Calvinists and Cartesians (Part I)

I’ve been saying for several years now that among popular Calvinist writers and apologists the philosophy of Rene Descartes to no small extent determines how they present Reformed Theology, its relationship to what they call “the plain meaning of Scripture,” and their defenses of Reformed Theology against other views. Interestingly, it’s precisely the prevalence of Cartesianism in the thought of such popularizers that prevents them from seeing the prevalence of Cartesianism in their thought – for Cartesianism, which claims to free the mind from all traditions, can itself be a very blinding tradition. When in 2003 I first started making these arguments I was, admittedly, putting together bits and pieces of analysis which I had found scattered throughout a number of works. I was not entirely sure of the structure and strength of my argument. I am sure that for a time I overplayed my rhetoric in controversies with apologists who have underdeveloped senses of realism about their own grasp of truth relative to other Christian traditions and very little rhetorical moderation. Immoderate rhetoric often calls forth immoderate rhetoric, and sometimes, unfortunately, substance can get buried in the mutual dirt-piling.

However, when in 2004 I set myself to do an extended survey of Descartes (and three other early Modern thinkers, Locke, Hobbes, and Bayle), I felt that I had firmly established the legitimacy of making the argument that much of popular Calvinism is Cartesian. Between Richard Popkin’s A History of Skepticism and Walter Rex’s Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Conflict alone (not mentioning other sources), I was convinced that Cartesianism had had a very serious influence on Calvinist thought, and that pop-Calvinists who opine that their theology has no philosophical influences but “simply” represents the “clear” truth of Scripture are themselves seriously out of touch with reality. I’ve recently had this belief of mine strengthened by several major journal articles on the influence of Cartesianism on early Calvinism. Over the next few days, I’d like to summarize the arguments of these articles.

Cartesianism and Cocceianism: A Natural Alliance?

The name of Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) is one of those names you just don’t hear much about in pop-Calvinist writings.:”(No doubt this is because pop-Calvinist writings are usually extremely long on rhetoric about “Truth” and extremely short on examinations of historical moorings and realistic analyses of Calvinism’s strengths and weaknesses. But pop-Calvinism should not be allowed to set the agenda for an informed and realistic grasp of Calvinism, and so sources like van der Wall’s article, and the others we will shortly look at, should not be minimized or ignored.)”: He was a major advocate of what is called “federal theology,” including the idea that Scripture shows us a dual covenant scheme of covenant of works (foedus operum) and covenant of grace (foedus gratiae), and in this connection he is sometimes called “the father of covenant theology.”:”(For an overview of Cocceius’ life, see here.)”: Apparently, he himself believed he got his theology strictly from the Bible alone.

Ernestine van der Wall discusses the complicated relationship of Cartesian philosophy on the branch of early Reformed theology created by Cocceius.:”(See Cartesianism and Cocceianism: A Natural Alliance?)”: Between 1650 and 1730, the advocates of Cocceius’ theology carried on a bitter fight with the advocates of another school of Reformed theology, that of Gilbertus Voetius (1593-1680). The pivotal issue of dispute between them was Cartesian philosophy. This was the time when Cartesianism was itself fighting for its right to be heard in an intellectual world still very much afraid of “novelty” and willing, as one contemporary put it rhetorically, “to err with Scripture than be in the right with the moderns.”:”(Ibid., 450.)”: Intriguingly, because of its basis in skepticism (douting all things except what could be rationally proven to be indubitable) and its consequent willingness to throw out tradition in favor of individual rational analysis, Cartesian philosophy at this time was widely suspected of laying the groundwork for atheism and irreligious culture.:”(Ibid.)”:

Although Cocceius himself claimed that theology should be derived from the Bible alone and although many Cocceians explicitly rejected Cartesianism, the Voetians pressed home time and again the point that the Cocceians were, in fact, Cartesians in disguise. What could have been the reason for this? For one thing, the Cocceians explicitly separated philosophy and theology. They rejected the traditional Christian idea, especially as found in Medieval Scholasticism, that philosophy was the “handmaiden of theology” (ancilla theologiae). As van der Wall writes, the Cocceians held “that philosophy
should not be living together with theology under the same roof. If they, mistress and maid, inhabited the same house, the maid might become ambitious, desiring to be mistress herself.” Consequently, they held that philosophy and theology should be built on separate foundations – philosophy on the foundation of reason, theology on the foundation of divine revelation alone.:”(Ibid., 451. Note that here there may be a connection to the larger philosophical framework of Nominalism, which also posits that reason and revelation are separate domains of inquiry.)”:

In the context of the polemical need to fight Roman Catholic advocates of Cartesianism, some Cocceian theologians took the idea of the separation of philosophy and theology to mean that they could use the weapons of Descartes to fight the Catholics and the weapons of Cocceius to establish and defend Reformed theology.:”(Ibid., 452.)”: One front of this battle, motivated by the growing tide of secular skepticism which was tending to replace natural theology with a natural religion (leading to the position that would soon be called “Deism”) was to strictly separate natural and special revelation. This was done so that philosophy could have little to no input in the theological task. Taking their cues from the skeptics, who were using philosophy as a hammer against religion, many Calvinists feared that “if in the interpretation of the Bible one made use of philosophy Scripture would be easily held in contempt.”:”(Ibid., 453.)”:

However, it proved far easier to verbally denigrate the use of philosophy in theology than it did to actually do so. One of the major Cocceian separators of philosophy and theology, Salomon van Til, denied philosophy’s helpfulness to theology with one breath, yet with the next imported several major principles of Cartesian philosophy into his exposition of special revelation: “[van Til's] notions on God’s existence thus seem to have been inspired by Descartes, as for example the notion that the idea of a highest Being necessarily implies its existence; that the idea of God within man as an absolute and perfect Being can only be derived from our Creator; that the idea of God is placed in man by God.”:”(Ibid.)”: Another Cocceian, Petrus Allinga, answered arguments about doubt inspired by the raging debate about Cartesian philosophy this way: “doubt was not to be identified with regarding a thing as untrue, but should be interpreted as suspension of judgement until we see reasons to embrace the truth. Indeed, according to Allinga and other Cocceians, there was no better means of destroying atheism than methodical doubt.” Furthermore, “As to the rule that all the things which we clearly and distinctly conceive are true, Allinga suggested that this was the best criterion for reaching the truth.”:”(Ibid., 454.)”: But all of these principles were Cartesian ones, demonstrating that those who with one breath tried to restrict philosophy’s range of movement in theology were very willing in the next to allow it expansive manuevering room. Van der Wall’s next remark is worth quoting in full:

[Allinga] observed that we should not accept anything as true in theology before we conceive clearly and distinctly that it has been revealed by God. God’s Word ought not to be believed without any good reason. While suspending our judgement we should look very carefully for the arguments for the divine origin of the Bible. So, just as in philosophy a clear and distinct perception was needed in order to accept anything as true, so in theology we should not accept anything as true if we could not see clearly and distinctly that it was a divine revelation. In other words, Revelation was to be measured by a
philosophical criterion. Allinga quotes Wittichius’s remark that God is the author of the Cartesian criterion and that therefore this criterion must be true. Apparently the boundaries between theology and philosophy were not as clear and distinct as the Cocceians wished them to be.:”(Ibid., 454.)”:


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