Beginning with Scripture, Ending with Worship: An Analysis of Petrus van Mastricht’s Polemic against Balthasar Bekker

“And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us…”—so penned Luther in his famous hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. But on what epistemological basis could Luther (and the whole Christian church for that matter) affirm the existence of devils and spirits in this world? Was it rational to believe that spirits could interact with material bodies so that they could even be deemed a real threat to undo the church? The claim of the existence of the supernatural and the working of the supernatural upon the natural world, including men, was not a self-given, nor a datum of sense experience, but ultimately founded upon the simple teaching of Scripture. There, in the revelation of the triune God, the real struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness is made known, in which heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material, angels and men are shown to be in a dynamic relationship with one another, all according to the wisdom and providence of God.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as submission to God’s revelation in Scripture was replaced with the autonomy of man (whether in the form of rationalism or empiricism, as happened with the Enlightenment), the reality of Satan, spirits, and the supernatural would be, at first, doubted and, eventually, rejected in favor of either a dualistic or purely naturalistic conception of reality. This occurred not only in the realm of secular philosophy, but unfortunately also within the church as Cartesian philosophy began to infiltrate and theologians attempted to synthesize it with their theological systems.

One such figure within the church, Balthasar Bekker (1634–1698), a Dutch Reformed preacher, came under the “spell” of the new philosophy dominating the age and so deemed it his life mission to “disenchant the world.” And he pursued this in the most dangerous fashion: under the guise of Reformed language and concepts. He received heavy opposition, however, from those within the Reformed church who saw behind his façade, most notably from Petrus van Mastricht (1630–1706). Mastricht responded to Bekker’s internationally influential work, Betoverde Weereld (The World Bewitched), in a treatise presented to Classis Amsterdam, entitled, Ad Verum Clariss. D. Balthasaren Beckerum, S. S. Theol. Doct. Epanorthosis gratulatoria.[1] Mastricht recognized that Bekker’s teaching ultimately compromised the basic Reformed principle of the authority of Scripture by subordinating it to an alien philosophy.

Yet, there was more than just the relationship of Scripture and philosophy at the (pastoral) heart of Mastricht’s polemic against Bekker. Mastricht also perceived that by not beginning with Scripture as his principium cognoscendi, Bekker had removed the only foundation for true religion, which prohibited him entirely from building a practical superstructure of doxology and worship. In other words, Mastricht’s polemic against Bekker included the fact that by not beginning with Scripture, his theology did not and could not end with worship. Thus, it was not merely a matter of whose principium was correct, but who worshiped the one true God in spirit and truth. The teleological end (worship) of doctrine and theology was directly dependent upon its protological beginning (Scripture) in the mind of Mastricht.

Herein we are given a view into the wedding of doctrine and life, theology and piety in the Post-Reformation Reformed thought of Mastricht, which recent scholarship has been beginning to notice in this time period in general. Mastricht does not formulate his doctrine in a rigid, cold way, but in correlation with the exegesis of Scripture and a deep concern for right praxis, a true living to God.

This article will first place Mastricht’s work within its historical context, with special attention given to Balthasar Bekker and his controversial four-volume work, Betoverde Weereld. It will then proceed to consider the main arguments of Mastricht’s treatise, noting his fourfold approach that incorporates exegesis, doctrine, elenctics, and praxis.

1. Philosophical Context in General: Cartesianism and Spinozism

Cartesianism in the Netherlands

Descartes moved to the Netherlands in 1628 since he realized that the intellectual atmosphere in Paris was not conducive or tolerant of his new ideas. As a result, his rationalism would come to be a mighty force in the Netherlands that the Reformed church would have to reckon with. In these early stages, Voetius would fend off the influence of Descartes on the Dutch Reformed church from his academic post at Utrecht, always with an eye on the well-being of the church.[20]

Cartesianism, however, would develop in a much more variegated way than any kind of strict allegiance to Descartes—resulting in a true Descartes vs. the Cartesians. While it goes beyond the scope of this paper to trace out these differences, it can be noted that “the Dutch Cartesians shared a common viewpoint, a common openness to the New Science, and a common hostility to the Voetian Counter-Reformation.”[21] McGahagan goes on to describe the philosophical climate as follows:

Both early and later Cartesians were also equally insistent on the separation of philosophy and religion. Even the alliance of later Cartesianism with Cocceianism rested on the fact that Cocceianism seemed to offer a theological legitimation of this separation. This separation was not derived from Descartes, who indeed distinguished philosophy from theology, but who also grounded the possibility of an a priori physics in the doctrine of God’s free creation of eternal truths. Rather, the Dutch Cartesian separation of faith and reason can only be understood in the context of their opposition to the Voetian Counter-Reformation.[22]

This would no less be the case with regard to Mastricht’s contention with Bekker in his consideration of the relationship of Scripture and philosophy as well as the proper use of reason as a handmaiden of theology.

