Very little seems to be known about Edward Polhill, though I discovered him simply by working in a Reformed bookstore. Soli Deo Gloria has republished an 1844 edition of his Works, and it boasts endorsements by Roger Nicole and Cotton Mather- not too shabby. I was greatly impressed simply by the introduction to A View of Some Divine Truths Practically Exemplified in Jesus Christ with its strong Christological thrust and keen interest in honoring the catholic tradition of the Church. I did a little more research and found a brief biography of Polhill in the Oxford Biography Index.
Edward Polhill was baptized into the Church of England in 1622 and became known for being an able theologian, though a layman. His father was a rector, but Edward was a lawyer by trade. Polhill wrote several theological treatises expounding the thought of English Puritanism, and through his career he became the friendly acquaintance of John Owen and Lazarus Seaman among others. Though remaining within the Church of England all of his life, Polhill argued that the church’s leadership had only themselves to blame for the divisions caused by the cause of the nonconformists. He felt that the nonconformists’ complaints were essentially correct, even as he felt compelled to remain within the mainline church. Polhill died in 1693/4.
What I find so intriguing about Polhill, and why I think he is important for those of us who might choose to associate with “Puritanism” in some way, is his overarching Christological paradigm. The thesis of his A View of Some Divine Truths is that all theological truths reach their conclusion in the person of Christ. Jesus Christ is, as Polhill writes, “the substance and marrow” of the gospel, as well as “the very mirror of divine truths and perfections.”
In the introduction to A View of Some Divine Truths, Polhill sets the stage for the rest of the book. He writes of the person of Christ’s role in salvation history, and the language is quite striking. One might think he was reading patristic literature when Polhill begins to focus on the ontological and cosmic effects of the incarnation of Christ. It is only when the Christological paradigm continues on into justification and union with Christ that the reader is reminded that yes, Polhill is, in fact, a Puritan. Here’s a sample from the introduction:
[Jesus Christ] is the very mirror of divine truths and perfections. His style is the image of the invisible God, the brightness of the Father’s glory. As an eternal Son, he is such in himself; as incarnate, he is such to us. The Messiah (say the Rabbins) is facies Dei, the face of God. The glory of God (saith the apostle) is in the face of Jesus Christ. The divine perfections appear in him, as beauty doth in the face. The invisible one may here be seen; the inaccessible Majesty may be approached unto. Infinity, to accommodate itself to our model, appears nube carnis, in a cloud of flesh, that his glory might not swallow us up. In our Emmanuel we have a body of theology, an excellent summary of divine truths, in a very lively manner set forth to us. The atheist, who owns not a God in heaven, might here, if he had the eyes of faith, see God in the flesh. The wisdom of God doth here appear, not in the orders and harmonies of nature; but in a plot much greater, and more admirable—God and man, infinite and finite, eternal and temporal, are met in conjunction, that the human, finite, temporal nature in Christ might be the theatre for the divine, infinite, eternal nature to show its perfections in.
Polhill continues his treatise by explaining Christ’s two natures and how they both contribute to his satisfacation and our salvation. Polhill holds both a “penal substitution” theory of the atonement as well as a “Christus Victor” view with no difficulty, and he sums up his view of salvation in one short parallel, “God died in the flesh, that man might live in the Spirit” (pg. 10).
As could be expected from a Christocentric thinker, Polhill’s primary paradigm is that of union with Christ, and this works its way out into all of creation. He states that “the very life and marrow of religion” is that:
it sanctifies holy duties, it spiritualizes civil and natural actions; it elevates the life unto the great centre of all things, and by consecrating the actions unto God, gives them a kind of immortality. It transforms the soul into a deiformity or divine nature, that it becomes one spirit with the Lord, and falls in with the same will and end with him. (pg. 10)
Polhill explains his view of the believer’s union with Christ in similar language:
Secondly, we receive a human nature from Adam, and have we not a divine nature from Christ? are we not called his seed? are we not begotten by his Spirit and word? were we not in a spiritual sense seminally in his blood and merits? how else should any such thing as the new creature be produced in a lapsed nature? These things are as proper to make us parts and members of Christ, as a human nature is to make us parts and members of Adam; therefore, the communication of righteousness from Christ must be as full and great as the communication of sin is from Adam. Bishop Usher tells us, that we have a more strict conjunction in the Spirit with Christ, than ever we had in nature with Adam; one and the same spirit is in Christ and believers, but there is not one soul in Adam and his posterity: the communication from Christ, therefore, if answerable to the union, must be as great, nay, greater than that from Adam. (pg. 83)
If any of this seems to stretch the boundaries of our human understanding, Polhill has a fitting explanation. “Nothing,” he writes, “can be more just and purely rational, than for our intellect, being finite, to be subject to the infinite truth; and being lighted up by God, to do homage to its great original” (pg. 6).
Did I mention that he is a Puritan?
Polhill is important because he represents a style within English Puritanism that is often overlooked. While fully Calvinistic and Evangelical, he is equally as concerned to link the Church of England with the earlier medieval and patristic tradition. Among the authoritative names cited are Thomas Aquinas, Prosper of Aquitaine, and Augustine. As far as Reformed theologians go, one will find Calvin, Zanchius, and Davenant in Polhill’s treatises. There can be no doubt as to Polhill’s “Reformed” identity, and it is just as plain that he regarded himself as a catholic Christian within the Church of England. To read him is to find a sort of lost section of the historic Calvinist symphony, and indeed, he sounds a note that many today seem to be searching for.