Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The pages of the history of the church of Christ are filled with large figures who dominate their age and who cast a long shadow over subsequent history. But by no means does God make use only of towering men who are gifted beyond us and who have a work given them of God which is remembered throughout the ages. God uses other men, lesser figures, whose names might appear in a footnote or two of some learned and seldom-read volume, but who are not forgotten in heaven because their names appear in the book of life. I am not speaking here of that noble and exalted company of saints whose names no one knows but God alone, whose deeds went mostly unrecognized in the time they lived, and whose graves are forgotten. They are the “last” which Scripture assures us shall be the “first” in the kingdom of heaven. But I am speaking of others, who in their own time were recognized as men of leadership and outstanding ability, whom God used sometimes in rather strange ways, but who are for the most part unknown today. It is worth our while to recall from oblivion some of these names.
Johannes Maccovius was one such man. Perhaps his importance lies especially in a “case” brought against him which was treated at the great Synod of Dort and which had ramifications which touch on our own lives.
Johannes Maccovius was born at Lobzenic in Poland in the year 1588. That means, if we would put him in the context of some well-known events of the Reformation, that he was born about 25 years or so after the writing of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and that at his birth the error of Arminianism was already taking hold in the soil of the Netherlands.
The name Johannes Maccovius is his Latin name, which he took, as was the custom in those days, when he became professor in a university. The name given him of his parents was Jan Makowsky, a name which clearly indicated his Polish ancestry.
The Calvin Reformation had influenced Poland to some extent, and Maccovius was by no means the only influential early reformer to come from that land. Maccovius, after his early education, was sent to Germany, where he studied at the principal universities. After completing his studies he returned to Poland, where he visited various universities in his fatherland as tutor to young Polish nobles. Somewhere he had become acquainted with that system of doctrine known as Calvinism, and he had eagerly embraced it and remained faithful to it all his life.
But his activities were not limited to the tutoring of spoiled sons of foppish nobles. He began to engage various heretics in disputations. The Socinian heresy which denied the truth of the Trinity, and the Jesuit heresies which sought to reintroduce Roman Catholic teachings were the objects of his hatred. Powerful and influential Socinians and Jesuits matched their debating skills with this defender of Calvinistic orthodoxy.
It was especially through such disputations that his fame spread to other lands, and Maccovius soon received an invitation from the University of Franeker in the Netherlands to teach theology in what was a rather prestigious university. In 1614 he became a doctor of theology and in 1615 he was appointed professor of theology. There he remained for the rest of his life, dying in Franeker on June 24, 1644.
The man who was his colleague and chief promoter was Sybrandus Lubbertus, who also became his enemy and accuser in the “Maccovius Case.”
We are told that, though Maccovius was an extraordinarily homely man, he was a gifted teacher and well liked by his students. In fact, he was so popular that his fame spread throughout Europe, and his reputation attracted students to Franeker from all parts of the continent.
Yet the outstanding feature of his life was his controversy with Lubbertus; and in that controversy lie significant events which are important for us today.
Although it is not so easy to sort out precisely the issues in the controversy, it is clear that Maccovius applied what became known as the scholastic method to teaching theology. In brief, the scholastic method of teaching was a method of applying the principles of logic to theology and teaching theology as a logical system of truth. In fact, it was the logical clarity of Maccovius’ teaching which made him popular with other students.
The difficulty seemed to be, however, that he sometimes carried the system of logical analysis and development too far. He was accused, e.g., of giving the same authority to logical deductions from the biblical truths as he gave to Scripture itself. But here again, it is hard to tell whether he actually did this, and even whether, in doing this, he was far from orthodoxy.
At any rate, he was a bitter and implacable foe of Arminianism and he fought Arminianism hammer and tongs. The war which he waged against Arminianism made him a despised enemy of the Remonstrants, for in him was found no compromise. Enemies of the truth are often willing to show friendship to defenders of the faith as long as there is the slightest hope of compromise. Perhaps there was no single theologian more deeply resented by these heretics than Maccovius.
In the course of his battles against Arminianism Maccovius was particularly determined to defend the truths of sovereign and double predestination. He made his defense over against Arminian efforts to teach that Christ willed the salvation of all men. But in the defense of the orthodox Calvinistic position, he went, in the opinion of his colleague Lubbertus, too far — too far in teaching that God decreed the reprobate unto sin; too far in teaching that the reprobate sin out of necessity.