Spirits and Spinozism

Jonathan Israel observes, “During the last third of the seventeenth century, the scene was set for a vast triangular contest in Europe between intellectual conservatives, moderates, and radicals overthe status of the supernatural in human life and the reality of the Devil, demons, spirits, and magic.”[23] It was Naude and Hobbes who led the charge in “injecting a measure of scepticism about diabolical power and the reality of spirits.”[24] This eventually led to a full-force campaign that sought to extinguish belief in Satan, spirits and supernatural forces altogether “in complete defiance of received ideas.”[25] This is the expected result when a revelatory epistemology is replaced with a Cartesian rationalism and thorough going philosophical Naturalism that attributes an autonomous existence to the mind of man. Accordingly, nothing beyond man’s rational capacities or immediate sense experiences can be permitted to have any real existence—a case of whatever my net cannot catch, is not fish. Israel notes that this philosophical move was not irreligious, but “part of a broader conceptual attack on authority, tradition, and Revelation.”[26] He continues,

The new philosophy, however, could not totally repudiate the existence of the supernatural. While the Scientific Revolution, the rise of the mechanical world-view, and Lockean empiricism all helped erode the foundations on which older notions about magic, wonder-working, and the supernatural rested, neither Cartesianism with its dichotomy of substances, nor Locke’s epistemology, nor any mainstream trend of the Early Enlightenment provided a rationale for total repudiation of belief in spirits and magic.[27]

The debate over the supernatural was the surface level concern of a deeper and more foundational issue regarding the epistemological significance (or insignificance) of God’s revelation in Scripture. Was Scripture, which spoke of spirits and Satan, authoritative? Or must Scripture submit to the scientific advancements of man and the natural limitations of his mind? The goal of the Reformed and traditional proponents was not to maintain the supernatural for the supernatural’s sake, but to maintain the worldview of Scripture in submission to the Creator of all things. Furthermore, as we will see in Mastricht’s polemic against Bekker, this debate over the supernatural had direct bearing upon man’s knowledge of God and the proper worship and enjoyment of him—the supremely practical concern that wedded doctrine and piety, theology and life in Mastricht’s polemic.

Spinoza was one of the strongest protagonists of the campaign against diabolical power and magic. He argued against the existence of devils and spirits in his Korte Verhandeling and was pronounced by Bayle to be the pre-eminent modern adversary of credence in spirits and the supernatural. Bekker was primarily accused of Spinozism by Reformed theologians, most notably Jacobus Koelman,[28] and was specifically criticized for his utilization of a hermeneutic that approximated Spinoza’s, especially with respect to the doctrine of accommodation,[29] and his similar position to Spinoza on the activities of spirits.[30]

Bekker, however, criticized Spinoza outright, though his opponents, such as Koelman, objected that this was not genuine but only a guise to cover his heretical ideas.[31] Bekker accused Spinoza of “violating the Dutch Cartesian principle of the separation of religion from philosophy by making philosophy the ‘master of things of belief.’”[32] In addition, he called Spinoza’s philosophy “absurd” and listed as his chief “errors” the following ideas:

1) That there is not substance, that is, independent entity, outside God; and that creatures are but modes, that is ways of God’s existence. 2) That this one substance has two essential characteristics: extension and thought. And there are infinite others that we do not know about. 3) That all depends on an infinite number of causes, following each other in an infinite order and in infinite ways. 4) That no thing or deed is in itself good or bad. 5) That the Holy Scripture was not originally from God and that the holy writers erred in much. 6) That miracles are caused by and can be explained by natural causes.[33]

Andrew Fix, in his evaluation of Bekker’s relation to Spinoza, notes that “although he did not go as far as Spinoza, he did use Spinoza’s exegetical methods for his own attack on spirit belief.”[34] Similarly Jonathan Israel notes, “Spinoza’s influence … clearly underlies Bekker’s claims that philosophical reason is the only valid criterion when investigating ‘natural things,’ and that Scripture is not intended to teach truly about worldly phenomena, but provides explanations adapted to the understanding of ordinary folks so as to help instill obedience to God’s commandments.”[35] The basic issue here is that by utilizing Spinoza’s methodology, which was essentially non-Christian, Bekker’s system itself could not be considered Christian, even if it utilized Christian, even Reformed, language and concepts, as it trended toward skepticism and atheism.

2. Theological Context

Locating Mastricht within Post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy

According to the periods proposed by Richard Muller, Mastricht is located within the era of high orthodoxy (ca. 1640–1685–1725). Muller notes that now the “architectonic clarity of early orthodoxy is replaced to a certain extent or at least put to the service of a more broadly developed and even discursive system.”[36] There is an expansion of polemical argumentation and the creative phase of early orthodoxy gives way to a phase of elaboration, refinement, and modification, which is evident in such prominent theologians as Voetius, Turretin, and Mastricht. Muller goes on to describe the posture towards philosophy during this time:

Among the major transitions that took place as Reformed theology passed from early orthodoxy into the high orthodox era was the transition from a philosophical development focused on the reception, assessment, and critical appropriation of the various trajectories of Christian Aristotelianism and of the late Renaissance developments … to the encounter of these older, highly nuanced approach with the new rationalists of the seventeenth century. … [T]he high orthodox, ca. 1640, were beginning to feel the impact of Cartesian thought. Just as the early orthodox era manifests not a monolithic appropriation of the older Aristotelian philosophies, but the reception of elements of various trajectories, so does the high orthodox era manifest varied receptions of the newer rationalism among the Reformed, and, indeed, the continuance of themes and issues from the older trajectories, now modified and altered by the changed philosophical context. Specifically, elements of the older Thomism, Scotism, and nominalism can still be detected as mediated through and modified by philosophical currents in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—and elements of Cartesian thought and its modifications can also be found both debated and appropriated by various individual Reformed thinkers.[37]

Theological Context in General: Reformed Opponents Embracing Cartesianism

The negative influence of Cartesian rationalism was felt by Reformed theologians on numerous fronts. Old enemies were embracing Cartesian thought, which augmented Reformed skepticism toward and rejection of the new philosophy.

