The Marrow of Theology

By William Ames
Grand Rapids : Baker (1997). xiv + 353 Pages.

Reviewed by
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 97-99

Any reader familiar with the history of Puritan literature will quickly recognize William Ames’ Medulla Theologica, “The Marrow of Theology,” as one of the seminal works of Puritan theology. Eusden, in his opening comments, writes,

In a burst of enthusiasm Thomas Hooker (1586?-1647) of Hartford once recommended the Marrow and another of Ames’ works to fellow clergymen: ‘They would make him (supposing him versed in the Scriptures) a good divine, though he had no more books in the world’ (1).

Ames’ influence on the intellectual history of American Puritanism cannot be overstated. The Puritan divine, Cotton Mather, bestows the accolade “incomparable” on Ames (Mather, Magnalia ChristiAmericana. Book I [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977] 124). Josiah Quincy, in his bicentennial history of Harvard College (1840), noted that as late as 1726, seniors as part of the Harvard curriculum studied Medulla (Quincy, History of Harvard University. I [Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1840] 441). Samuel Morison, noted historian of Harvard, lists Medulla as an essential work to the study of Puritan divinity and observes that Ames works “ . . . are found in almost every recorded New England library” (Morison, The IntellectualLife of Colonial New England [Ithaca, N. Y.: Great Seal Books, 1960] 11, 160). Morison further suggests that the collegiate mottos of both Harvard, Veritas, In Christi Gloriam and Yale, Urim & Thummim have strong corollaries within the works of Ames, and were in likelihood, drawn from them (Morison, The Founding of Harvard College [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963] 330-31).

William Ames (1576-1633) was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, of a Puritan merchant family. He gained his formal education at Christ’s College, Cambridge, under the tutelage of William Perkins. He was suspended, but not expelled, from Christ’s College for failure to wear the surplice during college chapel exercises. After a brief time in Colchester, England, Ames moved to Leyden, Holland. It was there that Ames became involved with the Remonstrant controversies and distinguished himself as a Calvinistic theologian. From 1622 to 1632 he served as professor of theology at the University of Franeker, obtaining the rectorship in 1626. His scholarship attracted students throughout Protestant Europe to the University. His influence on New England Puritanism is especially noteworthy. Poor health forced his removal to Rotterdam where he tragically died in 1633 at an early age. His family made the voyage to New England following his death, bringing with them Ames’ library which was to become the early foundation of Harvard’s library collection (cf. “Wm. Ames,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [rev.] 44- 45).

Ames wrote The Marrow of Theology in 1623 with the first English translation appearing in 1638, posthumously. Eusden’s (Ph.D., Yale University) translation of Medulla adds to the many reprints of this classic Puritan text. Using the Third Latin Translation of Medulla (1629), Eusben offers the reader a comprehendible English translation. Following a brief overview of the historicity of The Marrow, the editor provides a concise biographical sketch of Ames. This overview is particularly helpful to readers uninitiated in Ames’ life and writings. Eusden further provides important background data on the intellectual influences that shaped and marked Ames’ theology. Discussion of Augustinian and scholastic roots; English Puritan heritages within the Reformed tradition; and distinctives within that tradition, particularly Ames’ use of Ramist logic, all provide important preliminary information for a reader before wading into the Medulla. This section of the text contains documentation and scholarly discussion helpful for further study or research. Unfortunately, such textual commentary and discussion is lacking in the actual translation of the text proper. Eusden concludes his preliminaries with an overview chart (71-73) which visually highlights the Ramist’s flow of Ames’ thinking as applied to theology.

The translation proper of the text follows the two-book structure. Book One focuses on theological conceptualizations and discussions in a systematic manner organized around theological themes. Book Two bridges theology into practical discussions of life and action with its emphasis on Christian piety, duty, and virtue. It is important that the reader recognize the balance between learning and devotion in the structure of Ames’ Marrow of Theology. Such a balance is important owing to Ames’ purpose in writing The Marrow of Theology. The reader should bear in mind that this work was a theological syllabus for his students. The Marrow was not intended to be purely theological, but practical as well.

The translation is readable and organized topically. The text is well-indexed and should provide the reader with ready reference in the event he is seeking a quick citation. This reviewer was disappointed with the lack of interaction and scholarly discussion in the translation proper. The use of footnotes and extensive cross-documentation in the text proper would have added significantly to the translation. Though such scholarly engagement occurs in the introduction of the book, it is completely absent in the translation. Such scholastic digression and interaction would be helpful to students reading Ames for the first time. Furthermore, translation decision-making, historical contextualization, theological excursuses, and citation references for additional study would have added to the quality of this work. Although it is understandable that the translator might not have wanted to clutter the text with verbiage ad nauseam, or detract from the essential work, novice scholars would find the discussion particularly helpful.

Any student of American theological traditions, Puritanism, the theological curriculum of early American higher education, or the intellectual history of the early New England colonies, should consider this fine translation. No reading of Puritan literature is complete without a perusal of The Marrow of Theology. Eusben offers the modern reader a quality translation of this classic treatise.