AN INAUGURAL ORATION, DELIVERED AT FRANEKER, APRIL 16, 1675.
BY HERMAN WITSIUS, S.S.T.P., D.D.
Translated by the
REV. JOHN DONALDSON,
MINISTER OF THE FREE CHURCH, CERES.
WITH A PREFATORY NOTE BY THE REV. WILLIAM CUNNINGHAM, D.D.,
PRINCIPAL OF THE NEW COLLEGE, EDINBURGH.
EDINBURGH: JAMES WOOD, 88, PRINCES STREET. MDCCCLVI.
OF the minor writings of Witsius, with the exception, perhaps, of his “Dissertation on the Efficacy of Baptism in the case of Infants,” none have been more highly valued, or more frequently commended to the attention of theological students, than his “Inaugural Oration on the Character of the True Divine.” Translations of a few of its more pregnant paragraphs, or rather sentences, have been given by the Rev. Charles Bridges, in his excellent work on the Christian Ministry, and by the late Rev. Edward Bickersteth, in his modest but most useful work, “The Christian Student;” but it is believed no complete English version of it has hitherto been published.
The translator of the following pages was led to engage in the task, partly from his admiration of the discourse itself, partly from the necessity of finding some employment which would occupy, without fatiguing the mind, during a period of enfeebled health. The translation, when finished, was laid aside for several years, until it was suggested by an esteemed co-presbyter, to whom its existence was incidentally mentioned, that it would form an appropriate Presbyterial exercise. This suggestion was acted on, and the version, very nearly as it now stands, was read in presence of the Reverend the Free Presbytery of Cupar. The members of Presbytery received it with kind indulgence, and entertaining a strong conviction of the desirableness of having the views which Witsius expresses, brought before the minds of those who are either preparing for, or already engaged in the work of the ministry, they unanimously requested that the translation should be published; and in order to secure that attention should be drawn to it, they instructed their clerk to request the Rev. Principal Cunningham to prefix to it a recommendatory note.
With his usual courtesy and kindness, Dr. Cunningham complied with the request so made, and the little work is now accordingly sent forth.
CERES, February 1856.
I PRESUME to recommend the following little work to public notice and acceptance, not because I imagine that any recommendation of mine can have much influence, but solely because I am unwilling to decline to comply with a request made to me by some respected brethren. Witsius, the author of the following Oration, or Inaugural Address, needs no commendation from any one. He has been long regarded by all competent judges, as presenting a very fine and remarkable combination of the highest qualities that go to constitute a “True” and consummate theologian,—talent, sound judgment, learning, orthodoxy, piety and unction. This Address contains much matter well fitted to be useful to those who are engaged in the prosecution of theological study. The translation is, I think, at once accurate, elegant, and scholarlike. I cordially commend it to students, probationers, and young ministers.
ON THE CHARACTER OF THE TRUE DIVINE:
AN INAUGURAL ORATION, DELIVERED AT FRANEKER,
16TH APRIL 1675
BY HERMAN WITSIUS, S.S.T.P., D.D.
GOD, the Supreme Disposer of all things, regulates everything pertaining to the lot of man, effecting the most astonishing changes, according to the free appointment of his most absolute sovereignty, but always with spotless sanctity, and a wisdom unsearchable and inaccessible. Events unthought of by men, exceeding the fears of some, surpassing the requests of others, he suddenly bids emerge in quick succession, constraining all to admire and reverently adore the directing hand of the Deity displaying itself in results so unexpected. This procedure called forth that sacred hymn, in which the pious mother of an illustrious son once adored the providence of God: “The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich, he bringeth low and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory; for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them.” Such a mode of treatment I myself have surely, as much as any man, experienced in a singular degree during the whole course of my life, and above all, in discharging the duties of that sacred office with which the Lord has honoured me, and in which I have now spent nearly eighteen years. My pious parents devoted me to the Church in my early childhood, and took care to have my mind imbued with such doctrinal and practical instructions as were fitted to form me into one who would do no dishonour to the house of God. Yet both their humble desires and my own were fulfilled, when, not without deriving some benefit from my ministrations, they heard me discourse on Divine things, with but little pomp, and to a small assembly, in a place not far from my native city. Neither they nor I ever imagined, that after having filled the office of the ministry in so many churches of such note and importance, situated in different provinces of United Belgium, I should at length attain this most honourable position in the distinguished Academy of Friesland. When I revolve these pleasing events in my mind, I cannot refrain from breathing forth from my inmost soul these words—“Who am I, O Lord God? and what is my father’s house, that thou hast brought me hitherto? And what can I say more unto thee? for thou, Lord God, knowest thy servant.” I am haunted, at the same time, however, by a great and well-founded fear of failing rightly to perform the work assigned me. I am alarmed rather than elated, and have my whole frame thrown into agitation by my elevation to this chair—a chair which, on the one hand, occupied by one unequal to its duties, on the other, hitherto accustomed to men of superior qualifications, cannot have desired the advent of one unworthy of itself, and so seems to spurn the poor weak individual by whom it is filled. My eyes are dazzled by a splendour to which they