Synopsis Purioris Theologiae

Article by   April 2015
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Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, Latin Text and English Translation, Volume 1/Disputations 1-23 edited by Dolf te Velde, et al. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Pp. xv + 659. $154.00/£95.00

The Synopsis Purioris Theologicae, popularly called the Leiden Synopsis, was originally published in 1625 not long after the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619. The Synopsis is a set of theological disputations given by four Reformed faculty members at Leiden University--French theologian Andre Rivet (1572-1651), Dutch theologian Johannes Polyander (1568-1646), Dutch theologian Antonius Thysius (1565-1640), and the eminent Dutch theologian Antonius Walaeus (1572-1639). These fifty-two disputations--a set of theses presented on a given topic often defended by a junior colleague or student--spanned the full-range of theological loci starting with Scripture and ending with a disputation on eternal life and death and the consummation of the world.  

Early modern scholars have long since familiarized themselves with the Synopsis. It played a significant role in the dissemination of scholastic Reformed orthodoxy even into the last two centuries, as in Herman Bavinck's reprint (1881) and Heinrich Heppe's use of it in his Reformed Dogmatics. Yet, until this past year the Leiden Synopsis was only available to those who read Latin. Thanks to Brill and a team of translators, those without Latin now have access to this first volume of a projected three-volume translation of the Leiden Synopsis into English.  

While scholastic disputations were a regular part of early modern academia, these disputations stand out insofar as they represent a unified presentation of Reformed orthodoxy from the theological faculty at Leiden. In other words, unlike other early modern disputations which were printed to express one individual theologian's thoughts on a given topic, these disputations give us a picture of Reformed theology as taught not just individually but corporately. The Leiden Synopsis is a window into Leiden University's Reformed theology following the Arminius (who was himself on faculty at Leiden until his death in 1610) controversy. So the professors write in their preface to the Dutch civil government that the Synopsis is published in order that, "it may be clear to anyone and everyone that there is a total single-mindedness in what we believe and think, and that we share a consensus in all the headings of theology" (p.27).  That the Leiden theologians address their work to the civil government no doubt illustrates just how different the seventeenth century world is from our own time.

Given the various challenges to the Reformed faith in the early seventeenth century, especially those presented by Roman Catholic and Remonstrant theology, these disputations often have a polemical tone and are thus unapologetically Reformed in their conclusions. In that sense, these disputations are peculiarly Reformed.  Nevertheless, they do not give the impression of sectarianism--in fact, quite the opposite.  Citations of early and medieval theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas, are quite prevalent, while petty intra-Reformed debates are understandably avoided.  By presenting a united Reformed front, the four theologians take aim especially at Roman Catholic theology, with the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine taking the brunt of criticism. This is especially evident in those disputations relating to Scripture (Disp. 2-5).   

It is often claimed that scholasticism in general was overly speculative and rationalistic. Yet one hardly gets that impression from the Synopsis. Scripture texts are employed to defend almost every theological point, and when Scripture does not address a particular question, the theologians of the Synopsis are hesitant to offer a dogmatic answer. Walaeus claims as principle what one finds throughout the Synopsis: "that an honest admission of ignorance is to be preferred to an all too daring assertion" (213; cf. 235, 293, 363). Would it not be refreshing to hear more contemporary theologians say such things?

It takes a certain amount of time to become acclimated to the genre of early modern disputations. Nevertheless, the editorial remarks found in the footnotes give one all the necessary help to traverse this foreign genre. One can often find a detailed explanation of how the disputation progresses. For example, in footnote five of the tenth disputation (concerning the creation of the world) the editors explain how the disputation moves through Aristotle's fourfold causality. Thankfully the editorial footnotes are not limited to explaining the structure of the various disputations. All along the way the editors offer helpful biographical sketches of the various theologians mentioned in the disputation from Socinus to Origen to Hermes Trismegistus. 

The Synopsis is laid out extremely well. The verso (or left side) pages include the original Latin while the recto (or right) side includes the translation. Those who have some knowledge of Latin will no doubt appreciate having the Latin so close at hand. Also included is a Latin glossary at the back of the book, giving a description of the most important Latin words used in the Synopsis.  Those familiar with Richard Muller's Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Words will find the Synopsis glossary quite similar--though more brief. In both the Latin and English there is a notation made anytime one of these defined words is employed.

Before concluding, a note about the translation is in order. While the translation is certainly not loose or free by any stretch, it is often a dynamic equivalent. The disputations often read like English rather than Latin. This is in contrast to, say, the recent translation of Junius' De Theologia Vera (On True Theology), which reads like Latin and seems to be closer to the wording of the Latin. Both approaches have their merits. The recent Junius work does not include the Latin; hence a close formal equivalence is welcome. However, given that the Synopsis includes the Latin next to the translation, a greater freedom in translation is more justified. For those who want to know the Latin, it is easily accessible. Still, one might quibble at certain curious translations, like, e.g., the inconsistency in translating mediate and immediate (cf. 83, 177, 561) or the lack of translating cognates like proprie or absolute as properly and absolutely (411, 37 respectively). Again, however, this is not a big problem because this edition supplies the Latin.

The final question is whether the price ($154/£95) is justified. On one level, no. If one has only a general interest in early modern Reformed theology, there are other places one might go. Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology covers every well-known loci of theological doctrine at almost half the cost of a single volume of the new translation of the Synopsis. The Synopsis is not designed for the general readership. It is published with the pastor and/or scholar in mind. The Synopsis is not merely a translation of the Leiden Synopsis. Included in the Synopsis is the Latin text, a helpful Latin glossary, a wealth of biographical sketches, and something of a commentary on portions of the text itself. In other words, if you purchase the Synopsis, you are not just receiving a translation, you are obtaining a treasure of helps designed to understand and appreciate early modern theology. So is it worth $154? It depends. The serious student of early modern scholarship is unlikely to regret this investment.

Michael J. Lynch is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson) and a PhD student (History of Christianity) at Calvin Theological Seminary. My particular interests are in early modern Reformed theology and nineteenth century American Presbyterianism


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