In the next few editorials we will be quoting Herman Witsius and offering some comments on those quotes.
Who was Herman Witsius? A renown Reformed, Dutch theologian of the seventeenth century (1636- 1708). He was a younger contemporary of the better- known theologians, Gijsbert Voetius and Johannes Cocceius—that is, better known to us.
In his day, Witsius was as well known and respected as either of those men for his piety and biblical learning. In fact, what added to his reputation was his attempt to reconcile Voetius and Cocceius in their bitter differences over various issues theological and political, though Witsius focused on the theological. What divided the two protagonists were issues such as to what extent the requirements of the ‘old’ covenant upon Old Testament believers differed from those of the ‘new’ covenant upon the New Testament saints; to what extent various precepts found in the Old Testament could yet be applied to the New Testament age; and, the validity of sabbath law with its strict observance for the New Testament era, and related matters.
So bitter and sharp was the controversy that it divided the Reformed churches of the Netherlands into camps—“I am of Voetius!” “Well, I am of Cocceius!”
Witsius, having an irenic character (known as a peace-maker), tried to mediate between the two, in some instances trying to find a middle-ground for their differences, and in other instances, to get one combatant to make some concession to the other. It was in vain. Loyal supporters of both men could be found in the Dutch churches long after the death of the two adversaries.
Why editorials on Witsius? The result of a book by Witsius recently brought to my attention, one written in response to a different controversy that was brewing in England. Its short title is, Antinomians and Neonominans. The longer title is Conciliatory, or Irenical Animadversions, on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, under the Unhappy Names of Antinomians and Neonomians.1
The occasion for the book was controversy that had broken out in England among Protestants over various theological issues. Debated were such matters as the character of Christ’s hellish sufferings (Were they worse than that of reprobates?); the implication for Christ’s character due to man’s sin being imputed to him (Scripture states, after all, the Christ was “made sin for us”); whether faith is really even necessary for the elect to be saved (since they were, after all, united to Christ by the decree of election and eternally justified); whether repentance necessarily had to precede the remission of sins. To insist it must, would this not turn repentance into some kind of condition for and prerequisite to forgiveness (and so besmirch salvation all of grace)?2
And the list goes on.
But especially the controversy revolved around the question of the value of good works (labeled as the “utility of holiness”) and their relation to salvation and its assurance. It was around this point, as Witsius put it, that the controversy became especially “warm.”
There is nothing new under the sun. What we in our denomination are presently dealing with has pedigree, which is to say, historical precedence. And, as becomes clear from his little book, the irenic Witsius had deep, wise-hearted insight into the issues of the dispute he sought to mediate.
So sharp was the controversy in England amongst professing Calvinistic divines (theologians), and so divisive, that a number of English brethren appealed to their colleagues in the Netherlands. The ministers laid out, as best they could, the issues being controverted and dividing them. They pleaded with their Dutch counterparts to give their judgment on the divisive issues, hoping it would help their churches in England to resolve their controversies.
Not many responded.
We are informed that many of the Dutch divines thought some issues so speculative that answering would serve no useful purpose, and other issues so basic, so self-evident if one studied Scripture, that they did not warrant the time necessary to formulate a response.
Witsius, out of concern for his Protestant colleagues in England, knowing their sincerity and sympathetic to their distress, took the time to work through the issues and give his judgment on various of the controverted matters. The result was his little book entitled Antinomians and Neonomians. Originally written in Latin (as the universal language of the scholars of that age), it was translated into English in 1807 by the Rev. Thomas Bell, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor in Glasgow.
In his preface the translator indicates what brought the book to his attention, namely, its recommendation by a certain Rev. Hervey. Having given the name of Witsius’ book, Hervey wrote:
A choice little piece of polemical divinity, perhaps the very best that is extant. In which the most important controversies are fairly stated, accurately discussed, and judiciously determined, with perspicuity of sense, and a solidarity of reasoning, exceeded by nothing, but the remarkable conciseness, and the still more remarkable candor of the sentiments.3
High praise, indeed; Witsius judged to be a Dutch theologian who was discerning and fair, clear, solid in reasoning, and concise.
And concise he was, as will become clear when we begin lifting some quotes from his little book. Mr. Bell read the book, agreed with Hervey’s assessment, and decided it was applicable not only to the seventeenth century controversy but also deserved a wide reading in the nineteenth-century English-speaking church world as well. Doctrinal antinomianism was not a species that had become extinct.
He prepared it for publishing.
And so we have the English edition of Witsius’ treatise Antinomians and Neonomians.
Witsius’ book is divided into seventeen chapters. Each chapter is introduced by a brief synopsis of what issue of the controversy Witsius was addressing, usually by Witsius giving his argument in summary form.
To give our readers a sense not only of how judicious and concise Witsius was, but also how solidly orthodox (Calvinistic) he was, we offer some quotes lifted from chapter 4. First we quote from his synopsis, and then lift quotes from the chapter itself, as Witsius sets forth his response in greater detail.
