Ryan M. McGraw
Synopsis Purioris Theologiae (Synopsis of a Purer Theology), by Walaeus et al., ed. Roelf T. te Velde, trans. Riemer A. Faber, vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 2015, 659 pages, $171.86.
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. This present volume is the first of three projected volumes, which include parallel Latin and English text. 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scattered throughout this volume will also help many readers understand better philosophical, theological, and historical references in the original text.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 Leiden 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 Purioris Theologiae 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.
Ryan McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as an associate professor of systematic theology in Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Ordained Servant Online, January 2017.