Book Review: Spinoza & Dutch Cartesianism: Philosophy and Theology

9780198732501_450Douglas, Alexander X. Spinoza & Dutch Cartesianism: Philosophy and Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. VIII + 184 pages.

Recent decades have seen a considerable resurgence of interest in Spinoza’s philosophy and its role in what is nowadays called the “Early Dutch Enlightenment”. In their analysis of Spinoza’s thought a number of scholars (Wiep van Bunge, Jonathan Israel, Theo Verbeek and others) have given fresh attention to the philosopher’s intellectual environment in the seventeenth-century Dutch republic. The present book by Alexander Douglas (lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, London) follows in the footsteps of this historical contextual approach by asserting that Spinoza’s philosophy should be read primarily as a rebuttal of the “separation thesis” advocated by his Dutch Cartesian contemporaries.  According to this thesis, philosophy and theology must be kept separate as they “belong to completely independent domains of knowledge.” (4) It was this approach, Douglas argues, that Spinoza sought to refute in all of his writings starting with his Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and ending with his magnum opus, the Ethics.

In the first chapter on the so-called “Utrecht Crisis”, Douglas sketches the debate that (to his mind) is crucial when it comes to understanding the development of the Cartesian “separation thesis.” Because of their adherence to Descartes’s mechanistic theory of nature, Dutch Cartesians like Henricus Regius (1598-1679) had to defend themselves against the sharp criticism voiced by traditional Scholastics like Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). This criticism was aimed mainly at the Cartesian denial of substantial forms. By rejecting this crucial concept, Voetius and his followers feared, Cartesian natural philosophy could no longer account for the revelation of God’s goodness and generosity in nature.

It was in reaction to these charges of impiety (so Douglas’s argument in chapter two goes), that the Cartesians developed their “separation thesis” arguing that philosophy is concerned with a completely different category of knowledge (theoretical knowledge of the intrinsic nature of things) than the other academic disciplines like theology, law, and medicine (practical knowledge based on ‘common experience’). Here, Douglas pays close attention to the work of the prominent Dutch Cartesian Johannes de Raey (1622-1702). De Raey’s position according to Douglas “emerged as the most consistent and thoroughgoing version of the Dutch Cartesian separation idea.” (51) Yet, Douglas goes on to explain, this separation idea did not sufficiently address the question of the proper place of metaphysics, which traditionally was an area of overlap between theology and philosophy.

In his third chapter, Douglas sets out to show how Dutch Cartesians dealt with this difficulty and how Spinoza posed a significant challenge to them. The dominant approach taken by De Raey was to ignore metaphysics altogether. Spinoza, in sharp contrast dared to develop a metaphysical theory drawing on Descartes work, thereby undermining the Dutch Cartesian attempt of keeping theology and philosophy separate. Moreover, Spinoza’s ‘Cartesian metaphysics’ also moved into a strongly heterodox direction. Taking up Descartes’s notion of God as causa sui Spinoza developed a thoroughly necessitarian worldview, which he defended by using a version of the Dutch Cartesian ‘accommodation theory’ in scriptural interpretation.

In fact, as Douglas argues in his fourth chapter, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was written in order “to show that Spinoza’s philosophy, which included a great deal of speculative theology, was at no risk of contradicting Scripture and faith.” (91) This Spinoza did by pointing out (against Wittich and others) that Scripture did not contain any mysteries of faith, but rather could be understood by every common man endowed with sane reason. Moreover, he maintained that the Bible is not concerned with knowledge at all, not even with the knowledge of the alleged ‘tenets of faith’ necessary for salvation, but rather aims at practical piety only.

Spinoza’s most elaborate rejection of the “separation thesis”, Douglas argues in chapter five, is to be found in his Ethics and more particularly in his ‘Idea of God’ (Deus sive natura) as well as in his rejection of the distinction between will and intellect. Both of these issues evoked criticism among Dutch Cartesians. Douglas focuses on the critique found in Wittich’s Anti-Spinoza but finds it wanting. Wittich misunderstood Spinoza’s method and failed to provide a convincing argument defending the Dutch Cartesian distinction between intellect and will.

