When Roman Catholics and Protestants Read Each Other

A review of Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, edited by Jordan J. Ballor, Matthew T. Gaetano, and David S. Sytsma

By Michael Lynch

Leiden: Brill, 2019 (viii + 360 pages) $179.00 hardcover

Popular Protestant narratives about the Reformed tradition often teach that Reformed theologians rejected Pelagian Roman Catholic teachings on grace and free choice, even radically departing from the general consensus of the medieval church. Roman Catholics had their own telling of the story: Protestants, and especially the nefarious John Calvin, taught that God was the author of sin, denied free choice, and even believed that God created some human beings for damnation. Furthermore, Calvin, according to this portrayal, accurately and sufficiently represents the Reformed tradition. Doubtless, such narratives have latched onto important realities in early modern theological wrangling. Some Reformed theologians of the early modern period gave the impression that the Roman Catholic church did not understand the first thing about God’s grace, and Roman Catholic theologians rightly feared some of the language found amongst the Reformed relating to God’s relationship to sin, predestination, and reprobation. But a new book thankfully complicates overly-simplistic interpretations of these early modern theological disputes. Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis, a collection of essays by both Roman Catholic and Protestant historians, examines the interdependence of these two traditions in the early modern period as they discussed and debated doctrines such as predestination and divine grace. 

The title of the book mentions two of the most important events among Protestants and Roman Catholics in the early modern period dealing with the nature of divine grace: The Synod of Dordt and the Congregatio de Auxiliis. Yet the preposition governing those two events—beyond—hints at the way the book encourages us to view them: not as mere intra-tradition talking-shops, but as snapshots of the history of dogma which represent a larger conversation in these Western traditions. When one moves beyond or, perhaps, dives deeply into the Remonstrant and Contra-Remonstrant debates leading to and subsequent to Dordt and the Congregatio, one finds a rich inter-theological discourse of interpreting and polemicizing within and between all of these groups. The Dominicans and Reformed emphasized the unmerited nature of efficacious grace while the Jesuits and Arminians wished to protect human freedom or contingency. Predictably, Dominicans likened Remonstrants to the Jesuits, and the Jesuits enjoyed casting their Dominican brethren as Calvinists. The Reformed unsurprisingly followed suit, comparing the Remonstrants to the Jesuits—even occasionally claiming that the latter were more orthodox in their writings on divine grace than the former!

“Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis . . . examines the interdependence of these two traditions in the early modern period as they discussed and debated doctrines such as predestination and divine grace.”

Many of the essays in this volume focus on a particular, key person and his role in these debates; others examine a particular doctrine or how one slice of a tradition interpreted and reacted to the theological conflicts regarding God’s grace. Three essays, broadly speaking, look at how the Reformed and Remonstrants interacted with each others’ views relative to the Dominican vs. Jesuit divide. For example, Richard Muller’s essay examines when and how Jacob Arminius appropriated the Jesuit Luis de Molina’s doctrine of middle-knowledge (scientia media), which claims that, apart from God’s decree or will, God knows what any rational creature would do in any given situation and so wills a particular world in which those creatures freely do what He knew they would do.

Two of the English delegates at the Synod of Dordt, Samuel Ward and John Davenant, also garner their own essays. Stephen Hampton’s essay on Ward pushes back against the typical narrative that Ward’s position on the efficacy of infant baptism was novel, showing instead that even earlier Reformed theologians such as William Whitaker and William Perkins argued for a similarly strong sacramental efficacy in baptism, not to mention that Augustine himself taught that the guilt of original sin was remitted in all the baptized. For those familiar with Jay T. Collier’s Debating Perseverance, Hampton’s piece adds another historical layer to the debates on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints among Church of England ministers and theologians. John Davenant’s Thomistic account of predestination is the focus of David Sytsma’s essay. Sytsma details the way in which Davenant employed the Dominicans and Jesuits for his own polemical ends against the Remonstrants and the (as Davenant believed) pelagianizing-tendency of certain Jesuits. The Hampton and Sytsma essays will be of special interest to Anglicans seeking to better understand their Reformed heritage.

In his essay on John Calvin, Charles Raith II asks whether Calvin actually read Thomas Aquinas firsthand. Interestingly, Raith concludes that the evidence suggests Calvin did not have any direct engagement with Thomas. This helps to account for Calvin’s occasional misunderstanding of the medieval scholastic distinctions employed by his contemporary Roman Catholic theologians.

