Category Archives: Church History

Delilah’s Lap

Frouwe Helenius Venema — portrait from later in life.

They say combat forges a bond between men, makes them brothers.  That was the experience of Dirk Hoksbergen too.  And if there’s anything that can create a chasm between brothers once bonded by combat, it’s a woman.  At least that’s how Dirk experienced it.

In 1833, Dirk was a prosperous dairy farmer near Wilsum, the Netherlands.  His farm was located just a short ferry-ride across the IJsel River from Wilsum, a tiny village not far from the city of Kampen.  By this point, Dirk had been married to Matje Broekhuis for 10 years.  They’d been blessed with several children, but as often happened in those days, some were lost in infancy.

When it comes to Dirk Hoksbergen, put away whatever prejudiced ideas you may have about farmers.  He was relatively well-educated.  From his youth, he’d been an avid reader, especially of Reformed theology.  His devout father Beert Hoksbergen led him to a steady diet of authors like Alexander Comrie, Wilhelmus à Brakel, and John Calvin.  Dirk also knew how to wield the quill.  To him, writing was like walking, even though his style was often rustic.

So on December 19, 1833, Dirk is sitting at the table in his farmhouse, quill in hand.  He’s been thinking for some time about what he’s about to write.  He thinks about everything his father taught him about the Christian faith and what it really means.  He thinks about what’s become of the Church.  Dirk’s blood pressure soars when he reflects on what’s become of the schools where Dutch youth are taught.  It’s all looking like the manure pile on his farm and he’s ready to do something about it.

Now Dirk has heard of someone else with the same concerns.  Over 100 km to the north, in the village of Ulrum, a pastor named Hendrik De Cock discovered the true Reformed faith.  Though he’d been a pastor for several years, he hadn’t become a Christian until his time in Ulrum.  A parishioner witnessed to him and was one of several means God used to bring him to true faith in Christ.  Now De Cock saw with increasing clarity the corruption in the Church.  He began to sound the alarm.  Though Ulrum was only a village, De Cock’s name was becoming well-known among believers in the Dutch State Church.

So Hendrik De Cock’s Ulrum parsonage is the natural destination for Dirk’s letter.  Dirk thinks to himself, “Surely, Dominee De Cock will be a sympathetic ally.  He’ll understand.  Maybe my letter will even embolden him to more action.”  The letter writing goes late into the night.  By the time it’s finished, Dirk has used up 51 pages.  His epistle is soon sent off to Ulrum.

De Cock is impressed with his dairy farmer correspondent.  Here’s a man who knows his Bible, who loves the old Reformed faith, and who can express himself in writing.   He writes to a friend, “The wise and understanding do not see, yes they are blinder than moles, seeing light for darkness; while a simple farmer shows clearly the state of Church and school, based on God’s eternal and infallible Word.”  De Cock has connections.  He sees to it that Dirk’s letter is published as a booklet and he writes a commendatory Foreword.  With this, these two men become comrades in ecclesiastical combat – brothers in arms.

The first major battle takes place not long afterwards.  Rev. Hendrik De Cock is first suspended and then deposed by the Dutch State Church.  This because he called out the Church’s doctrinal corruption and refused to back down.  Thankfully, the Ulrum congregation stands behind him and on October 13, 1834, they secede from the State Church.  This is the official beginning of “the Secession.”  Other individuals and congregations soon follow suit.

On Wednesday June 3, 1835, Dirk Hoksbergen hosts Hendrik De Cock at his farm in Wilsum.  On that summer day, they talk at length about the situation and what needs to be done.  Together they talk tactics and plot the next move against the enemy.  Later that same day the two men call a meeting for concerned church members in Wilsum.  Sufficient numbers attend that the decision is made there and then to secede and institute a new congregation.  Elders and deacons are elected and installed in a worship service.  But Dirk isn’t among those office bearers.  He’s slated for a more strategic place.  After the meeting concludes, Dirk and Rev. De Cock travel the short distance to the city of Kampen.  They stay overnight.  The next day, June 4, they call together the concerned church members of Kampen.  Some 35 people attend the meeting.  As in Wilsum, they decide right then to secede from the State Church.  A worship service is held on this Thursday and elders are installed – one of whom is Dirk.  In fact, Dirk is recognized as a “teaching elder” in Kampen – he’ll be responsible for the edification of the congregation.  At first he reads sermons written by others, but soon he’s preaching his own messages in the local dialect.

