Debate and Polemic, Within and Without the “High Orthodox”

I didn’t grow up Reformed, and so some of the distinctions that are made in and among Reformed churches are difficult for me to contextualize.

This section is somewhat long, but it moves quickly, and I found it very helpful in sorting out “what all the discussions were about” during the Reformed “High Orthodox” period (1640-1725). At least, what the major ones were about. The various “opponents” of the period are introduced and outlined, and the fine distinctions are made somewhat clearer.

What follows is a good piece of history:

Whereas the major polemics of early orthodoxy were directed against Rome—in particular against Bellarmine—and, on a limited set of doctrinal issues, against Lutheranism and the traditional heterodoxies of Christianity, the polemic of high orthodoxy encountered a wider variety of antagonists, some of them more closely related to the heart of Reformed theology (the Remonstrants, Conrad Vorstius, and the Socinians).

During the early orthodox period, the loci de theologia and the portion of the locus de Deo concerned with the divine essence and attributes developed, for the most part, as positive doctrine drawing nonpolemically upon the resources of the church fathers and of medieval scholasticism, the latter with emphasis on modified Thomist, Augustinian, and Scotist formulations.

The locus de scriptura sacra and the portion of the locus de Deo concerned with the Trinity, however, developed in controversy, already in the early orthodox era—the former against Rome and the latter against various antitrinitarian heresies, the most notable being the Socinian.

In the high orthodox period, beginning in the 1640s with thinkers like Cloppenburg, Hoornbeeck, and Wendelin, the polemical or controversial element begins to pervade all the loci—particularly in view of the rise of Socinian theology and its attack not only on the Trinity, but on the traditional view of God, and in view of the Remonstrant systems (first Episcopius, then Curcellaeus, Grotius, and Limborch) and their nearly total alternative view of theology which touched not only the system proper but the entire prolegomena including the locus de theologia and the problem of religion in general.

In the same era, the diversity of the Reformed development itself brought controversies—most notably those concerning the federal theology and the variant positions espoused by the theologians of Saumur.

Understanding the development of Reformed doctrine in the high orthodox era, therefore, requires proper distinction between the ad extra and the ad intra controversies.

The ad extra debates, confrontations between the confessional Reformed and alternative confessional positions—whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Remonstrant, or Socinian—occupied the larger portion of the polemic of orthodoxy.

Debate with the Roman Catholics continued to focus on Scripture and tradition, as well as on questions of justification, sanctification, sacraments, and ecclesiology, although changes in patristic scholarship caused changes in the shape and content of the debates.

Debate with the Lutherans stabilized and maintained the impasse of the early orthodoxy era, given the confessional differences over such issues as the communicatio idiomatum, predestination, and the presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper.

In both cases, whether the polemic with Roman Catholics or with Lutherans, neither dogmatic attack nor formal colloquy brought resolution. On these two fronts, by and large, high orthodoxy saw a codification rather than a significant development of debate.

By way of contrast, the Remonstrant theology posed a major threat to the Reformed and called forth new argumentation, since it was, in its beginning, an offshoot of the Reformed system and, in its development, a highly rationalistic structure allied with Cartesian and eventually with Lockean thought.

Polemic became particularly bitter over the apparent rapprochement of Remonstrant and Socinian theologians on issues related to the work of Christ and the divine justice.

Similarly, there was intense debate over the relationship of Remonstrant thought to rationalism, inasmuch as Cartesian philosophy, the reigning new philosophical movement of the age, had also made inroads into Reformed theology among the federal theologians.

Here, the near contact between the Reformed and their Remonstrant opponents was most obvious. The Remonstrant system had retained some strong resemblances to the Reformed system, and especially in the area of the federal doctrines had developed a dispensational structure close to that argued by Cocceius and his followers.

The increasingly rationalistic biblicism of the Socinian movement in its seventeenth-century forms posed an even more intense problem for the Reformed orthodox.

Whether in the form of the Racovian Catechism or of the numerous dogmatic treatises and commentaries produced by Socinus’ followers and made widely available in the Biblioteca fratrum Polonorum published in 1656, the Socinians opposed the balance of revelation and reason advocated by the Reformed and claimed a fundamental biblical basis for their doctrine and repudiated natural theology—at the same time that they argued against the simplicity and infinity of God, denied the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, and proposed an alternative view of the work of Christ.

From the Reformed perspective, all of these doctrines appeared to be at the same time the result of a new rationalism and a radically deviant exegesis.

On all of these points, the high orthodox developed detailed argumentation: elements of debate not found in the Reformation and early orthodox era theologies, but arguably presented in defense of the same basic body of doctrine.

