Herman Witsius

Hermann Witsius (1636 - 1708), Dutch theologian, was born at Enkhuisen, North Holland, and studied at Groningen, Leiden and Utrecht. He was ordained to the ministry, becoming pastor at Westwoud in 1656 and afterwards at Wormeren, Goesen, and Leeuwaarden, and became professor of divinity successively at the University of Franeker in 1675 and then at the University of Utrecht in 1680. In 1698 he went to the University of Leiden as the successor of the younger Friedrich Spanheim (1632-1701), where he died.^[1]^

While in his theology Witsius aimed at a reconciliation between orthodoxy and Covenant Theology (also known as federalism), he was first of all a Biblical theologian, his principal field being systematic theology. His chief work is entitled The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man (originally published in Latin: De oeconomia foderum Dei cum hominibus, Leeuwarden, 1677). He was induced to publish this work by his grief at the controversies between the Voetians and Cocceians (followers of Johannes Cocceius). Although himself a member of the federalistic school, he was in no way blind to the value of the scholastically established dogmatic system of the Church. In the end, he did not succeed in pleasing either party.

In his work on the covenants, Witsius argued against Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Socinianism, and those Dutch Protestant theologians, who, with Hugo Grotius, had exchanged a sola scriptura theology for an institutionalized, sacramental view of the church based on traditions that paved the way back to Rome. Witsius opposed Grotians “who spoke of a ‘law’ which was not the law of Moses, a ‘satisfaction’ which was not through punishment and a ‘substitution’ which was not of necessity and not vicarious.” [1]

Besides his principal work, he published:

  • Judaeus christianizans circa principia fidei et SS. Trinitatem (Utrecht, 1661)
  • Diatribe de septem epistolarum apocalypticarum sensu historico et prophetico (Franeker, 1678)
  • Exercitationes sacrae in symbolum quod apostolorum dicitur et in orationem Dominicam (Franeker, 1681)
  • Miscellanea sacra (Utrecht, 1692-1700, 2 vols).

Of his minor works, there have appeared in English A Treatise on Christian Faith (London, 1761); On the Character of a True Theologian (Edinburgh, 1877); and The Question: Was Moses the Author of the Pentateuch Answered in the Affirmative (1877).

The Voetian-Cocceian conflict

During Witsius' professorship at Franeker, tension between the Voetians and the Cocceians escalated. Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), a renowned Reformed scholastic theologian and professor at Utrecht, represents the mature fruit of the Nadere Reformatie (Dutch Second Reformation), much as John Owen does for English Puritanism. Voetius unceasingly opposed Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), the Bremen-born theologian who taught at Franeker and Leiden, and whose covenant theology, in Voetius’s opinion, overemphasized the historical and contextual character of specific ages. Voetius believed that Cocceius’s new approach to the Scriptures would undermine both Reformed dogmatics and practical Christianity. For Voetius, Cocceius’s devaluing of practical Christianity culminated in his rejection of the Sabbath as a ceremonial yoke no longer binding on Christians. The Voetian-Cocceian controversy racked the Dutch Reformed Church until long after the death of both divines, splitting theological faculties into factions. Eventually both factions compromised, agreeing in many cities to rotate their pastors between Voetians and Cocceians. [2]


  1. ? This article incorporates some text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition and the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914, both now in public domain.