Tag Archives: Gisbertus Voetius

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (2)


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.