You probably won’t name your next son after Herman Witsius. Despite the fact it’s an attractive Dutch name, you’ve probably never heard of him. Due to the so-called “Calvin and the Calvinists” debates, many of the post-Reformational works have been sent into obscurity. Branded as aristotelian rationalists, second- and third-generation continental reformers have largely been forgotten. We are all familiar with Luther, Calvin, and maybe Theodore Beza, but then our familiarity jumps to the English reformers and the Puritans. But we have lost sight of the Dutch Reformed theologians. Chief among them was Herman Witsius.
Thankfully, Reformation Heritage Books has republished what has been called, the trilogy of Herman Witsius: The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Two Volumes), Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles Creed (Two Volumes), and Sacred Dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer. They’re available in a five-volume set, The Major Works of Herman Witsius.
Witsius’s The Economy of the Covenants has been hugely influential in the works of other covenantal theologians like Jonathan Edwards. While it’s readable and aims to be doggedly biblical, readers may have trouble following every argument since much of it addresses a controversy among Dutch federal theologians of his day.
His Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed could be called a “warm-hearted” theology. It’s a systematic theology guided by the affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed. Three characteristics of Witsius’s writings are synthesized in this work. First, his conclusions put him firmly in the Protestant Reformed tradition. He was the foremost representative of the continental Calvinists. Second, he his a Reformed catholic-small “c.” As I mentioned above, Witsius was firmly Protestant, but grounds himself in classical Christianity, using the Apostle’s Creed as his reference point. He believed his Protestant convictions were not in conflict with the early church and patristic writers, but rather a faithful continuation. Finally, Witsius’s theology is concerned with the heart. This may be a surprise to those who dub post-reformational theologians as cold rationalists, but Sacred Dissertations of the Apostles’ Creed is a cool mix between deep theological reflection and pastoral concern.
Third, Witsius’s Sacred Dissertations on the Lord Prayer is not only a penetrating exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, but also an instruction on the subject of prayer split into three parts: (1) what is prayer and (2) our obligation to pray, (3) how we ought to prayer. As Joel Beeke writes, some portions of Witsius’ instruction seem dated. But on the whole, it’s warmly insightful.
There have been theologians who have been rediscovered and have become hotly influential over the last several decades-Jonathan Edwards or John Owen, for example. They’re the topic of dissertations. Publishing ventures boom around their biography and life work. My assumption is that won’t happen with Herman Witsius. There probably won’t be conferences around the world celebrating his 400th birthday in 2036. But we cannot ignore the fact that his work his last almost 350 years. How many monographs are published a month that we deem the greatest work on this or that, but it fails to make it to its second or third printing? Not only will you see references to Witsius in the sermons of Sinclair Ferguson or the christologies of Oliver Crisp, but also in the works of Van Til, Warfield, and Bavinck. You may not name your next son after Herman Witsius, but his influence has endured, and concerned evangelicals should take notice.