For one, the Remonstrants—with whom the Reformed already had to contend with, culminating in the pronouncements against them at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619)—continued to veer further and further away from Reformed theology as it embraced Cartesian thought. Muller observes, “[T]he Remonstrant theology posed a major threat to the Reformed and called forth new argumentation, since it was, in its beginning, an offshoot of the Reformed system and, in its development, a highly rationalistic structure allied with Cartesian and eventually with Lockean thought.”[38]

Likewise the Socinians more and more embraced the rationalism of Cartesianism that was dominating the age:

The increasingly rationalistic biblicism of the Socinian movement in its seventeenth-century forms posed an even more intense problem for the Reformed orthodox. … [T]he Socinians opposed the balance of revelation and reason advocated by the Reformed and claimed a fundamental biblical basis for their doctrine and repudiated natural theology—at the same time that they argued against the simplicity and infinity of God, denied the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, and proposed an alternative view of the work of Christ. From the Reformed perspective, all of these doctrines appeared to be at the same time the result of a new rationalism and a radically deviant exegesis.[39]

While not as radical as the Remonstrants or the Socinians, Cocceians were also embracing Cartesian philosophy to greater or lesser degrees:

Cocceius himself did not take part in the controversy over Cartesianism—he did not advocate any particular philosophy as a basis for or intellectual partner with theology, but maintained a somewhat eclectic attitude, viewing all philosophy, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, Ramist or Cartesian, as at best a handmaid to theology.[40]

Cocceius’ associate, Heidanus, however, “overtly approved of Cartesian philosophy. … His definition of God as ‘an uncreated, independent, thinking substance’ is clearly Cartesian, as is his discussion of the body and soul in man in terms of thought and extension.”[41] Bekker himself writes concerning Cocceius’ separation of the natural and supernatural: “He held the same course as Descartes, although he sailed in another fairway: wishing all prejudices abolished, and supernatural knowledge sought from Scripture alone; just as the other built natural science exclusively on nature and sound reason.”[42]

It should be noted that the Reformed, and particularly Voetius and Mastricht, did not reject Cartesianism simply because its enemies embraced it—as if a friend of my enemy is by necessity my enemy too. Rather, the differing responses to Cartesianism simply manifested previous points of contention between these theological parties. It was the most basic and fundamental Reformed principle of Scripture as authoritative and the sole principium cognoscendi, which neither the Remonstrants nor Socinians consistently embraced in the formulation of their own theological systems, that raised Reformed suspicion against the new philosophy. In other words, this issue only brought to light earlier principial commitments that had surfaced before with respect to other theological loci, but now having an acute bearing on their prolegomena. These theological camps were, therefore, forced to show their cards as to the foundation upon which their systems were built. This is the bottom-line reason for the contention of Mastricht and other Dutch Reformed theologians against the new philosophy of Descartes, Spinoza, and their followers, including Bekker.

3. Balthasar Bekker

His Life and Work in General

Jonathan Israel echoes Luis Antonio Verney as to the four strongest protagonists against diabolical power and magic of the seventeenth century: Anthonie Van Dale, Fontenelle, Christian Thomasius, and Balthasar Bekker.[43] “Of the four, moreover, it was unquestionably Bekker who raised the greatest storm and became the prime focus of controversy.”[44] Israel deems him as “indisputably one of the foremost figures of the European Early Enlightenment.”[45]

The severity of this danger was exponentially increased by the fact that Bekker worked under the guise of a Reformed preached and true Christian. Bekker believed that the new philosophy could provide positive support for Reformed theology.[46]This meant that his teaching was not explicitly anti-Christian, yet it was undermining the true faith and led down the path of atheism and skepticism, as Koelman, Mastricht and others would point out. He was ultimately declared an agent of Spinozism and ‘atheism,’ and lumped in with the other novelty theologies that deviated from orthodox belief.[47]

Bekker began his studies at Groningen in the early 1650s when the conflict between Cartesianism and anti-Cartesianism first began to shake the university. Israel notes that Bekker desired to be seen by others as a cutting-edge intellectual, which made Cartesianism very attractive for him. He would soon become a fervent Cartesian, even while he began his career as a preacher in the Reformed church.[48] However, he encountered heavy opposition from his ecclesiastical colleagues in Friesland and so transferred to a rural church in Holland in 1674. During this time he recounts a long discussion that he had with Spinoza. “This encounter,” writes Israel, “reflected no liking for Spinoza’s philosophy but rather intellectual commitment and a desire to be at the forefront.”[49] Though as we noted earlier, while Bekker formally rejected the influence of Spinoza on his own thought, this was more of a façade.

In 1679 he moved to Amsterdam and began his campaign against the empire of Satan, which would be the defining project of the rest of his life. There he jumped into the controversy over whether comets could be supernatural portents, which he, of course, rejected. Bekker distinguished himself as one eager to “accommodate to theology the latest findings in philosophy and science,” though he was always more willing to sacrifice the former to the later.[50] His real life “mission was to disenchant the world.”[51]

Betoverde Weereld

Bekker began his magnum opus, the Betoverde Weereld (The World Bewitched) in the late 1680s. It consisted of four volumes and would have a major influence not only in the Netherlands, but internationally.[52] The material issue was that of the relationship between spirits and corporal bodies and the doctrine of Satan, whether he was real or merely symbolic. But underlying all of this was the more foundational issue of the relationship between Scripture and philosophy, and whether philosophy must submit to Scripture or Scripture to philosophy.

Book I provides an historical survey of views on the supernatural, including spirits and demons. Bekker argues that the Jews, early Christians, and Church Fathers commandeered the distinctly pagan notion of magic and spirits, which was otherwise foreign to Christianity. He then observes that this paganism was exponentially worsened by the Medieval church, which led to deep-rooted superstition regarding the devil and witches and speculation over trite matters regarding angels. While Bekker believed the Reformation restored some sanity to the church in these matters, it did not, in his view, fully exorcise the basically pagan infiltration of the supernatural into Christianity.[53]

In Books II-IV he “expounds his philosophical and Scriptural objections to received ideas about magic, Satan, spirits, and witchcraft.”[54]While he claimed to believe whatever is stated clearly in Scripture, his exegetical method indebted to Spinoza and his Cartesian presuppositions, lead him to distinct conclusions that were really opposed to Scripture, as Mastricht will demonstrate.

