Tag Archives: Gisbertus Voetius

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.


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (2)

Gisbertus_Voetius

In the first part (see here), I began to make the case that Reformed scholasticism should not be dismissed out of hand.  In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation for this method and the theology which it produced.  Last time, I mentioned five things where I’ve personally appreciated Reformed scholasticism:

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis
  2. History Matters
  3. System Matters
  4. Asking Good Questions
  5. Using Precise Definitions

Today I’ll conclude with the last five things:

6. Making Distinctions

Distinguishing between different doctrines and their elements is a key marker of faithful theology.  Scripture teaches us to distinguish.  Moreover, the Christian Church has long recognized that he who would teach well must distinguish well.  Reformed scholasticism excelled at the science of theological distinctions.  Reformed scholastic theologians made good distinctions at the broadest levels.  For example, Ursinus wrote in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.”  But they also made far finer distinctions.  Benedict Pictet, for instance, wrote about the ways in which ought to think of God’s love.  God’s love can be distinguished into the love amongst the persons of the Trinity (ad intra), and then his love towards creatures (ad extra).  With regard to his love for his creatures, that is further distinguished:  “1) God’s universal love for all things, 2) God’s love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and 3) God’s special love for his people.” (Mark Jones, Antinomianism, 83).  Backed up by scriptural teaching, such distinctions can be quite useful for clear and unmuddled theology.

7. The Value of Logic and Analytical Rigour

Good theologians use logic to advance the truth claims of God’s Word.  Our Reformed confessions do the same.  However, we find this tool used most effectively by Reformed scholastics.  A classic example is found with John Owen’s argument regarding the intent of Christ’s atonement.  Using a powerful syllogism informed by biblical exegesis, Owen made an airtight case for definite atonement, i.e. the biblical position that Christ died only for the elect.  Closely related to the use of logic is rigorous analysis.  Reformed scholastics understood how to get at every angle of a particular topic.  In his Syntagma, Amandus Polanus illustrated this when he discussed the doctrine of creation.  Using the biblical data, he discussed the efficient, material and formal causes of creation, as well as the purpose and effects of creation.  At the end of the discussion, you get the impression that every conceivable aspect has been covered thoroughly.

8. The Need for Polemical Engagement

As in our day, Reformed scholastics encountered challenges to the faith.  Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians (Remonstrants), and others needed to be addressed.  It was not enough simply to make positive statements of the faith – errors also needed to be soundly addressed.  Therefore, in most scholastic works, you will find polemical engagement to varying degrees.  Many works from this period are exclusively devoted to polemics.  For instance, Samuel Maresius took up his pen against Isaac La Peyrère and his arguments for pre-Adamites.  Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was written with the idea that theology is best learned in the context of polemics – “Elenctic” in the title is derived from a Greek word which means “reprove or correct.”  The Reformed scholastics were not afraid to not only defend the faith, but also go on the offensive for it.  Many in our tender age might learn something from them!

9. Room for Theological Diversity (Within Confessional Bounds)

No one should have the impression that Reformed scholasticism was a monolithic movement.  Yes, it may be fairly argued that there were many key doctrines on which there was a broad consensus.  That consensus was defined primarily by the Reformed confessions.  However, within those bounds, one can certainly find a significant amount of diversity.  For example, there is the question of whether every individual believer has a guardian angel.  This question is not addressed in the Three Forms of Unity.  A Reformed scholastic like Gisbertus Voetius followed the lead of John Calvin and others in regarding guardian angels as, at best, uncertain.  However, Voetius also mentioned that other Reformed scholastic theologians such as Zanchius, Alsted, and Chamier affirmed the ancient position on guardian angels.  Can both views co-exist amongst Reformed theologians?  Why not?

10. There is a Time and Place for Scholarship

The best Reformed scholastics understood one of the most important distinctions:  between the pulpit and the lectern, or between the book written for the average church-goer and the book written for theology students or fellow theologians.  Put more technically, they knew the difference between popular and academic.  To be sure, not all Reformed scholastics did understand or employ this distinction, but the best did.  Consider Gisbertus Voetius again.  He was one of the most accomplished of the Reformed scholastics.  His academic writings reflect his great learning, breadth of study, and scholarly abilities.  Yet, this same Voetius wrote a warmly pastoral book entitled (in the English translation) Spiritual Desertion.  Before serving as a theology professor, Voetius had been a pastor and he understood that there was a time and place for the scholastic method.  The pulpit was not that place and neither was a book written in Dutch for ordinary church members.  To communicate effectively at the level of the regular person while at the same time being able to theologize with the best theologians – this is something that most Reformed scholastics strived to attain.  It’s something to aim for today as well.


Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism

I want to make a few comments on this book, but not a full-fledged review.  This is an excellent doorway into the world of post-Reformation Reformed theologians.  It condenses the best in some of the most recent scholarship, particularly from the Netherlands.  It continues the program of deflating anti-scholastic biases.  For example, the authors illustrate in a number of places ways in which John Calvin employed scholastic methods in his writing and teaching.  Calvin’s issue was never with scholasticism as a method in general, but with the specific theologians of the Sorbonne.  The authors demonstrate how the high orthodox period was not, as is often portrayed, rationalistic, nor did it contain the seeds of the Enlightenment.

One of the important contributions of this volume is to the history of apologetics in this period.  It includes a translation of a disputation from Gisbertus Voetius on “The Use of Reason in Matters of Faith.”  There is also a reading guide to assist the novice in understanding his approach.  Elsewhere Van Asselt briefly surveys the development of “physico-theology,” a form of theology based on the study of nature, developed in response to the pressures of Enlightenment skepticism and atheism.  Fascinating stuff, this.

Richard Muller is usually touted as the go-to man for getting to know the post-Reformation.  Rightly so.  However, novices to this field can sometimes find him difficult to access.  Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism is now the best place to start.  Albert Gootjes deserves our thanks for translating it and Reformation Heritage Books for publishing it.  I’m going to be turning to it often.


The Sad Case of Francis Spira

In his little work on Spiritual Desertion, Gisbertus Voetius mentioned the case of Francis Spira as an example of those who have experienced the sense of being abandoned by God.  He says that his “history is well known.  This history ought to be read and can be read, since it is available in more than one language” (35).  I don’t think the name of Francis Spira is very well known today anymore.  It’s too bad that the editor of this modern edition didn’t provide a footnote with some background information.  I did the digging for myself and it is a sad story.

Francis Spira was an Italian lawyer from Venice.  In 1548, he converted to Protestantism.  Some sources claim that he was a Lutheran, but it may be that this was just a blanket-term for “Protestant.”  He was enthusiastic about his new religion and became an advocate for it.  However, he soon caught the attention of the Inquisition and before long they were turning the screws down on him and pressuring him to recant.  He did.  Afterwards he apparently began to hear the voice of Christ accusing him of apostasy and abandoning the gospel.  He became convinced that he was a reprobate, condemned to hell.  Despite the efforts of priests and exorcists, Spira could not abandon that conviction.  In this troubled state, he died — some think he may have committed suicide.

The case was well-known in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  For instance, John Calvin wrote a preface to a Latin account of Spira’s story.  Calvin saw “the wreteched Spira” as an “example of divine justice.”  Voetius did not follow the same approach.  Just because Spira believed himself to be reprobate, it does not follow that he was.  Said Voetius of Spira and cases like his, “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” (53).  There is a lot more to this account and I hope to soon write something more substantial about it.  Stay tuned…


The Liberation of 26 Hungarian Reformed Ministers

I’m currently reading Spiritual Desertion by Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck.  This seventeenth-century work  includes a helpful historical introduction by M. Eugene Oosterhaven.  In this introduction is a fascinating story that I’ve never heard of before, related to the picture above.  To set the context, Oosterhaven has another picture that includes this caption:

Among the theological students of Voetius and Hoornbeeck were scores of Hungarians who pondered the possibility of their kin and country being abandoned by God.  Muslim Turks had occupied Hungary since 1526.  Their cruelty and exploitation of the people shocked all of Europe.  However, Jesuits and Hapsburg rulers, in the service of Rome, were the cause of even greater suffering.

Then this is the caption that goes with the picture I’ve included above:

The liberation of Hungarian ministers at Naples by Admiral de Ruyter, 1676.  The men pictured had been sold to a Spanish fleet to serve as galley slaves.  Chained to oars day and night for nine months, some had struggled with the fear of abandonment by God as well as their fellow believers.  The twenty-six survivors sang Psalms 46, 114, and 125 as they were being transferred to a Dutch ship on February 11, 1676.  When the transfer was complete, they knelt on the deck in their rags and emaciated condition and sang Psalm 116.  The Dutch seamen, who seldom shed tears, wept openly.

How did the Dutch know that the Hungarians (who spoke no Dutch) were singing Psalms 46, 114, 125 and 116?  Because they were singing them in Hungarian on the Genevan tunes.  The Psalms are still being sung in Hungary in this fashion.