There were also bitter battles among the Reformed—over Cocceian theology, over the espousal of Cartesian principles, and over the various teachings of the Academy of Saumur, over the soteriology of Richard Baxter, and over various responses to the Socinian denial of an essential or ad intra divine attribute of punitive justice.

On none of these issues, however, did the Reformed churches rupture into separate confessional bodies or identify a particular theologically defined group as beyond the bounds of the confessions, as had been the case at the Synod of Dort.

Amyraut was, after all, exonerated by several national synods in France, and the debate over his “hypothetical universalism” did not lead to the charge of heterodoxy against others, like Davenant, Martinius, and Alsted, who had, both at Dort and afterward, maintained similar lines of argument concerning the extent of Christ’s satisfaction.

The Westminster Confession was in fact written with this diversity in view, encompassing confessionally the variant Reformed views on the nature of the limitation of Christ’s satisfaction to the elect, just as it was written to be inclusive of the infra- and the supralapsarian views on predestination.

Amyraut, moreover, arguably stood in agreement with intraconfessional adversaries like Turretin on such issues as the fundamental articles of the faith.

Even when it was censured in the Formula Consensus Helvetica, the Salmurian theology was not identified as a heresy but as a problematic teaching that troubled the confessional orthodoxy of the church: the preface to the Formula specifically identifies the faculty of Saumur as “respected foreign brethren,” who stand on the same “foundation of faith” but whose recent teachings have become a matter of grave dispute.

The Formula consciously refrained from any reference to Cocceian theology, despite the desire of a few theologians to censure this variety of Reformed thought as well.

Nor, indeed, did the adoption of a modified Cartesian philosophy by thinkers like Heidanus, Burman, or Tronchin take them beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

This is not to diminish the controversies or to claim that Cocceian federalism, the Salmurian theology, and the rise of Cartesian tendencies among the Reformed did not place enormous strains on orthodoxy—nor does it ignore the fact that the critical techniques of Cappel and the adoption of Cartesian principles by various Reformed thinkers pointed toward the beginning of a new era in which confessional orthodoxy would fade.

Indeed, the impact of Cartesian thought on Reformed federalism was varied.

Cocceius himself did not take part in the controversy over Cartesianism—he did not advocate any particular philosophy as a basis for or intellectual partner with theology, but maintained a somewhat eclectic attitude, viewing all philosophy, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, Ramist or Cartesian, as at best a handmaid to theology.

This independence from philosophical systems is seen in Cocceius’ approach to the controversy between the Reformed orthodox and adversaries, whether Vorstian, Socinian, or Cartesian, over the divine omnipresence: Cocceius maintained the traditional doctrine and argued that the vivifying power of God in and through all things necessarily presumed the divine omnipresence, thus overtly opposing the Vorstian and Socinian claims of a finite divine essence, yet not overtly advocating a Cartesian approach to the divine substance as thought.

A somewhat different approach is seen in Cocceius’ associate, Heidanus, who overtly approved of Cartesian philosophy and at the same time argued the distinct provinces of philosophical and theological argumentation: Heidanus’ discussions of the law, grace, covenant, and Christology evidence his Cocceian leanings, while his discussions of God, creation, and human nature evidence a mild Cartesianism.

His definition of God as “an uncreated, independent, thinking substance” is clearly Cartesian, as is his discussion of the body and soul in man in terms of thought and extension.

Still, the presence of some Cartesian ideas does not necessarily press Heidanus beyond the bounds of orthodoxy—his doctrine remained thoroughly confessional.

From the perspective of its impact on Reformed federalism and despite the intense debate over some of its inceptor’s conclusions, the Cocceian theology also remained well within the bounds and the trajectories of orthodoxy.

Indeed, both in Britain and on the continent, the development of covenant theology and the inclusion of large-scale covenantal structures in Reformed dogmatics, was largely the work of the high orthodox era.

There was, of course, an early orthodox preparation in the works of such theologians as Fenner, Perkins, Piscator, Ball, Martinius, and Cameron, but the major development of a covenantal or federal focus and its incorporation into Reformed dogmatics in general, not to mention its inclusion in the Westminster Confession, belongs to high orthodoxy.

The Cocceian theology, once the initial polemic had subsided somewhat and the various hermeneutical problems inherent in Cocceius’ rather idiosyncratic notion of a gradually abrogated covenant of works had been overcome by theologians like Burman and Witsius (the former a Cocceian and the latter a Voetian), provided the covenantal model which became a central architectonic feature of the orthodox Reformed system.

Such unquestionably orthodox thinkers as Turretin, Heidegger, and Mastricht employ the covenant as a focal point of system between the loci on creation and fall and the locus of redemption in Christ. It may also be noted that none of these writers were drawn by federal teachings to espouse Cartesianism: Turretin and Heidegger opposed the new philosophy rather quietly, Mastricht quite pointedly.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 74–78). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.