So by the end of June in 1835, there’s not only a seceded congregation in Ulrum, but also in Wilsum and Kampen.  Many other concerned pastors and congregations join them.  Soon there are enough secession churches to have a national synod.

The first synod is held in March 1836 in Amsterdam.  Both Dirk and Rev. De Cock were delegates.  Dirk was soon recognized as being head and shoulders above his fellow elders.  He’s appointed to a couple of committees, including one where he’s serving with his friend Rev. De Cock.  Most of the other delegates fondly refer to him as “Uncle Dirk.”  However, this Synod already reveals a rift among these churches.  It centers on Rev. Scholte and his ideas about church government.  Rev. Scholte doesn’t much appreciate the old Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort.  He’s doing everything he can to see that this old form of government is left in the past.  That aggravates traditionalists like Dirk and Rev. De Cock.  The two of them are convinced that Rev. Scholte is heading down the wrong track.  At Synod Amsterdam, their view carries the day.  That battle was won.

Or so it seemed.  After the Synod, Rev. Scholte doesn’t relent.  He draws up his own church order and persuades local churches and even provincial synods to adopt it.  He acts as if Synod Amsterdam hadn’t decided for Dort!  This raises the dairy farmer’s ire.

And it leads to another Synod in 1837, this time in Utrecht.  Again, both Rev. De Cock and Dirk Hoksbergen are delegates.  Dirk attends with strict instructions from his delegating provincial synod to “maintain the Synod of Dort with its Church Order without any changes.”  Not that he needs those instructions – it’s his own firm conviction too.  Rev. De Cock, his fellow soldier under the cross, shares that opinion.  Together, they’re not going to back down.

They don’t.  The pressure is enormous.  Because of government persecution, the Synod was actually illegal.  Once all the delegates were in the building, they had to stay there.  For days they were locked down together behind those walls.  No one could leave until it was over.  The 24 delegates bicker and battle for days on end.  The Dutch are known to be stoic, but ecclesiastical warfare can bring the toughest Dutchman to tears.

One morning, Dirk wakes up and can’t find Rev. De Cock.  He searches the building and eventually finds De Cock sequestered in a lonely corner.  He’s sobbing uncontrollably.  Rev. De Cock just can’t cope with the acrimonious Church Order debates.  Dirk comforts his friend with 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”  Encouraged, they together leave the room resolved to carry on the fight for Old Dort.

But this isn’t a battle they can win.  The numbers just aren’t there – there are only five elders (including Dirk) and one minster (De Cock) on the side of Dort – 6 of 24 delegates.  Rev. Scholte has long been working behind the scenes to convince delegates.  When it comes time for the vote, the Synod says farewell to Dort.  Scholte’s Church Order is accepted.

Dirk and Rev. De Cock travel home together – defeated and disillusioned.  As they sit in the carriage travelling north, it’s Rev. De Cock’s turn to encourage his ally.

“Brother, we mustn’t give in.  There’s too much at stake.”

“But Dominee, how can we do anything now?  Even if we don’t accept this decision, the majority does.”

“Brother, we cannot give in.  We can’t grow weak.  The decision is wrong and we have to stand against it, just like we stood against the State Church.  God will bless our steadfastness.”

“Yes, Dominee, you’re right.  We may have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war.  We must keep fighting for what our fathers gave us at Dort.”

When they arrive in Zwolle, they reach a crossroads and go their separate ways.  Dirk heads to his farm in Wilsum, while De Cock travels back to his church in Ulrum.  Dirk couldn’t have known that this was a parting of ways in more than one sense.

