In an earlier chapter we talked about one of the great theologians in the Netherlands during and shortly after the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-’19. His name was, as our readers will recall, Gijsbert Voetius.
We mentioned the fact that Voetius engaged in a very bitter quarrel with Johannes Cocceius, a quarrel that continued beyond their lives and nearly tore apart the Dutch Reformed Churches.
Now we want to talk a bit about that quarrel.
Early Life and Education
Cocceius was not even born in the Netherlands, but in Germany. It was probably for this reason that he never felt quite at home among the Dutchmen, although he spent a large part of his adult life with them. He was born in Bremen, Germany on either August 9, 1603 or July 30 of the same year. The records contain both dates.
He was the son of the municipal secretary in Bremen, Timann Coch. When he finally Latinized his name, as so many did in those days, he did not change it much. Johannes had one brother, and from their early youth they were together known as “Cocceii,” or, as we would say, “the Cochs.” So all Johannes did was change this Latin plural into a singular and come up with Cocceius (Pronounced: coc-say’-us).
Bremen, though a part of Germany, was solidly in the Reformed camp. In fact, it had sent delegates to the Synod of Dort, although the delegates from Bremen were known by all at the Synod as being the weakest in their convictions and the most sympathetic to the Arminians.
The Coch family was an ancient and honorable family that had a tradition of service to church and state, many of Coch’s ancestors holding high political and ecclesiastical offices.
Coch’s upbringing was very strict in moral and religious matters. The lessons he learned apparently made a great impression on him. Later in life he began an autobiography which he never finished, but in which he tells us of two incidents from his childhood which illustrated the point.
On one occasion, he was chastised at school for some boyish falsehood; he tells us that after that incident he despised lying so completely that he gained such a reputation for truthfulness that no oath was ever required of him. At another time he used God’s name irreverently at mealtime. His father hit him on the mouth with a spoon, and he never again took God’s name in vain.
From the early days of his education he showed a remarkable ability to learn and a special aptitude for languages. Although he studied theology, he also so completely mastered Greek that he could read widely in Greek literature for pure enjoyment though he was only a lad. Fascinated by ancient languages, he learned Hebrew, Chaldee, and Arabic, mostly on his own. While still a student he wrote a Greek oration on the religion of the Turks and read the Koran in preparation for it.
In 1625 at 22 years of age, Cocceius went to Hamburg in Germany for Greek and Rabbinic studies under learned Jews. But he was most unhappy with university life in Germany, chiefly, as he tells us, because of the dissolute life of the students.
In 1629 he left Germany and went to the University of Franeker in the Netherlands. Here he studied under Maccovius and William Ames, two men of whom we wrote earlier. He also studied under a man by the name of Sixtinus Amana, a world-renowned Orientalist. Under him the object of his studies was especially the Jewish Talmud.
The learning of many of these Dutch theologians is quite astounding. They devoted their lives entirely to studies and the discipline of learning. They were highly educated and masters in their field beyond most in our day.
His Academic Life
From Cocceius’ 27th year his life was completed devoted to teaching.
His first teaching post was back in his native city of Bremen, where he was professor of Biblical Theology and Philosophy for about six years. But the Netherlands soon beckoned him, and he returned to Franeker, where he taught Hebrew and Theology. He stayed in Franeker for 14 years, after which he moved to Leyden. In Leyden, after serving the churches in that University for several years, he died at the age of 66 on November 4, 1669, at the height of his powers. He was suddenly struck by a fever, and after only 19 days of illness he departed this life to be with God.
Cocceius spent all his life in academia and never knew the hurly-burly of the life of the pastorate with its incessant demands, crowded schedules, and bitter struggles in the forward trenches of the spiritual warfare of the church. But in the sheltered life of academia he drove himself relentlessly and produced an abundance of work which was to be of benefit to the church in subsequent years.
Cocceius was of the old German Pietistic tradition and reflected that tradition in his life. He was not only himself a godly and pious man, acknowledged by all to be such, but he also gave a practical and experiential bent to all his writings.
He did extensive work in the field of Biblical interpretation and developed such important principles as: the organic unity of sacred Scripture; interpretation of Scripture according to the analogy of faith; the importance of interpreting Scripture’s passages in the light of their context; and the relation between the Old and New Testaments expressed in the rhyme: “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”
His piety manifested itself also in his insistence that the interpreter of Scripture must be a man who never imposes his own ideas on God’s Word, but is willing, in a spirit of meekness and humility, to bow before the Scriptures.
His studies of Scripture ranged over the whole of the Bible, and he wrote commentaries on almost all the books. One biographer speaks of his exegetical abilities, in an unforgettable phrase, as being of “penetrating insight and robust judgment.”
The greatest contribution of Cocceius lies, however, in his work on God’s covenant. Although much had been written on covenant theology prior to his lifetime, nevertheless, his contributions are so respected that he is sometimes called the father of covenant theology.
In 1995 I had opportunity to hear a professor from the Netherlands, an expert in the theology of Cocceius, speak on this aspect of Cocceius’ work. This professor, without being aware apparently of our own Protestant Reformed position on the covenant, made clear that though Cocceius never completely escaped from the idea of the covenant as a pact or agreement, he nevertheless spoke of it as primarily a bond of fellowship. For that reason alone we owe him a debt of gratitude.
Nevertheless, in spite of all his accomplishments, Cocceius will be mostly remembered for his bitter quarrel with Voetius; and we now turn to that quarrel.
Strangely enough, the controversy centered in the question of Sabbath observance. Cocceius was charged with being weak on the question of the Sabbath. This was surprising if we consider that Cocceius was a godly and pious man and probably observed the Sabbath scrupulously. But the difficulty was in his theology, not in his practice. Cocceius taught that the Sabbath was Jewish, a part of Jewish law, abolished with the coming of Christ, and without any force in the new dispensation. He was not opposed to Sabbath observance and the worship of God on the Sabbath, but he claimed it was a matter of expediency, not principle. For this he was charged with Antinomianism, i.e., with denying that the law of God was valid for saints in the new dispensation as well as the old.
But a story lay behind this position which Cocceius took. And some description of that story will be interesting to our readers.
Up to the time of Cocceius, the theologians in Europe and in the Netherlands were systematic theologians. That is, they worked hard to arrange all the doctrines of Scripture in a system of doctrine in which all the relationships between various doctrines were set forth clearly. They did work much like the Reformed Dogmatics of Herman Hoeksema.
In the systematizing of doctrine, however, some theologians were guilty of some exaggerations of this method. Instead of searching the Scriptures and working at careful exegesis so that the doctrines of the Reformed faith could be developed and enriched, they were content to systematize, to analyze what was already known, to pick apart and dissect by means of endless distinctions, and to raise objections against doctrines only then to show the error of the objections.
While this description is probably an exaggeration, the danger was indeed that doctrines became cold and sterile and lacked the warmth and passion of confession and life. And, when texts were referred to, it was often by way of mere “proof-texting”; i.e., without any solid exegesis, texts were simply used to “prove” points.
Cocceius objected to this kind of work in theology and wanted something more warm, experiential, personal, practical. And he wanted to attain this by way of exegesis. He was concerned that the proof-texting that was often used did not do justice to the historical development of God’s revelation in the four centuries of the Old Testament time of shadows, which development culminated in Christ. For example, theologians would quote a text from the time of Abraham without taking into account that God’s revelation then was not as full as in later Old Testament times and in the new dispensation. Cocceius wanted exegesis to be honest with the text in the sense that it was explained as it was meant in the time the revelation was given to God’s people.
To accomplish this end Cocceius did not write a “Systematic Theology” but a “Biblical Theology.” That is, he started at Genesis 1:1 and worked his way through the Bible from beginning to end in such a way that his theology followed the order of biblical books.
Some of his objections to the theology that was written at that time certainly were valid. But Cocceius did not really solve any problems. Such a method of working at theology as Cocceius employed, though still practiced today by some and though used in some seminaries, has serious weaknesses. We cannot go into all of them here, but, for one thing, such a method of doing things loses the unity of the truth. Systematic theology shows how all the truth is one because God is one and the truth is of God. Biblical theology does not do that.
But, more seriously, such a way of doing things really divides the Old Testament from the New and makes a separation between the two. This is what Cocceius did. And, especially when he was busy developing the doctrine of the covenant in the way he did, he made such separation between the two dispensations that he became a dispensationalist of sorts. And because he was a dispensationalist of sorts, he denied the validity of the Sabbath for New Testament times.
The quarrel was prolonged and bitter and did not end with the death of Cocceius and Voetius. In fact, after their death it only increased in intensity and became, at last, so bitter that it nearly tore the church apart. At times, if Cocceians were in the majority in a University, all the Voetians were expelled. And if Voetians gained control, Cocceians were driven out. It got so bad that the government forced the universities to appoint an equal number from the Voetian and Cocceian parties as professors in the schools.
Perhaps the most serious of all, the real weak spot in Cocceian theology, but something which flowed directly from Cocceius’ position, was Cocceius’ teaching that the justification of the Old Testament saints was imperfect, for it was by way of promise, administered through the sacrifices, and was not the perfect justification of the new dispensational saints.
The controversy actually died out of itself after many years. And it only died out because, for one thing, the combatants wearied of the battle, and for another thing, the church became so liberal that it didn’t really care any more for such problems.
But the question is still on the agenda of the church, though mostly fought out in seminaries. We may be thankful that our churches, under the leadership of our spiritual fathers, have a systematic theology given to us as our heritage which does justice to exegesis in both Testaments, and which is warm and vibrant. And the warmth and vibrancy of our theology is surely due to the place which the doctrine of the covenant holds among us, a doctrine which was developed so fully by Herman Hoeksema, but which came, in part, from Johannes Cocceius.
What do YOU think ?