William Ames’ Exhortation to Students of Theology

First among Ames' concerns was to counter what he perceived as a lack of understanding by students of "the proper end of theology."

Ames ended his exhortation with the use of his word concerning the end of theology, the high calling of the ministry, and the need to study for purposes of doctrine and godliness. Here Ames spoke to his students about “theological exercises,” which were the ways the things they learned were sharpened and put into practice. Ames’ exhortation to his students was that they participated in disputations, that is, formal theological debate.


Since theological seminaries have recently held graduations and a new class of students will soon enter, I thought it would be a fun exercise to write a post on “the learned Doctor” William Ames’ advice to theological students. William Ames (1576–1633) was an Englishman who was “exiled” to the Netherlands for the end of his life and ministry. If any of you know much about the Dutch, you’ll understand the great blessing Ames had in teaching at the University of Franeker in the province of Friesland (laugh if you get the tongue-in-cheek joke). On May 23, 1622, the independent-minded, some would say stubborn, Frieslanders installed Ames at their small but “gracious academy of Friesland.” A little over year later he gave a lecture entitled, Parenesis ad studios theologiae, habita Franekerae, Aug. 22, anno 1623, “An Exhortation to the Students of Theology, Dwelling in Franeker, August 22, the Year 1623.” This lecture was translated in 1958 by Douglas Horton and is available through Inter-Library Loan or through sending me a few guilders.

Ames begins by defining the nature of theology as he did in his Medulla theologica, also published in 1623, in which Ames said so famously, “Theology is the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” In his exhortation, Ames said it was necessary for the University to “call theology away from questions and controversies, obscure, confused, and not very essential, and introduce it to life and practice so that students would begin to think seriously of conscience and its concerns.” No doubt Ames’ definition and populist concern reflects his relationship towards Johannes Maccovius, whom he considered too speculative.

First among Ames’ concerns was to counter what he perceived as a lack of understanding by students of “the proper end of theology.” He discussed this using 1 Timothy 4:16 as his text, which says the minister must be aware of his teaching since it saves himself and his hearers. This meant that students need to know that they were to be devoted to the glory of God and the edification of the church. Contrary to this concern for the proper end of theology were those who entered the ministry for financial gain or just like they would enter a business. God help us from this attitude in ourselves and for us so privileged, in purging this attitude from those we are shepherding towards the ministry as seminary students.

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