Synopsis of a Purer Theology

Synopsis of a Purer Theology, edited by William den Boer and Riemer A. Faber. Landrum, SC: Davenant Press, 2023. 2 vol., $89.95, clothbound.

Let me state my conclusion up front: Every English-speaking Reformed pastor and student would do well to own these two outstanding volumes. That may sound hyperbolic, or even cliché, but it’s true. This is an invaluable resource that can serve as a wise, reliable, profound, and easy to use (which does not mean simple) reference for anyone interested in defining and defending Reformed theology.

A New Edition of an Old Book

This new edition of the Synopsis of a Purer Theology uses the English translation (with minor changes and corrections) from the three-volume academic Brill edition published from 2014 to 2020. Davenant Press has done the church a great service by presenting the same content, but now in a more accessible and more affordable format. The Synopsis, first published in 1625, was composed between 1620 and 1625 by four professors at Leiden University: Antonius Thysius (1565–1640), Johannes Polyander (1568–1646), Andreas Rivetus (1572–1651), and Antonius Walaeus (1573–1639). Based on academic disputations at Leiden, the Synopsis represents a full, yet streamlined, summary of theology as it was understood in the Netherlands following the Synod of Dort (1618–1619).

The Synopsis was meant to be an academic textbook that offered a theological and philosophical exposition of the orthodox (“purer”) Reformed faith. The two volumes are composed of fifty-two disputations which move through the standard theological loci: prolegomena, doctrine of Scripture, God and his attributes, the Holy Trinity, creation, providence, anthropology, the decrees, the person of Christ, the work of Christ, soteriology, Christian worship, ecclesiology, sacraments, the civil magistrate, last things. For the contemporary reader, it is interesting to note which topics, that we might ignore or deal with quickly, are given their own disputation. For example, there is a disputation “Concerning the Good and Bad Angels,” another one on idolatry that deals with physical art and iconography (not with idols of the heart), a long disputation on the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, a disputation each on almsgiving and fasting, on vows, on purgatory and indulgences, on the calling and duties of ministers, and on church discipline.

The Synopsis is a potent expression of Protestant scholasticism. The prose is not dry or lifeless, but it is often technical and presumes a certain familiarity with theology as an academic discipline. In the chapter on justification, for example, mention is made of the efficient cause for justification, the assisting cause, the internal impelling cause, the initiating external cause, and the material cause. Distinctions like this are not uncommon. The work as a whole is well-organized, with clearly stated topics and with each disputation consisting of dozens of numbered paragraphs. This makes the Synopsis, though dense, surprisingly accessible. One can easily look at, say, Disputation 29 “On the Satisfaction by Jesus Christ” and see what the Leiden professors thought about the atonement.

As a textbook for theological students, the Synopsis often speaks deliberately out of, and with reference to, the church’s long tradition of theological exploration. For example, in a single paragraph in the chapter on the Sabbath, Antonius Thysius (who was responsible for this disputation) references no fewer than thirteen church fathers: Eusebius, Ignatius, Jerome, Justin Martyr, Dionysius bishop of Corinth, Theophilus of Antioch, Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Sozomen. Of course, the Bible is far and away the most important source for the Synopsis, but the disputations also refer to historical and literary texts from classical antiquity, cite Medieval authors like Aquinas, Lombard, and Scotus, and engage with Roman Catholic apologists like Robert Bellarmine and Gregory of Valencia.

What Curious Minds May Want to Know

Given the nature of the Synopsis, it would be impractical to provide anything like a proper summary. The Synopsis is a work of systematic theology, so one can fairly surmise what the book is about. But if a summary is not necessary, it might be worthwhile (or at least interesting) to highlight a number of sections where we might be especially curious to know that the Leiden professors think.

On the existence of God: “in Theology we should not ask ‘whether God exists,’ since Theology takes for granted that He does exist.” At the same time, the Synopsis insists that “because of the foolish and devil-surpassing blasphemy of certain atheists . . .we shall demonstrate his existence by two kinds of evidence: nature and reason” (6.3).

