Book Review: Synopsis Purioris Theologiae (Vols. 1–2)
July 4, 2017
Synopsis Purioris Theologiae: Synopsis of a Purer Theology, by Walaeus et al., ed. Roelf T. te Velde, trans. Reimer A. Faber, 3 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2015). 659 pages. Volume 1.
This translation introduces a historically important Reformed orthodox text to the English-speaking world. Four professors at the University of Leiden (Walaeus, Polyander, Thysius, and Rivetus) produced this text in 1625 in order to present a “purer” alternative to the theology of the recently expelled Arminians at the Synod of Dort. This is the first of three projected volumes, which include parallel Latin and English texts. Since this text remained important in the Reformed world at least through the end of the nineteenth century, modern students of Reformed theology should use it as a means of connecting them to historic Reformed teaching.
This work has many useful qualities. It is inherently important as a summary of Reformed theology of the time. Beginning theological students today are ordinarily surprised to learn that most Reformed authors in the past wrote their major theological works in Latin. This means that many modern readers are cut off from what is arguably the most significant era in the development of Reformed theology. Some sections in the Synopsis, such as disputation twenty-one on the Sabbath, express largely Dutch debates. However, most of the chapters will help readers better understand the substance and structure of Reformed orthodoxy from the doctrine of the knowledge of God and Scripture, through creation, man and sin, to the relationship and differences between the Old and New Testaments. The footnotes scattered throughout this volume will also help many readers understand better philosophical, theological, and historical references in the original text.
The Synopsis, however, has some surprising deficiencies. Many discussions are incomplete or qualified inadequately. For example, Thysius mentioned, but largely omitted, the sufficiency of Scripture in his treatment of the perfection of Scripture, in favor of combating papal views of unwritten tradition (107). The definitions of theology, which occupied such a prominent place in other systems at the time, are stated and passed by on the first pages of the book in order to develop the doctrine of Scripture more rapidly. Sin is described as the absence of good having no metaphysical reality. However, this point can mislead readers without explaining that Reformed authors generally treated sin as an action directed to a wrong end instead of as non-being. Other topics, such as fundamental articles, the decrees of God (subsumed and renamed under providence), and the covenant of redemption, are omitted entirely. Covenant theology comes to bear directly only on disputation twenty-three, which addresses the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Covenantal terminology is not explained fully enough to be an adequate source for understanding the nuances of the Reformed development of the doctrine. Many doctrinal treatments in this work are too brief to help modern readers understand the theology standing behind these statements. Several positions are simply stated without argumentation from Scripture. Both of these points, surprisingly, stand in contrast to the shorter Compendium Christianae Theologiae from the same time period by Johannes Wollebius.
The Synopsis is a very important work of Reformed theology historically. While it is a must-read text from the time period, it will not likely be the best starting point for readers new to reading primary sources in Reformed orthodoxy. It is a synopsis of a broader theological tradition. Its primary value lies in teaching readers what questions to ask and where to look for theological expansion in other Reformed literature. It is possible as well that the English portion of this work might appear separately eventually at a lower cost, which would make it more accessible to a wider audience.
Synopsis Purioris Theologiae: Synopsis of a Purer Theology, by Walaeus et al., ed. Roelf T. te Velde, trans. Riemer A. Faber, 3 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2016). 738 pages. Volume 2.
Volume 2 of the Synopsis treats a wide range of issues including predestination, Christology, the application of redemption, and the doctrine of the church and her ministers. The translation is clear and accurate. The inclusion of the Latin text alongside the English translation makes this volume even more useful, since many key theological terms are difficult to translate in a way that retains the technical vocabulary current in Reformed orthodoxy. For example, the translator renders, habitus spiritualis, as, “spiritual disposition” (276-277). While the translated text captures the meaning of this term correctly, readers unfamiliar with Latin theological terminology will not likely pick up on the technical language of habits and acts that was rooted in Medieval theology and flowed seamlessly into Reformed thought. Comparing key terms in the original text with their English equivalents enables readers to build a Reformed theological vocabulary in a way that furnishes them with vital vocabulary and its meaning and function in seventeenth-century theology. The footnotes added by the editors are helpful as well, since they provide historical background related to the authors cited, they explain the historical context at key points, and they include comparisons to contemporary authors across confessional lines. This increases the value of the translated text by making it serve as an introduction to early seventeenth-century High Orthodox theology.
One useful feature of the Synopsis is the consistent application of trinitarian theology to the entire theological system. The authors appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity and to the appropriate works of all three divine persons in relation to each locus treated. Doing so was a standard feature of Reformed orthodox systems of theology that gradually disappeared in later times. This fact provides insight into the robust way that Reformed orthodox authors employed trinitarian theology in relation to the entire system of doctrine, which should offset the common criticism Reformed theology treated the Trinity merely as an appendix to the doctrine of God.
As I noted in relation to the first volume, this work does not include a full treatment of every relevant scholastic question in relation to each locus. Its authors often included less material than the much shorter and slightly earlier, Compendium of Wollebius, as well in comparison to longer and later works, such as the Institutio of Francis Turretin. Questions that other authors addressed at length with extensive proofs and arguments, the Synopsis sometimes stated in a single sentence. However, the subjects treated by its authors clarify many important theological distinctions by providing clear definitions of terms and their use in Reformed thought. This means that while the Synopsis is somewhat incomplete compared to comparable Reformed systems, it nevertheless introduces readers to many key concepts in the context of the early seventeenth-century.
In spite of the cost of these volumes, this ongoing translation has potential to serve a diverse body of students. It will be invaluable to scholars of Reformed orthodox thought. Those familiar with the Latin language can use this publication to gain access to a carefully developed semi-critical text. The translated text will provoke thought and fruitful research as scholars interact with the Latin original. This work can serve Reformed pastors as well. The fact that many Reformed ministers no longer gain proficiency in the Latin language in their theological training means that they are effectively cut off from most of the classic systems of theology in their own theological tradition. It is important to understand how this system developed historically if ministers hope to understand where expressions in historic Reformed creeds came from and what they mean. Such material is also vital for evaluating continuities and discontinuities between classic and modern Reformed thought. This provides readers with more theological options to draw from as they grapple with interpreting Scripture in conversation with the church. For both of these audiences, these volumes are a welcome addition to Reformed literature in the English-speaking world for those who are willing and able to obtain and read them.