Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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A Continental view: Johannes Cocceius’s federal theology of the Sabbath

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

Casey B. Carmichael, A Continental view: Johannes Cocceius’s federal theology of the Sabbath (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018), ISBN 9783525552780, 192 pp., € 64.99.

[1] While the title of this volume does little to suggest its broader significance to scholars of the northern Renaissance across multiple disciplines, its account of the theology of Johannes Cocceius (1603-69) represents one of the most important recent contributions to the study of early modern Protestantism, and is bound to make a decisive intervention in that field, while informing developments in many others.

[2] Cocceius’s name may not be familiar to many scholars working outside the fairly specialist literature that deals with post-reformation Reformed dogmatics, but within that subject area he is widely recognised as being one of the most important Dutch Calvinist exegetes and theologians working in the seventeenth century, whose influence extended far beyond the narrowly theological circles in which his work has been remembered. Cocceius was certainly significant. From his base in the University of Leiden, and especially in the 1650s, he developed a strongly historicised reading of Biblical theology that emphasised the theme of change over time, and which distinguished him and those he influenced from the followers of Gisbertus Voetius, his principal rival for the loyalty of Dutch Calvinists, persuading his contemporaries, if not everyone who has written about their culture, that early modern Calvinism was an often dynamic and geographically differentiated world of ideas.

[3] Competing explanations of the covenants that structured the Old Testament were central to this division within the Dutch Reformed Church. Drawing upon the conclusions of medieval exegesis, and always in conversation with their Catholic and Lutheran contemporaries, Reformed theologians recognised the importance of the covenants that structured the history outlined in the Old Testament. But they tended to read these covenants as being indicative of theological superstructures, rather than of distinct periods of salvation history, and as describing fixed rather than changing circumstances. The mainstream of Reformed theology understood that there existed a covenant of works, which served to condemn fallen humanity, and a covenant of grace, as a result of which fallen humanity could be redeemed. Exegetes and theologians within this tradition tended to view the covenants of the Old Testament as staging-posts in this overarching covenant of grace. As a consequence, they tended to tone down those statements in the New Testament that seemed to criticise the “old covenant,” or that suggested it had been replaced. One practical consequence of this tradition in Reformed theology was a distinctive theology of time. Sabbatarianism, which identified Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, a particularly holy day on which careless behaviour, or non-religious forms of relaxation, should be strictly controlled, became a key marker of the “hotter sort” of protestants in the Stuart kingdoms, as well as in the Low Countries.

[4] This is why Sabbatarianism, as Casey B. Carmichael reminds us in this book, a revision of his University of Geneva PhD thesis, could become such a hotly contested political issue. In England, in 1617/18, James I issued a “Book of Sports” that encouraged those who had attended parish worship on Sunday mornings to spend the rest of the day engaged in profitable exercise and communal recreation. Charles I reissued this declaration in 1633, in a context in which the Sabbatarian commitments of English puritans had notably increased. Consequently, the “Book of Sports” became a key point of dispute in the run-up to the outbreak of civil in 1642, and was symbolically burned by Parliament in 1643, as representing an attempt of the king to over-ride the laws of God. It is only a slightly rhetorical over-reach to claim that many English puritans entered civil war with the purpose of defending the Sabbath.

[5] Nevertheless, as Carmichael’s book reminds us, many Dutch puritans would not have supported the arguments of their English brethren. While the followers of Gisbertus Voetius accepted the Sabbatarian position that became normative among English puritans and Scottish Presbyterians, those who were influenced by Johannes Cocceius took an altogether more relaxed view of the issue. For Cocceius, the old covenant had been abolished, and the ten commandments remained as part of the covenant of grace; but the elements of the sabbath commandment that reflected the ceremonial law of Israel had also ceased. Developing a distinctive and sometimes idiosyncratic reading of covenant theology, and of the Sabbath commandment, he argued that Christians in the new covenant were not bound to the claims of the ceremonial law that had been promulgated by Moses, and therefore that their obligations on Sundays would be satisfied merely by regular attendance at divine worship. Some of his followers developed his arguments to claim that it was permissible for Christians to follow divine worship with a return to weekday work. As the Dutch church split over the issue, the followers of Gisbertus Voetius retained their concern to sanctify the Lord’s day, while the followers of Johannes Cocceius sat knitting in their windows, in a provocative display of Christian freedom.

[6] Carmichael’s new book builds on important advances in the study of Cocceius made in recent years by Willem van Asselt and Brian J. Lee. While historians of early modern Reformed theology have long been aware of the division within the Dutch church, Carmichael’s work is the first to identify the points of contest and to explain what was at stake in the dispute. A great deal of work on the theology of the period is content to reconstruct systems of ideas, as if these ideas had no social or political contexts. But Carmichael learns from Quentin Skinner’s approach to intellectual history to situate disputes about ideas in their social worlds. Cocceius’s arguments about the Sabbath represent “his covenant theology in action,” Carmichael argues. And the results are illuminating. In their disputes about the Sabbath commandment, early modern Calvinists revised their theology of time, for doctrinal disputes could have very practical consequences.

 Queen’s University Belfast, December 2018

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