Voetius on Creation, Death, and Human Nature

by Matthew Gaetano

The erudition of the Dutch Reformed theologian, Gisbertus Voetius, is often staggering. I’ve especially appreciated his disputations on creation because one can see his extensive knowledge not only of the whole Christian theological tradition but also his detailed grasp of the Greek, Arabic, and Latin philosophers. His views on creation, which take up various issues having to do with natural philosophy and even natural history (there is, for instance, a lengthy refutation of those who posit the existence of unicorns), are also fascinating because many of the arguments cut across confessional lines. On a particular question, he might pit Aquinas alongside the Reformed theologian Girolamo Zanchi against Bonaventure alongside Peter Martyr Vermigli.

I just wanted to point out five fascinating moments.

1) One can see how Voetius thinks of Aristotelianism (which he obviously admires and famously defends against Descartes) as standing in contrast not only with Platonism but even some of Aristotle’s own views. While discussing God’s creation of “the heavens and the earth,” he engages in a discussion about the Intelligences that Aristotle used to explain the motion of the heavenly orbs. In opposition to this position, he argues, “from the Aristotelian definition of nature,” that the heavenly bodies are moved by their own proper form. In other words, there is no need for celestial intelligences to account for the motion of the heavens (604). Voetius adds that Scripture indicates (Psalms 104, 136, 195) that “motion in accordance with the forms [of the heavenly bodies]” is the “law of nature” introduced in the beginning by God. What is fascinating, though, is that Voetius describes Aristotle’s position on the celestial intelligences as “more Platonic-poetic and conjectural” and “very remote from the genius of [Aristotle’s] masculine philosophy.” So, Voetius thinks that Aristotelianism is “masculine,” which is noteworthy I suppose, and states that Aristotle’s position on this particular point wasn’t really faithful to the “genius” of his general philosophical approach.

Voetius is even more astonished that so many Christian philosophers–along with Arabic and Jewish thinkers–followed Aristotle’s view on this point for so long. Not only Aquinas and others but even recent scholastics like the Jesuits at Coimbra continued to defend this unmasculine (!) position. Once again displaying his command of the details of (so many) controversial points, Voetius notes that Suarez only saw Aristotle’s view of celestial intelligences as probable.

2) Perhaps of more pressing concern (though I hope that some readers of TRF don’t mind “curious digressions”) is Voetius’ view of animal death before the fall of Adam and Eve. I’ve often heard students–from different backgrounds–discussing whether the long history of animal death in the modern evolutionary account is a serious theological problem. Does it not undermine the Pauline teaching that death came into the world as a result of sin? One can see modern Christians wrestling with this question here (arguing that it isn’t a major problem) and here (arguing quite fiercely that this is a major theological concern for those embracing Darwinism), but they don’t often mention that this was a matter of debate long before Charles Darwin came on the scene. While the vast majority of pre-modern Christian theologians did not believe in a long period before the creation of man, they did debate whether animals would have died–whether by eating one another or by being eaten by human beings–if Adam and Eve had not sinned. Aquinas says that animals definitely would have eaten each other and that it is unreasonable to think otherwise (esp. in the reply to obj. 2 of this article). Indeed, a number of his followers suggest that, while man might not have eaten meat, human beings would have been involved in killing animals. Hunting would have been a recreational activity for pre-lapsarian human beings in part because it would have allowed for scientific discoveries about the anatomy of beasts. (Take a look at pp. 22-23 of Suarez’s account of what man’s life would have been like if man did not sin.)

I wondered what Voetius had to say on the topic. I was disappointed that he does not lay out the state of the question in much detail on this particular point (as he usually does). He asks whether brute beasts are given as food from the first creation of things. His reply–against some Rabbis who wanted this to have begun only after the flood of Noah–is that beasts were given for food. Indeed, he thinks that the “rabbinical” position which holds that man only ate vegetables until after the flood “has a taste of the Pythagorean [view]” (719).

From what I’ve been able to gather, this would have been a rather controversial position in the Reformed context. John Calvin doesn’t want to overread Genesis 1’s statements about plants being given to man for food, but he says that it “seems the more probable [that it was unlawful for them to eat flesh until the deluge] because God confines…the food of mankind within certain limits.” Peter Martyr Vermigli says in his commentary on Genesis 1:29 that “man and the rest of the animals did not eat meat from the beginning.” Girolamo Zanchi (d. 1590), it seems, takes time to answer those unnamed authors who argue that animal flesh was acceptable food before the flood. Before this Reformed commentary tradition got going, Martin Luther suggests that eating meat even after the flood created some problems. Wolfgang Musculus (d. 1566) might suggest something similar. An English Reformed writer, Andrew Willet (d. 1621), explicitly rejects the view of Aquinas about animal death in his Hexapla in Genesin:

Neither doe wee allow the iudgement of Thomas Aquinas, who thinketh that the beasts which are now devourers of flesh, should have used that kind of food in the state of mans innocency. 1. part. quaest. 96. artic. 1. [the same one that I cited above]

Wee reiect [this opinion], because if man had not transgressed, there should have beene no death in the world,Rom. 5.12. Sinne entred into the world by one man, and death by sinne: if there should have beene no death in the world, because no sin, I see not how death should have entred upon other creatures, especially this violent death by slaughter: as the Apostle also saith, Rom. 8.22. That every creature groaneth with us, and travelleth in paine together to this present: so that this bondage of paine and corruption, which maketh man and beast groane together, was laid upon them together. Neither doe I see how Basils opinion can stand, hom. 11. in Gen. that man in his innocency, though hee should not have used the beasts for food, yet might haue slaine them, to take knowledge of their inward parts, and to helpe his experience that wayes: or it should have beene lawfull unto him to kill them in hunting for his delight, as Pererius thinketh, lib. 4. in Gen. p. 663. for this slaughter, and killing of beasts, upon what occasion soever, whether for food, for knowledge or pleasure, belongeth unto the bondage of corruption, which by sin was brought into the world.

But Willet didn’t think that man (or beasts) waited until the flood to eat meat: “I thinke it more probable, that both man and beast after the transgression before the floud, did use indifferently both the fruits of the earth, and the flesh of beasts for food.”

All of this Protestant resistance to Aquinas’ position–along with Willet’s rejection of the opinion that I mentioned above about the appropriateness of hunting before sin (as found in Pereira and Suarez)–actually made me hesitate about whether I was reading Voetius correctly. But I’m pretty sure that I have it right. I’m not sure how unusual Voetius’ position is in seventeenth-century Reformed theological and biblical exegesis.

So, apparently, modern Christians who are worried about animal death before sin, though they are not holding a position universally embraced by pre-modern theologians, do have some weighty figures on their side. But Aquinas, Suarez, and Voetius are a pretty substantial counterweight.

3) Some Roman Catholics still describe the Reformed view of the fall as involving some kind of essential change in man’s basic nature. (Note the statement here about the supposed implications of “total depravity.”) Voetius asks whether man before and the fall is the same in form, in terms of species, and in essential properties. His reply is affirmative: “Nothing substantial or essential or absolutely natural is added or  taken away” (738-39). He then refers the reader to his discussions on the imago Dei for a discussion of certain accidental changes in human beauty, nutrition, the order of superiors and inferiors, etc., that result from sin.  (See also p. 776.)

4) At one point he asks whether the body is in itself bad, harmful, and thus should be called–“along with the Platonists”–a prison house or tomb off the soul (758). This is an interesting question in part because Calvin in the Institutes does refer to the body as a prison house of the soul (though see this important contextualization of how he meant it). But Voetius rejects the Platonic way of talking about the body and says that the body after the fall of Adam should not be called bad or noxious any more than the soul. Some of the reasons for his position are that the body is “partially the essence of man, a good creature of God” and that “the Son of God assumed [the body] into the unity of His person–no less then the soul.” A human body was the “flesh and blood of God.”

5) Voetius takes up an issue on the equality of all souls. As an American (especially one heading towards the Fourth of July), I’m always interested in theological reflections on the notion that “all men are created equal” before the Declaration of Independence. Voetius unsurprisingly lays out a range of positions on the subject–after affirming the equality of souls “in their substantial perfection” and denying that “one is more perfect than another” in terms of “both specific and individual perfection” (775). Voetius believes that Aquinas is on his side regarding the equality of souls. But he cites major Thomists like Capreolus, Chrysostom Javelli, Francesco Silvestri da Ferrara, Cajetan, and others as fiercely defending inequality. He also includes Bonaventure and the fourteenth-century Augustinian, Giles of Rome, on this side of the debate. Apparently, one of the reasons for holding the inequality of souls is to establish the greater nobility of the soul of Christ. On the side of equality, according to Voetius, is the fourteenth-century Dominican, Durandus de Sancto Porciano, as well as Domingo de Soto, Francisco de Toledo (Toletus) (d. 1596), and others. Voetius concedes that secondary powers of intelligence may vary, but the primary powers and the very substance of human souls are equal.

Of course, all these issues really only relate to one another because of their presence in his long disputations on creation. But I really just wanted to highlight that Voetius was a fascinating guy who gives us a window into the rich debates and conversations of the seventeenth century. At the same time, it might be worth pointing out that there weren’t all that many Roman Catholic scholastics from this period who engaged Reformed authors like this.  Or at least I haven’t yet found many of them.

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