Voetius, Gisbertus [Gijsbert Voet] (1589-1676)
Dutch Reformed theologian and first Protestant to write a comprehensive theology of mission
Voetius was born in Heusden, North Brabant, Netherlands. He studied theology at Leiden, served as a Reformed minister in Vlijmen and in Heusden (1610-1634), and was the founder of Utrecht University, where he served as professor of Semitic languages and theology (1634-1676). His first engagement with mission issues occurred at the national synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619), where he dealt with the question of whether baptism could be administered to children from non-Christian backgrounds living with Dutch families in the East Indies. In 1643 he wrote a treatise on religious freedom. His theology of mission is found in Selectae Disputationes Theologicae (5 vols., 1648-1669) and in Politica Ecclesiastica (3 vols., 1663-1676).
Voetius emphasized that missions are grounded in both the hidden and revealed will of God. Only apostles and assemblies such as synods have the right to establish missions; it is not the right of the pope, nor princes and magistrates, nor companies to do so. The goals of mission are the conversion of non-believers, heretics, and schismatics; the planting, gathering, and establishing of churches; and the glorification and manifestation of divine grace. Mission churches, he maintained, should not be subordinated to the sending churches in Europe.
The period after 1800 saw the growth of interest in Voetius’s missionary thinking. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) borrowed heavily from him, especially in the field of apologetics. The synod of the Reformed Churches at Middelburg (1896) decided in favor of “ecclesiastical mission” (in contrast to the William Carey model of mission by means of para-church agencies). Both Johannes H. Bavinck and Johannes Verkuyl made Voetius’s missiology known outside the Netherlands. Johannes C. Hoekendijk at Utrecht University, a fervent opponent of Voetius’s views, considered his emphasis on church planting too akin to Roman Catholic missiology.
Jan A. B. Jongeneel, “Voetius, Gisbertus (or Gijsbert Voet),” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 708.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
First Protestant missiologist
Gisbertus Voetius was born into a noble Dutch family at a tumultuous time in the Netherlands’ history. The Eighty Years War (1568-1648) with Spain was raging, while internally the Royalists, who supported the preeminent leadership of the House of Orange, were deeply divided from those who favored the federal government of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces. In addition, the Reformed faith, which had become the dominant religion in the Lowlands in only a few decades, was under attack from the Arminians. In this environment the brilliant Voetius grew up and, at the age of 15, started his theological studies at Leiden University.
After graduation, Voetius served as pastor in Vlijmen (1611-1617) and in his hometown, Heusden (1617-1634). In 1612 Voetius married Deliana van Diest, with whom he had 10 children. He preached eight times a week and worked tirelessly in his congregation as well as outside, bringing many Roman Catholics into the Reformed Church. He also persuaded the far-reaching trading companies to carry missionaries on their ships. On top of his work as pastor and evangelist, he was a scholar, who habitually rose at four in the morning to study Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac).
In 1634 Voetius started teaching at the theological school in Utrecht, which became the University of Utrecht in 1636. Besides his heavy teaching load, he accepted the call as pastor in Utrecht. He became known as the “defender of Reformed orthodoxy” and was the theologian of Calvinistic piety, called the Nadere Reformatie (the Second Dutch Reformation, comparable to English Puritanism). He wrote prodigiously: books on theology, textbooks, devotional guides for his students, and above all polemic writings against proponents of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism and Cartesianism. In spite of his full schedule, his fame and his elevated position, Voetius could regularly be found teaching catechism to the poor orphans of Utrecht. He continued to preach until the age of 84, and he remained professor at the university until his death at age 87.