The division among early modern Roman Catholics along Jansenist, Dominican, and Jesuit lines is well-known, but some articles in the book complicate this narrative. For example, Stephen Gaetano convincingly demonstrates that, while we might wish to speak of a Dominican soteriological consensus centered around the theology of the Spanish Dominican Domingo Báñez, there was in fact a significant amount of intra-Dominican disagreement on the doctrines of reprobation and a universal supernatural grace, to name but two. Moreover, Thomas Osborne Jr.’s essay establishes that some of the views on faith and the authority of Scripture taught by the Spanish Dominicans were so similar to the Protestant position that even the Reformed polemicist William Whitaker could claim that there was mere verbal disagreement between the two.

For this Protestant historian, the most fascinating essays engage the Roman Catholic tradition and its response to the Protestant soteriological debates over divine grace. Two especially stand out. The first of these, by Eric DeMeuse, looks at the Jansenists and their interactions with the Reformed and Thomists of their day. For example, Cornelius Jansen and his followers saw in Arminianism a Protestant form of Jesuitism.  According to DeMeuse, the Jansenists were aware of the Synod of Dordt and generally saw the Contra-Remonstrants (i.e., the Reformed) as closer to the Augustinian doctrine of divine grace and a step removed from the less orthodox position taken by Calvin—even if the Reformed were still deemed Protestant heretics. After receiving a copy of the Canons of Dordt in Latin, Jansen said that the Canons “almost completely follow the doctrine of the Catholics with regard to predestination and reprobation” (248).

The second notable essay is authored by Matthew Gaetano. According to Gaetano, Thomists after the Synod of Dordt began to admit that the Reformed were substantially arguing the same doctrines that they had been defending against the Jesuits.[ In order to justify this argument, given how often they animadverted against Calvin’s predestinarian theology, Thomists claimed that Calvin’s unorthodox teachings on grace had been dismissed by later Reformed theologians. In other words, the early modern Dominicans had a Calvin against the (later) Calvinists view of Reformed theology. They believed, with some justification, that the later Reformed orthodox—those represented by the Canons of Dordt—had shifted away from Calvin’s teaching on free choice, reprobation, etc. By the mid-seventeenth century, a steady stream of Thomists began speaking up in support of the doctrines of grace taught by the Reformed. Perhaps the leading Dominican theologian in the middle of the seventeenth century, Jean-Baptiste Gonet argued that “many of the Calvinists abandoned Calvin” and embraced the Thomist position on free choice, predestination, and reprobation (312). Even Jesuits, as Gaetano shows, seemed to realize that the later Reformed were shying away from some of Calvin’s less guarded statements. The early-seventeenth century Roman Catholic Martinus Becanus told an amusing story about Reformed theologian David Pareus’ defense against the charge that Calvinists believe God is the author of sin. Becanus, the Jesuit, tells the story in first person:

Last fall, our own Nicolaus Serarius and I were at the mineral fountains of Schwalbach. There we randomly ran into David Pareus, a Calvinist and a professor at Heidelberg. We greeted the man very politely and he did so in turn. As we walked, he amicably and modestly objected to me that, I […] wrote that “the God of the Calvinists is the author of sin.” I responded that I had solidly proved that proposition from the words and opinions of Calvin. In response, he said, “Let it be that this is the opinion of Calvin but not of the Calvinists.” At this point, smiling, Serarius proposed the following: “Lord Pareus, this quarrel between us will be settled once that ‘ists’ [in ‘Calvinists’] is removed and all will be well.” Pareus was pleased […] (318, translation slightly modified).

The truth of this story is not as difficult to believe after reading the various essays in Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis. Catholics and Protestants relied on each other in early modern polemics. Because of the lingua franca of the day—Latin—theologians were able to keep up with what other Christian traditions in Europe were teaching. Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis reminds us that just as the early modern theologians read outside their own tradition to understand it more fully, so contemporary Protestants and Roman Catholics will best understand our own traditions by reading earnestly outside of them. If there is any hope of reconciliation between Protestants and Roman Catholics, such reading will be essential.

Dr. Michael Lynch (PhD, Calvin Seminary) teaches Humanities, Theology, Latin, and Greek at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of a forthcoming book, published by Oxford University Press, on John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.


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