Rev. Albertus Van Raalte had also been delegated to the Synod in Utrecht.  He was on the Scholte side of the Church Order debate.  But he also knew the strategic value of having Rev. De Cock on board – De Cock was hugely influential in the Secession churches.  Even though the Synod had decided, if De Cock was against it, there were going to be issues.

As the Synod concluded, Rev. Van Raalte devised a plan.  Somehow he found a way to make the 200 km journey from Utrecht to Ulrum post haste.  He made it there before Rev. De Cock.  He arrived in Ulrum and went straight to the manse.  There he found Hendrik’s wife, all alone, waiting for her husband’s return.

Frouwe Venema was a sober, serious, godly woman.  She’d been a good helpmeet for Rev. De Cock, supporting him in his battles for the truth of God’s Word.  She was also, as they say, “a force to be reckoned with.”  If anyone could get through to Rev. De Cock, it would be his wife.  She was a reasonable woman and had her husband’s ear like no one else.

Rev. DeCock returns home from Synod.  He walks in and, to his surprise, fresh from Synod too, Rev. Van Raalte is sitting at his table.  He’s been speaking with Frouwe.

“Well, what is this about then?”

“Brother, for the sake of peace in the churches, I came here to speak with your wife.  She’s a wise woman and I think you need to listen to her.”

“No, I think you need to leave.  You and your colleagues have caused enough trouble for me and for the churches.  Go.”

The manse door closes and Rev. Van Raalte begins his journey back to Ommen.  Hendrik glares at Frouwe.

“What were you thinking allowing that man in our home?  He’s a trouble-maker.”

“Hendrik, the Lord teaches us to pursue peace.”

“But not at all costs!  We have to stand for the truth of what the Lord gave through our fathers.”

“Hendrik, there’s been enough fighting.  The churches need peace.  We can’t be constantly dealing with conflict.  Can’t you just give in and give up this fight?  It’s not worth it.”

“My dear wife, I’m tired from my journey.  I need rest.  Enough talking for now, please.”

In short order, Frouwe convinces her husband to accept the new Church Order and give up the fight against it.  Thereafter Rev. De Cock goes on a tour with Rev. Van Raalte to many of the churches still harbouring reservations.  The churches of Wilsum and Kampen weren’t included on this tour.  De Cock and Van Raalte would decidedly not have been welcome.

When word reaches Dirk about De Cock’s change of mind, he feels profoundly betrayed by his co-belligerent.  They’d been through so many battles together.  They’d fought hard against Scholte and his innovations.  They’d strategized together.  They’d wept together.  They were there for one another.  In the carriage home from Synod, they’d agreed that they’d keep fighting.  Now De Cock kicked it all to the side.  All because of his wife.  Dirk’s blood boils at this treachery.  Unlike De Cock he’s not going to relent.  He’s going to still stand with the Dort fathers, no matter what.  Rev. De Cock might compromise, but Dirk never will – and he never did.

Later on in Dirk’s life, the pain of De Cock’s betrayal never subsided.  It was a bitter parting.  In later life, at a certain moment, he writes about how Frouwe persuaded his one-time friend:  “Then he laid his head in Delilah’s lap!”  To Dirk, Hendrik De Cock was Samson robbed of his strength by a cunning woman with Philistines conniving behind the scenes.  To him, it was that kind of betrayal – and it stung.


Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.

 


Discern the Doctrine of the Trinity

Athanasius, who warred against Arianism and lent his name to the Athanasian Creed.

How well do you know your Christian truth from error?  Are you able to discern when the theological wool is being pulled over your eyes?  In this series of blog posts, I want to cover some common errors that are easily overlooked.

We’ll start today with the doctrine of the Trinity.  It doesn’t get any more basic than this.  It’s crucially important to follow the biblical teaching regarding God.  Numerous battles have been waged in ages past to get this right.  The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is found in its most precise form in the Athanasian Creed.  There Bible-believing Christians confess that there is one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny this is to deny the Christian faith and to endanger one’s salvation.  A lot is at stake!

When someone is in error regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, that error is labelled as a heresy.  Heresy is serious, soul-endangering error.  When we think of heresies in this area of theology, usually our thoughts go first to Arianism.  Arianism denies that God is triune.  Instead, Jesus is a creature — an exalted, almost god-like creature, but still a creature.  The Holy Spirit is the impersonal power of God.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern-day Arians.  It’s fair to say that we quickly realize this one as a heresy and dismiss it as unbiblical.

The other common error is not so easily detected.  Consider this quote from a church’s statement of faith:

Our God is One, but manifested in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, being coequal.

Or this quote from another church’s statement of faith:

We believe in one God revealed as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does that sound orthodox to you?  To many people it does.  It looks like all the elements are there.  We have one God, three persons.  We have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It may look orthodox at first glance.  But if you look closer, there’s a hitch.  The hitch is in the words “manifested” and “revealed.”  Those words indicate the presence of heresy.

This is the heresy known as modalism.  Like Arianism, this heresy dates back to the early church.  It’s commonly associated with Sabellius.  Sabellius believed in monotheism (one God), but he also recognized that the Bible spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  How do you reconcile those two truths?  Sabellius taught that God is one, but he manifests or reveals himself at different times in one of three different ways.  Sometimes he manifests himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Holy Spirit.  It’s like God has three different masks he wears.  Sabellianism or modalism was recognized in the early church as unbiblical and heretical.  The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are the one true God.

Where do you find modalism today?  Mostly in what are called “Oneness Pentecostal” churches.  The churches quoted from above are Oneness Pentecostal.  One of the largest Oneness Pentecostal churches is the United Pentecostal Church.  They’re found globally, in Canada, Australia, and many other places.  The UPC statement of faith says it plainly:

There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is God manifested in flesh. He is both God and man.

Another way of detecting modalism is in the administration of baptism.  Many (but not all) Oneness Pentecostal churches baptize only in the name of Jesus Christ.  They do this because they reckon that baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ is also baptizing in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Orthodox Christianity considers such baptisms to be invalid.

Modern-day modalism testifies to how ancient Christian creeds (and the biblical truths they contain) have been so often forgotten or forsaken.  Those creeds and their formulations came to us via many hard-fought battles.  The church strove to express biblical truth with careful precision.  Today these creeds give us a ready tool to detect unbiblical teaching when it comes to the basics of who God is.  It’s the height of foolishness to think we can do without them.


Five Ways You’re Probably Not A Calvinist

What’s a Calvinist?  That can be a tough question to answer.  It’s fair to say there are Reformed people who believe it simply means we’re followers of John Calvin.  If a Lutheran follows the teachings of Martin Luther, then a Calvinist must follow the teachings of John Calvin.  In a general sense, that’s true.  We do follow and share some of the important tenets held by John Calvin – not because he said so, but because the Bible teaches these things.  Most importantly of all, with Calvin we maintain the gospel of sovereign grace.

Nevertheless, there are things John Calvin taught or practiced that few, if any, self-identifying Calvinists would hold to today.  Let me outline five of them.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Calvin believed that Mary remained a virgin after the conception and birth of Jesus.  For the proof of this, see his commentaries on Matt. 1:25 and Luke 1:34.  So what does Calvin do with the mention of Jesus’ “brothers” in Matt. 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19?  He follows the old interpretation that these are cousins of Jesus, not his half-brothers.  This approach was followed by other Reformers, including Guido de Brès, the author of the Belgic Confession.

Instruments in Worship

Some of our Presbyterian brethren are fond of pointing out that Calvin was no fan of instruments in public worship – and they’re right.  See, for example, his commentary on Psalm 33:2 or Psalm 71:22.  Calvin believed musical instruments were linked to the Old Testament ceremonies fulfilled in Christ.  However, what’s often missed is that Calvin wasn’t targeting musical accompaniment.  In his day, musical instruments were never used anywhere in public worship to accompany singing.  Instead, if they were used, they were used as stand-alone elements in the service.  See here for some elaboration on this by my colleague Dean Anderson. 