In the epilogue to this book, Douglas treats the empiricism that emerged towards the end of the seventeenth century. Contrary to Spinoza’s philosophy and Dutch Cartesianism it did not rely on innate ideas and could therefore be seen as a more fundamental and hence more effective antidote to Spinozism. Yet, as Douglas goes on to argue, Newton and his followers admitted that new empirical evidence could overturn present theories. Thus, at least implicitly, they allowed for the possibility that Spinozist ideas could ultimately be vindicated by new discoveries.


This book is a very interesting study on the relationship between philosophy and theology in Dutch Cartesianism and in Spinoza. Douglas makes a good case that this issue lay at the very heart of Spinoza’s philosophical endeavor. Moreover, this book can be commended for is clear structure and its lucid style. Anyone interested in this topic will certainly profit from reading this concise work.

Yet, there are also questions that could be asked and some points of criticism. First of all, one wonders, if De Raey’s conception of the relationship between theology and philosophy is representative of the Dutch Cartesian movement. To be sure, Douglas does mention other Dutch Cartesians (Wittich, Van Velthuysen et al.), but he seems to rely mainly on De Raey’s work. While there can be no doubt about the Dutch Cartesian insistence on separating philosophy and theology, there seems to be a certain variety when it comes to the way in which this separation was argued for. According to Douglas, Dutch Cartesian natural theology is ruled out by the “separation idea”. But how is it then possible, that beginning already in the 1650s prominent Cartesians like Clauberg, Wittich, and Röell published books that can only be classified as natural theologies? Moreover, De Raey’s “separation idea” is clearly at variance with that of the prominent ‘Cartesio-Cocceian’ like Johannes Braun (1628-1708), who did not confine the Cartesian truth-criterion of clear and distinct perception to philosophical matters, but also applied it to theological knowledge.

Another point of criticism concerns the terminology being used by Douglas. At a number of occasions, he applies the label “traditionalists” to those theologians belonging to the anti-Cartesian fraction among Dutch academics. This is problematic, because “traditionalist” is a pejorative term that implies a value judgment on the part of the author. Moreover, as Douglas (following Han van Ruler) readily admits, Voetius did not reject Cartesianism simply because he hated new ideas, but rather because “he had a philosophical system, which he believed, not without justification, to be more rationally defensible than that of the Cartesians.” (23)

Finally, a note about Douglas’ remarks concerning the nature of Cocceianism is in order. On page 112, he writes: “Cocceian theology is based around the idea of a kind of legal relationship existing between God and humans.” Here, he probably hints at the prominence of the covenant concept in Cocceian theology. In fact, some scholars (like J.B. Torrance) have argued that Cocceius’ notion of the covenant is strongly indebted to seventeenth century legal thought. However, more recent scholarship (M. Beach, R. A. Muller et al.) suggests that this assertion is rather questionable. Moreover, it can easily be argued that western Christianity in the Augustinian tradition has always made use of legal concepts and terminology in order to describe the divine-human relationship. It is not a unique characteristic of Cocceianism.

Book Review: Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland (Part 2)

[This is the second installment of a three-part book review. For the first part, click here.]

Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology 1560-1775, edited by Aaron Clay Denlinger. London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015. 304 pages.

9780567351418The section on High Orthodoxy is opened by two chapters on the well-known Scottish Scholastic theologian Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600-1661). The first one is written by Simon J.G. Burton (PhD, University of Edinburgh; Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Artes Liberales at the University of Warsaw, Poland) and deals with Rutherford’s moral theology. First, Burton sets forth the historical context in which Rutherford developed his own moral theory, namely the discussions surrounding John Cameron’s intellectualist approach and the more voluntarist adaption of Cameron’s view in one of his students. Then, he describes Rutherford’s view pointing out the impact late-medieval Scholastic discussions (Scotus, Durandus, Bradwardine etc.) had on the development of his rather unique perspective. According to Burton, Rutherford’s moral theology ties in with the “Scotist and voluntarist” stream in Reformed Orthodoxy (Twisse, Voetius etc.). Whoever is interested in the impact of late-medieval thought on Protestant Scholastic moral theory will profit from this fascinating piece of historico-theological scholarship.

Chapter eight is the second contribution dealing with Rutherford. Aza Goudriaan (PhD, University of Leiden; Associate Professor of Church History at VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands) analyses Rutherford’s Metaphysical Investigations (q. 1-7) with a view to ascertaining the Scotsman’s view on possibilities and impossibilities. Similar to Burton, Goudriaan does not content himself with merely describing Rutherford’s position. He also seeks to determine the historical context to the debate, the medieval background, and the reception history of Rutherford’s metaphysical thought. Goudriaan shows that Rutherford follows Bradwardine in arguing that possibility and impossibility are not founded in things themselves but rather in the omnipotence of God. This assertion Rutherford directs specifically against contemporaneous Jesuit theologians who argued for a root possibility / impossibility in the things themselves.