have not been accustomed, while I pass from the catechising of those young in years or in knowledge, from the beds of the sick, from the hovels of the poor, among whom my work but yesterday lay, or from the pulpit, whence I reiterated to the Christian common people, instructions not eloquent but sound, and as remote as possible from the pride of worldly wisdom; and now, all at once come forward, a new teacher in this venerable seat of learning, and into a crowded circle of erudite men, whom in full conclave I can see listening to my words. In these circumstances, I cannot so brace up my mind but that my knees fail, my tongue hesitates, and my whole soul is prostrated by the deepest awe. But what shall I do? The decisive step is taken! And although I can scarcely begin to speak, I can yet no longer be silent. My only consolation is, that I have not sought after this place by unworthy artifices, nor indeed by any improper efforts, but have, on the contrary, been summoned and drawn hither by the unanimous wish of the prince and nobles, and the concurrent earnest desire of the whole Church, in which things the judicious bid me recognise a distinct call from God. Why should I not therefore apply to myself those most pleasing words of the Lord, in which of old he addressed his servant Joshua,—“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong, and of good courage, for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Although the consciousness of weakness renders me anxious, yet am I revived by the condescending kindness of Divine grace, which never deserts its own subjects, and is ever ready to give them support. By that grace, I say, I am refreshed, which delights to perfect its strength in weakness, and which often employs instruments the most mean, and the most unfit to accomplish the work assigned them, that the glory of the whole may be retained complete and undiminished. Sometimes the lesser gifts of God effect what the greater cannot, just for this reason, that the latter lie beyond the comprehension of the great body of mankind, while the former are more suited to their powers. The least finger can accomplish that which the largest cannot, and iron that which gold cannot do. And why may I not warrantably hope, that that blessing which the kindness of the Lord has heretofore caused to attend my feeble exertions, will not be withheld from my present work? At least in his name I this day enter on my new office. May he appoint a happy and prosperous issue to my labours! In order that I may not fail in the faithful discharge of my duty, I have at the outset delineated to myself the character of the TRUE AND SINCERE DIVINE, that I may have it continually before me; and this, portrayed as rigorously as possible in its own proper colours, I have resolved to offer to your contemplation in this discourse. As Moses of old was shewn in the mount a pattern of the Tabernacle which he was afterwards to construct, so I wish this delineation of the ministerial character to he continually my pattern in performing my duty. Trusting in the power of God, I will diligently labour to reach this model in some good measure; and when I stumble or come short, I will just again press toward it, hoping, as often as I happen to fail in my arduous undertaking, to obtain the pardon of my faults from the infinite mercy of God, and your courteous forbearance. For who that is conscious of his weakness, that feels himself unequal to the discharge of his functions, in point both of powers and experience, who in fine that is engaged as I am in a work so difficult and so peculiarly burdensome, can presume to expect that he shall succeed in escaping those faltering movements, which a mind jaded by exertion frequently exhibits? Still, however, it gives one delight to form the idea of a model perfect and complete in all its parts, by comparison with which he may the better discern his own failings, and learn how humbly he should think of himself and how profitably he may blush in the presence of others, and by whose contemplation he may be more strongly stimulated to his duty, with the certainty that whatever progress he may have made, he is still at an immense distance from an accurate resemblance to the pattern he had proposed to himself for imitation.
By a DIVINE, I mean one who, imbued with a substantial knowledge of Divine things derived from the teaching of God himself, declares and extols, not in words only, but by the whole course of his life, the wonderful excellencies of God, and thus lives entirely for His glory. Such were in former days the holy patriarchs, such the divinely inspired prophets, such the apostolic teachers of the whole world, such some of those whom we denominate fathers, the widely resplendent luminaries of the primitive Church. The knowledge of these men did not lie in the wire-drawn subtleties of curious questions, but in the devout contemplation of God and his Christ. Their plain and chaste mode of teaching did not soothe itching ears, but impressing upon the mind an exact representation of sacred things, inflamed the soul with their love, while their praiseworthy innocence of behaviour, in harmony with their profession, and unimpeached by their enemies, supported their teaching by an evidence that was irresistible, and formed a clear proof of their having familiar intercourse with the most holy God.
Let us, in contemplating such a divine, inquire, first, in what school, under what teachers, by what method, he reaches a wisdom so lofty; then into the mode in which he may most successfully communicate to others what he has been taught himself; and lastly, into the habits of soul, and outward walk, by which he may adorn his doctrine; or, to comprehend in three words the sum of what is to be said, let us portray the TRUE DIVINE as a STUDENT, as a TEACHER, and as a MAN. For no one teaches well unless he have first learned well; no one learns well unless he learn in order to teach. And both learning and teaching are vain and unprofitable, unless accompanied by practice.
