The Synod of Dordt (10): The case of John Maccovius

“…These stones shall be a memorial unto the children of Israel forever.”—Joshua 4:7c

In early May of 1619 the Synod of Dordt treated three cases of alleged false teaching: it condemned four Remonstrant ministers; it condemned Conrad Vorstius (see the issue of April 15); and it exonerated John Maccovius.

Maccovius and the charge against him

John Maccovius was born and raised in Poland. He attended various European universities, including the one in Franeker, Friesland. In July 1614 he began teaching theology at Franeker, with Sibrand Lubbertus (delegate to Dordt) as his senior colleague. It soon became evident that Maccovius maintained supralapsarianism as strongly as Lubbertus main­tained infralapsarianism. Maccovius was also fond of using scholastic terms and distinctions. Almost five hundred years earlier, the “scholastics” had begun the work of systematic theology, of explaining various biblical doctrines in relation to each other. This required them to analyze doctrine logically and to make logical distinctions. Using scholastic distinctions, Maccovius defended Reformed orthodoxy against Arminianism.

However, some orthodox men, including Lubbertus, became suspicious of him, and charged him with fifty errors. Among the allegations was that he taught God to be the author of sin (supralapsarians are often accused of this), that fallen man is not the object of God’s predestination, that God has two elections (one to grace and one to glory), and that the purpose of God in causing the reprobate to hear the gospel is to leave them without excuse.

The Classis of Franeker declared Maccovius guilty of heresy. In 1618 he appealed the matter to the provincial Synod of Friesland, which investigated the matter and asked Dordt to treat it.

Actions of the Synod

The Synod received the materials of the case at session 139 (April 25), and discussed how to proceed. The materials were lengthy; Synod read them aloud over the space of the next two days. Synod then appointed six delegates, three Dutch and three foreign, to bring advice. The committee reported on April 30, but its recommendations were not adopted. On May 4, at its 152nd session, Synod declared Maccovius not guilty of heresy, but unwise in how he expressed himself in particular instances. Synod admonished him to adhere more closely to the language of Scripture.

The Maccovius case is significant for two reasons. First, it underscores that the Synod was determined to defend sovereign grace against Arminianism. It did not desire to limit orthodox Reformed men in their understanding of the order of God’s decrees, or to forbid them to express themselves in different ways within the bounds of orthodoxy. Part of the process of growing in our understanding of Scripture and of developing doctrine is that room is allowed for discussion of, and even disagreement on, certain aspects of Reformed doctrines not clearly addressed by our Reformed confessions.

Second, the case reminds us that the way in which we express our doctrinal convictions does matter. As Synod would say in the “Conclusion to the Can­ons,” we must regulate both our sentiments and our language by Scripture, according to the analogy of faith. A man may be orthodox, but if he does not express himself well, his statements might become the occasion for controversy.

It would be easy for us to suppose that past coun­cils and synods have come to their decisions easily. Rarely has such been the case. Part of the process has always been dealing with personalities, sorting through unclear charges, studying the matter in­tensely, and tolerating debate by orthodox men who did not see eye to eye. This is true when, in the end, the church condemned a man as a heretic. It is equal­ly true when the church dealt with men who were accused of heresy, but were later exonerated.