Birth Control

If you have Calvin’s Commentaries, you should check out Genesis 38:10.  If your edition is the same as mine (the old Baker reprint set), you’ll notice that this verse is missing, along with a few other lines.  The translator or editor decided not to include this, as if Calvin’s views on this are dangerous or troublesome.  Well, let’s put out there exactly what Calvin wrote about Onan’s spilling his seed on the ground:

Verse 10: The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. It will suffice for me briefly to have touched upon this as much as modesty in speaking permits. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall to the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born — the hoped for offspring.

This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth with his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.”

I wonder how many self-proclaimed “Calvinists” would agree with that!  Now, I suspect that Calvin held to the view that women don’t contribute anything of substance to the reproductive process – they’re simply the “field” into which the “seed” is sown.  In this regard, Calvin may have had more in common with Anabaptist Menno Simons than his fellow Reformer Guido de Brès – see here for more on that.

The Use of God’s Name

A couple of years ago, I read through the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes.  One thing that discomforted me was Calvin’s occasional misuse of God’s Name.  In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!”  (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27).  In each context, it’s clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God.  The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French.  In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations.  I’ve encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès.  I find it troubling and can’t find a way to excuse it.  Perhaps, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.

Servetus

Michael Servetus was a notorious Spanish heretic and opponent of Calvin.  He was a wanted man throughout Europe, both amongst Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Servetus arrived in Geneva in 1553.  He was recognized by John Calvin and reported to the city authorities.  He faced a trial before the city magistrates for heresy, was found guilty, and burnt at the stake.  As I argue here, Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus case is a quite bit more nuanced than is often realized.  Nevertheless, in 1554 Calvin wrote a lively defense of the way the Servetus case was handled in Geneva.  He believed Servetus received justice for his crimes.  Moreover, he argued that the Old Testament penalties for such things ought to be maintained in the present-day:  “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.  This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his church.”

Still a Calvinist?

I could give several more examples, but the point’s been made.  As we reflect on this, it’s important to remember two things.  First, the Bible is our infallible standard, not John Calvin.  He was a mere man and men can and do err.  Second, how we identify ourselves does matter.  Rather than identifying ourselves as Calvinists, it’s better to think of ourselves as Reformed Christians.  If we’re asked, the word ‘Reformed’ has a whole story behind it.  It’s the story of how the authority of the Bible was rediscovered, how the glory of the gospel was regained, and how the church again came to see the praise of God as her be-all and end-all.  ‘Reformed’ really means ‘Reformed according to the Scriptures.’  ‘Calvinist’ merely brings us to a man, but ‘Reformed’ brings us to God and his Word.   I think Calvin himself would prefer we use the latter.


The Sad Case of Francesco Spiera

There was a time when the name of Francesco Spiera (or Francis Spira) was well-known throughout the Reformed churches of Europe.  His story frightened, inspired, and motivated many.  It was a story repeated numerous times in all the languages of Europe.  His story caught the attention of John Calvin and many other Reformed theologians.  Spiera became an example and a warning.  Yet today his name is all but forgotten.  I’d never heard of him until I came across a reference to him in a book written in the seventeenth century.  I doubt you’ve heard of him.  But I think you should know, because his life and death are still instructive, as are the reactions that followed.

The Life and Death of Francesco Spiera 

Francesco Spiera (ca. 1504-1548) was an Italian.  We know nothing about his childhood or upbringing.  What is written about him focuses entirely on the last years of his life.  He appears out of the blue as a lawyer working in the region of Venice.  He was an intelligent man with a solid reputation and a faithful Roman Catholic.  He was married and had eleven children.

Spiera’s world was turned upside down in the early 1540s when Reformation writings appeared for sale in his area.  He apparently purchased some of these writings.  He compared these writings with the Bible and became convinced that Reformation theology was biblical.  Moreover, he didn’t keep his new faith to himself.  He taught it to his family and his friends and to whomever would listen.

In November of 1547, some of his neighbours denounced him to the Roman Inquisition.  The Inquisition existed to stamp out heresies and errors and whatever challenged the authority and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  Spiera was put on trial in Venice in May of 1548.  Among other things, his possession of an Italian Calvinistic classic, Beneficio di Cristo, was evidence that he had set out on a road away from Rome.  The trial lasted into June of 1548 and at the end he was commanded to retract his Protestant beliefs publicly and to buy an altar-piece for his local Roman Catholic Church building.  He appears to have followed these instructions.