I. Let us begin, therefore, with the lowest stage. He who would be a true divine, and worthy of that honourable appellation, must lay the foundation of his studies in the lower school of nature, and from every quarter of the universe, from the wonders of Divine providence, from the monuments of ancient as well as modern history, from the shrines of all the arts, from the beauties of various tongues, bring together and store up in his memory, as in a treasury of the most sacred kind, those things which, when afterwards advanced to a higher school, he may lay as a foundation for a nobler superstructure. It is not in vain that God has impressed visible marks of his invisible excellencies on his works. It is not in vain that He has introduced man, gifted with a discerning mind, into the magnificent theatre of this world. It is not in vain that, in the government of the universe, and in the vicissitudes of human affairs, he dispenses all things with an uncertainty that yet is regular,—with a good pleasure yet so wise. It is not in vain that he has so arranged the works of nature, that in them may be discerned a sort of type of the works of grace and glory, and, as it were, the rudiments of a better world. On the contrary, he has designed, that from the attentive consideration of all these things, we should learn who and what He is, the Eternal, the Infinite, the Omnipotent, the Supremely Wise, at once the best and the greatest of beings, sufficient of Himself for His own full blessedness, since He gives life, and breath, and all things to all; worthy, in fine, of our worship and our imitation,—one to whom we should unreservedly give ourselves,—one in whose love, and in the enjoyment of whose excellence, we should place our highest happiness. He has designed that we should reverently regard His majesty as it sends forth its refulgent rays into the inmost recesses of our hearts, therein giving laws, avenging offences with speedy punishment, and rewarding those things which are done well with the most placid approval, and the sweetest tranquillity of mind. He has designed that having correctly observed how fleeting, evanescent, and frail those things are, which were once erroneously deemed eternal, we should pant after those things which are above, and much more after the Lord of Heaven, who, Himself unchanging, is the author of every movement. Nor would we have our divine contemplate only the works of God. Let him, on the contrary, labour to be thoroughly master of whatever aids human industry has contrived for the guidance of the mind in the investigation of truth, or for that of the tongue, that it may prove a suitable interpreter to the mind. Let him consult in no cursory manner those who are masters in the sciences of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, using them as the Israelites of old did the Gibeonites, whose work it was to cleave wood and draw water for the use of the Sanctuary. The former furnish rules for definition, division, and arrangement; the latter teach the art of discoursing, not only with purity and precision, but also with elegance and effect. Their united influence can thus afford the most appropriate aids to those who serve in the Tabernacle of God. Let the divine collect moral precepts from the opinions of the philosophers, and examples from the monuments of history, that they may prove a spur in his pursuit of higher attainments, or if less effectual for such a purpose, that they may at least serve to put to shame habits of sluggishness and inactivity. Let him apply himself diligently to the acquisition of different languages, and especially of those which God has distinguished by making them the channels of conveyance for his heavenly oracles,—that he may understand God when he speaks, as it were, in his own language,—that he who acts as the interpreter of God, and hears the word at his mouth, may not require an interpreter for himself. Whatever is sound and judicious in human arts,—whatever is true and substantial in philosophy,—whatever is elegant and graceful in the wide extent of polite literature, all flow from the Father of Lights, the inexhaustible Fountain of all reason, truth, and beauty; and all this, therefore, collected from every quarter, ought again to be consecrated to Him. Although such things may appear trifling and earthly, yet these same trifling and earthly things form the needle by which we may introduce the golden threads of heavenly truth, and fasten them securely in our minds. They are as a mirror by whose aid the exquisitely delicate ideas of spiritual objects may be more clearly perceived by our renewed eyes. These are the elementary studies of the future divine. If they are contemptuously despised, it is scarcely to be expected that his engaging in those of a higher description will be attended by the wished for fruits, or fulfil what is justly expected in one of his name and office. Still these things are, after all, cut the rudiments.
I am unwilling that our divine should spend much time in pursuits of this kind. Let him rise from that lower and merely natural school, to the higher fields of Scripture study, and sitting humbly before God, let him learn from His mouth the hidden mysteries of salvation, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,—which none of the princes of this world knew,—which no power of reason, however well trained, could discover, and which the angelic hosts above, although beholding continually the face of God, do yet with profoundest earnestness investigate. In the richly stored books of Scripture, and nowhere else, are laid open to our view the secrets of this more sacred wisdom. Whatever is not drawn from the Scriptures,—whatever is not built upon them,—whatever does not exactly accord with them, however much it may recommend itself by assuming the guise of superior wisdom, or be upheld by ancient tradition, by the consent of the learned, or by dint of plausible arguments, is vain, futile,—in short, a mere falsehood. TO THE LAW AND TO THE TESTIMONY, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. Let the divine be ravished with these heavenly oracles,—let him be occupied with them day and night,—let him meditate in them, let him live in them, let him draw his wisdom from them, let him compare all his thoughts with them, let him embrace nothing in religion which he does not find there. Let him not tie his faith to any one, not to prophet, apostle, or even an angel, as if the dicta of any man or angel could be the rule of faith. In God, in God alone, let his faith rest. For it is not a human, but emphatically a divine faith which we learn and teach; and so discriminating is it, that it reckons no foundation sufficiently firm, but that afforded by the authority of him who cannot lie, who never deceives. The Word of God, moreover, when studied attentively, has also an indescribable power of attraction. It fills the mind with the clearest ideas of heavenly truth. Its method of teaching is distinguished by purity, solidity, certainty, and the absence of the least mixture of error. It soothes the mind with an ineffable sweetness,—it satisfies the hunger and thirst of sacred knowledge with flowing brooks of honey and butter,—it penetrates, by its irresistible power, into the inmost recesses of the heart,—it imprints its testimony on the mind so firmly and immoveably, that the believing soul rests upon it with as much security as if it had been carried up to the third heaven, and had heard it directly from God’s mouth,—it moves all the affections, and, exhaling in every line the most delightful odour of sanctity, breathes it into the soul of the pious reader, even although he perhaps does not reach the full meaning of all that he peruses. I cannot find words to express how much we injure ourselves by an unnatural method of study, which, alas! has too much prevailed amongst us,—that method, I mean, which leads us first to form our conceptions of Divine things from human writings, and then to attempt to confirm these, either by passages of Scripture, sought out by ourselves, or by catching, without farther examination, at those adduced by others, as bearing on the point in hand, when we ought to draw our views of Divine truth directly from the Scriptures themselves, and to employ human writings not otherwise than as pointers, indicating to us, under the different topics of theology, those passages of Scripture by which we may be instructed in the mind of the Lord.
I cannot here refrain from quoting the opinion of the singularly acute Dr. Twisse regarding John Piscator, and the method of study which he adopted.* After having said all that could be said in commendation of his acquirements in sacred literature, he concludes thus:—“I shall only farther add, that I must regard with unfeigned reverence this divine, who, by the study of the Sacred Volume alone, employing simply the aids of the more common and elementary branches, such as Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic, (in which he excelled,) acquired a method of treating theological subjects so accurate and scientific in its nature, that I scarcely know his equal—certainly not his superior—among the Schoolmen themselves. As if the Father of mercies had wished to exhibit in this very age, so inquisitive in its character, and too desirous of confounding secular with sacred learning, a specimen of the proficiency we might reach in an exact and scientific knowledge of the things conducive to salvation, merely through the reading of the Holy Scriptures, assiduous meditation, and careful study, and in exclusion of the whole tribe of Summists, Sententiaries, and Schoolmen.” Such were the feelings, such the judgment of that mighty champion, regarding the method of study we recommend. I am not, however, to be regarded as wishing our divine to throw aside the Commentaries of erudite men that he may learn from himself—that is, from presumption, the very worst of teachers, all the while retaining the Scriptures, whose words, ill understood, may serve as a screen to his errors. Illustrious men in the Church, raised high above the cares of the world, and at full liberty to mind the things of the Lord—loving Him and beloved by Him, have discerned in the Holy Scriptures, have drawn from them, have committed to writing and placed in the clearest light, many things of which we, in the thick darkness of this life, would otherwise, perhaps, have remained for ever ignorant, unable, by our own unassisted powers, to discover them in the mines where they lay hid. And although we may ourselves observe many things in our perusal of the Scriptures, it is yet a great comfort, a mighty confirmation of our faith, if we can see that a discovery of the same truth, flowing from the same fountain, has aforetime been granted to others, by that same Lord who has condescended to enlighten our difficulties. The highest praise is due to the modesty of Jerome, when he protests that he never, in the study of the Divine Word, trusted in his own strength, and that he never formed an opinion altogether of himself; but that, even with respect to those things of which he thought he knew something, it was his habit to ask himself how much more still remained of which he was ignorant. Nor was it without reason that the blessed Athanasius, in the beginning of his discourse against the Gentiles, commended his friend,—a Christian man to whom he wrote, because, that while qualified to gather for himself, from the Sacred Scriptures, those particulars regarding the Christian faith on which he sought information from Athanasius, he yet received them with humility from others. This one thing only I reiterate, that no faith is to be put in the assertions of any man respecting the meaning of the Scriptures, unless he shall demonstrate, from the Scriptures themselves, that the meaning in question is indeed the true one; that thus, having God as our teacher, and man only as an indicator, we may become wise unto salvation. The most distinguished interpreters of Scripture have themselves insisted, in the strongest manner, on this point. “I am unwilling,” says Cyril of Jerusalem, addressing himself to his reader, “that thou shouldst put implicit faith in me while I thus discourse, unless thou canst obtain, in the Sacred Scriptures, proofs of the things which are set forth,” adducing, as his reason, the following memorable sentence:—“The safety of our faith depends not upon the fluent fulness of any discourse, but upon the demonstration of the Divine Scriptures.” In entire harmony with the above statements is one made by Justin Martyr:—“I do not give my assent to men, not even if a multitude should say that their judgment coincides with mine, since we have been enjoined by Christ himself to obey not the doctrines of men, but those which have been declared through the prophets and taught by Himself.” Athanasius, in whose commendation I have already spoken, remarks most judiciously, that the Apostle Paul himself established from the Scriptures the doctrines he laid down, and did not rest them simply on his own authority. If he did this—he who heard unspeakable words, was intrusted with the knowledge of hidden mysteries, and had Christ speaking in him, could it now be otherwise than dangerous to believe on any other authority but that of Scripture? All that I have now said may be summed up thus:—THE TRUE DIVINE is an humble disciple of the Scriptures.
