Gisbertus Voetius and Reformed Catholicity

by Matthew Gaetano

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) was a major Dutch Reformed theologian whose works demonstrate mastery not only of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and medieval theology, but also a command of the works of contemporary Roman Catholic scholastic authors. He studied at Leiden, participated in the Synod of Dort, and then taught at Utrecht, where he confronted the new philosophy of René Descartes. He forcefully opposed not only Cartesianism and the works of Catholics theologians like Bellarmine and Suarez, but also led the fight against Arminianism. Indeed, he described himself as the “grateful disciple to the end of my life” of Franciscus Gomarus, one of the most important anti-Arminian writers.

In his work, The Force of Truth Breaking Forth in the Papacy, Voetius makes a series of fascinating observations. Despite its obviously polemical goals, I hope to return to this work in future posts because of its erudition and clarity. Though he starts with the state of the controversy “between us and the papacy,” I want to begin with his discussion of where controversy cannot (or at least should not) be found, even though the “most atrocious calumnies and accustomed frauds of papist writers” might suggest otherwise. As we’ve suggested before, seventeenth-century writers, who knew these theological debates in incredible detail, thought that they were (at times) being mischaracterized by their opponents. So, despite the “slanderous” statements of Roman Catholic theologians, Voetius wants to affirm the following five statements as clearly as he can.

  1. Good works are to be done.
  2. Good works are necessary and useful for salvation.
  3. Good works are pleasing to God.
  4. God bestows to good works remuneration and reward (merces).
  5. It is licit to do good works in consideration of the reward.

But he has a sixth point: a strenuous denial that “good works are sins.”

His seventh and final point is a bit more elaborate. Voetius asserts that there is no real controversy about whether the just are worthy of a crown: “For we concede this, with the additional limitation that this is the case not by their own dignity, but in accordance with the dignity of God” (728-29).

These are charges that I’ve often seen in Roman Catholic writings long after Voetius wrote. It is noteworthy that Voetius believes that these issues should be off the table for future controversy. Reformed and Roman Catholic writers, he says, agree on these key soteriological points.

Later in the document, Voetius will revisit matters where controversies appear to exist but not exactly in the way that we might expect. But to frame this discussion, he sets forth a historical narrative of the Church in general and the rise of popery in particular. He divides Church history into three eras. The first period ends around the year 500. He talks about the clear truth of Scripture as being preserved in this period. The teachings recovered by the Reformed Churches, he argues, have antiquity and catholicity, rooted in the teachings of this first era. The real points of controversy with Rome are points which are generally novel and certainly not universal in the ancient Church, thus leaving merely “a  sectarian and factious particularity” for “popery” (731).

The second age (the first intermediate or Middle Age) goes from 500 or so until 1000. Voetius argues that the “papisms” on human merit, satisfaction, works of supererogation, indulgences, and so on were not made Catholic and ecclesiastical dogmas even in this period. They remained private opinions. Indeed, Voetius says that “our fundamental doctrine on the merit of salvation and its impetration through the mercy of God and the merits of Christ alone” were still widely held (735). Even Gregory the Great, he argues, was “not a papist”–at least in many important respects (736). So, even popes were not always papists.

Voetius’ third age goes from 1000 or so up to Luther. Even in this age–irrespective of whether one focuses upon the Western or Eastern Churches–“papisms” about merit, satisfaction, the Mass, etc., did not prevail through the Christian world as Catholic dogmas. But he does see these centuries as a very important period for the rise of the papacy and its “papisms”.

A fourth age of the Church (I think) begins with Luther. One would assume that it would end around 2000, but Voetius doesn’t appear to say anything about that.

Despite the major problems during the third and especially in the fourth age (at least under the papacy), Voetius wants to show that truth continued to break forth. He divides these eruptions of truth into three intervals: (1) from the eleventh century up through the fifteenth or up to Luther himself, (2) from the preaching of Luther up to the Council of Trent, (3) from the Council of Trent up to Voetius’ own day.