Problems set in almost immediately afterwards.  Spiera had second thoughts about his abjuration.  He reportedly heard the voice of the Son of God accusing him for having denied the gospel and telling him that he was now a reprobate condemned to hell.  He fell ill and spent most of his time in bed suffering from physical pain and emotional despair.  Friends and family tried to reason with him.  Roman Catholic theologians and priests made an effort to convince him, and when that failed, they attempted to exorcise whatever demon was tormenting him.  Spiera continued to despair.  He died in that condition on December 27, 1548.  Some say that he died of despair, others that he took his own life.

The Danger of Apostasy

We live in a comfortable age at the moment.  Stories such as the one about Spiera seem entirely disconnected from our reality.  We would never face an Inquisition for being or becoming Reformed.  At least not at the moment.  However, we should not assume that things will always continue to be the way they are.  A day could come when you are dragged before a court and pressured to repudiate the gospel and your Saviour.  Spiera’s story reminds us that betraying our Saviour comes at a cost.

The story of Francesco Spiera was used by both Protestants and Roman Catholics to advance their agendas.  Roman Catholics used Spiera’s story to warn their people about the dangers of even departing from Rome in the first place.  Protestants used the story to warn people what could happen if they were to abjure their biblical faith.  Historians recognize that the historical accounts are coloured by these agendas.  Yet both Roman Catholics and Protestant reports of Spiera’s demise highlight the enormous suffering and despair that he endured because he did not stand strong one way or another.  I think we can say with certainty that this is a historical fact and it’s something instructive for us.

Protestant Reflections on Spiera

It’s also instructive to survey the different ways in which Protestants have treated the case of Francesco Spiera.  One of the earliest commentaries comes from John Calvin.  In 1549 Calvin wrote a preface to an account of Spiera’s despair.  Calvin used Spiera as an example in his struggle with the Nicodemites.  The Nicodemites, like Nicodemus, were secret believers.  They were people who held to Reformed theology, but continued to remain in the Roman Catholic Church.  Spiera was an example of what could happen to such people.  But Calvin went further than this and explicitly declared judgment on Spiera.  Calvin referred to him as an example of the reprobate who “never fail to proceed from one sin to another.”  His despair was God’s justice on him, a justice that came to full fervour after his death.  Calvin essentially asserted that Spiera had been consigned by God to eternal destruction and his betrayal of the faith gave evidence of his reprobation.

Subsequent Protestant theologians and authors took a similar line.  The English Reformer and martyr Hugh Latimer (ca. 1487-1555) asserted that Spiera had sinned against the Holy Spirit – committing the unpardonable sin.  In 1865, a book of poems was published by the Englishman James Hain Friswell.  The first one is about Francesco Spiera and its opening lines clearly indicate where the author believes Spiera ended up:

The words of Francis Spira, man of Law,

A man in sin begotten and conceived,

Reaping damnation, which he much deserved,

Dying with friends about him whose vain words

Would comfort him whose doom is fix’d past help!

Similarly, on a couple of occasions the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) referred to Spiera and compared him to Judas Iscariot.  While he did not come right out and declare that Spiera was reprobate, there is a hint of it.

Another Line

However, there is another line in Protestant reflections on Francesco Spiera.  It’s found both among Reformed writers and Lutherans during the seventeenth century.  The post-Reformation was far kinder and sympathetic to Spiera’s case than many before and after.

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) is one of the giants of the Reformed faith in the seventeenth century.  He taught theology at the University of Utrecht.  He is remembered for his deft blending of serious academic thought with warm-hearted commitment to Christ.  Some of his books were written exclusively for an academic audience.  Others were written for the common Reformed person.  One of those was a book entitled Spiritual Desertion (Geestelijke Verlatingen), first published in Dutch in 1646.  In this book (which has been translated into English), Voetius mentions the case of Spiera twice.  The first time is in a discussion about the circumstances that most frequently accompany a feeling of desertion by God.  He mentions persecutions, diseases as well as considerable physical weakness which leads to death.  And he writes that an example of this is what happened with Spiera.  He adds, “This history ought to be read and can be read, since it available in more than one language.”

