Book Meditations on the Holy Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Edward Reynolds)

This is fairly long compared to other works, but it's a great representation of the Reformed doctrine of the Supper.

Footnotes and Star Notes


The Reformed response is that your salvation requires your works. Not toward achieving salvation, and definitely not as a "thank you", but because that's the point of Christ saving you! Your salvation isn't just for you. Ephesians 2:10 doesn't require a lot of interpretation: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Sinclair Ferguson calls the moral law "the moral shape that salvation takes" (see Moral Shape That Salvation Takes). The theology behind the Westminster standards on good works is rich and nuanced, and it does come out in the confession and catechisms. However, the "thank you" note theology was such a serious error that the Westminster confession itself even omits the word "whole" in Chapter 11 when it speaks of "imputing the obedience". Most Puritans fully understood that both the passive obedience of Christ (to save us from hell) and the active obedience of Christ (to get us eschatological life), but some denied the active obedience, or, at least, downplayed it to ensure that people understood that your own good works are required. While the word "whole" was widely accepted, it's a mystery why it didn't end up in the document. There are better ways to emphasize good words than denying or hiding Christ's active obedience.


"Amyraldian hypothetical universalism can be recognized as belonging to the internal diversity of the Reformed tradition itself - and a very different picture of orthodoxy emerges." Richard Muller, Diversity in the Reformed Tradition, Drawn into controversie : reformed theological diversity and debates within seventeenth-century British Puritanism (Göttingen ;Oakville, Conn. : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), pg. 19


The rumor is that he left Calvin due to pressure relating to his supralapsarianism. The Westminster tradition (e.g. Westminster) is definitely compatible with supralapsarianism, despite naive attempts to show how the documents are inherently infralapsarian.


It's easy to speculate that if Vos had not lived into the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary, it's likely that the school would have been called Vos Theological Seminary.


Ligonier has had the same effect on "reformed" theology that McDonald's had has on hamburgers. It's not related to quality.


Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance: Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 117


Jeffery Jue, The Active Obedience of Christ and the Westminster Standards, ed. Scott Oliphint, Justified in Christ (Great Britain: Mentor Imprint, 2007), 103


Mark Gracia helps explain the sine qua non of Reformed here: Capital-R Reformed