Synopsis of a Purer Theology: A Review

Synopsis Purioris Theologiae | Synopsis of a Purer Theology: Latin Text and English Translation. Volume 3: Disputations 43–52, ed. Harm Goris. Trans. Riemer A. Faber. Leiden: Brill, 2020 (xiii + 716 pages) $179.00 hardcover

The resurgence of post-Reformation Reformed theology in the past thirty years stimulated, in no small measure, by the work of historians such as Richard Muller and Willem van Asselt has birthed a plethora of studies about the period and, more importantly, some noteworthy translations. Arguably the most significant translation project during this period has been the Synopis Purioris Theologiae, a series of academic disputations given by the theological faculty at the University of Leiden between 1620–1624. First published in 1625, not only did the Synopsis go through a number of later editions, but even Karl Barth regularly made recourse to it in his Church Dogmatics. Yet, until very recently, we had no English translation of the Synopsis. Thanks to the Dutch research group Classic Reformed Theology, making up a number of translators and editors, this has been remedied.

The English title The Synopsis of Purer Theology has been published in three volumes, the first in 2014, the second in 2016, and the third and final volume in 2020. The final volume translates the last ten disputations (out of 52) and covers disputations related to the sacraments, ecclesiology, the civil magistrate, and eschatology. Noteworthy in this regard is how long these disputations are relative to the rest of the disputations found in the Synopsis. The editors suggest that this may have to do with the nature of Reformed confessionalization which entailed that many of the topics dealt with in this final volume required a complete rework given the Reformation (1–2). For example, if the papacy is no longer recognized, how ought the civil magistrate operate and work with a national Reformed church as was the case in the early modern Dutch Republic. This relationship is dealt with at length in disputations 48–50, but especially in disputation 50, On the Civil Magistrate.

It is perhaps appropriate to take a moment to discuss the early modern practice of scholastic disputations. The type of public disputations which are included in the Synopsis represent a cycle of disputations through all the standard theological loci. Each disputation would have been printed ahead of time and then orally presented by a theological student. While some disputations were clearly written by the student (“respondent”), they were always presented under the auspices of a faculty member (“president”), and thus represent both the mind of the student and the teacher. Indeed, this is precisely why disputations of this kind often ended up in the collected works (Opera) of the teacher, the one presiding over the disputations. During the presentation itself, the student would be required to both explain and defend the disputation theses. The four professors of this cycle of disputations were: Johannes Polyander (1568-1646), Andre Rivet (1572-1651), Antonius Walaeus (1573-1639), and Antonius Thysius (1565-1640). Noteworthy, all except Rivet, being a Frenchman and unable to attend because of the Roman Catholic King of France, were delegates at the Synod of Dordt (1618-19).

The title of this published cycle of disputations, Synopsis of a Purer Theology, suggests that these Leiden professors saw their task not just in positive terms, but with a decidedly elenctic or polemical edge—defending a purer theology than the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anabaptist theologies. Because half of this volume contains disputations on the sacraments, polemics against Lutheran and Roman Catholic sacramentalism play a defining role. Indeed, disputation 46 is On the Sacrifice of the Mass and its Abuses, while disputation 47 is On the Five False Sacraments of the Papists. Some of the background to this material can seem quite daunting and obscure for those not quite up-to-speed on the exegetical and theological nuances of early modern sacramental debates, but one of the most helpful features (of which there are many!) of this English edition of the Synopsis is the footnote apparatus which includes citation material, biographical sketches, and helpful editorial remarks on the theology, exegesis or philosophy behind various theses. These editorial remarks identify the various interlocutors and arguments with which the Leiden theologians are wrestling, and even, at times, question the interpretation of the views of their opponents. The chief editor of this volume is Harm Goris, Professor of Systematic Theology at the School of Catholic Theology of Tilburg University. Given Goris’ theological training and background, one wonders if he is behind the serious Roman Catholic background material—both early modern and modern—in the various footnotes (e.g., 343fn.75).

As the editors mention at the beginning of the volume, disputation 45 on the Lord’s Supper “is the longest and, arguably, the most intricate disputation in the Synopsis.” Early modern theologizing has often been caricatured by simplistic appeals to biblical proof-texts, devoid of careful attention to both grammar and syntax as well as the broader context in which such proof-texts occur. In this disputation, however, Antonius Thysius displays an almost mind-numbing attention to the context of Jesus’ institution of the Supper as well as the grammatical minutia of our Lord’s words. Abstract proof-texting is hardly an apt description of this extremely detailed argument for a Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper. In light of some modern, albeit misguided, historiographic claims about the use, or lack thereof, of textual criticism among early modern Reformed theologians, Andre Rivet’s discussion of the different readings of 1 Cor. 15:51 is another mark of such careful engagement of Scripture (551–553).

Perhaps of most interest for readers of Ad Fontes are the two disputations dealing with political theology, disputations 49 and 50 On Ecclesiastical Councils and Meetings and On the Civil Magistrate. Authored by Antonius Thysius and Johannes Polyander respectively, each disputation represents well the broad consensus among the Reformed in this period regarding the role of the civil magistrate vis-à-vis the visible church. In the first disputation, the civil magistrate is said to have not only the right to call ecclesiastical councils for the good of the state and its well-being (425-427), but also, if he is an orthodox Christian, he is bound to “ratify and sanction” the synodical conclusions. Yet, he is not to act as a mere approver of its findings, but “must be convinced from the Word of God that the decisions are based on what is true, just, and good, i.e., that he should not be a blind protector and administrator of someone else’s opinion and fancy.” (431-433). The Old Testament kings, especially the righteous ones like Josiah, provide the template for such a godly prince.

No doubt strange to many modern Christian ears, a theme found in both of these two disputations is that the civil magistrate must enforce both tables of the Decalogue. The two duties of a civil magistrate relative to religion is that the civil laws which are established must agree “with the universal law of nature and with the recorded moral law” (485). Second, the magistrate must, via ecclesiastical administration, establish the right worship of God, and protect the church from heterodoxy (485-487).

Just like the other two volumes in this series, this final volume includes an excellent Scripture index, a general index including names, a full bibliography, and a glossary of concepts and terms. The price-tag of these volumes will be prohibitive for many, but two points are worth emphasizing. First, those who do decide to pay for these magnificent volumes will be richly rewarded with the various helps of interpreting them. For Latinists, the original is right there alongside the translation! Second, the Davenant Institute has just announced plans to reprint just the English of the Synopsis Purioris in 2023, which will doubtless be more suitable to laypeople and pastors. Regardless, those that wish to have a serious, academic edition of the Synopsis Purioris in both English and Latin will prefer this more expensive edition.

Dr. Michael Lynch (Ph.D, Calvin Seminary) teaches Ancient Language and Humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: A Defense of Catholic and Reformed Orthodoxy. He and his wife have five children, three girls and two boys.


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