But as the Word of God is the only rule of Faith, so it is also necessary that our divine, in order to understand it in a spiritual and saving manner, give himself up to the internal teaching of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he who is a disciple of the Scriptures, must also be a disciple of the Spirit. He who looks at heavenly things with the blind eyes of nature, does not see their native splendour and beauty, but only a kind of false image of them, for the appearance which is proper to them is very different from that which is impressed upon the minds of those before whose eyes they so dimly hover. In order to understand spiritual things, we must have a spiritual mind. The hidden things of Scripture elude the penetration of the merely human intellect, however acute; nor is the natural mind better able to perceive these, than are the organs of smell to judge of the nature of sounds, or those of hearing that of odours. Here, therefore, the Spirit, the great teacher of souls, in order to come to the aid of such helplessness, bestows upon His pupils a new and spiritual mind, which He himself illuminates with the purest light, that they may be able to discern the most heavenly mysteries in their own proper brightness. Along with Divine things, He gives, in large measure, a mind by which they can be relished and understood. He imparts the mind of Christ along with the things of Christ. Hence the divine who has been instructed in this spiritual and heavenly school, not only learns to form in his mind genuine ideas of Divine things, but—inestimable treasure!—receives these things themselves. For the Spirit, the teacher, presents not were words or downright figments—not vain dreams or empty phantoms, but, as it were, what is solid and enduring, and, if I may so express myself, the very substances of things. These are introduced into the soul of him who has a true knowledge of them, and are embraced by the whole affections, and with the utmost strength of the heart. He who is a student in this heavenly school, not only knows and believes, but has also sensible experience of, the forgiveness of sins, and the privilege of adoption and intimate communion with God, and the grace of the indwelling Spirit, and the hidden manna, and the sweet love of Christ,—the earnest and pledge, in short, of perfect happiness. Many things there are in this hidden wisdom which cannot be learned but by possessing, feeling, and tasting them. The new name is not known by any man, saving he that receiveth it. The Spirit thus works, that His disciples may taste and see how good the Lord is. He brings them into the banqueting-house, while his banner over them is love. “Eat,” he says, “O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved!” and thus made to partake liberally of the wine of the Saviour, they acquire a power of discerning heavenly objects, far surpassing that which Jonathan of old attained after he had tasted the honeycomb. And that which any one has learned by this tasting, is fixed so immoveably in his soul, that no subtleties of argument, no sudden assaults of temptation, will avail to obliterate the impress of this seal. He is prepared to neutralize all objections by this one reply: It is vain to dispute against experience. We have not, will such persons say—we have not followed cunningly-devised fables, when we believed the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eye-witnesses of His majesty; and we cannot but believe those things which we have heard with our ears, which our hands have handled, and our mouth hath tasted of the word of life. Since these things are learned in a way so clear, holy, and saving, in the school of the Spirit alone, who does not see how absolutely necessary it is that our divine give himself up to be trained by this Master? In order that he may be thus instructed, let him heartily renounce his own wisdom, let him become a fool that he may be wise. The new world of Divine knowledge is created by God, as was the old world itself, out of nothing. In the exercise of love, the student of Divine truth may make a near approach to God, and elicit the knowledge of His counsels. The faithful and true Witness has declared, “He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” Let our divine carefully lay up in his heart the sayings of the Holy Spirit, and by frequent meditation, set them again and again before his mind. In studying, let him not only read but pray; let him commune not with man alone, but with God in prayer, with himself in meditation. The soul of a holy man is like a little sanctuary, in which God dwells by his Spirit, and where that Spirit, devoutly consulted in prayer, often reveals things of which the princes of this world can never by any study acquire such a knowledge. In fine, let him see to it, that the mirror of his mind be so spiritually pure and unclouded, as to be suited to receive the Spirit of purity, together with those spiritual images which He presents. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And to close all, the divine, by these steps, and under the teaching of the Spirit, will reach such a degree of knowledge, as to see, in his own light, God the fountain of light, and to rejoice in Him, and in the knowledge of Him, with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
II. Farther, from that heavenly training of the Holy Spirit, which we have just been delineating, our divine may acquire an exalted and peculiar skill in the ART OF TEACHING, which, as we have already hinted, forms another essential qualification. For it is when he goes forth from the sacred mount of contemplation, his soul manifestly replenished, and radiant with the purest light, that he is best fitted to communicate that light by reflection to others. After he has, under the guidance of the Spirit, reached a deep-seated vein of Divine truth, he is able so skilfully to open it up, that an overflowing fountain of water, springing up to everlasting life, bursts forth to allay the thirst of his brethren. Yet what is this same word to others destitute of such light, but an arid crag, of which they may say, Shall we fetch you water out of this rock? And since he has not only heard, but seen, and handled, and tasted of the Word of Life, and been taught, not by mere speculation, but by real experience, be safely inculcates, from the assured persuasion of his own mind, what he has thus learned; and under the guidance of his own experience, applies it judiciously to men in every condition, as the case of each may require. No greater difference is there between a skilful general who has commanded armies, stormed cities, detected ambuscades, is thoroughly conversant with all the stratagems of war, has often carried his arms through opposing battalions, who has learned by long experience,—
Both wars to wage, and captives home to lead;
and some boastful and vain-glorious coward, who, with untarnished shield, vaunts himself in swelling words of his exploits in action, while he has never seen a battle-field, except, perchance, depicted on paper—no greater difference is there, I say, between these, than there is between an experienced divine, who, with Paul, has often run the Christian course, through honour and dishonour, through evil report and good report, as unknown, and yet well known, as dying, and yet living, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, and yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things,—and some pedant from the schools, learned only by rote, who, with accomplishments residing not in his mind or heart, but chiefly in his memory and tongue, seems in his own eyes the first of divines. What can such an one do but prate about some frigid, trifling directions regarding the Christian warfare, whose application he has never learned by experience, and which neither affect nor solidly instruct his hearers? while the former discourses not with wisdom of words, or with ostentation, but judiciously and skilfully upon the whole method of vanquishing the devil, overcoming the world, and at length taking possession of the kingdom of heaven,—himself affording an example at once of fortitude and of modesty.