For the first interval, he mentions the works of figures like Anselm of Canterbury, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Durandus de Sancto Porciano, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Thomas à Kempis, and so on. It is important to note that Voetius is obviously not affirming everything about these authors’ writings but pointing out passages that show the vestiges of biblical, apostolic, catholic truth in the medieval period. Some of these passages are quite remarkable. Albertus Magnus is quoted as saying in his work On the Paradise of the Soul, chap. 21, that “the one has true hope who, although he frequently exercises himself in good works, nonetheless never confides in his merits but only in the superabundance of goodness or divine largess. He [does this because he] does not know whether his good works are pleasing to God since all our justices are as filthy (menstruata) rags.” Voetius mentions Aquinas’ question on merit from the Summa theologiae (I-II, q. 114, art. 1), where he says that God does not owe anything to us but only to His own disposition. Voetius says that this is “just as much as if he were to say that a reward is not given from merit but from grace, which is the very claim (ipsissima sententia) of the Reformed” (745). Voetius also quotes Aquinas’ prayers before and after Communion, where he talks about the “magnitude of my iniquities” that are satisfied by God’s “only begotten Son” (752)

Voetius’ second interval from 1517 to Trent occasions references to Erasmus, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, Cardinal Contarini, some of the other figures present at the Colloquy of Regensburg, and so on.

The third interval begins with Trent. For Voetius, a major moment–perhaps the key moment–in the dogmatizing of “papisms” is this council. He argues: “in novel papal councils and in the decrees of Pontiffs, those ‘papisms’ with regard to merit, justification, the perfection of works, satisfactions, indulgences, the incertitude of salvation, etc., were…first concluded and defined in a council (conciliariter), established as Catholic and ecclesiastical dogmas, or as necessary articles of faith, and thus imposed upon the subjects of the Roman Church under the penalty of anathema” (731). (Voetius points to canons 11-15 and canon 32 of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification, as especially problematic in this regard, though he discusses Trent’s definitions regarding the sacraments, the sacrifice of the Mass, etc., as well.)

But even after Trent, there are moments where truth breaks forth. (Perhaps the texts to which he points would be fruitful for future examination at TRF.) Among the scholastic (elenctic) theologians, he mentions leading figures like Domingo de Soto, Bartolomé de Medina, Suarez, Bellarmine, and so on. Voetius mentions that merit de congruo–the limited notion of merit that theologians like Ockham and Gabriel Biel thought came before justification–had been “cast out from the schools of the theologians” (765). He quotes Soto, a major Thomist at Trent, who apparently wrote in his commentary on the Sentences (Bk. 4, d. 1, q. 3) that justifying grace (or the grace that makes pleasing or gratia gratum faciens) is not “a certain inherent quality but the very love and favor of God,” a view that Voetius describes as favorable “to us.” Soto also denies that “our works are the meritorious cause of justification.” Medina, Soto’s student and a successor at the University of Salamanca, asserts that “God can justify man apart from infused habits.” A Jesuit, Gabriel Vasquez, is quoted (vol. 2 of his Disputations, d. 222, chap. 2, and d. 204, caps. 1-2, and d. 104, cap. 2) as saying that major Catholic theologians are “willy-nilly compelled to concede a new imputation of the merits of Christ.” Voetius mentions Bellarmine’s comment in bk. 2, chap. 10, of his Controversies on Justification that it is not absurd “if someone would say that the justice and merits of Christ are imputed to us since they are given and applied to us as though we ourselves satisfied God.” Voetius thinks that this admission on Bellarmine’s part means that the Reformed should be “absolved from the calumnies with which the Papacy daily crushes us” (766). Voetius points to some of the Biblical commentaries where the truth “erupts,” particularly the Jesuit Benito Pereira’s commentary on Romans 5 (disp. 1, sect. 3).

So, Voetius sees great theologians in the “third interval” as being forced by the truth and by their own seriousness with Scripture (at times) to “slip” from Tridentine orthodoxy into ancient, catholic, and now Reformed views. He sums up what he sees in the schools “after the Council of Trent” (770-71). These are somewhere between translations and paraphrasing–with any comments of mine in parentheses:

