01 June, 2017

Cocceius and Biblical Theology

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Contending for the Faith: The Rise of Heresy and the Development of the Truth (RFPA, 2010), pp. 239–247. (NB. The following copyrighted material is taken from a publication of the Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1894 Georgetown Center Drive, Jenison, MI 49428-7137. Phone: 616-457-5970. Website: www.rfpa.org. Email: mail@rfpa.org. It is reproduced with permission and cannot be copied without permission of the staff of the RFPA. I express my appreciation for their willingness to have me copy this chapter of the book and publish it here.]



It would be a mistake to call Johannes Cocceius a heretic and to include him in a series of portraits of those who introduced heresy into the church. Cocceius was wrong in some aspects of his theology, but he was also very right in other ideas, particularly in his doctrine of the covenant. His wrong ideas sparked a bitter controversy in the church, and it lasted beyond his own lifetime. His wrong ideas introduced into the thinking of the church a way of studying and teaching theology that has had extremely detrimental consequences in the church, even today. That is why his ideas are worth our study.

A Brief Sketch of Cocceius’ Life1

Cocceius was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1603; he was, therefore, a contemporary of the Synod of Dordt, although he was too young to attend. He was an outstanding scholar, especially trained in the original languages of Scripture, and his scholarship was widely recognized. He taught in his hometown of Bremen, Germany, and in Leiden and Franeker, two of the most prestigious seminaries in the Netherlands. Although the University of Franeker has since become a rest home for the aged, Cocceius’ name is still carved in the stone about the main entrance.

Cocceius lived during one of the most flourishing periods of Reformed theology in the Netherlands and the entire continent of Europe, and he was one of many towering defenders of the Reformed faith, most of whom were present at the great Synod of Dordrecht. It was the age of the development of the truths of Calvinism and the systematization of these truths in dogmatical works.

Yet Cocceius was always “odd man out.” Of German extraction, he never quite felt at home among the Dutch. He was noted for his piety in an age of somewhat loose living (partly because the Reformed Church was a state church, and all the citizens of the country were included on its membership rolls). In a time of systematic theology, he introduced a new way of dealing with dogmatics.

Cocceius’ Concerns

Cocceius was primarily an Old Testament scholar, although his abilities in languages qualified him to teach New Testament as well. In the course of his studies, he became convinced that the church was responsible for serious errors when theologians wrote and taught theology as a systematic body of doctrine. He was of the opinion that the wealth of biblical truth, along with its rich teachings and its emphasis on piety, were obscured in theological treatises such as systematic theologies or volumes of Reformed dogmatics. He developed what has become known as “biblical theology.”

It seems as if Cocceius’ major concern was his fear that systematic theology omitted Christian piety. The works on dogmatics that had been written were so committed to a systematizing and analysis of all the truths of Scripture that the godliness, the Christian life, the subjective experience of the faith, and the piety that ought to be a part of the life of every child of God were all ignored. One was left with a cold, abstract, complicated, and involved theology that appealed to the intellect and not to the heart. It left a person with a head full of knowledge but did nothing for his own inner life of faith and his walk as a child of God in the world.

Cocceius had other concerns, too—all related to the dangers of systematic theology. He was concerned that the study of Scripture had become, in large measure a matter of “proof texting.” Theologians developed individual doctrines of Scripture, such as justification by faith alone, eternal and sovereign predestination, and the perseverance of the saints, and then they sought to prove these doctrines by citing texts found throughout Scripture. Cocceius argued that the Bible was used for proof texts and little else. The major talk of the theologian, then, became discovering proof texts, building doctrines on them, and proceeding in a very rational and coldly intellectual way to analyse, dissect, and parse every doctrine so that it could be laid bare in all its implications.

Another serious danger arose from this approach, according to Cocceius. Texts from Scripture were misused as proofs for given doctrines. They were frequently torn out of context. Their place in Scripture went unrecognized, and exegesis did not take into account the historical circumstances under which a given text was written. To give an example (my own), in proof of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, not only is Paul’s powerful description of our bodily resurrection in I Corinthians 15 used, but also Job’s words in Job 19—“I know that my Redeemer liveth”—are quoted as proof of the resurrection. Cocceius would have charged systematic theologians with the error of giving no significance to the fact that Job lived around two thousand years before Paul, that he was a contemporary of Abraham and could not have understood the truth of the resurrection as well as one who lived after the outpouring of the Spirit. Job’s words simply become, in Cocceius’ thinking, one more “proof” for a doctrine; but the meaning, the limited understanding, the power, and the force of them in Job’s life were lost.

It is well that we grant Cocceius the point that a systematic approach to Scripture in the interests of Reformed dogmatics can indeed result in these errors. The method of the interpretation of Scripture that has been adopted by the church since the third and fourth centuries is called the grammatical-historical method. The use of that method implies that each passage of Scripture must be interpreted in its own historical context, and the question must be asked, “What did this passage mean to the saints at the time it was given by God?” Cocceius pointed to a real danger.

Cocceius’ Method

In place of systematic theology, Cocceius proposed another method of developing doctrine—that of biblical theology, although he did not give it that name. His method was the study of Scripture from the beginning to the end, book by book, taking each book individually and separately, developing the theology in each book or each part of a book, and then moving on to the next section of Scripture.

Cocceius was convinced that this way of doing theology was far to be preferred. It dealt honestly with each text and explained it in its own historical setting. It was faithful to the character of revelation; God, as Cocceius was fond of pointing out, did not reveal himself in giving to the church a Reformed dogmatics, but God made himself known in and through history by means of a continual flow of revelation that gradually developed through time until it was all fulfilled in Christ. God added to, further explained, and enriched by new revelations the one great truth of salvation in Christ. Cocceius’ historical approach did justice to that obvious fact of Scripture.

At the same time, because the emphasis fell on God’s revelation in and through history, proper emphasis could also be placed on godliness and piety as the truths of Scripture were interwoven with the lives of saints and sinners and God’s dealings with them.

It was this approach, for all its value, that made Cocceius a covenant theologian. Cocceius saw, in his study of the gradual development of God’s promise throughout the old dispensation, that the covenant stood out in bold relief and was, in fact, the unifying truth in the whole of God’s revelation. Although Cocceius never completely escaped the idea of the covenant as a pact or agreement between God and man, he nevertheless spoke of the covenant as a bond of friendship between God and his people.

Cocceius’ Separation of the Testaments

The approach to the doctrine of Scripture that Cocceius took led him, nevertheless, to serious mistakes.

Cocceius is considered the father of dispensationalism. Certainly he did not develop dispensationalism in the way and the extent that it is developed today in dispensational premillennialism. But Cocceius, by his approach to Scripture, tended to separate the Old Testament from the New. This separation between the two testaments is fatal for correct Bible teaching.

One can understand how it goes. If a given passage in Scripture must be interpreted in its immediate context, the Old Testament passages must be interpreted as such, and any correct interpretation of them must take into account that Christ had not yet come, that the Spirit had not yet been poured out, and that the church lived in the “dark ages” of types and shadows. From such a view emerges the idea of two different dispensations and two different ways in which God deals with his people. That kind of separation between the Old and the New Testaments is the cornerstone on which all Baptistic thinking is built.

Cocceius applied this distinction between the two dispensations in another way: he applied the distinction to the moral law of God in general, and to Sabbath observance in particular. With consistency, Cocceius said that the fourth commandment was fulfilled in the work of Christ; therefore, it no longer applied to the new dispensation. He said that in our age no single day ought to be set aside as the Christian Sabbath, and that it is not necessary to make Sunday a day in which the church observes the fourth commandment and meets in divine worship services. It may be, Cocceius said, wise and expedient, but not a requirement of the law.

There is an irony here. Cocceius lived in an age of some looseness in Sabbath observance, yet he himself, in spite of his views, kept the Sabbath holy. His theology did not affect his life in this respect. Nevertheless, his views had their effect, and the fruit of his views is seen today, even among “conservative” evangelicals who desecrate the Sabbath on much the same grounds that Cocceius developed.

The Error of Biblical Theology

Biblical theology is frequently the theological method employed in seminaries today. In more extreme cases, systematic theology is scorned and even accused of doing great harm to the truth.

There are many books that claim that while Calvin developed a theology that was biblical and interwoven with genuine piety, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s co-worker and successor in the Academy of Geneva, began a trend of developing theology systematically. His practice, it is claimed, was followed by such outstanding Reformed theologians as the men at the Synod of Dordt, Francis Turretin, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Hoeksema. These theologians are often scornfully and mockingly called scholastics. This name is employed to designate them as being of the same ilk as the medieval, Roman Catholic Scholastics, who prided themselves in picking apart the truth, discussing abstract questions, such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and rationally analysing and dissecting truths in a coldly intellectual way.

But is biblical theology the desirable method it is said to be?

We cannot argue with the important principle of Bible interpretation that requires every text of the Bible to be explained in its historical context. This principle of interpretation is rooted in the truth that Scripture is the infallibly inspired record of God’s revelation in and through history in which he shows himself as the God who sovereignly saves his church in Jesus Christ, his Son. Never may this truth be violated.

Nor may we dispute the fact that Scripture is vitally interested in godliness and genuine piety. Genuine piety arises out of doctrine. The two are inseparable. True doctrine deals with piety, and piety pleasing to God is confession in word and life of sound doctrine.

But theology is one thing, and preaching is another. The church needs both. Preaching—even the systematic preaching of doctrine—has to be woven through with the golden threads of godliness, or it is simply not preaching. And although a solid textbook on Reformed dogmatics will not arbitrarily incorporate into itself biblical ethics, there is no reason for not doing this. In the teaching of “Systematics,” a faithful professor can and must point the way to preaching godliness from doctrine. But a dogmatics is not a book on ethics any more than a book on ethics is dogmatics. Both are needed, and the blending of both into a whole is the business of the whole church.

The Importance of Systematic Theology

Systematic theology, as it is set down in a book on dogmatics, is important and crucial for the life of the church. The reasons are not difficult to understand.

God is truth. God is all truth. He is truth itself, and all truth is in him. He is one God, and because he is all truth, the truth is one.

God’s revelation of his truth is one in Jesus Christ, for all revelation is in and through Christ and his work.

The record of that revelation in Holy Scripture is one. Even though Moses wrote a part, Isaiah another part, and Jude yet another part, the one author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit. Scripture’s unity lies in infallible inspiration. Frequently the plea for biblical theology arises from those who make light of divine inspiration.

Thus Scripture teaches one doctrine of God, and all other doctrines as subheadings, in such a way that the whole teaches the same truth, and never can there be found any contradiction. The Spirit does not contradict himself. Job 19:25–27 agrees perfectly with I Corinthians 15:42–53, for the Spirit wrote them both. And Genesis 1 and 2 agree completely with the fourth commandment and Romans 4:17b, because the Holy Spirit was the divine author of all these passages.

It is this unity of Scripture that biblical theology denies. The principle of interpretation—“Scripture interprets Scripture”—is minimized or lost completely. With the loss of this principle, the regula fidei (rule of faith) is ignored.

This latter is especially important. The whole of the truth that the church has confessed in the past and confesses today is a truth based upon the whole of Scripture. When we seek to know what God has said about a given truth, then we search the whole of Scripture to find this out. If we want to know whether the will of God revealed in Scripture requires that infants be baptized, we go to both the New Testament and the Old to learn concerning this doctrine. We hold steadfastly to the dictum, “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is in the New explained.” Scripture does not give us an exhaustive treatment of one doctrine in one given text. We must search the entire Bible.

Our confessions contain this regula fidei. They bring together what all of God’s word says about a given doctrine. That is their beauty, their power, and their importance in the church. No wonder that Baptists do not like confessions. They prefer to prove their points by jumping about from text to text and refusing to interpret any given text in the light of the whole of Scripture. Arminians are cut from the same cloth. They will always appeal to John 3:16, but they refuse to interpret John 3:16 in the light of Romans 9. Well-meant offer defenders jump on II Peter 3:9 or Ezekiel 33:11. And when it is shown that their interpretation of these verses contradicts John 12:37–41, they weakly fall back on paradox, but they refuse to acknowledge that Scripture interprets Scripture.

Systematic theology is nothing else but taking the whole of Scripture as one’s textbook, discovering what the whole word of God teaches about a given truth, and relating all the doctrines to each other so that they form one whole. In this way we come to know the living God in all his glory and perfection.

If, for example, one possess a beautiful portrait of one he loves, he does not study each small part of the portrait by itself, or he will never come to see the portrait as a whole. Each section, taken by itself, gives no information. Only when each small bit is studied in relation to the whole can one see the portrait in all its beauty. Biblical theology thinks that by studying Genesis 17:4 in separation from Luke 2:7, one can come to a knowledge of the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ, which portrait is in the Holy Scriptures. This is obviously nonsense.

Comparing Scripture with Scripture does not preclude the historical-grammatical method of interpretation; indeed, following this method enriches one’s understanding of systematic theology and gives a full and broad view of the one truth of God in Jesus Christ.

The Dangers of Biblical Theology

Biblical theology, in distinction from systematic theology, leads to many dangers. Some of these dangers appeared in the thinking of Cocceius. He became somewhat dispensational in his thinking because he considered the Old Testament by itself and not in its relation to the New Testament. This, in turn, led him to a wrong view of the Sabbath.

Biblical theology has had its proponents over the years. A new chair in biblical theology was established in Princeton Seminary for the express purpose of giving the renowned Gerhardus Vos a professorship. Many seminaries have followed the practice by abandoning systematic theology and have taught only biblical theology. This has led to strange positions.