As a young man Voetius first wrote about missions when he was a delegate to the national Reformed assembly, the Synod, meeting in Dort from 1618-1619. Best known for dealing with the teachings of Arminius, the synod covered many topics, among others mission issues. Voetius participated in the discussion of these issues and, on behalf of the South-Holland churches whom he represented, he wrote a recommendation to the Synod. He continued to address mission issues throughout his life. The political developments, the influence of the large trading companies (De Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, The Dutch East India Company, est. 1602, and De West Indische Compagnie, the Dutch West India Company, est. 1621), and the founding of Roman Catholic mission orders convinced Voetius that the internally divided Protestants needed to establish well-organized mission work. In his writings, he gave a systematic treatment of the theology of mission. Quoting both Roman Catholic and Protestant theological works on mission, Voetius is the first to develop a comprehensive, contextual, and comparative Protestant missiology. His mission theology is formally scholastic and indebted to Thomas Aquinas, but the guide to his systematic-theological approach is Calvin’s dogma of predestination and the latter’s emphasis on soli Deo gloria, for the glory of God alone.
Voetius had a broad understanding of the term mission, namely “everything that happens in order to promote, confirm and reproduce the Reformation, including being sent to East India [Indië, present day Indonesia] and other Oriental countries in order to strengthen the existing churches and plant new churches”.(1) For him, being sent (zending) was primarily about “entering the service of the Word in an institutionalized church” and secondarily, going out into the “heathen world.”(2)
The missiology developed by Voetius is theological and ecclesiastical. Its theological foundation is set forth in the disputation De gentillismo et vocatione gentium: God’s will, both hidden and revealed, is the basis of mission. The hidden will of God is God’s eternal decree by which God has predetermined who will be saved. The revealed will of God consists of the promises of salvation (i.e. Is. 49 and 60), and the call to missions (Matt. 28:19). Mission work needs to be done so that all people will hear about God, in order that those who have been chosen might repent and be saved. Mission work is the means through which God’s goal of saving the elect is reached. Worldwide proclamation of the Gospel is from God, by God and for God. It is truly missio Dei, God’s mission.
The ecclesiastical foundation for mission work is found in the disputation De plantationes ecclesarium, where Voetius uses the following outline:
1. Who sends? (qui sint mittentes)
2. To whom is one sent? (ad quos mittendi)
3. Why is one sent? (ad quid mittendi)
4. Who and what kind of people are sent? (qui et quales mittendi)
5. According to which method and in which way are people sent? (qua via methodo et quo modo mittendi)(3)
Ad 1. God is the one who sends through ordinary and extraordinary means. The twelve apostles and Paul were sent directly and extraordinarily (onmiddelijk en op buitengewone wijze) while other “planters and waterers” from the apostolic and post-apostolic period are sent indirectly and ordinarily (middelijk en op gewone wijze). With this bifurcation Voetius rejected the episcopate’s claim of being an extension of the apostolate of those who are extraordinarily sent. This criticism was not restricted to the Roman Catholic Pope and bishops; all monastic orders, individual believers, rulers and governments, and trade companies who claim the right to send do so in violation of God’s law.(4) The authority to send lies, according to Voetius, exclusively with the true Church, its parish council (consistorie), presbytery (classis) and synods. It is only within the context of the Church that true sending takes place, be it by one local church (cf. 2Cor. 8:23) or by a group of churches (cf. 2 Cor. 2:19) who send their representatives in answer to God’s call. Everything else is unbiblical.
Ad 2. The object of mission was viewed broadly by Voetius. The church must send people to all who are alienated from the church: the unbelievers, the heretics and the schismatics. The unbelievers are the “heathens” – civilized and uncivilized, the Jews (including the Samaritans), the Muslims and the “modern” unbelievers who adhere to no religion, such as the Libertarians, the Epicurists, the Enthusiasts, and the Deists.(5) In his scholastic precision, Voetius also divided “heathens under Christian government” (such as the Laplanders in the north of Sweden, the inhabitants of Taiwan, the tribes of Indonesia and the people living in the coastal areas of Brazil – the latter three under Dutch authority at the time) from “heathens with their own heathen government” (cf. Acts 13:1-2, such as the people from Japan, China, India, Iran, Turkey, etc.). Mission work among unbelievers requires the refutation of their belief system before preaching the true religion. Mission work among heretics finds its biblical foundation in Jas. 5:20, whereas mission work among schismatics is allowed and even required on the precedent of the Council of Carthage which sent representatives to the Donatists in order to bring about reconciliation.
Ad 3. Because of Voetius’ broad definition of mission, his goal of mission was likewise broad. It included such work as the ‘gathering’ (recollectio) of churches dispersed by persecution, the reunification of split churches, the financial support of dispersed, persecuted and impoverished churches and the petitioning of governments to alleviate oppression and to remove obstacles to the expansion of the church. However, the main objective of mission work is – in ascending order – the conversion of unbelievers; the planting of churches among the new believers; and, ultimately, the glorification and magnification of God. The conversion of unbelievers and church planting are not goals unto themselves. These activities are subordinate to the highest goal of mission: soli Deo gloria.
Ad 4. Who will be sent was treated by Voetius under the headings of selection, education/ training and deployment. In the selection of missionaries Voetius stressed the importance of the social graces as well as piety and pastoral skills. Furthermore he emphasized sending appropriately trained people to the different people groups, as required by their level of “civilization.” To uncivilized “barbarian” peoples the Church may send those who are illiterate. However, more civilized people require more highly skilled and trained missionaries. Voetius advocated a thorough study of local languages, religions, history, cultures and habits, while he strongly resisted the notion of sending “misfits of theological studies” on overseas assignments. He considered regular theological education to be the right preparation for a missionary. In addition, though, missionaries to more civilized unbelievers need to have knowledge of philosophy, history, and the sciences in order to refute non-Christian religions and do preparatory medical work before preaching. Voetius considered knowledge of medicine especially useful among “embittered enemies of the Gospel,” for instance in Japan, China and Muslim countries. Those who ultimately do the mission work are divided into three groups: mission preachers, assistants (who do not have the academic training of the preachers, and who only have the authority to preach and baptize when there is a lack of preachers; they usually work among the less civilized peoples) and auxiliaries (doctors and school teachers, who are not properly called or sent according to Voetius’ ecclesiological categories).
Ad 5. The means of mission work can be characterized as “any way you can get there”: through colonial governors (cf. Acts 21:31, 37), preachers employed by trade companies, army preachers engaged in military expeditions, ambassadors, by means of foreign travel or through violent banishment and imprisonment (cf. Phil 1:12-13, John on Patmos). The Bible is the main agent in the battle against false religions and for the building up of the Church. In addition, auxiliary works of medicine, philosophy and the education of children serve as means of preparation for evangelism and church planting.
Voetius’ writings on mission were detailed and comprehensive. His missiology anticipated themes that have occupied scholars of modern missions. Yet, Voetius has been virtually neglected. His mission theories and practices were briefly influential in 1886 during the Doleantie (from Latin dolere, ‘to feel sorrow’), a prominent schism in the Dutch Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk). Led by Abraham Kuyper, this schism caused the new Reformed Church (Gereformeerde Kerk) to reach back to Voetius to articulate an ‘ecclesiological mission structure’ rather than following the generally accepted ‘society mission structure’ – as popularized by William Carey’s Baptist Missionary Society. In the 20th century, Voetius regained some recognition for his mission theology in the work of prominent Dutch missiologists J.H. Bavinck and J. Verkuyl.
Voetius work is arcane and largely untranslated in English. In spite of this and its inevitable datedness, Voetius’ theological reflections on God’s mission and the role of the Church in God’s mission are worth careful study.
by Francisca Ireland-Verwoerd
(1) G. Voetius, Tractaat over de planting en de planters van de kerken; translated from Latin by D. Pol, Groningen, 1910, 75, as quoted in J.A.B. Jongeneel, “Voetius’ zendingstheologie, de eerste comprehensieve protestantse zendingstheologie,” in De onbekende Voetius: Voordrachten wetenschappelijk symposium Utrecht 3 maart 1989, edited by J. van Oort (Kampen: Kok, 1989), 122. English translation mine. Jongeneel’s article is used extensively in this biography.
