"Small, but courageous" is how we could describe Gisbertus Voetius, a man whose 400th birthday deserves your undivided attention. Small: that refers to his physical stature. Courageous: that refers to the battle this great one in God's Kingdom tirelessly fought his whole life long (which was almost 88 years). It was a battle on a number of fronts: against the Remonstrants, against the emerging philosophy of Descartes, against the theological innovations of Coccejus, against the government which was constantly trying to curtail the rights of the church, against the predominant sins of his day. We could also say he was engaged in a battle for something – for the glory of God in every area of life: in science, the church, politics and society.
The fact that little Voetius was a great man is more than obvious. For example, after him is named a street (in Utrecht), a theological society (in Utrecht), a church magazine (in Classis Heusden) and a school society (in Goes). This year, on his 400th birthday, the Theological Faculty of the University of Utrecht is sponsoring a symposium called, "The Unknown Voetius."
But is he really so unknown? Over the years an enormous amount has been written about him. Nevertheless, we are afraid that Voetius, like so many others in church history, is known little more than in name. That is somewhat understandable in Voetius' case because none of his sermons have survived and his other writings were mostly of a technical nature and were published in Latin – thus, relatively inaccessible to the majority of readers. Nevertheless, Voetius was a man of tremendous importance for reformed protestantism in the Netherlands. He was the spiritual and intellectual force of the Second Reformation,* of which Utrecht and its university were the center.
The story which follows contains nothing new for those in the know. It is intended only as a commemorative article for his 400th birthday, the information for which was gathered from a variety of sources.
It was a tumultuous time four centuries ago in Heusden and its surroundings. In 1577 the Spanish had left the city and the St. Catharine's Church was purified of its images. But Heusden, that last fortress of Holland, was situated on the front line and Spanish troops constantly ravaged the countryside until finally in 1589 they once again besieged the city. At that time, on March 3, Gisbertus Voetius was born. His father, Paul, who was from a distinguished family in Westfalen, fell into financial difficulties because of the war and entered into the military service for a second time. He was killed in battle in 1597, before young Gisbertus reached his eighth birthday.
The son was quite bright, but mother, who was left behind with a large family, could not afford his education. So in 1604, at the expense of the Heusden government, he went to Leiden to study theology. He stayed at the Staten-College, a sort of boarding-school, where Petrus Bertius was the "director." He and the young Voetius did not hit it off well. The reason has never been entirely clear perhaps because Bertius was a remonstrant, or there was a personality clash. Anyway, Voetius was dismissed and had to live independently in various apartments.
He studied theology for seven years – in those days a long time. Zealous and thorough as he was, he would not have cut any corners.
His first sermons as a candidate were delivered in Meeuwen and Eethen, "the land of his fathers." His son Nicholas, who later was the minister of Meeuwen (1657-1666), enlightens us in a detailed way concerning his father's first preaching experiences. The story is too interesting not to cite at least a couple sentences from his report:
It was in the month of August, while residing in Heusden during the summer vacation, that Gisbertus Voetius, student at Leiden, began to preach. The first test of preaching before a congregation occurred in nearby Meeuwen, beginning in the morning around 8 a.m. When he finished, he went to Eethen and began to preach there around 10 a.m. He did the same thing the following Sunday. A few days after these tests were completed, he was requested to let his gifts be heard in Heusden on Sunday afternoons. This continued until the end of the vacation when he returned to his studies in Leiden.
Sixty-Four Years of Marriage
In 1611 Voetius completed his studies. His plans for an out-of-the-country vacation, which was quite common in those days, had to be aborted because he received a call at that time to Vlijmen and Engelen, two villages close to Heusden, the town of his birth. It was a difficult call because the (Arminian) minister of Heusden, Johannes Grevius, who preferred to see one of his own kind there, tried to make life miserable for him. But Voetius worked very hard and saw considerable fruit. Already by 1612 he had assembled a complete consistory and the congregation was growing physically and spiritually. In that same year, Voetius married Delianna Van Diest. It was an extremely blessed marriage that would last 64 years.
After six years in Vlijmen came the call to his birthplace, Heusden. But once again his future colleague, Grevius, tried to throw a wet blanket on it. Since he had a portion of the city council in his back pocket, it appeared he might be successful. Though there was much bickering and it was vehemently protested by Grevius, the call still went through. Voetius had to deliver his inaugural sermon on May 24, 1617 without having been officially installed. However, even this didn't happen without a battle. Just before the service, which would begin already at 8 a.m., the secretary of the city council arrived on the scene and proceeded to claim the pulpit for Grevius. Nevertheless, Voetius still saw an opportunity to get into the pulpit when a fierce exchange of words erupted in the church over the legality of the call. Finally, Voetius was allowed to conduct the service without interruption. His inaugural text was Matthew 11:28: "Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Synod of Dordrecht
It was clear that the relationship between the two ministers of Heusden, to put it mildly, was not the best. But in the city council Voetius was gaining more and more supporters so that by 1618 Grevius was replaced by Johannes Cloppenburgh of Aalburg. Voetius got along well with him but already in 1621 Cloppenburgh accepted a call to Amsterdam.
Voetius labored in Heusden no less than seventeen years. He represented his classis at the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619), where he was the youngest delegate. In 1629 he was an army chaplain for a little while under Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik who captured 's-Hertogenbosch. After the conquest of Den Bosch, Voetius was "loaned" to that congregation in order to undertake the reformation there and to get the church-life going. Once, when he was in The Hague on business, the rumor spread in Den Bosch that he had suddenly dropped dead as a punishment for his opposition to the crucifixes in the St. John's Church...
The congregation of Den Bosch eventually called him to be their minister, but he declined, as he also did with regard to various other calls. In 1634, he left Heusden when he was appointed to serve as professor of theology at what in two years would become the University of Utrecht. Voetius departed from Heusden with a sermon on Philippians 1:27: "Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ..."
Voetius' life's-work cannot be better described than with the title of his inaugural address, "Oratio de Pietate cum Scientia Coniugenda." Freely translated: "A Lecture on the Binding of Piety with Science." During his long stay in Utrecht (which involved not only his service in a full-time professorship but also a half-time position as minister of a local church) he always did his theology in the fear of the Lord and with it worked zealously to provide a firm foundation for the godly Christian life.
Well-Read Warrior for the Faith
Whether friend or foe, all agree that Voetius was an extraordinarily well-read man. His opponents accused him of being a "helluo librorum," a book-addict, if you will. He owned and was familiar with the works of older, as well as contemporary, theologians. He quoted them verbatim without the slightest effort. All that knowledge, however, was not an end in itself but stood in the service of his calling, which was the training of ministers. And, indirectly, he in turn served the congregation with this knowledge.
Voetius became known as a warrior for the Reformed faith. He dared to take on the philosopher Descartes. When it became necessary, he also opposed his colleague Coccejus, and even the government authorities. However, he did not fight for the sake of fighting. His high ideal was the purity of doctrine and the sanctification of life. In return for this he had to experience much opposition and disappointment.
Nevertheless, he remained a man of the church and thought fully in ecclesiastical terms. When Jean de Labadie preached in Utrecht, and even people like Jodocus Van Lodenstein and Anna Maria Van Schuurman were deeply impressed by him, Voetius already had his objections. History has proved him right. When his spiritual ally, Jacobus Koelman, was suspended for opposition to the church's liturgical forms and special days for worship, Voetius did not take sides with him and cooled down the friendship…
Ministry to Orphans
Voetius suffered in the church but he did not give up the battle. He formed a multitude of spiritual allies and gathered around himself a circle of supporters in Utrecht. And in all this he remained a simple man. Even though at the beginning of his professorship he was solely responsible for teaching the entire theological curriculum, including the ancient near-eastern languages, the learned professor was in his element when once a week he could teach a catechism class for orphans. Also, he gave so much money away that his wife had to rent out rooms of their home to students in order that the family could avoid financial problems.
Voetius, who already in 1625 in Heusden had lost one of his children, watched his son, Paul, go to the grave in 1667. It also must have caused him much grief in his old age when in 1672 the French captured Utrecht and reinstated the Roman Catholic liturgy in the Cathedral. But, he said, "Nebulosa est, transibit." Translation: "It is only a little cloud; it will pass over." He turned out to be right. For, "after the French forces and the Cathedral papacy had left the city on the morning of November 13," it was the aged Voetius in the Cathedral the next Sunday leading the service of thanksgiving and preaching on Psalm 126.
Voetius preached his last sermon on November 23, 1673, at the St. Catharine's Church. Nevertheless, he continued his work as professor and in 1675 even became Vice-Chancellor. During the last months of his life, however, he was confined to his bed. On November 1, 1676 he died. Voetius was buried in the (now Roman Catholic) St. Catharine's Church, where also Koelman was later put to rest. His widow survived him another three years.
The significance of Voetius for the church of his day and for ours can hardly be overestimated. I think Prof. Dr. Van't Spijker was right when he said, "As far as those in Reformed theology go, one can scarcely point to a more pious and devout scholar who was so firmly rooted in the deep wellsprings of the past, and who at the same time was so much at home in the thought of his own day."