When I began reading Reformed theology in university Calvin was virtually the only sixteenth-century Reformed author widely available in English translation. The other authors I read were all from the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Hodge, Warfield, Van Til, Murray). In the mid-1980s, in seminary, we had access to a photocopied partial English translation of Turretin’s Institutes and to a reprint of the nineteenth-century translation of Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Gradually, however, over the years English readers have gained a few more classic Reformed texts in English. Turretin’s Institutes have been available for about 20 years now. The Classic Reformed Theology series, published by Reformation Heritage Books, has produced two volumes (Ames and Olevianus) with more volumes to come. Recently RHB published a terrific edition of Junius’ On True Theology. Other texts (more on this later) are appearing in English now and one of the more exciting publications is the first volume of the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, sometimes known as the Leiden Synopsis.
This is a very important text for anyone interested in the development of Reformed theology around the time of the Great Synod of Dort (1618–19). Published by Brill, in their Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions series, this is the first of 3 volumes translated by Riemer Faber and edited by Dolf te Velde. A host of Dutch and North American scholars, associated with the Oude Gereformeerde Theologie group, have contributed to this project. This is a bilingual (Latin-English) edition with an excellent introduction.
The Synopsis (fr. Greek σύνοψις, overview)
consisted of a cycle of public disputations held in the Leiden theology faculty from 1620 to 1624. In 1596 this faculty had started a cycle of disputations that covered all the topics of Reformed dogmatics, and during the next 13 years the cycle was repeated five times. After the death of Jacobus Arminius (1609) and the departure of Franciscus Gomarus (1611), the op theological faculty of Leiden had been shaken by the ecclesiastical difficulties that would be resolved by the Synod of Dort (1618/19). Following Dort’s rejection of the Remonstrant teachings on grace and predestination, the Remonstrant spokesman Simon Episcopius(1583–1643) was removed from his teaching post, and new professors were appointed to join Johannes Polyander (1568–1646), who was then the only professor of theology. Toward the end of 1619, Antonius Walaeus (1572– 1639) and Antonius Thysius (1565–1640) delivered their inaugural lectures at Leiden.1
In English, “disputation” connotes an unpleasant disagreement but, in context, these were not such arguments. The term disputatio was used in the period to describe a range of discussions in which parties were strongly opposed to each other and in which the discussions were more like catechetical sessions, where the question was more a set up for the explanation to follow. In this sense, in the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation schools, the a disputation was like a section of Ursinus’ Compendium (commentary on the catechism) or Thomas’ Summa theologica come to life. Sometimes, however, these disputations were like what we do today in the oral defense of an MA thesis (or a PhD dissertation) or in a debate.
Along with lectures and practice sermons, disputations on theological topics formed an integral part of the education of theology students at Leiden. The common disputation, like its medieval predecessor, was intended to exercise the students’ thinking power and skill in debate and discussion, and to help them digest what they learned. In the public disputation, one of the professors would preside, and a number of theses on the given topic would be defended by a student (called the “respondent”) against the attacks of one or more fellow students (called “opponents”). The set of theses, printed up before hand by the University, was usually drafted by the presiding professor and given to the student to defend, but sometimes by the student himself and approved by the professor. 2
One should not read too much into the words attack and opponent. These are meant in a logical sense not in a personal sense.
The editors explain that there were 52 disputations in the cycle that composed the Synopsis and they were intended for publication. This volume contains the first 23 disputations covering the definition and nature of theology, the nature of Scripture, canon, its perfection, perspicuity, God, creation, providence, anthropology, the moral law, the gospel, and the New Testament.