He comes back to Spiera later.  Voetius notes that when it comes to judging what happened to Spiera, he is in agreement with the assessment of the English Puritan William Perkins, the German Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, and even Arminius.  Voetius writes:

For certainly one must not give credence to their cries or confessions of despair, because that voice is not a voice of credibility or truth but of weakness; it is not making a statement but expressing a doubt…Finally, even if it were the case that they were not restored inwardly before their death but departed during a severe attack of insensibility and temptation, nothing certain could be concluded about their final and total impenitence and unbelief.  This could be done only if it were first established that actual, particular, and always ensuring repentance and remorse (renewed after every sin) is absolutely and indispensably necessary to salvation. (Spiritual Desertion, 53)

According to Voetius then, it is inappropriate to claim that Spiera was reprobate because of the manner in which he died.

Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617-1666) was a disciple of Voetius.  Voetius actually never finished writing Spiritual Desertion, so he commissioned Hoornbeeck to complete it.  Hoornbeeck wrote a lot more about Spiera, but it was all along the same lines as that of Voetius.  A short quote will give you an idea of what he thought:

[Spiera] did want to return to God but thought that he could not do so.  We silently pass by the judgment that others have pronounced.  On the basis of his burning desire and his heartfelt longing for God and his grace (longing that he frequently displayed), we consider ourselves duty-bound to suspend our judgment – if not to speak in his favour. (Spiritual Desertion, 86)

Hoornbeeck considered Spiera to be a “frightening example” but yet he believed that Spiera’s despair and spiritual struggle could not be evidence of reprobation.  After all, the reprobate give no care to their standing before God.

The last author I can mention is Johannes Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688), an orthodox Lutheran theologian from the seventeenth century.  He discusses Spiera’s case in an important academic work entitled Theologica Didactico-Polemica.  It comes up in a discussion regarding the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  This is what Quenstedt concluded:

Spiera must be held least of all to have sinned against the Holy Spirit, because: 1) he defected to the papacy, not from malice, but from weakness; not by his own will and initiative, but through the persuasion of friends.  2) He did not impugn or blaspheme the doctrine of the Gospel, but he was greatly pained that he had defected from the truth.  It was therefore assuredly despair, but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit… (Theologica Didactico-Polemica (1715), Vol. 1, 1064, translation mine)

Thus also Quenstedt regarded Spiera as a sad case, but not one in which observers can make a definite conclusion as to the Italian’s eternal destiny.

The Take-Aways

The post-Reformation period showed a remarkable degree of mature, biblical analysis of the Spiera case.  There was much more hesitancy to jump to conclusions regarding Spiera’s ultimate destination, whether that be heaven or hell.  Instead, the post-Reformation theologians that we’ve surveyed believed that Spiera suffered despair, even a sort of depression.  While he brought it on himself through his betrayal of the faith, the fact that he was in so much pain up till his death does not disqualify him from the kingdom of God.

As mentioned above, today we don’t face the immediate possibility of persecution.  Yet there are still countless people in our churches who suffer with despair and depression.  Sometimes, sadly, we even hear about those who take their own lives – as Spiera may have done.  Spiera’s story and the way the post-Reformation writers worked with it teach us to be careful when making judgments about someone’s spiritual state.  Struggle, doubts and difficulties are not indicative of reprobation, even when they culminate in suicide.

Sometimes the post-Reformation is wrongly described as a period of aridity in Reformed theology, as a low point in our heritage.  The story of Spiera indicates that there is much that we can still learn from men like Voetius, Hoornbeeck and even Quenstedt (Lutheran that he was).  These were men who valued faithfulness and precision in their theology, but it never came at the cost of passion for Christ and compassion for those who suffer.  One can only hope that we’ll see more post-Reformation material coming into English translation.