What he denied was the near universal conviction that Satan, demons, or any spirits can, through spells, possession, bewitchment, or any magical device, alter the normal workings of nature’s laws and influence men’s lives. Sticking rigidly to Descartes’ dichotomy of ‘thought’ and ‘extension,’ he claims their being distinct substances precludes all interaction between the two, so that evil spirits, the essence of which is ‘thought,’ can no more influence bodies than bodies can spirits. Contact between disembodied spirits and humans is completely impossible.[55]

Bekker did believe that God was able to change the course of nature and effect the lives of men, being neither thought (spirit) nor extension (body), for he preceded and transcended all substance.

In Book II he disproves various interpretations of Scripture passages that have been garnered in support of the notion that Satan can influence men. His basic exegetical approach was to demonstrate that every such passage that speaks of the intervention of the devil in the lives of men in Scripture was “purely figurative.”[56] Satan, according to Bekker, could not have become a serpent to tempt Eve, nor appear in the wilderness to tempt Christ. Bekker goes on to argue that Satan has actually been chained by God in hell so that he remains completely powerless to effect anything on earth. These passages will be addressed by Mastricht in his treatise against Bekker.

In Book III he denies the possibility of men making deals with the devil, which would then exclude all witchcraft, spells, exorcisms, or magic of any kind. The supernatural wonders worked by Pharaoh’s magicians in Scripture accordingly became purely figurative—the common hermeneutic principle utilized to rid Scripture of any teaching on the real interaction of spirits and bodies, the Devil and men.

In the final book, Book IV, he “examines a vast catalogue of supposedly attested cases of witchcraft, possession, exorcism, haunted places, soothsaying, and apparitions, showing mankind’s inherent proneness to attribute exceptional events for which a natural explanation is lacking to supernatural forces, and the unfortunate consequences of our doing so.”[57] He then states that it is the Christian duty of the Churches, schools, and courts to insure that men no longer believe magic exists, that the world be disenchanted.

4. Petrus van Mastricht, Ad Verum Clariss. D. Balthasaren Beckerum

Overview of Mastricht’s Fourfold Approach to Theology: Exegesis, Doctrine, Elenctics, Praxis 

Neele observes that in each of the loci of his Theoretica-practica theologia, Mastricht organizes his thoughts into four parts: exegesis, doctrine, elenctics, and ‘pars practica.’[58] This same approach is found in his Ad Verum Clariss. D. Balthasaren Beckerum. While his work addressing Bekker is primarily polemical in nature, this fourfold approach to theology structures the document.

In sections XX–XXIX, Mastricht expounds and vindicates Scripture passages that teach the real and historical operation of Satan and spirits in the world and upon man. He also addresses the proper relation of Scripture and Philosophy. In sections XXX–XXXVII, the doctrine of Satan is stated in contrast to Bekker’s formulation. This then leads to a lengthy polemical section, in which the doctrine is defended against possible objections and apparent contradictions with other doctrines (XXXVIII–LVIII). Mastricht then turns to the offense to show the contradictions of Bekker’s position (LIX–LXVII). He finally concludes with a practical concern for the church, addressing the matter of worship and piety (LXVIII–XCV).

Scripture and Exegesis (XIX–XXIX)

As was observed earlier, Bekker, in Book II of Betoverde Weereld, looks to undermine various passages of Scripture which have been used to affirm the interaction and influence of the Devil on men by understanding them as purely figurative. Mastricht makes direct mention of this book and its underlying problem in section XIX. Before looking at specific passages, Mastricht states, Interim tibi plurima objucis Scripturae testimonia, utriusque Instrumenti, quibus, Angelis verae operationes asseruntur. He then notes the positive activity of the angels in announcing to Abraham the future birth of his son, Isaac (Gen. 18:10) and to Mary the birth of Jesus (Luke 1). Scripture also records angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds (Luke 2:8–14) and his resurrection to the disciples at the end of each gospel, as well as his ascension (Acts 1:10–11). Mastricht notes the positive role of the angels in rescuing Lot from the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19), Daniel from the lion’s den (Dan. 5), and the apostles from prison (Acts 5:19; 12:7). Angels are also said to accompany Christ when he comes again (Matt 25:31; 1 Thess. 4:16; 2 Thess. 1:7; Heb. 1:14). So, says, Mastricht, et quae sunt hujus generis fexcenta alia.

If spirits are mere thoughts, as Bekker proposed, then how can they have this influence upon the world, as Scripture ascribes to them: quia, ceu spiritus, non sint nisi merae cogitationes, quibus non competant operationes ad extra.[59] These cannot be mere figments of man’s imagination, as Bekker argued.[60] Mastricht will next take up more specific passages in order to vindicate them against Bekker who would read them as purely symbolic or figurative.

 Vindication of Scripture Passages

The main question of section XX is whether evil spirits, after the primal temptation, still work in humans? Bekker, Mastricht notes, has consigned every evil spirit to chains in hell so that they can no longer be at work in the world. Whereas Bekker has no place in Scripture to maintain this position, Mastricht claims many (infinita) places for his position. He then appeals to the Classis on the basis that Bekker ultimately makes God out to be a liar who would fool the common person by accommodating his revelation to their error and false ideas. He writes,

Dic tibi quaeso Clariss. per tuam conscientiam si daremus quod non facimus Deum in negotiis naturalibus levioris momenti se quandoque componere ad erroneam vulgi opinionem num tibi persuadere possis ad unum omnes Prophetas, Apostolos, ipsumque Servatorem circa errorem tanti momenti per quem tibi Scriptura non potest esse verbum Dei per quem tibi Scriptura non potest non potest esse nec Jehova Deus nec Christus Messias…

Following this general critique, he takes up in section XII, 2 Peter 2:4, which Bekker appeals to in order to affirm that the devils and evil spirits are currently chained in hell and so incapable of being at work in men. Mastricht affirms that the devils are damned to eternal prison, but he denies that they should no more deceive at present because their sentence at present does not limit them to a specific place since they wander in chains (velut in catenis vagetur). However, it is true that they cannot escape their sentence to aeternae condemnationi.

