Synopsis of A Purer Theology

These two volumes deserve to be the shelf of every busy pastor and every serious theological student. While the work should not be read as the final word on every theological question it raises, there is no doubt that the Synopsis will help the careful reader arrive at purer and better understanding of the historic Reformed orthodox.

This article appears in Volume 8 Issue 2 of the Spring 2024 RTS Journal Reformed Faith & Practice.

Let me state my conclusion up front: Every English-speaking Reformed pastor and student
would do well to own these two outstanding volumes. That may sound hyperbolic, or even
cliché, but it’s true. This is an invaluable resource that can serve as a wise, reliable, profound, and easy to use (which does not mean simple) reference for anyone interested in defining and defending Reformed theology.

A New Edition of an Old Book

This new edition of the Synopsis of a Purer Theology uses the English translation (with minor changes and corrections) from the three-volume academic Brill edition published from 2014 to 2020. Davenant Press has done the church a great service by presenting the same content, but now in a more accessible and more affordable format. The Synopsis, first published in 1625, was composed between 1620 and 1625 by four professors at Leiden University: Antonius Thysius (1565–1640), Johannes Polyander (1568–1646), Andreas Rivetus (1572–1651), and Antonius Walaeus (1573–1639). Based on academic disputations at Leiden, the Synopsis represents a full, yet streamlined, summary of theology as it was understood in the Netherlands following the Synod of Dort (1618–1619).

The Synopsis was meant to be an academic textbook that offered a theological and philosophical exposition of the orthodox (“purer”) Reformed faith. The two volumes are composed of fifty-two disputations which move through the standard theological loci: prolegomena, doctrine of Scripture, God and his attributes, the Holy Trinity, creation, providence, anthropology, the decrees, the person of Christ, the work of Christ, soteriology, Christian worship, ecclesiology, sacraments, the civil magistrate, last things. For the contemporary reader, it is interesting to note which topics, that we might ignore or deal with quickly, are given their own disputation. For example, there is a disputation “Concerning the Good and Bad Angels,” another one on idolatry that deals with physical art and iconography (not with idols of the heart), a long disputation on the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, a disputation each on almsgiving and fasting, on vows, on purgatory and indulgences, on the calling and duties of ministers, and on church discipline.

The Synopsis is a potent expression of Protestant scholasticism. The prose is not dry or lifeless, but it is often technical and presumes a certain familiarity with theology as an academic discipline. In the chapter on justification, for example, mention is made of the efficient cause for justification, the assisting cause, the internal impelling cause, the initiating external cause, and the material cause. Distinctions like this are not uncommon. The work as a whole is well-organized, with clearly stated topics and with each disputation consisting of dozens of numbered paragraphs. This makes the Synopsis, though dense, surprisingly accessible. One can easily look at, say, Disputation 29 “On the Satisfaction by Jesus Christ” and see what the Leiden professors thought about the atonement.

As a textbook for theological students, the Synopsis often speaks deliberately out of, and with reference to, the church’s long tradition of theological exploration. For example, in a single paragraph in the chapter on the Sabbath, Antonius Thysius (who was responsible for this disputation) references no fewer than thirteen church fathers: Eusebius, Ignatius, Jerome, Justin Martyr, Dionysius bishop of Corinth, Theophilus of Antioch, Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Sozomen. Of course, the Bible is far and away the most important source for the Synopsis, but the disputations also refer to historical and literary texts from classical antiquity, cite Medieval authors like Aquinas, Lombard, and Scotus, and engage with Roman Catholic apologists like Robert Bellarmine and Gregory of Valencia.

What Curious Minds May Want to Know

Given the nature of the Synopsis, it would be impractical to provide anything like a proper summary. The Synopsis is a work of systematic theology, so one can fairly surmise what the book is about.

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