The disputations are analytical. They made use of the traditional Christian appropriation of Aristotelian categories and questions, e.g., “what does the term mean? Does the object exist? What is it? What are its parts? What specific aspects can be discerned? What are the causes of the object?” etc. The editors are right to observe that, as Richard Muller has been teaching us since 1978, in their use of this language, the Reformed orthodox “emptied” it of its “(meta)physical connotations.”As the Reformed scholastic authors of the early 17th century use it, only the ‘efficient cause’ and the ‘final cause’ have true causal force.” 3
Johannes Polyander presided over the first disputation, “On the Most Sacred Theology,” and Johannes Swalmius (1596–1661) was the (student) respondent. Almost immediately, in his definition of theology, he turned to what I called in Recovering the Reformed Confession the “categorical distinction,” i.e., the Creator/creature distinction as applied to the definition of theology, the distinction between theology as God knows it and theology as he reveals it to us and as we are capable of knowing it.
For with respect to God, in so far as Theology is the knowledge whereby he knows himself and all divine things in his divine way, it is archetypal theology. And hence, as it is the case with the very essence of God, so this knowledge is common to the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
… And if Theology is viewed insofar as it is the knowledge that God either has communicated to created beings endowed with understanding in this age, or that He will share with them in the age to come, it is ectypal theology. And this knowledge communicated by God has been, so to speak, reproduced from the original in various ways and degrees of communication and people living on this earth, obviously through the grace of revelation.4
This volume is also then not only a snapshot of what our Reformed forebears were teaching at the time of the Synod of Dort (giving us thereby more background by which to interpret the Canons of Dort) but also a window into the nature of theological education. The categorical distinction was widely taught throughout the 17th century but when I learned it by reading Muller it seemed remote and esoteric. Of course it is not. As I showed in 1994, in an essay in this volume, Van Til taught this very distinction even though he did not often use the traditional terms. It was the conceptual framework within which the Reformed articulated their doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel.
In disputation 22 the first words about the gospel are these:
While it is from the Law (about which we disputed above) that we come to know the contagion and defect of our spiritual illness, that is, of sin, it is from the Gospel that we learn of the remedy for it.5
The Synopsis not only inherited the pan-Protestant distinction between law and gospel it but it also built (via a student respondent) upon the categorical distinction to articulate the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel. The respondent (Petrus Jacboi Doornick) recognized a broad and narrow sense to the word “gospel:”
when taken in a general sense, the word includes in its scope of meaning the evangelical promise it self about Christ, and the fulfillment of it, as in Galatians 3:6.
When taken in a specific way, limited to presenting Christ, it means firstly the account of Christ manifested in the flesh, as in Mark 12.
Secondly, the word is used for the joyful teaching and preaching of the reconciliation of sinful people with God through the free remission of sins obtained for them by the expiatory death of Christ. It is offered to one and all without restriction; it is revealed to the poor in spirit and to little children, and actually applied individually to those who believe, for their salvation and the revelation of God’s mercy and accompanying justice, for his eternal praise (1 Corinthians 9:14, 15, etc.)
Once more: the fact that there are still those who regard the distinction between law and gospel with suspicion, as something alien to Reformed theology, only illustrates the depth to which Narcissism has sunk its roots into modern Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
As with all Brill products this volume is well done. The scholars who collaborated on this volume are of the first rank. This translation is a wonderful addition to the growing body of classic Reformed literature in English and a most useful tool toward recovering the Reformed confession.
I hope this stimulates you to take a look at this significant work. As it is published by an academic publisher it is expensive. Bizarrely, on Amazon sellers are asking more than $2,000 for this volume! It’s not that expensive. Brill is asking $154.00 for volume 1.6 Readers might ask their local library to order it instead of another 100 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. Some church libraries might consider purchasing this volume for their pastor’s use. Certainly academic libraries everywhere will want to get this work. My students should count on using this volume next Autumn in Reformed Scholasticism seminar.
1. Synopsis Purioris Theologiae: Latin Text and English Translation, vol. 1 trans. Riemer Faber (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 1.
2. Ibid., 4–5.
3. Ibid., 5.
4. Ibid., 33.
5. Ibid., 557.
6. Brill did not send me a review copy. I bought my own.