Next in section XXII Mastricht considers the temptation narrative in Genesis 3 to vindicate it against Bekker who does not read it as historical. He makes the point that Scripture does not say that Satan deceived through or by means of a serpent, but that the serpent who deceived esse satanamunder the providence of God. Mastricht utilizes the Reformed principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture and appeals to Revelation 12:9 to support this reading of Genesis 3, as well as contrasting it with the account of Balaam’s donkey. Mastricht concludes that Bekker’s interpretation has two main problems: (1) it destroys the factuality of the temptation and (2) paves the way for skepticism and atheism.

He makes a similar argument in the vindication of the historical nature of Christ’s temptation by the devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–12; Mark. 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–14) in section XXIII. Mastricht argues that if you say the devil truly tempted Christ, then you must be able to say that he was also at work in the first temptation. But Bekker says that they are not to be understood as literal (non omnia inquis ad literam hic sunt intelligendae). Again, Mastricht charges this interpretation as leading to skepticism and atheism: Quo tandem ista sese exoneraunt, nisi in Scepticismum & Atheismum?

In section XXIV Mastricht seeks to vindicate Jude 9 from Bekker’s interpretation that does violence to the text. He does not see a problem with this passage if one simply learned to, first, believe the Scriptures, second, overturn ratiocinations& omnem sublimitatem,and third, have their mind captive to the obedience of Christ. He refers to 2 Cor. 10:4–5, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”

In section XXV he considers the account of Satan inciting David to take a census, which was punished by the Lord, in 1 Chronicles 21:1. How does this relate, he asks, to 2 Samuel 24:1 where it is said that not Satan, but the Lord incited David? Mastricht answers this apparent contradiction by stating the simple point that the way in which God and Satan cause the same even can differ. God is the efficient cause and wisely permits it, while Satan is the perpetrator (idem diverso sensu possee tribui, & Deo & satanae: Deo, ut causae efficaciter & sapientissime permittentidirigentique; & satanae, ut pessime perpetranti).

He then takes up the vindication of Job 1:11 in section XXVI. He sees a good argument for evil spirits conversing with men in 1 Samuel 28 and Acts 16:16. He then takes up Bekker’s objection to Satan being granted permission by the Lord to inflict Job with dirissmus calamitatibus and for Job to have been declared by the Lord to be in Satan’s hand (Job 1:12; 2:6). His basic argument again uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, appealing to Psalm 37:37. He also appeals to the analogia vel fidei and the context (vel contextus), and utilizes the original languages. He again notes how this passage does not coincide with Bekker’s point that Satan is chained in hell so that he cannot roam the earth. Mastricht affirms that while Satan does not operate outside the power, knowledge, and providence of God, he does still in fact operate nonetheless.

So far Mastricht has shown that Scripture clearly teaches the activity of Satan and evil spirits in the world after the first temptation. He summarizes: hactenus sinfulis militavimus Scripturae testimoniis, & expugnavimus, satanam vere seduxisse Protoplaftos, tentasse Christum, dimicasse cum Michaele, incitasse Davidem, ut Israelem numeraret, Jobum exagitasse, confestis in eum calamitatibus; dimicasse exagitasse congestis in eum. In section XXVII, he adds to this the manifold teaching of Scripture about Satan and devils, including their nature (indole) in 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 11:24; John 8:44; strength or power (viribus) in Acts 26:18; and business or activities (negotio). The third is described in general in 2 Thess. 2:9. In addition, Satan is said to take away the word in Mark 4:15. In 2 Cor. 7:5; 1 Cor 2:10; Rev. 12:9, 10 he is said to accuse. There is also his activity mentioned in Luke 22:31; 22:3; John 13:17; Acts 5:3; 1 Thess. 2:18; Rev. 2:9, 13. Scripture also includes Satan’s mode of agency (agendi modo) in 2 Cor. 11:14 as he disguises himself as an angel of light. He is also presently captured (captivus) in Rev. 20:7 and nearing his destruction (de appropinquante ejus exitio) according to Luke 11:18; Rom. 16:20; Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10.

Having considered all those passages of Scripture that have now been vindicated, Mastricht says that we are to be convinced that Satan continues to operate in humans and that we must acknowledge snakes and witches (Pythonibus & Pythonissis), the angel Satan (Angelis satanae), the possessed (de energumenis), evil spirits (malignis spiritibus), demonic apparitions (apparitionibus daemoniorum), the kingdom of Satan (regno satanae), kingdom of darkness (regno tenebrarum), that he is the god of this world (Deus sit hujus seculi), the prince of this world (princeps hujus mundi), emperor of the dead (imperium mortis habeat), lord of the air (in aere dominetur), etc. Thus, argues Mastricht, Scripture attributes much to Satan and therefore all Christians (universali Christianismo) receive this doctrine of Satan. And for those who reject it, si Deus juvet.

Scripture and Philosophy

In section XXIX, Mastricht guards against the abuse of philosophy (cavendum ab abusu Philosophiae) that would otherwise do violence to the Scriptures and theology. He rhetorically asks, if there is no passage in Scripture that affirms Satan is no longer active with men after the primal temptation, and if the common consensus of all Christians is that he is still at work, then what can possibly be Bekker’s objection against it? In short, his objection cannot be based on Scripture or the analogia fidei. Bekker is opposed to the totality of Scripture (adversus totam Scriptram) and not only the general knowledge of the Church, but also the sense of the world (mundi sensum).