Nor is it enough that the divine set forth what is known and investigated by himself, unless he do so from love unfeigned. And if he regard with ardent love, God, the bountiful giver of all wisdom, believers as his sons and brethren in Christ, and the truth itself with which he is intrusted, he cannot but employ every resource, and put forth every effort to win many souls—to swell the number of those who with himself adore and praise the only wise God. In this work he can never be satisfied. Moreover, he exerts himself to cherish his spiritual children in a winning and gentle manner, and with an assiduity which knows no weariness, desiring to impart unto them, not the gospel of God only, but if it were possible his own soul, and still more the Spirit of Christ, teaching, admonishing, beseeching, and fashioning, and forming them as it were with his own hands, that at length, full of joy, he may, after the example of Christ, present them before God, and say in his measure, “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me, are for signs and wonders in Israel.” Nor will he imitate that wicked servant who wrapped his Lord’s talent in a napkin, but will endeavour to enrich as many as possible with the treasure of heavenly truth, which cannot be valued with the most excellent gold of Ophir, or the most costly pearls; being well assured that nothing shall be wanting to him if he add much to others, nay, that much will accrue to himself if the Lord find him faithful in dispensing, and abundant in communicating his truth. And teaching thus, from unfeigned love, he will not for lucre corrupt the Word of God, use flattering words, or a cloak of covetousness; neither of men will be seek glory, nor study to please them, but God alone who searcheth the hearts.
The same spirit of love will lead him to set forth only what is certain, sound, solid, and fitted to cherish faith, excite hope, promote piety, and preserve unity and peace;—doing all without prejudice, inclining to no party, abstaining with the utmost solicitude from all novelties of expression, unprofitable speech, strifes, and curious, foolish, and unlearned questions of words, by which the minds of the simple are disturbed, the Church rent in pieces—surmisings and whisperings engendered within, while without a spectacle is exhibited which affords gratification to its enemies, and a cause of triumph to Satan himself. Flee these things, O man of God, nor hunt after the shameful distinction of introducing innovations. Through the mercy of God, we have in our churches and colleges an admirable deposit of Divine truth, so clearly demonstrated from the Scriptures, so strongly fortified against adversaries of every kind, so richly abounding in consolation, so effectual in producing sanctification, commending itself so fully to the conscience, and in fine sealed by the blood of so many of the dearest martyrs, that there is no room to doubt that it is sufficient to conduct the faithful to salvation, and to make the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work. To complain of thick darkness under so clear a flood of gospel light, and to move with as much fear and uncertainty within the Reformed Churches, as in dwellings destitute of the gladsome light of the sun, or thickets rugged and entangled, or, as if in the gloom of darkness itself, is a sign of an ungrateful mind, insensible of its privileges. How great an evil therefore is that unseasonable itching after innovation, by which, at this day, some subjects are perverted, others thrown into confusion, and the rest, heretofore declared with the greatest soundness, plainness, and care, and cordially believed, are involved in uncouth and unsanctioned formulæ! Might we not warrantably say to those who pursue such a course, in the words which Chrysostom addressed to the innovators of his day?—“Let them hear what Paul declares, That those have corrupted the Gospel, who, even in the smallest degree, hunt after novelties.”
But I am not to be regarded as wishing to prevent progress. Nothing can be more delightful to a believing soul, nothing more useful to the Church, than that the divine should, day by day, learn fresh lessons from the Scriptures, form more accurate ideas of spiritual things, discern with growing clearness the closeness of that connexion by which saving truths are linked into one chain—an evidence of adorable wisdom—support truths known of old by numerous and fresh, yet, at the same time, obvious and legitimate arguments, accumulate materials for the elucidation of what is obscure, investigate with fear and trembling the mysteries of prophecy, make the arguments of Christ and His apostles bear with demonstrative power on the conscience, compare sedulously the ceremonial emblems with Christ the antitype, and thus conduct himself as a scribe well instructed into the kingdom of heaven, who brings forth, out of the good treasure of his heart, things new and old. In such labours there is room for whatever acquirements, or powers of application, any of us may possess. This will be done without exciting the envy of any good man, while the Church will rejoice, Satan be disappointed; and God, who hath promised that, at the time of the end, many shall run to and fro, and knowledge be increased, will prosper the holy efforts of His servants. But away with those vain, fanciful, presumptuous, and forced interpretations, which attract some solely by the charms of novelty, and are greedily embraced by others, in order to found a school or party, which are profitable for nothing, but minister questions rather than godly edifying, which is in faith.
That he may the better promote edification, let the divine treat sacred truths in a chaste manner,—let him abstain from dishonouring the statements of inspiration by mingling with them the puerile trifles of human philosophy. The great things of God do not require the aid of stilted expressions,—they are upheld by their own strength,—they baffle every intellect which attempts to reduce them into strict categorical order; nor must the divine try to clothe the mistress in the mean apparel of her handmaids, and make it fit as if it were her own. The things of God can never be more aptly explained than in the words of God. He is greatly mistaken who assumes that he will succeed in expounding the mysteries of theology more accurately, or clearly, or effectually, or intelligibly, than within those limits, and in those terms which, after the example of the prophets, the apostles employed, which were dictated by Him who formed the mouth and tongue of man, who fashioned the hearts of all, and therefore knew best in what way the heart could most effectually be instructed and moved. HE THAT SPEAKS, LET HIM SPEAK AS THE ORACLES OF GOD, not in the idle, hateful, and barbarous diction of the Schoolmen, but after the manner in which the Holy Spirit himself addresses us. To trifle with the most awful mysteries, by employing obscure, or bandying light expressions,—to transfix the very heart of theology by introducing the obsolete terms, the bombast, the verbal conceits and high-sounding trifles of the schools, or to load theology, that queen of the sciences, with the fetters of a pedantic and uncouth diction, is not, believe me, O man of God, for thy dignity, or for that of the wisdom thou dost profess.