One devastating result of this type of approach to Scripture has been an emphasis on the human authorship of various books. While some proponents of biblical theology have refused to go so far as to deny (in whole or in part) the divine authorship of Scripture, it is not difficult to see how the jump can be made from biblical theology to higher criticism.

The Scriptures are one because they have one author, God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, through infallible inspiration, painted the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every part must be explained in the light of every other part. The unity of Scripture leads to an understanding of the one portrait of Christ, through whom we know the one true God. It makes no difference that the Holy Spirit painted this portrait of Christ over a period of more than a thousand years. He alone is the divine artist, and he never changes.

But when one breaks Scripture into parts and studies each part in relative isolation from the whole, one must concentrate in some measure on the human instrument, the man God used to write the Scriptures: Amos, Jude, Obadiah, Matthew, Paul, and all the rest. One must determine how the writings of each one differ from the writings of the others. Then one must determine how the theology of one differs from the theology of the others. The result is that one gets (I get familiar clich├ęs found in most seminaries) “a corpus of Johannine literature,” that is, the writings of the apostle John, and “Pauline eschatology”—frequently in distinction from and perhaps somewhat different than the eschatology of Isaiah. I recall vividly a discussion in a class I was taking in which the professor insisted that any passage in Paul was irrelevant to a discussion of the meaning of a similar passage in John, because we are, after all, dealing with the “periscope in Johannine literature.”

I am fundamentally uninterested in anything that is Pauline or Petrine eschatology. I am deeply interested, when I come to Scripture, to learn the Holy Spirit’s eschatology. If this is not true, then all I can do is read Scripture as I would read a Festschift in which many authors write glowing essays in praise of some renowned theologian.

If one’s interest is solely in what the Holy Spirit writes, then one must study the whole of Scripture and each part in relation to all the rest, for the Holy Spirit is the author of it all. One must follow the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture,” because the Holy Spirit, who wrote it all, alone can interpret his own book—something he does by means of the book itself.

Biblical theology can be deadly. This method of interpretation has recently been employed by the Auburn Four in defense of the heresy of justification by faith and works.2 In the first chapter of The Auburn Avenue Theology, Douglas Wilson argues strenuously against confessions.3 It is understandable that he does, for our confessions give what the church of the past, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, found in Scripture concerning any one doctrine. The church brought the teaching of the whole of Scripture together concerning each doctrine of Holy Writ. The confessions are what Luther called the regula fidei.

Steve Schlissel argues against knowledge through propositions. He claims that faith is in a person, not in a proposition. Strangely, he writes, “If Truth is raw rationality, then one must tidy up all one’s propositions. But if Truth is personal, then one must get to know the Person better. And you get to know a person better by knowing his character. His character is revealed in the degree of correspondence between his words and deeds. That is why the Bible is given in the form of a story rather than a systematic theology.”4

To such strange ideas, set forth with the express purpose of denying the truth of Scripture, does biblical theology lead.

It is hard to understand what Schlissel means, but it is clear that he employs the biblical theology method to destroy knowledge through propositions. How else can we know anything? By inner feeling? By mystical contact? By an intuitive sixth or seventh sense? The fact is that all our knowledge is through propositions, even our knowledge of things earthly, including our acquaintance with people.

Scripture speaks of a personal, experiential knowledge of God that is the knowledge of faith. But the knowledge of faith that is personal and experiential consists of “a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word.”5

Herman Ridderbos’ popular and widely read book, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, proceeds from the perspective of biblical theology. It seeks to understand what Paul believed concerning the truth of God.6 The author claims that what Paul believed is quite different from what John and Peter believed. What then? What saint of God cares what Paul believed? His interest (and everlasting salvation) is in what the Holy Spirit taught, be it through the instrumentality of Paul, Peter, or Moses. The search of what the Holy Spirit teaches leads us to the whole of Scripture. That way is the way of systematic theology, not the wandering heretical paths of biblical theology.


1. For a fuller biographical sketch of Cocceius’ life, a brief summary of his ideas, and the importance of his chief opponent, Gijsbert Voetius, see Herman Hanko, Portraits of Faithful Saints, 328–40.

2. E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision: The Knox Theological Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision, August 11–13, 2003 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004).

3. Douglas Wilson, “Union with Christ: An Overview of the Federal Vision,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, 1–8.

4. Steve Schlissel, “A New Way of Seeing?” in The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros and Cons, 25.

5. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 21, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:313.

6. See Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard DeWitt (London: Holy Trinity Church; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975).

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