On divine simplicity: “that the divine essence is altogether without any composition, whether the composition be from material and integral parts, or from the essential parts of matter and form, from genus and difference, subject and accident, act and potency, and finally, essence and existence” (6.24).

On the Son as autotheos: if we consider the Son in his absolute essence, then the Son of God is rightly called autotheos [God of himself] as Calvin and some of the church fathers call him. Yet, if we consider the same essence as existing in the Son under a distinct mode of subsistence, “then He is God of God, light of light, as defined in the Nicene Creed” (8.18).

On the filioque clause: the Synopsis defends the Western acceptance of the clause, but also tries to find middle ground with the East, by affirming, as a way to “settle” the controversy, that “the Father spirates the Holy Spirit through the Son, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son” (9.19).

On guardian angels: the Synopsis is ambivalent. “It cannot be gathered so clearly from Scripture whether a single angel is assigned to each individual person” (12.52).

On idolatry: the Synopsis rejects the “notorious differentiation between latria and douleia in the sense used by the papal party.” The Leiden professors see Roman Catholic worship as full of idols and idolatrous practices, no matter what they call it. And yet, the Synopsis does not take a hard line against every kind of image. “What we have said about images should not be taken to mean that generally consider every use of images to be unlawful; in our view this applies in an absolute sense only to images of the Trinity.” Later: “we do not even reject outright all forms of worship or honorary decorations” (19.27-28).

On the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day: this disputation is one of the longest and most fascinating in the entire work. Thysius thinks the Fourth Commandment is different than the other nine, in so far as the specific Sabbath command is not reiterated in the New Testament. The general principle of “reverent rest” for the worship of God remains, but the Jewish Sabbath and other commandments involving rituals have been abolished. The Synopsis rejects “the idea of an ‘original Jewish Sabbath,’ and Sabbatarians or Sabbath-keeping Christians” (21.59). Thyisius is adamant that the Lord’s Day should not be overrun under the pretext of Christian liberty, but the Sabbath per se is not a command for Christians. And anyone who has to subscribe to Presbyterian or Reformed doctrinal standards will be interested to hear Leiden’s conclusion that “activities aimed at modest bodily invigoration and relaxation are not prohibited, since they belong to the purposes of the Sabbath-day” (21.36). As for special celebrations in the church calendar like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, Thysius believes they can be put to good use so long as they are not thought to be divinely prescribed and are not celebrated with superstition (21.61).

On using set prayers in worship: “It is our contention that so long as they are spoken from the heart with due intent, the formulae are not only lawful but very useful” (36.33).

On giving alms to everyone who begs: “But we do not consider among their number [of the poor to whom we must give] those who are fit, or wayfarers and professional beggars, who, having been dulled by their base and idle laziness, practice mendicancy and put the security of their livelihood on us, and by feigning a state of wretchedness, by means of various tricks and craftily thought-up pretenses with which they would around compassion, by going about in public, door-to-door, or showing up at busy crossroads, they ask for a small gift, and in this way unfairly eat up someone else’s bread” (37.18).

On two kinds of “helpers”: while the Synopsis speaks of three offices (ministers, elders, and deacons), its description “two kinds of helpers” gives the outline for teaching elders and ruling elders: “some administer God’s Word as well as the government of the Church, while others administer only the Church’s government” (42.3).

On the mode of baptism: “In the Christian church it always has been deemed a matter of indifference whether we must baptize with a single immersion or with three. And so too for the question whether we must use immersion or sprinkling” (44.19).

On the future ruination of the world: there is no agreement on whether the ruination of the world will involve only a change in the qualities of this world, or whether it will mean the complete destruction of this world (52.56-58). The Synopsis concludes that the whole visible universe will be purified like metals are purified of their dross by fire (52.60).

Conclusion

Hopefully, the selections above demonstrate something of the usefulness, judiciousness, and thoughtfulness of the Synopsis (not to mention how relevant and fascinating are some of the conclusions). To repeat myself: these two volumes deserve to be the shelf of every busy pastor and every serious theological student. While the work should not be read as the final word on every theological question it raises, there is no doubt that the Synopsis will help the careful reader arrive at purer and better understanding of the historic Reformed orthodox.

Kevin DeYoung
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte