Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Cocceius vs. the Cartesio-Cocceians

Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669)Cocceius vs. the Cartesio-Cocceians? Probably not the first face-off that would come to mind when thinking about Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669). The more natural pairing would be Cocceius vs. Voetius. But today I want to take a moment to examine a phenomenon that occurs throughout history; namely, the discontinuity between teacher and disciple.

By the 1640s, a cohort of orthodox Calvinists gained the moniker “Voetians,” named after their leader Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). Over the years they also gained a reputation for affirming a scholastic form of Calvinism and combating heterodoxy in all forms. Cartesianism became a repeated target for the Voetians, claiming that Cartesian skepticism elevated reason over revelation.

By the 1650s, the Voetians were countered by the Cocceians, who affirmed Cocceius’ federal or covenant theology along with Descartes’ philosophical system. Though Cartesian philosophy became an integral component for many Cocceians, it never played an important role for Cocceius himself.

The omission of Cartesianism in Cocceius was not due to a lack of exposure. Rather, this was a conscious decision to refrain from Cartesian principles such as dualism and skepticism. Willem van Asselt argues that it was the “Tolerant” or “Leiden” Cocceians, such as Christophorus Wittichius (1625-1687), who combined Cartesian philosophy with Cocceian theology in a way that Cocceius specifically deemed not beneficial (Federal Theology, 72-105; Reformed Scholasticism, 149).

If this is the case, why continue identifying figures such as Wittichius as being Cocceian or even Cartesio-Cocceian? First, Cartesio-Cocceians were reliant on Cocceian theology and especially biblical hermeneutic. They did not forsake central Cocceian principles, but rather, supplemented them with Cartesian philosophy.

Second, that is the way they and their opponents identified themselves. They united around their Cartesio-Cocceian theology in opposition to the Voetians. Wiep van Bunge recounts Wittichius’ efforts to convince his fellow Cocceian Lambert van Velthuysen (1622-1685) to accept a Cartesian understanding of the doctrine of accommodation (From Stevin to Spinoza, 84. Earlier in the work, van Bunge mistakenly argues that the Cartesio-Coccesians upheld Calvin’s definition of accommodation).

Wittichius’ hope was for Socinian accommodation, labeled as Cartesian, to serve as a rallying point for the Cocceians. With van Velthuysen’s support, the Cartesio-Cocceians would come to a consensus and solidify the Cartesio-Cocceian camp on a significant point of contention between the Cocceians and Voetians. For a summary of the accommodation debate, consult my previous post.

The Cartesio-Cocceian variety of Socinian accommodation was used as an identifier to separate themselves from the Voetians, who upheld the Augustinian definition. Cartesio-Cocceian accommodation challenged the Bible’s authority on cosmological issues but also doctrinal matters seen in Balthasar Bekker’s (1664-1698) The World Bewitched (1695). Bekker claimed that accounts of demon possession were merely accommodations to ancient Israel’s lack of mental health awareness. The Bible was not teaching the existence of demons, for they do not exist, but merely using the erroneous thinking of Israelites to convey a message of truth.

Cartesio-Cocceian accommodation, or Cartesian skepticism and dualism that is foundational to Cartesio-Cocceian accommodation, is not found in Cocceius. Yet, I do think it is helpful to talk of Socinian accommodation as Cartesio-Cocceian accommodation in regards to certain circles of seventeenth-century Dutch reformed thought. That is the way it was framed by them and their opponents. Also, later in the eighteenth century, heterodox Lutherans appropriated Cartesio-Cocceian accommodation, but slowly replaced the Cartesian element for other philosophical systems such as Wolffian philosophy.

Cartesio-Cocceians are hardly the only ones who appropriate principles from their teacher in a manner never intended by the latter. Keeping that in mind, it is important that we do not read the thoughts of disciples back into the teacher. Or vice-versa; that the disciples followed their teacher exactly.

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  1. Your comments about Christoph Wittich’s “Socinian” view of accommodation in WTJ and on this site caught my attention.

    Putting W’s Cartesianism to one side, are you really justified in claiming that his view of accommodation is Socinian? Wittich seems to have held that while biblical language about natural phenomena is generally accommodated to the erroneous conceptions of ordinary sense experience (something few would deny today!), what the Bible actually affirms by this language about history, etc., is nevertheless true. If so, then Wittich was NOT questioning the Bible’s inerrancy, and you have read into some of his statements (especially on p. 337 of your WTJ article) things he did not intend.

    On the other hand, I see a clear connection between the view of Scripture espoused by W’s opponents (e.g., biblical descriptions of nature are scientifically accurate, and have epistemological priority in scientific matters) and their rejection of Copernican cosmology – something that Wittich himself drew attention to repeatedly. Are you not bothered by this blunder on the part of Voetius and his followers, rooted as it was in their view of Scripture? Does it not at least call into question their relevance for the ongoing debate within evangelicalism about the nature of accommodation?

    Granted, my reading of Wittich may be very flawed; but if he did espouse what you call “Socinian accommodation” there must be clear textual evidence for it somewhere that I have so far overlooked.

    Anyway, I enjoy your thoughtful articles and posts and hope you keep up your work!

    • Thank you for your comments. I too may have misunderstood Wittichius but I am not alone in this assessment. Jon Balserk states that Calvin’s use of accommodation “rarely, if ever, suggests a conception of the Bible which understands its truth as being historically-relative, as seems to have been the case with these later proponents of accommodation such as Christoph Wittich” (Divinity Compromised, 166).
      The understanding is that Wittichius’ doctrine relativizes the statement of the Bible to its historical context, which for Wittichius, inevitably resulted in an errant Bible. Calvin, affirming the Augustinian position, used the doctrine to acknowledge human elements in the Bible but also to uphold the Bible’s authority while in harmony with science. Though Wittichius may not have used the term “Socinian,” since to do so in his day would be the same as admitting to atheism, his use of accommodation challenged the Bible’s authority similar to Socinus. In Wittichius’ case, it was the combination of accommodation and Cartesian dualism.
      An example of the difference can be found in their treatment of natural occurrences. Often, Wittichius opposes the human senses and truth as mutually exclusive categories in the Bible (Dissertationes Duae, 30-31, 64). Whereas Augustinian accommodation would claim such descriptions are phenomenological language (as we today would describe the rising and setting of the sun), Wittichius contended that the biblical authors erroneous described natural events due to a lack of knowledge.
      The differences become even clearer in the eighteenth century when biblical scholars used a Socinian understanding of accommodation, passed down through the Cartesio-Cocceians, to negate Christ’s atonement on the cross. The argument goes: the biblical authors used pagan rituals, such as sacrifices, to convey a spiritual message which did not actually require Christ’s death. Hence, Christ’s death on the cross does not hold any atoning value.
      As for the rejection of Copernican cosmology, it is not a matter that should be swept under the rug. I have written on Galileo’s defense of Copernican cosmology based on the doctrine of accommodation (Men of Galillee, JETS 53, no. 1 (March 2010): 103-116). His use of the doctrine is similar to what is found in the works of Leibniz and Wolff.

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