(2) H.A. van Andel, De zendingsleer van Gisbertus Voetius (Kampen, 1912), 19, quoted in Jongeneel, 121.
(3) Jongeneel, 124.
(4) Voetius’ battle is against the supremacy of the Pope and the binding of planted churches to the seat of Rome. At the same time he praises the mission work done by Roman Catholics, especially the Jesuits in Asia, the publication of books in foreign languages, the battle against polygamy, etc. See Jongeneel, 127-128.
(5) Voetius is progressive in his time to treat the Muslims as a separate category instead of including them with the ‘heathens.’
Voetius, Gisbertus. Selectae disputationes theologicae, Vol. 1-4.1648-1669.
_____. Politica ecclesiastica, Vol. 2-3. 1663-1667.
Voetius, Gisbertus. Exercitia et Bibliotheca studiosi theologae. 1664.
_____. Ta Asketika sive Exercitia Pietatis. 1664. In Cornelius A. de Niet, Gisbertus Voetius: De praktijk der godzaligheid (Ta askētika sive Exercitia pietatis, 1664). Utrecht: De Banier, 1996 and 2002.
Voetius, Gisbertus and Johannes Hoornbeeck. Spiritual Desertion. Edited by M. Eugene Osterhaven. Translated by John Vriend and Harry Boonstra. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. Orig. 1646. Improved edition, 1659. Last printed in Dutch, 1898.
Beeke, Joel. “Gisbertus Voetius: Toward a Reformed Marriage of Knowledge and Piety.” Christianity & Society 10, no. 1 (January 2000): 117-147. [This article includes a list of English sources on Voetius.] Also, Gisbertus Voetius: Toward a Reformed Marriage of Knowledge and Piety. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999.
_____. “Evangelicalism and the Dutch Further Reformation.” In The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, 146-68. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008.
Beeke, Joel R. and Randall J. Pedersen. Meet the Puritans. With a Guide to Modern Reprints. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006. See especially in Appendix 3, Dutch Further Reformation Divines, “Gisbertus Voetius,” 798-806.
de Niet, Cornelius A. Gisbertus Voetius: De praktijk der godzaligheid (Ta askētika sive Exercitia pietatis, 1664). Utrecht: De Banier, 1996 and 2002.
Duker, Arnoldus Cornelis. Gisbertus Voetius. 3 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1897-1914 [in Dutch].
Hoekema, Anthony A. “The Missionary Focus of the Canons of Dort.” In Calvin Theological Journal 7 (1972): 209-220.
Jongeneel, J.A.B. “Voetius’ zendingstheologie, de eerste comprehensieve protestantse Zendingstheologie.” In De onbekende Voetius: Voordrachten wetenschappelijk symposium Utrecht 3 maart 1989, edited by J. van Oort. Kampen: Kok, 1989.
_____. “The Missiology of Gisbertus Voetius: The First Comprehensive Protestant Theology of Missions.” In Calvin Theological Journal 26 no. 1 (1991): 47-79.
Laman, Gordon D. “The Origin of Protestant Missions.” The Reformed Review 43 no. 1 (1989): 52-67.
Zwemer, Samuel M. “Calvinism and the Missionary Enterprise.” In Theology Today 7 (1950): 206-21.
Stewart, Kenneth J. “Calvinism and Missions: the Contested Relationship Revisited.” Themelios 34 no. 1 (April 2009): 63-78.
Van Dam, Nicholaas. “Gisbertus Voetius” The Outlook 56, no. 3 (March 2006).
Hanko, Herman. Portraits of Faithful Saints. Reformed Free Publishing Association, [n.d.].