  1. In explication of the word merit and its definition, they [post-Tridentine Romanist theologians] do not agree–nay, rather, they pass over it. And thus they dispute with us and among themselves over a non-entity.
  2. From this, their language is confused and they contradict each other. These theologians either accuse each other of syncretism with the Reformed or with the Pelagians. (In other words, it seems to me, these post-Tridentine Catholic theologians have trouble managing to find the space between the Pelagian heresy and the Reformed position, which is (supposedly) where Tridentine “orthodoxy” should be found.)
  3. Individual Roman Catholic theologians contradict themselves in individual works.
  4. They are compelled either to involve themselves in some fundamental error or to absolve us of error–or they end up making false and calumnious claims about our positions in order to avoid appearing as if they condemned us, the Reformed, in vain.
  5. [I break with Voetius’ numbering here] In disputing and in making distinctions, they in the end dispute nothing, that is, they either fall into our position, whether they like it or not, or they do not really draw out their own position but rather discourse about the husk with an elevated style.
  6. After laborious disputations, they are finally compelled to speak forth the truth. (Besides Bellarmine, Voetius uses the major Catholic biblical commentator, Cornelius a Lapide, as an example. This is from his commentary on Jude 21: “He [Jude] exhorts the faithful to retain with constancy the faith and charity of Christ by exciting them to the hope of eternal life which they will certainly attain from our merciful God if they persist in faith and charity. Therefore, with this hope, acting as a shield, all persecutions, difficulties, and temptations are to be repressed and crushed.”)
  7. Their practical writings refute and confound their elenctic or scholastic writings.
  8. However they might chatter under a shadow and contend for the Papacy and the world in the schools or at their pulpits, when it comes to the practice of the Christian life, they fail to hold up the Tridentine positions. (He says later–and cites his Reformed predecessors–that one should look at the practical writings and the real actions of those under the papacy, not only of the unlearned but even of the erudite. One can really see what the “papists” believe at the point of death, and this tends to contradict their polemical theology. Voetius notes that one “never hears clergy or laypeople stretch out before God their own merits, satisfactions, or papal indulgences” (773).

To be clear, I am not endorsing all of Voetius’ claims here. Besides TRF’s fascination with this period of theology, I bring this work and its arguments to our attention because they indicate a few issues of significance (I think) to future conversation:

  1. Voetius provides a narrative with a clear periodization scheme that affirms the growing corruption of the Roman Church without denying the continual succession of true religion and the church of Christ since the days of the Apostles (725). There is no period of total darkness for Voetius as a Reformed Catholic.
  2. We see an argument that Trent is a decisive shift in the history of the Western Church, where the Church of Rome and the bishops loyal to it dogmatize the errors that began to creep in centuries earlier. Voetius quotes the English theologian, William Perkins (d. 1602), who writes: “No apostle, no holy martyr, no one orthodox for 1200 years…ever taught…all the principles or foundations of religion as the Roman Church now teaches them in the Tridentine Council” (724).
  3. But even after this decisive Council of Trent, Voetius interprets major theologians (like Soto, Suarez, and Bellarmine) as being embarrassed of some of these “papisms.” He thinks that these Roman Catholic authors are unable to sustain these errors under pressure from their own engagement with Scripture, the Church Fathers, and their Reformed opponents. They can’t help but either slip into Reformed perspectives or lie about what the Reformed teach in order to avoid affirming distinctively Reformed teachings.
  4. For our purposes, this is a piece of evidence that the post-Tridentine situation is certainly not as neat or straightforward as we sometimes make it. We perhaps tend to see Protestants and Catholics as having condemned each other with clear expressions of truth or error (depending on one’s perspective) and then moving to separate corners until the “confusion” of modern ecumenism. On the contrary, both sides were quite evidently  perplexed (at times) by the theologians of the other confession. These late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors needed to offer an explanation of why (in some important instances) their opponents sounded quite a bit more “orthodox” than even the fiercest defender of their own confession would have expected.
  5. Voetius interpreted these moments of truth (on fundamental points of inter-confessional controversy) in the works of his opponents as a “breaking forth,” an “eruption,” despite the intentions of the authors involved. Perhaps we might see something different today. Voetius is right that many Roman Catholic authors rejected the idea of merit (even de congruo) before justification. Some Roman Catholic authors did employ the language of imputation, as Voetius indicates. Some Roman Catholic authors did reflect deeply on the imperfection of our works even after justification in ways that astonished our erudite Dutch theologian. In my view, these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic theologians didn’t see themselves as contradicting the Council of Trent. I have never seen evidence that thinkers like Bellarmine, Suarez, and others were embarrassed by the “papisms” that Voetius sees in the conciliar decrees. But we might still ask: how did they accommodate these different approaches and new terminology–in light of their medieval predecessors–with their commitment to the Tridentine decrees?

3 thoughts on “Gisbertus Voetius and Reformed Catholicity

Leave a Reply