II. It is unjustly asserted that Christ purchased salvation absolutely for the elect, upon a condition to be performed by men. III. [This is so], [s]ince he purchased salvation absolutely for the elect, with all things pre-requisite to it.
IV. Which is proved from 2 Cor. V. 19. V. And from the right which Christ procured to himself over the elect. VI. And from his efficacious [almighty, irresistible] will to claim them to himself. VII. Finally from this, that [Christ] purchased for his people not only the remission of sins, but also faith and sanctification.4
Take note of Witsius’ theology as set forth in the first assertion quoted (II.).
Witsius rejects the notion that Reformed theologians can speak of some condition a man must perform to receive salvation, while at the same time holding to the doctrine of election, that is, claiming to maintain that Christ purchased salvation for the elect in the absolute sense of the word. It is either/or. Either Christ purchased salvation for the elect absolutely and fully, or He did not. For one claiming to maintain that Christ did so while at the same time insisting that, in the preaching, one must declare that a man’s salvation still hinges on some condition he must first satisfy, involves one in a theological contradiction. Both cannot be true.
By bringing into the preaching a condition that man must first fulfill, one has undermined and, by implication, denied the truth of eternal election. As well, one has, by implication, denied that Christ fully accomplished what He set out to do; that is, one denies the efficacy of Christ’s redemptive work. One is guilty of contradicting himself.
Such is Witsius’ assertion.
Neither would Witsius have been happy with a Reformed theologian speaking of salvation in terms of having to satisfy certain ‘prerequisites.’
Because, as he states in assertion III, Christ purchasing the fullness of salvation for the elect means He also purchased “all things pre-requisite to it,” which is to say, the things necessary for salvation to be granted to the elect sinner. And what those things include are spelled out in VII: “…not only the remission of sins, but also faith and sanctification.”
Away with the notion of preaching that speaks of obtaining one’s personal salvation in terms of one needing to satisfy certain ‘prerequisites’.
Sound familiar? To those familiar with the history of the PRC, it should.
If Witsius had lived in the twentieth century and been familiar with the conditional covenant controversy that swept through our churches, whom do you suppose he would have supported and whose theology would he have opposed? The above assertions should make that plain. When it came to salvation and being a rightful member of God’s covenant, Witsius was of the ‘unconditional’ variety.
According to Witsius, the terms “condition” and “prerequisites” were not terms to be used when it came to speaking of being saved by Christ, which was a matter of His sovereign, free, irresistible grace.
In the chapter itself, in the section with the heading “It is unjustly asserted that Christ purchased salvation, upon a condition to be performed by men,” Witsius writes,
…[L]et us see what fruit redounds to the elect from the finished obedience of Christ. And here they by no means obtain my assent, who think that Christ by taking our sins upon him, and satisfying for them, purchased our reconciliation unto God, and therefore eternal life, only upon condition [!], that then only can that merit have its effect in us, if we believe [emphasis added]; so that the possibility of our salvation is purchased by Christ, but the salvation itself remains to be communicated by God the supreme Lord, to whom he thinks fit, and upon what conditions he shall be pleased to prescribe.5
Later, in connection with the certainty of the salvation of the elect, Witsius writes:
For why should [Christ] not actually claim to himself those whom he bought with so great a price? Unless we suppose that he cannot accomplish it, without hurting the liberty of the human will. For in reality, this rock [of error] is known to be the shipwreck of many. But we know that the Spirit of Christ is possessed of such a power to change the heart and soul, that he can make those who were formerly the slaves of the devil, cheerfully receive Christ for their Lord, and cleave to him with the most free and the most constant assent of the will. Let us hear Christ himself: John. X.16. “I have also other sheep which are not of this fold; and them I must bring, and they shall hear my voice.” Because these sheep were his by right, therefore it behoved him to claim them in fact. And he knew he could effectuate that by his grace, which maketh willing: They shall hear my voice (emphasis throughout—Witsius).6
And then this:
VII. It is also to be considered that [Christ] is said to have purchased for his elect, not only the possibility of the remission of sins, but remission itself (Matt. 26:28, Eph. 1:7) and not on condition, only that they believe, but also the drawing of the Father, and grace that they may believe…. He purchased salvation for the elect, not on condition only that they take a pleasure in the constant study of holiness, but he also purchased sanctification, as a part to salvation, [which purchase] necessarily preced[ed] its consummation… (Titus 2:14).7
Having set forth the orthodoxy of Witsius, we turn next to other issues of dispute as answered by Witsius, but especially to his assessment of and response to issues dealing with the value of good works and their relation to salvation and its experience, its personal ‘possession.’
1 Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807. First published in 1696 in Utrecht (the Netherlands).
2 To this last mentioned issue we will return next installment, with quotes that give the essence of Witsius’ response.
3 Antinomians, 11.
4 Antinomians, 53.
5 Antinomians, 54.
6 Antinomians, 57.
7 Antinomians, 57.