So Van Mastricht asks, Cum igitur Scriptura, sicut demonstravimus, non potuerit; quid potuit, si non Philosophia? The objection does not arise from Scripture, but from an a priori commitment to alien philosophical system. In other words, his theological conclusions are formed by a more basic philosophy, not revelation. Quae doceat, spiritum non operari extra se?

Van Mastricht points out that Bekker says in the preface to his first book that he rejects the operation of spirits in humans ex Philosophia agnosceres. Van Mastricht points out that in most controversial heads, Scripture is said to err because his thought is governed by philosophy. He finds support for this in chapter 25, paragraph 15 and chapter 9, paragraph 6, and the preface to book one, as Bekker writes, te omnium minime satisfacturum his, qui Cartesii fundamenta rejiciunt, juxta quae, spiritum & corpus distinguas.

Van Mastricht follows Paul in warning and guarding against deceptive teaching and philosophy that would overturn the wisdom and revelation of God in Scripture, as he cites 2 Cor. 11:1ff.; 1 Tim. 6:20; Col. 2:8; 1 Cor. 1:20; 2:4; 2 Cor. 1:12. This was true long ago with Paul and continues to be the case (quae tot olim praecipites dedit, & etiamnun dat). This knowledge is not pleasing to God that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ (extollit adversus cognitionem Christi). He concludes by asking whether Scripture must give way or concede (cedat) to philosophy or philosophy to Scripture? “Mastricht argued that Bekker placed philosophy above Scripture and that theology was being relinquished to the axiom ‘philosophy is the infallible interpreter of Scripture.’”[61]

Scripture and his Fourfold Approach

It is telling that Mastricht begins his polemic against Bekker with the vindication of Scripture since it is for him the principium cognoscendi of his theology. With that being said, this means that his Scriptural exegesis cannot be isolated from the subsequent sections that deal with doctrine, elenctics, and praxis. As Neele observes, “Mastricht’s exegesis cannot be evaluated without reading of his doctrinal, elenctical, and practical reflections on the theological subject in which consists the interconnectedness of his fourfold approach arising from the text of Scripture a parallel approach integrally present in Calvin’s Scripture commentary.”[62]

Doctrine (XXX–XXXVII)

Mastricht next looks at the reasons Bekker proposes for why spirits cannot interact with the body. He reproduces Bekker’s logic: If the devil is a spirit, and spirit is only thought, and thought does not have contact with the body, then (working backwards), the spirit does not act on the body, and if the spirit does not act on the body, then neither does the devil who is spirit. Mastricht goes on to affirm that the devil is spirit, but he rejects the proposition that there is no communion or interaction between spirit and body and instead proposes in section XXXV that spirits can operate in and on bodies. He rejects Bekker on the basis that his proposition is owing to a Cartesian dualism that assumes that spirit is thought and body is extension. Mastricht, on the other hand, affirms the operation of spirits on bodies on the basis of Scripture. While Cartesianism cannot find a unity within creation to bring together spirit and body, the spiritual and material, and so end up with a hard dualism, Mastricht locates the unity of the two with God who ultimately brings them together.

Elenctics (XXXVIII–LXVII)

Having affirmed the doctrine that Satan can operate on and influence men even after the primal temptation in the Garden, Mastricht proceeds to defend this claim against possible objections, before going on the offense against Bekker’s teaching.

Defense (XXXVIII–LVIII)

He argues that the monarchy of God is not annulled by this teaching, nor the oneness of God denied—that is, the affirmation of the Devil does not require ditheism or Manicheanism. Furthermore, the doctrine of Satan does not impede the kingdom of Christ, nor does violence to the deity of the Son and the Spirit. It does not do harm to the authority of Scripture or to the Christian religion. The operation of Satan, states Mastricht, does not tear down the authority of Scripture. Neither does this doctrine take away from the fear of the Lord, detract from the holiness of God, harm the truthfulness or goodness of God, nor the honor of angels, nor love towards one’s neighbor. It does not teach that sins or crimes are derived from the temptation of Satan, which would relinquish man of his responsibility, nor does it lead to any sins against God or other men.

Offense (LIX–LXVII)

The teaching of Bekker, on the other hand, subverts the authority of Scripture and, on account of that, the whole Christian religion (see esp. sections LX and LXII). Bekker’s teaching also defaces the fear and reverence of God and leads to positioning people in morally dangerous positions as it encourages disregard for guarding against the temptations of the evil one. It also leads to the neglect of love toward one’s neighbor.

Summary: Doctrine Measured by Love

Overall, Mastricht’s polemic against Bekker considers whether the doctrine lends itself to love for God and for neighbor. In other words, along with its goal in worship, as will be demonstrated in the following section, there is also the practical working out of faith in love that fuels Mastricht’s thought. The affirmation of Satan is required for a true love for God and neighbor in fulfillment of the law of God.

Praxis (LXVIII–XCV)

In section LXVIII, Mastricht states that the doctrine of the devil is efficacious to the worship of God, that is, to true piety (efficax esse ad pietatem). This is so because it emphasizes or illustrates the majesty and glory of God as it sets up a diametrical contrast of him with Satan, who is opposed to every good thing. This doctrine also explains the misery of those who are under the power of the devil and, therefore, again by contrast, the joy of those who have come under the reign and rule of Christ. This doctrine further warns that the convocation of sin is demonic, which keeps God’s people from indulging themselves. It also incites God’s people to shrink back from the image of Satan and to desire conformity to the image of Christ and fellowship with the Son of God. It forbids fellowship with all evil and sin, and makes God’s people strong and resilient through trials and temptations. Finally, it provides comfort from the assaults of the devil against God’s people and his church, since they know that Satan is under the power and knowledge of God and must serve his ultimate purposes.