The ninth chapter by Guy M. Richard (PhD, University of Edinburgh) aims at discerning the role of the “Song of Songs” in Scottish Reformed Orthodoxy in comparison with its role in early modern Europe more generally. Having described the pivotal role of this biblical book for the development of ‘Reformed Spirituality’ and its use in the various debates between Protestant groups in England, Richard briefly outlines James Durham’s (1622-1658) approach to the Song of Songs in his commentary entitled Clavis Cantici (posthumously published in 1668). the final and major section of the article consists in a portrayal of the religious struggles in early modern Scotland. In this section, Richard argues that Scottish Puritan divines (like Rutherford and Durham) detected a double threat to the cause of the Reformation in their times. Both Arminianism and Laudian Episcopalianism were perceived as dangerous developments ultimately leading (back) to Roman-Catholicism. In their combat for the heart of the Scottish people, Richard argues, Scottish Puritans deliberately used the graphic allegory of the Song of Songs in order to convey the Protestant understanding of a vital, heartfelt faith. Richard’s contribution provides a good insight into the historical context of Scottish Puritanism and its struggle to safeguard the reformation. The overall argument concerning the role of Durham’s Clavis Cantici, however, could have been (significantly) improved by showing from the text of the Clavis itself, that this commentary was in fact intended to uphold the Reformation against its various enemies.

In Chapter ten Albert Gootjes (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary), sets out to demonstrate that the Scottish theologian John Cameron (c. 1579–1625) exerted a formative influence on French Protestant theology in the seventeenth century, particularly with respect to his view on the role of the intellect in conversion. Cameron’s view implies that in conversion God does not act directly on the human will (the traditional Reformed view), but rather mediately through the (renewed) intellect. This intellectualist approach to conversion proved to be very influential as is evident from the “Pajonist controversy” in the 1660s and 1670s, in which Cameron was regularly cited as a first rank authority on the matter. While this is an interesting piece on French Protestantism, one wonders if it really fits in this volume dedicated to Scottish Reformed Orthodoxy. To be sure, Cameron was a Scotsman by origin and he received his initial training at the University of Glasgow. But these facts in themselves do not justify the bold claim that “[f]or the historian of early modern Reformed theology in France […] all roads lead to Scotland.” (190) Could it not be, that Cameron developed his influential and controversial views first during the time he studied at Geneva and Heidelberg (1604-08)?

The final essay pertaining to High Orthodoxy consists in a comparison of the doctrine of justification in John Calvin and John Brown of Wamphray (c. 1610-1679) conducted by Joel R. Beeke (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary; President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, USA). Beeke begins with an outline of Calvin’s view by means of ten principles drawn mainly from his institutes. In a second step, these very same principles are employed in order to ascertain the extent of agreement between Calvin and Brown. In his conclusion, Beeke notes that “there is a remarkable continuity of message between the two men” (209) despite the significant difference with respect to their historical context and theological method. No doubt, this essay adds grist to the mill of those who follow the ‘new school approach’ arguing for a substantial continuity between Calvin and the ‘Calvinists’. Yet, critical questions can and must be raised. Does not the choice of media comparationis (i.e. the ten principles taken from Calvin) to some extent predetermine the result of the comparison? How does Beeke avoid reading Brown through the lens of Calvin? Moreover, one wonders, why there is no interaction with Hans Emil Weber’s famous and still quite influential thesis according to which Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the forensic nature of justification is fundamentally at odds with the organic understanding in the magisterial Reformers. In a sense, this is illustrative of a weakness in some of the more recent contributions from the ‘new school’ approach to Reformed Orthodoxy. Some scholars all too easily dismiss the considerable body of literature adhering to the ‘old school’ perspective (like Weber’s three volume work Reformation, Orthodoxie und Rationalismus, 1937-1951 without careful interaction with its arguments. This is, in my opinion, much to the detriment of ‘new school’ scholarship.

[This is the second part of a three-part series. Next week I will post the final part of this review dealing with section three on Late Orthodoxy. This final part will also include my overall assessment of the book.]