Theological Infighting image

Theological Infighting

Within a few years of the first Calvinist churches being established in the Netherlands the Belgian Confession was written. Guy de Bray who was a student first of Calvin and then of Theodore Beza compiled his statement of faith in 1561. To some extent his confession drew on a 1559 French equivalent which was largely Calvin’s work, but it was by no means a carbon copy. By 1610 evangelical opponents of a hard line Calvinism published a Remonstrance in which they taught election on the basis of foreseen faith, a universal atonement, resistible grace and the possibility of a lapse from grace.

These two theological statements are, in many ways, the book-ends of Dutch Calvinism, the first implying theological consensus and the second underlining a theological chasm which had grown up. The more we look, however, the more we see an underlying tension growing within Dutch Reformed circles between those who adhered to a strong Beza-style Calvinism which eclipsed Calvin in many ways and those who did not. What follows is a series of quotations from Gerard Brandt’s History of the Reformation in the Netherlands (1668-74) which all serve to illustrate this time bomb that eventually exploded at Dort.

1573 - There was some difference of opinions among the Reformed.  John Isbrandtson, Minister of Rotterdam, preached against the doctrines of predestination, such as Calvin taught it; and Clement Martenson, the first minister of the Reformed at Horn, declared frequently that he had never believed, nor preached predestination, but in the sense of Melanchthon’.  Most of the ministers in Holland followed Calvin’s opinion about that doctrine but some…did not approve of it.  That doctrine…could hardly be relished by everybody, since the works of Erasmus and Melanchthon, the book of Bullinger for the use of families and the Guide of the Laity written by Veluanus, were highly esteemed.

8 Feb 1575 a University was founded at Leiden as a reward for the bravery of its inhabitants.  John Holman was one of the first Professors of Divinity in that town: his doctrine concerning predestination was the same as that of Melanchthon. It was this Professor that was recommend by the famous Beza, who believed that Melancthon’s theology was more proper for the Dutch, and that it would appear to them more edifying…

14 Oct (1574) died Frederick III Elector Palatin.  He was a Prince endowed with great virtues; he introduced into Germany the Confession of Faith of the Helvetic Churches, and ordered some of his Divines to compose the Heidelberg Catechism. He assisted the Protestants of France and the Low Countries. That Prince in his last will, exhorted his children in a very pathetical manner to avoid quarrelsome and violent clergyman. But above all things, said he, let my children beware of turbulent ministers and professors, who undertake here and elsewhere to raise disputes about words and scandalous contentions, and to thunder out anathemas in churches against those who nevertheless agree with us about the main articles of our religion, and ground the hopes of their salvation as we do, upon the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Any lessons here? I don’t think for a moment that we as a family of churches are sitting on major theological time bombs. However, we would be naïve if we imagined that there was perfect 100% agreement amongst us across the board. As I have said earlier, it has never been our style to underpin the unity we have with tightly defined theological statements. Rather, our relational unity has been expressed by doing things – by being on mission together. In a “brave new world” where we have multiplied apostolic ministry across the world and also in the UK we must be aware of the potential for theological fracture. We need to be big-hearted and generous-spirited with what appear to be polar opposites but, happily, in the economy of God, can co-exist. The moment, like the Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants, we take pot-shots to demonstrate that our “system” is the only lens through which to view Scripture is the moment we lose something very precious amongst us. Unity with diversity is something to be valued not to be feared.

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