5. Comparing Mastricht and Bekker

Having now considered the historical context and teaching of Bekker in Betoverde Weereld, as well as the correlation of exegesis, doctrine, elenctics, and praxis in Mastricht’s polemic against him, we now turn to a comparison of the two on a couple key issues.

First, as to the subject of the relationship between Scripture and philosophy, Bekker sought to subordinate Scripture to his Cartesian philosophy. This was especially evident in his exegetical and hermeneutical method that sought to conform the clear and simple teaching of Scripture on Satan and evil spirits to the dualistic spirit/body schema of Descartes. Accordingly, spirits as thought and bodies as extension could not have any interaction. This meant for Bekker that every passage in Scripture that seemed to teach their interaction must be written off as purely symbolic or figurative.

Mastricht, on the other hand, subordinated philosophy to Scripture as its servant and handmaiden. Philosophy was helpful insofar as it aided in the explanation of Scripture, but was to be rejected wherever it contradicted its clear teaching. Thus, because Scripture affirms the interaction of spirits and bodies, Satan and men, so did Mastricht.

Exegetically Mastricht avoids the elaborate and circus-like playing with the text that was required by Bekker to fit Scripture into his philosophy. Instead, Mastricht drew out the clear meaning and intention of the Scripture text, used Scripture to interpret Scripture as was common in the Reformed tradition, and appealed to the analogia fidei and the Reformed catechism as a catholic-Reformed Christian.

We also recognize that while Bekker was playing games with philosophy under the guise of theology, Mastricht refused to join him by pitting Aristotelianism (or any other philosophy) against Bekker’s Cartesianism. Mastricht, instead, was a Reformed theologian of the highest order who was faithful to the only foundation of the true, Christian religion: the self-revelation of God in Scripture.

Finally, Mastricht exhibits a heart for true piety, which is absent from the intellectualizing of Bekker. Mastricht saw that the rejection of this doctrine of Satan not only revealed a deeper epistemological issue as to the autonomous princpium cognoscendi in Bekker’s thought, but also a corrupting of piety and the true worship of God. Whereas Mastricht aimed at living to God in true piety, Bekker sought dying to man in philosophical inquisitiveness.

Conclusion

Mastricht has yet to fully penetrate the English world, which makes him ripe for further study. While past scholarship has only noted his epistemological concern with Bekker who was subordinating Scripture to philosophy, this article has attempted to draw out his equally crucial concern for piety in his polemic. All doctrine, including the doctrine of Satan and spirits, has a doxological purpose and is efficacious towards the true worship of God. Mastricht demonstrates this by wedding Scriptural exegesis, doctrine and praxis as a threefold polemical response against Bekker. The foundational error of Bekker, which stemmed from the improper formulation of the relationship between Scripture and philosophy, led to the teleological error of compromised (and, therefore, false) worship of God. Thus, far from a mere desire to maintain rigid, cold doctrinal standards, the placement of his doctrine and elenctics between Scripture and doxology in this polemical work is telling. Doctrine was not an isolated discipline for Mastrict. Rather, for him it had its beginning in the proper exegesis of Scripture—as to its simple meaning and in accordance with the analogia fidei and the Reformed confessions—and served the worship of God as its ultimate end. Theology and piety, doctrine and life were woven together in the polemical concerns of Mastricht who began with Scripture and ended with worship.


[1]Petrus van Mastricht, Ad Verum Clariss. D. Balthasaren Beckerum, S. S. Theol. Doct. Epanorthosis gratulatoria. Occasione Articulorum, quos Venerandae Classi Amstelodamensi exhibuit. die XXII Janu. 1692. Exarata a Petro van Mastrioht(Anthenium Schouten, 1692).

[2]Ernst Bizer, “Reformed Orthodoxy and Cartesianism,” in Journal for Theology and the Church, vol. 2, Translating Theology into the Modern Age, ed., Robert Funk (New York, 1965); orig. “Die reformierte Orthodoxie und der Cartesianismus,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 55 (1958).

[3]Ernst Bizer, “Die reformierte Orthodoxie und der Cartesianimus,” in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche55 (1958), cited by Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht(1630–1706), Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety, Brill’s Series in Church History vol. 35 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 7.

[4]Aza Goudriaan, Reformed Orthodoxy and Philosophy, 1625–1750: Gisbertus Voetius, Petrus Van Mastricht, and Anthonius Driessen, Brill’s Series in Church History vol. 26 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2006).

[5]Ibid.,2.

[6]Ibid., 5.

[7]Ibid., 331.

[8]Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht(1630–1706), Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety, Brill’s Series in Church History vol. 35 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009). This study arises from his earlier doctoral dissertation The Art of Living to God: A Study of Method and Piety in the Theoretica-practica theologia of Petrus van Mastricht(1630–1706)(Th.D. thesis, University of Utrecht, 2005: Pretoria: Pretoria University Pres, 2005).

[9]Ibid., 1.

[10]Ibid., 1.

[11]Also observed by Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena to Theology(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:62.

[12]Neele, Petrus van Mastricht, 285.

[13]See Neele, Petrust van Mastricht, 54–55; 103; 285.

[14]Neele, Petrus van Mastricht, 55. “Mastricht’s concern was, in a broader context, whether Scripture yielded to philosophy or the latter to the former. Either Scripture is the eternal, true, and authentic Word of God, held Mastricht, or the world will be overrun by philosophy, skepticism, and atheism” (ibid., 103).

