Wednesday, June 21, 2006

W. J. van Asselt on Johannes Maccovius

Notes on Willem J. van Asselt, “The Theologian’s Tool Kit: Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644) and the Development of Reformed Theological Distinctions,” Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 23-40.

Section I: The Present State of Maccovius Research

van Asselt opens his article with a brief survey of the academic playfield (or lack thereof) regarding studies on Maccovius. He begins by criticizing the views of several authors (W. B. S. Boeles, Paul Althaus, Otto Ritschl. Otto Webber, G. C. Berkouwer, and Keith L. Sprunger) who saw Maccovius as a “super-scholastic” and used him as a “whipping boy” of sorts to advance their own particular historiographical version of post-Reformation scholasticism (23).

He maintains that “very few substantial works on the life and work of Maccovius have been published” (24). The first biographical details we have of Maccovius come from his funeral oration given by his colleague at Franeker University, Johannes Cocceius (1603-69). Cocceius notes that Maccovius was a student of Bartholomaeus Keckermann and was an erudite scholar, learned lecturer, and able defender of the Reformed faith. The next reference to Maccovius comes from the early Enlightenment thinker, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) who relied heavily on Cocceius’s oratio. Bayle focuses on Maccovius fierce defence of orthodoxy against the Jesuits and Socinians – even referring to him (in the words of van Asselt) as a “watchdog that guarded the house of its master by barking at intruders and with a sailor shouting to his colleagues in order to try to save the ship of the Reformed Church that was turned by the Arminian storm” (24).

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, van Asselt references only five major studies on Maccovius (i.e. works by Jodocus Heringa, Abraham Kuyper, Jr., Michael Daniel Bell, Donald Sinnema, and Martin I. Klauber). Given so few major studies, van Asselt’s modest comment that the Polish theologian “does not rank among the most popular theologians of the seventeenth century” (23) seems almost an understatement!

Sections II-VI. Maccovius’s influence & his Distictiones

Maccovius taught theology for more than thirty years throughout the Netherlands. His influence stretched throughout Eastern Europe, especially during the tumultuous times of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) when an influx of foreign students fled to Franeker –on no small account to the reputation of Maccovius. His influence is easily seen by the steady republication of his works during his lifetime and well beyond his death. One particularly noteworthy work is a posthumous treatise entitled Distinctiones. The work was part of the collected writings of Maccovius but also appeared previously in a separate edition. Both editions were compiled by Maccovius’s pupil Nicolaus Arnoldus and were originally published in Franeker (1653, 1654), Amsterdam (1656, 1663), and Oxford (1656) with Dutch translations from the Latin seeing multiple publications in the seventeenth and even nineteenth century!

The Distinctiones were most likely intended for students at the beginning of their theological education and were “written in a style which is very readable with its illustrations taken from daily life” (27). The genre of the work follows a common method within both Catholic and Reformed scholastic traditions of writing on theological distinctions. The book consists of twenty-three chapters and covers the full range of the loci communes typical of the Reformed orthodox. The final portion of Distinctiones covers ten decades on essential distinctions for doing the task of systematic theology: in other words, a “tool kit for theologians” (29). In these decades, Maccovius encouraged theologians to employ philosophical terms and techniques for achieving theological clarity. He contends that making distinctions and evaluating their implications is necessary for the task of theology. van Asselt states that he “carefully developed his thought by showing very clearly how one question relates to the other, what the core of the problem is, and how the root of the difficulty can be uncovered” (32).

After a brief gloss of Maccovius’s critical appropriation of Patristic, medieval, Reformed, and contemporary sources, van Asselt moves into a brief discussion of the last section of the Distinctiones where Maccovius covers “one hundred most general distinctions” in doing theology (32). van Asselt divides the section into three categories: ontological concepts, anthropological terms, and logical distinctions.

First, ontologically, Maccovius followed his mentor Keckermann in excluding the doctrine of God from the metaphysical discussion of being – unlike the more Suárezian approach to metaphysics. Rather, Maccovius focused more precisely upon the distinction and relation between the Creator (the prima causa) and creation (the causae secundae), especially as a means of maintaining the viability of contingency. van Asselt helpfully traces the development of Maccovius’s thought in terms of the more modern idea of modal ontology by outlining the distinction between necessity and contingency. According to van Asselt, by the employment of categories such as absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and hypothetical necessity (necessitas consequentiae), Maccovius sought to preserve God’s divine decree on the one hand and the freedom of human actions on the other.

Second, van Asselt divides Moccovius’s anthropological framework into two basic perspectives: essential level and accidental level. With regards to the essential level, Maccovius follows the standard Aristolelean/ Reformed scholastic tradition of faculty psychology, whereby the will follows the apprehensions of the intellect, but is careful not to suggest that it is determined by the intellect. At the accidental level, Maccovius utilises the common four-fold state model elaborated by Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux (and later by Thomas Boston). Within this structure, Maccovius distinguishes between freedom of contrariety (libertas contrarietatis) – the ability to choose this or that object – and freedom of contradiction (libertas contradictionis) – the ability to choose or reject a certain object. This distinction was to assure that in all four states, the will acts freely. But, while “man is always free, he is not always good” (37).

Third, van Asselt highlights the importance of logical distinctions in the Distinctiones. He astutely notes that the study of logic (along with other disciplines in the artes faculty) was a prerequisite for all theological students and was, in many ways, assumed by Maccovius. [Regrettably, the same cannot always be said today, at least for many seminary students in the United States!] van Asselt proceeds with several examples by discussing Maccovius’s use of logical concepts such as ratio (reason, argument, ground, etc), first act (in actu primo) and second act (in actu secundo), compounded and divided senses of a proposition (sensus compostius, sensus divisus), and categoremata (i.e. nouns and verbs) and syncategoremata (i.e. prepositions, conjunctions, adjectives, etc).

In short, Distinctiones represents the concernments of Maccovius to provide his students with a technical apparatus by which the basic principles of Reformed theology could be classified, articulated, and defended. van Asselt’s article is carefully researched, clearly structured, and tightly argued. It is a welcomed contribution that sheds much light on the thinking of this otherwise little known reformer.


C G said...

Are these notes shorter than the article??

John W. Tweeddale said...

Surprisingly, yes! I guess I got a little carried away.


C G said...

No - keep it coming - saves me going to the library (which doesn't stock WTJ in any case!).

Chris Coleman said...

Thanks for the insightful review! It's great to learn about reformed theologians that are new to me! Thanks so much, I really appreciate the qaulity and content of this blog!

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