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.