[15]“Accommodation—Orthodox, Socinian, and Contemporary,” Westminster Theological Journal 75 (2013): 335–48.

[16]Lee cites Mastricht’sVindiciae veritatis et authoritatis Sacrae Scripturae in rebus philosophicis(Utrecht: Jonhannis Waesberge, 1655).

[17]Andrew Fix, “Bekker and Spinoza,” in Disguised and Overt Spinozism Around 1700: Papers Presented at the International Colloquium, Held at Rotterdam, 5–8 October, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History vol. 69 (Brill, 1996), 29.

[18]Balthasar Bekker, De philosophia cartesiana admonitio candida et sincera(Wesel: Andrea Hoogenhuysen, 1668), 10, cited by Lee, “Accommodation,” 337. See also Bekker, De Betoverde Weereld(Deventer, 1739.) 2:143–79.

[19]Lee, “Accommodation,” 337.

[20]For a study on Voetius and Descartes’ interactions, see Thomas Arthur McGahagan, Cartesianism in the Netherlands, 1639–1676: The New Science and the Calvinist Counter-Reformation(Diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1976). His study primarily deals with Voetius and makes only a brief comment about Mastricht that he “maintained the anti-Cartesian campaign after 1676,” which goes beyond the focus of his study (p. 53). The same historical limitation is found in Theo Verbeek’s work Descartes and the Dutch: Early Reactions to Cartesian Philosophy 1637–1650(Cardondale and Edwardville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), who accordingly makes no mention of Mastricht. For more on Voetius and Descartes, see Von Erst Bizer, “Die reformierte Orthodoxie und der Cartesianismus,” 307–29; B. Hoon Woo, “The Understanding of Gisbertus Voetius and Rene Descartes on the Relationship of Faith and Reason, and Theology and Philosophy,” Westminster Theological Journal75, no. 1 (Spr 2013): 45–63; Andreas J. Beck, Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676): Sein Theologieverständnis und seine Gotteslehre(Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).

[21]McGahagan, Cartesianism in the Netherlands, 106.

[22]Ibid.,109.

[23]Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 375.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Ibid.

[26]Ibid., 376.

[27]Ibid.

[28]Jacobus Koelman, Wederlegging van Balthasar Bekker’s Bestoverde Wereld(Amsterdam, 1692), 118.

[29]Wiep van Bunge, “Balthasar Bekker’s Cartesian Hermeneutics and the Challenge of Spinozism,” The British Journal for the History of Philosophy1 (1993): 55–79.

[30]Fix, “Bekker and Spinoza,” 23.

[31]Ibid., 23.

[32]Ibid., 24.

[33]Kort Begryp del Aldemeine Kerkelyke Historien, Zedert het Jaar 1666 daar Hornius eindigt, tot den Jare 1684 (Amsterdam, 1739), 38, cited by Fix, “Bekker and Spinoza, 24.

[34]Fix, “Bekker and Spinoza,” 35.

[35]Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 384.

[36]Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:73.

[37]Ibid., 1:74.

[38]Ibid., 1:75.

[39]Ibid.

[40]Ibid., 1:77; see also Willem J. van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669)(Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 81–89.

[41]Muller, PPRD, 1:78.

[42]Bekker, Kort begrijp, cited by McGahagan, 386. For more on the relationship of Cocceianism and Cartesianism, see McGahagan, Cartesianism in the Netherlands, 365–67.

[43]Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 378.

[44]Ibid.

[45]Ibid., 405.

[46]McGahagan, Cartesianism in the Netherlands, 11.

[47]Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 378.

[48]Ibid.

[49]Ibid.

[50]Ibid.

[51]Ibid., 379.

[52]See Israel,Radical Reformation, 392–405; Andrew Fix, “What Happened to Balthasar Bekker in England? A Mysery in the History of Publishing,” CHRC90.4 (2010): 609–31.

[53]Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 379.

[54]Ibid., 380.

[55]Ibid.

[56]Ibid.

[57]Ibid., 381.

[58]Neele, Petrus van Mastricht, 139.

[59]He also writes, Quantum assequor, non aliud, quam quod, ex placitis Philosophiae, spiritui, ceu merae cogitationi, non possint competere vires, quibus operetur extra se, id quod suo loco, ex prosesso discutiemus.

[60]Existimant, pleraque Scripturis narrata, de Angelorum operationibus, tibi non esse nisi figmenta & imaginationes, quibus nihil minus intendatur, quam quod verba sonant.

[61]Neele, Petrus van Mastricht, 55. “Mastricht’s concern was, in a broader context, whether Scripture yielded to philosophy or the latter to the former. Either Scripture is the eternal, true, and authentic Word of God, held Mastricht, or the world will be overrun by philosophy, skepticism, and atheism” (p. 103).

[62]Neele, “The Reception of John Calvin’s Work by Petrus van Mastricht,” Church History and Religious Culture, 91, no. 1–2 (2011): 163.

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Jaap Vreugdenhil

2 weeks ago

Hi Dan,
Thank you for paying attention to these older guys. Those are still relevant discussions today.
Do you know about an interesting sequel to the Mastrciht-Becker discussion, leading to even a kind of confessional statement? In the Dutch province of Zeeland the provincial synod agreed in the 1690’s to a document called the Walcherse Artikelen (Walcheren is one of the Isles in Zeeland). All minister in the province were required to sign these article, from 169x to 1816.
The fifth and last articles was specific about devils, a kind of firm statement against Balthasar Bekker.
I could not find an English translation of these articles. In 2011 a Dutchman, J.W. Veltkamp, wrote a dissertation on them, and I expect he has an English summary in his dissertation.
I could send the Dutch tekst, but that is a hard excercise in reading an old Dutch dialect.
greetings,
Jaap

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