Actually, the views of Maccovius came to the attention of Lubbertus and others in the examination of a student who, in 1616, was defending various theses involved in the supralapsarian position. The examiners traced the views of this student, whose name has been buried in oblivion, to his teacher, Maccovius. Thus, that with which Maccovius was charged came really from one of his students.
It cannot be denied that Maccovius, brilliant scholar that he was, carried, by his scholastic method, the doctrines of sovereign and double predestination too far, and did not properly teach the relation between reprobation and sin. It is also true that Lubbertus, whether he over-reacted to Maccovius’ teaching or whether he himself did not always have things straight, made statements which seemed to support a desire on God’s part to save all men.
Whatever may be the precise truth of the matter, the case was brought to the States of Friesland, which decided against Maccovius. Convinced he had said nothing wrong, Maccovius appealed to the Synod of Dort.
And so, while the Synod was doing battle with Arminian heresy, it had on the table as well the case of Maccovius. In the initial stages of the case, the matter was given to a political commission which attempted to settle the matter by trying to bring about agreement between Maccovius and his colleague Lubbertus. These efforts failed totally.
After the lack of success was reported back to Synod, Synod appointed another committee to study the matter and come with recommendations to Synod. The committee consisted of Dutch and foreign delegates: Scultetus from Heidelberg in Germany, Stein from Kassel, Breytinger from Zurich in Switzerland, Gomarus, Thysius, and à Meyen all from the Netherlands.
It was striking that Gomarus, himself an ardent supralapsarian, was also on the committee. The committee met with Maccovius himself, as well as with Lubbertus. What happened on the meetings was never revealed, but the committee succeeded in reconciling these two warring colleagues. The committee reported to Synod that the matter was amicably resolved by a decision in which Maccovius himself had participated; that the committee had exonerated Maccovius from all error of any kind; but that Maccovius was reprimanded for his manner of teaching, for some rash statements which he had made, and for his one-sided supralapsarianism.
And so the matter was laid to rest.
This was an interesting aspect of the work on the Synod of Dort. It has significance for us today.
All who know anything about the Canons of Dort know also that these Canons are infralapsarian. It has been said by those who support infralapsarianism that supralap-sarianism was anti-confessional. That would mean that we of the PRC, predominantly supralapsarian in our thinking, are in fact anti-confessional.
But the Maccovius case proves that this is not so.
While it is surely true that the Canons are infralapsarian, the framers of the Canons deliberately and consciously refused to condemn supralapsarianism. The issues of supra vs. infra were vigorously debated on the floor of the Synod and each position had its staunch defenders. The Synod had the perfect opportunity in the Maccovius case, and could very well have used Maccovius’ rash statements as an occasion, to condemn supralapsar-ianism in the Dutch church. By refusing to do this, and by exonerating Maccovius, the Synod insisted that there was room in the Reformed churches for the supralapsarian viewpoint. And this has continued to the present.
In the early years of our own churches, though now almost no one cares any longer about such questions, our fathers and grandfathers could argue long and furiously over the relative merits of the two viewpoints debated at Dort. But within our churches there was always room for both viewpoints, and the defenders of the one never sought ecclesiastical penalties against the other.
Gomarus, himself a strong supralapsarian, did join the committee in warning Maccovius against using unbiblical methods and making rash statements. These same rash statements are condemned in the Canons themselves, which tell us in no uncertain terms that we may not make God the author of sin.
But, at the same time, Gomarus also, along with the rest of the committee, brought reconciliation between Maccovius and Lubbertus. And this could only have been done by showing Lubbertus that Maccovius, in his opposition to a universal love of God, was Reformed.
N.B.We add here a note for those who are interested in the issues of supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism. The question has to do with the order of God’s decrees in His counsel. Both agree that the sole purpose of God’s counsel is the glory of God’s name. The “Infras” believe that God determined to glorify His name by the following order of decrees: man’s creation, man’s fall, predestination, salvation in Christ. The “Supras” believe that God determined to glorify His name through Jesus Christ and in Him the salvation of an elect church. To accomplish that end, God determined the creation and fall of man along with the decree of reprobation. That the Canons are written from the infralapsarian viewpoint appears from such statements as: “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby … he hath … chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault … a certain number of persons … (I, 7). “[God] leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy” (I, 6). The “Infras” have always feared the “supra” teaching because it could lead to making God the author of sin. The “Supras” have always feared the “infra” teaching because it seemed to make the fall a mistake over which God had no control, so that salvation in Christ is Plan B when Plan A failed. The Reformed churches have always insisted that both viewpoints are acceptable.