That thou mayest rightly preserve that dignity, speak with simplicity, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; so shaping all thine instructions, that thy flock may not have their minds filled with worthless fancies, but be built up in faith, glow with love, and grow up in the likeness of Jehovah, Would to God!—would to God, that at length that holy method of treating theological subjects, so earnestly prayed for by pious persons, might prevail in the Reformed Churches!—that method, I mean, which does not rest in mere contemplation, nor vanish in litigious strifes and disputes, but which would illuminate the mind with living light, and warm the heart with genial heat, and, as it were, fashion our Nazarites in the very mould of Heaven’s truth.
III. But with what heart, with what success, will that man labour, who has not first sought to be himself fashioned after the image of God? And this was the last of the qualifications which we mentioned as necessary in our divine, viz., a spotless parity of life, corresponding to his profession. The Lord wills that He be sanctified in those who approach Him, and that His priests be clothed with righteousness. Unless they be themselves examples of the believers in all Christian virtues,—unless they can say with Paul, “those things which ye have both learned and received, and heard and seen in me, do,” and “be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ,” they destroy more by their wicked life than they build up by their sound doctrine; they are a disgrace to our most holy religion; they teach men to doubt of the truth of those things which they preach, and thus open a wide door to Antinomianism and Atheism. And how, I ask, is it possible that he who knows the truth as it is in Jesus, should not be inflamed with His love and sanctified by His truth? Or that he in whose dwelling there is familiar intercourse with God, should not walk with Him after the example of Enoch or Noah? Or that he in whose soul is a sense of heavenly things and a true relish for them, should not have his conversation in heaven? Or that he who, surrounded on every side by the light of grace, daily beholds the very excellencies of God shining gloriously in the face of Jesus Christ, should not himself be transformed into that image, even as by the Spirit of the Lord? I do not hesitate, in the strongest manner, to deny that that man is a true divine, or knows anything of Divine mysteries as he ought to know, who has not, by that knowledge, escaped from the pollutions of the world and the dominion of sin. For thus saith the Lord, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It was an old maxim of the Philosophers, that all things could be done by knowing the source of knowledge. The School of Plato held that this was most fully realized in the contemplation of the Divine ideas, by the sublime knowledge of which man becomes as God, in so far as it is possible for man to share in the position and privileges of the Deity. Such views were of old set forth with great beauty by Hierocles. But that which Philosophy could by no means bestow upon her votaries, because able to reveal the Divine perfections under the scanty light of nature only, that, Theology imparts in abundance to her disciples, exhibiting as she does to their contemplation, in the clearest light, the excellencies of God and of His Christ, and thus, according to the declaration of the inspired Apostle Peter, making them “partakers of the Divine nature.”
But God is Holy.
The holiness of which I speak comprehends all the virtues in its embrace. This is neither the time nor the place to delineate these individually. The desire of heaven, contempt of the world, unfeigned gravity, a modesty leading him to be busy with his own affairs, and to abstain from meddling with those of others—a humility teaching him to think soberly of himself, and highly of all besides—a mind solicitous to preserve peace as well as truth—fervent zeal tempered with the blandest gentleness—long-suffering under injuries and reproaches—a prudent circumspection in regard alike to the time and manner of action—a precision the most unbending and accurate in exacting of himself, with a readiness to pardon many things in his brethren, and whatever else pertains to this august preparation;—these, these are the things which do not simply adorn, but which make the divine. Shew me a man who, intently meditating on sacred realities, does not simulate gravity by his beard or dress, but panting after the things which are above and eternal, holds in low estimation the sumptuous halls of the rich, and the whole earth itself, with its gold and its silver;—who, satisfied with the grace of Christ the Saviour, and the fellowship of the Divine Spirit inhabiting his breast, looks down as from a lofty eminence upon all the vanities and allurements of the world, coveting neither pleasures, nor wealth, nor honours;—who, devoting himself wholly to the care of souls, and the defence, promotion, and enlargement of the kingdom of Christ, does not give himself up to secular business or politics, watches for no office, is no demagogue, does not pay court to the great, does not cringe to his ecclesiastical superiors, nor lord it over God’s heritage, and accurately assigning to the church, the college, and the civil power, their proper relative places, confines himself to his own church or chair;—who, the farther he advances in the contemplation of the things which are above, and in the practice of virtue, is the less disposed to tarnish the glory of his neighbour; measuring himself not by himself, but with those who are more perfect, and above all, with the perfect law of God;—who, whensoever the cause of God, the salvation of souls, the defence of the Church, and the guardianship of the heavenly doctrine call for exertion, is all on fire with zeal for God, and would rather die a hundred deaths, than that one jot should be yielded to the enemy in that cause which is not his, but his Lord’s;—who, at the same time, would seek no revenge for personal injuries, would bear with moderation reproaches directed against himself, and in doubtful matters not insist on his own opinion;—who, as was said of Athanasius by the ancients, stands firm as a rock against the assaults of the violent but as a magnetic centre of attraction and union to those at variance;—who, always exercising prudence, attempts nothing rashly, exerting himself unobtrusively even in the most difficult undertakings;—who, in fine, not feignedly nor lightly, but with the most unaffected simplicity, is ready to throw himself at the feet of all, preferring himself to no one, but every one to himself, is forward to give honour to all, esteeming his neighbour more than himself,—shew me, I say, such a man, and I will salute him as A TRUE DIVINE; him will I revere, him will I embrace, acknowledging that he is, and that in him is the glory of Christ.
