Calvinists and Cartesians (Part II)

In the first part of this series, we looked at Ernestine van der Wall’s short article on the alliance between Cartesian philosophy and the 17th century school of Reformed theology known as Cocceianism. In this part, we will look at another article by van der Wall. In Orthodoxy and Sceptism in the Early Dutch Enlightenment, van der Wall focuses on the issue of “universal doubt,” the key feature of Cartesian philosophy, and its use by the Dutch Calvinists in the early Enlightenment period.

Van der Wall mentions in her opening pages a point that was made in Part I of this series: the fact that many Christians in the middle of the 17th century thought of Descartes’ philosophy as being an invitation to atheism and a generally irreligious culture. This was due to the fact that Cartesianism, a philosophy aimed at providing certainty, had been founded on the principle of doubt. “Atheists” (a catch-all term in the 17th century, not as specific as its use today) such as Hobbes, Simon, and Spinoza were busy using reason to attack the veracity of Scripture, but many orthodox Christians thought that Descartes had opened room for such attacks, too.:”(Ibid., 123.)”: Among the Reformed, Gilbert Voetius (1593-1680) was the major standard bearer of this position. Between Voetius, who despised Cartesianism, and Cocceius, whose principles made great tacit use of Cartesianism, Dutch Calvinists were divided and fought each other for decades in a battle that van der Wall likens to that of the earlier battle over Arminianism.:”(Even sermons directed at the popular level often expounded the Cocceian-Voetian controversy, sometimes replacing sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism! This is an interesting fact given that in our own day popular Calvinism generally has little to no understanding of the philosophical issues that underlie its theology and apologetics.)”: The Voetians, in fact, openly called the Cocceians the legitimate descendants of Arminius, and they lobbied for a new Synod to expel the Cocceians from the Church as Dordt had the Arminians. This call failed, and the Cocceians wound up eclipsing the Voetians in terms of influence in the Dutch Reformed Church.:”(Ibid., 123-124.)”:

A central feature of the Cocceian-Voetian war was “the relationship between theology and philosophy, so inextricably linked that changes in the one would directly affect the other: new philosophy would bring in new divinity.”:”(Ibid., 126.)”: So, while the Voetians held to traditional Aristotelian scholastic philosophical-theology (adapted to Calvinist purposes), the Cocceians, following their master, claimed to have no overt philosophical biases, but only a concern for the teaching and terminology of Scripture. As we saw in the last segment of this series, this was already a Cartesian-like claim – namely, the denial of philosophical heritage and influence in the name of re-building theology from scratch, on the indubitable foundation of the Bible alone. Cocceius himself, when asked about his views on Cartesianism, was reputed to have said that if his ideas seemed similar to Descartes, that was only accidental: he had come up with them himself long before Descartes came on the scene.:”(Ibid., 127.)”:

In the year of grace 1666, a work by one Louis Meyers called Philosophia Sanctae Scripturae interpres (Philosophy the Interpreter of Sacred Scripture) appeared on the scene. This work argued that Cartesianism was the only philosophy by which Scripture could be properly interpreted. Reactions among the anti-Cartesian Calvinists were immediate and fierce: Meyer’s book was banned from Holland and Westfriesland along with such anti-Christian works as Hobbes’ Leviathan, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-politicus, and the Socinian Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum. The Voetians also accused the Cocceians of being rationalists who loved the impious philosophy of a papist Frenchman (Descartes) so much that their loyalty to King and country ought to be questioned.:”(Ibid., 128-129.)”: Into the eighteenth century, many Calvinists continued to polemicize that Cartesianism had produced Spinozism, a clear instance (to them) of the way Descartes’ views encouraged atheism and irreligion.:”(Ibid., 130.)”:

Here van der Waal gets into the main theme of her article, the Cocceian-Voetian dispute over Cartesian philosophy’s goal of reaching certainty by the method of doubt. The two factions argued bitterly over this issue and its ramifications for Calvinism:

Was it permissible to apply the Cartesian method of doubt to theology? Would methodical doubt not lead inevitably to sceptical doubt, and this in its turn to a denial of God? Should we accept religious propositions only insofar as they are clear and distinct to us? Might God be called a deceiver? Such matters were hotly debated by Dutch divines and led to a seemlingly interminable stream of tracts and sermons dealing with the effects of Cartesian philosophy upon Calvinist theology.:”(Ibid., 131.)”:

In 1669 a discussion was held between the Cocceian Cartesian Petrus Allinga and Herman Witsius about whether doubt was a legitimate means of discovering theological truth. Witsius argued that starting with methodological doubt could only produce “strange novelties” such as impiously doubting God’s existence and imagining that God could deceive us if He so desired. Allinga replied that the term “dubitatio” (doubt) really only meant “to suspend judgment until we have found solid grounds for embracing the truth,” and that the term could not be properly equated with “falsehood.” Further, there should be made a distinction between “to doub” and “persisting in doubt,” the former of which was acceptable for the believer but the latter of which was destructive of faith. For Allinga, doubt was the best way to attack atheism, for merely believing in God’s existence on the word of one’s parents could not compete with actually seeing the truth of God’s existence for oneself – something that the Cartesian method of doubt could accomplish.:”(Ibid., 134-135.)”: “Allinga was convinced that those who did not embrace their religion after a thorough investigation of its fundamental truths would fall into atheism at its first blow. That was why the Cartesian method was so important: it showed the way to certitude.”:”(Ibid., 135.)”: Witsius, for his part, continued to maintain that Cartesian doubt was equivalent to accepting the falsehood of what was being doubted, and thus, was the road to atheism.:”(Ibid., 136-137.)”:

Another Voetian minister, Leonardus Rijssenius, attacked Cartesianism’s insistence that even doubting the existence of God in order to rebuild certainty in it via coming to rationally see it as true. This idea involved the shocking consequence of attacking the very authority of God’s Word and making it subject to man’s immanent reason, Rijssenius said: “The Cartesian theologians who believe that [the truth of God's existence] might only be accepted because man sees a reason to do so imply…that children and simple folk who are unable to undertake such an investigation are not allowed to embrace the truth, and that they may not be told by others what to believe.”:”(Ibid., 138.)”: On the contrary, Rijssenius declared (sounding an Augustinian note, it seems), “belief does not require any proofs from nature. Belief precedes all investigation.” Other shocking conclusions which Rijssenius saw in the Cartesian variety of Calvinism was that neither Jews nor Socinians could be held accountable for their heresies, since by “doubting” biblical truth they were excused, on Cartesian grounds, until such time (whenever that might come) as they could rationally see biblical truth to be truth. Rijssenius was among the Voetians who wished the Cocceians to be excommunicated from the Reformed Church in like manner as the Arminians had been at the earlier Synod of Dordt.:”(Ibid., 139.)”:

Against these attacks and others like them, Allinga continued to maintain that “doubt” simply did not mean what the anti-Cartesians claimed it meant. According to Allinga, it was wrong to think of doubt as meaning “an ambiguous fluctuation of the mind between certain extremes,” for the truly learned understood that doubt only meant “a suspension of judgement and a close scrutiny of the truth.”:”(Ibid., 140. The first phrase is my translation of the citation van der Wall gives in Latin: “ambigua fluctuatie mentis inter quaedam extrema.”)”:

Van der Wall concludes her article by summing up the central point that both Voetian and Cocceian Calvinists were fighting the same enemy: the rising tide of secularism and irreligion.:”(Ibid., 140-141.)”: The problem was that each understood the danger in its own way, and its own way thought that the other was actually increasing, not decreasing the danger. The Voetians thought that the Cocceians were undermining faith in the Scriptures and in the settled conclusions of Reformed orthodoxy by encouraging the Cartesian method of trying to build certainty atop a foundation of fundamental doubt. The Cocceians, on the other hand, thought that the Voetians were making room for atheism by not allowing assent to the doctrines of the faith to be withheld until they could be rationally, not merely authoritatively, established. Both sides were Calvinist. Both sides believed themselves to be defending the truth claims of Calvinism. But, as van der Wall concludes, through their vehement and bitter decades-long war over Cartesianism’s utility to Calvinism, both sides helped prepard the way for the awesome leveling work of the Calvinist skeptic Pierre Bayle (1647-1706).:”(I wrote about Bayle four years ago in the early phases of my understanding of Cartesianism’s influence on Calvinism. The interested reader may find my paper on Bayle on the Writings page on this website.)”:


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