October 09, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness: According to William Ames

Stephen Nichols
The Pursuit of Happiness: According to William Ames


One of my favorite Puritan books is a systematic theology by William Ames. Ames was born in November of 1576, and he died in November of 1633. Ames was a Cambridge man. He was at Christ's College, and while he was there he came under the influence of William Perkins. Ames got caught up in some politics in Cambridge, and he was a bit too vocal and he found himself on the outs with the vice-chancellor of the university. And so, he was politely asked to leave. Bishops around England block his appointment to various parishes, and so he, like so many of the Puritans during this time, went to Holland. And he was there for the controversy of Jacobus Arminius. And he was there in Holland at the Synod of Dordt in the 1610's.

And he also wrote a book. Well, he wrote many books actually, but we're going to consider just one, his systematic theology. For Ames, and for the puritans in general, theology was not the dry bones stuff for academics. We get a clue to how he thinks about theology by his title. He called his book, The Marrow of Theology. The Latin is Medulla Theologiae. Theology is not dry bones, far from it. Theology is the life giving substance—it's marrow. So we have to appreciate his title, The Marrow of Theology.

We also get a clue from how he thinks about theology from the opening two pages of his book; actually, from his very first line. Ames says, "Theology is the doctrine, or teaching, of living to God." He goes on to say that theology is an art like the other arts studied in the university. It is an academic discipline. Our knowledge of theology can be advanced by the application of our minds to the task, by industry. Ames is quick to point out however, that theology is unlike all the other disciplines. It has an entirely different source, an entirely different outcome. And both the source and the outcome are the same. The source is God and His revelation, and the outcome is God in His glory, and our enjoyment of Him.

Theology is not just thinking towards God, theology is living towards God. Now up until this point, Ames is closely following Thomas Aquinas and his definition of theology. Aquinas, the medieval theologian, says theology is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to God. Aquinas will later expand on this idea of theology leading to God by telling us that theology leads us to worship God. The end of theology is worship.

Now back to Ames. Once Ames defines what theology is, he reaches all the way back to the days of the Greek philosophers. He reaches back to Plato and Aristotle and the age-old discussion of what constitutes the good life. What is happiness, and what brings happiness? To get at this, Ames uses two Greek words. Ready? Here we go. The first is euzoia, and the second is eudaimonia. Now, euzoia means living well. We would simply say, the good life. And eudaimonia, well that means living happily. We would simply say, happiness. And then Ames said theology is this.

So there you have it. You want the good life? You want happiness? Be a theologian. Actually, I think we should let Ames have the final word. And so, as he closes off these first two pages this is what he says:

"Theology therefore, is to us, the ultimate and the noblest of all the exact teaching arts. It is a guide and master plan for our highest end, sent in a special manner from God, treating of divine things, tending towards God, and leading man to God."
Theology is living the Godward life.