Thus, my hearers, I have delineated the true divine. How little I resemble, how very far I differ from such an one, no one knows better than myself. What groans, what tears, should not the consciousness of my ignorance, sloth, and deficiencies of every kind, cause to flow forth while I meditate on what I have declared? I solemnly protest before God and his elect angels, and I call upon all of you to be witnesses of this my declaration, that I tremble and throb with emotion as often as I reflect on the nature and extent of those duties which God now requires at my hand, and which you have called me to undertake. Yet ought I to lose courage on these accounts? Or should I lower the exact standard of duty that it may the less strongly condemn my deviations? This, God will never allow. I had rather, in truth, my hearers, that you should all detect how little I am what I ought to be, nay, how absolutely unqualified I am,—I had rather blush a hundred times a day for my failures, than that I should, by proposing an imperfect standard, displease others less, and lay an unction to my own soul as foolish as flattering. Yet I dare promise, that, through the grace of God, I shall spare no efforts to approve to you my fidelity and diligence. I shall teach the truth, I shall inculcate piety, I shall pursue what is solid, I shall bid away from me all that is vain, curious, and tending to strifes. The words of Segestes, the German, as recorded by Tacitus, I shall with the utmost appropriateness make my own,—“I prefer things of old standing to novelties, things that make for peace to those that tend to discord;” and I cannot approve the designs of those who love to make a noise about the liberty of prophesying, which, to adopt again the language of Tacitus, “are marked by imposing words, but are in reality empty and illusory, and which are allied to the most oppressive slavery, just in proportion as they exhibit a semblance of liberty.” I shall so exalt the truth, as not to disturb peace. I shall cherish peace in such a way, that it shall not be purchased at the expense of truth. And unless I be forsaken of Divine grace, which from my inmost soul I pray may never happen, I shall conduct myself in such a way, as to be to you, my illustrious colleagues, no unpleasant associate,—to you, my excellent young friends, no seductive guide.
And thee, most illustrious Arnold,* the boldest champion of orthodoxy in our own beloved Friesland, and now of veteran standing in this seminary,—thee, I beseech, I entreat, to grant to me, an inexperienced novice, the benefit of thine example, instructions, assistance, advice. In vindicating the truth, in repelling heresy, in commending piety, lead, direct, precede me. Though my pace, compared with thine, will be but tardy, I shall cheerfully follow: Soar thou aloft as an eagle into the clouds, it shall be my delight to fly by thy side like a fledgling of no ignoble brood. Let us join our right hands, and let not livid envy, nor hateful rage, nor the evil insinuations of jealous detractors, succeed in setting at variance souls united in God. I shall yield the respect due to thy hoary hairs. Be thou my support and solace in the work, which, with but little experience, I now undertake.
Let me now turn to the youths before me, set apart to God. Let me entreat you, who arc henceforth to be my joy, glory, and crown in the Lord, to give yourselves up to be taught and moulded under my instructions. Whatever I have, if I have anything for you henceforth, I will have it. Whatever I can do, for you I will do it. In all that I am, I will be yours. For you I will study, for you I will labour, for you I will write. You will I set before me,—you will I carry in my bosom. I shall shrink neither from the weariness nor exhaustion attendant upon study, if only I can subserve your improvement. Then, at length, shall I seem to myself truly to live, if, through the blessing of the Most High on our labours, you at last go forth from my training approved by your parents, and the patrous of this seminary, fitted for the service of the Church, devoted to God, and yielding glory to Him. See only that you be not wanting to yourselves, but that, while your knees are yet strong,—while an acceptable time of grace shines upon you,—while sacred wisdom opens the gates of her temple, you neglect not so great salvation, but that by unwearied diligence, earnest prayer, and spotless integrity, you seek to become worthy of God, worthy of His ministry.
O God, who art the teacher and giver of all wisdom, be thou present, by thy Spirit, with us as we engage, yea, that we may engage together in these studies. Open thou our eyes, that we may behold wondrous things out of thy law. May thy Holy Scriptures be our pure delight; may we neither be deceived in reading them, nor handle them deceitfully. Sanctify us through thy truth; thy word is truth. Preserve, defend, enlarge this seminary, consecrated to thy glory. Let envy, strifes, divisions, heresies, be for ever at a distance. May orthodoxy prevail, may piety flourish, let mercy and truth meet together, let righteousness and peace kiss each other. Our beloved country, rescued by thy wonder-working right hand from so many evils, do thou preserve in safety and peace. Bless the Prince our governor, born to great things, and daily rising to great things, who, along with the Prince of Orange, the wonder of our age, is at once the stay and guardian of his country. Bless his illustrious mother, in whom thou hast restored to our age the Deborah of ancient times; avert from their beloved heads all calamity and all violence. Bless our nobles, that they may prudently, cordially, and successfully consult for the good of the commonwealth. Bless all our citizens; may there be no irruption of violence from without, no outbreak of rebellion from within. May there be no complaining in our streets. And after our days in this life have been spent in prolonged felicity, do thou at last transfer us, with all thine elect, to Heaven itself. This is the sum of our prayers,—this the sum of our hope. Hear and accept us, O Triune Jehovah!
Witsius, H. (1856). On the Character of the True Divine: An Inaugural Oration, Delivered at Franeker, April 16, 1675 (pp. i–46). Edinburgh: James Wood.