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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“The Modest Theologian” (Part 1)

Published Thursday, July 1, 2021 By Joseph A. Tipton

by Herman Witsius
translated by Joseph A. Tipton

The following is a translation of a portion of De Theologo Modesto, an inaugural address delivered by Herman Witsius (1636–1708) to the students and faculty of Leiden University. Witsius held positions at Franeker (1675–80) and Utrecht (1680–98) before receiving the invitation to join the faculty at Leiden, the most prestigious university in the Netherlands. The original text of this translation comes from Hermanni Witsii Miscellaneorum Sacrorum, tomus alter (Leiden, 1736). Because the original length of the address far exceeds the limits of this column, a portion of the address is being presented in two parts. Look for part 2 in the September/October 2021 issue.

An Inaugural Address Delivered at Leiden on 16 October 1698

I have chosen a topic for the present address, which I think will prove relevant to the present time and place, suited to my age and profession and welcome to your ears, kind gentlemen. I shall speak on modesty; more specifically, the kind of modesty that befits a theologian and must be scrupulously observed when one is engaged in religious studies. While modesty is of course a virtue praised and extolled by nearly everyone living, it so runs counter to the spirit of the present age that its appearance in theologians when they engage in written or verbal discussion, along with a host of important related virtues, is an absolute rarity.

When I say “modesty,” I have in mind a sense of fairness and composure. The one who has this quality thinks of himself humbly, of others highly, and attends to the affairs that are incumbent upon him with a judicious sense of order and propriety as befits the nature, character, and importance of each thing he addresses. Show me a man who has neither disdain nor admiration for himself, who attaches without jealousy the correct value to the gifts God’s liberality grants to others, who has learned to control the way he feels and restrain himself, his tongue and his pen, who weighs each thing sensibly in the light of its true importance and carries it out in a way that corresponds to its importance, who is neither unbending nor a pushover, but reasonable, who is gentle without being timorous, patient without being ineffectual, serious without being severe, brave without being boastful, self-assured without being cocksure—show me a man like this, and I shall call him a truly modest man. And if this same man applies all these virtues to matters of religion and adds to them the reverence the awesome mysteries of our religion deserve, this same man I shall hail as a modest theologian. I shall rise for him. I shall rush and greet him with a kiss. I shall pull him close to me and hold him tight in an affectionate embrace until I stamp his venerable image on my own mind so that it will come out in my actions.

It is hard to pull your eyes away from pleasing or marvelous sights, and if you do so by force they swing back to the sight on their own. In the same way, it is difficult to tear our mind away from contemplating ideas that at first sight work their way deep into our hearts with their alluring charms. Similarly, upon first glance, a priceless heirloom fashioned exquisitely of gold, studded with diamonds and pearls in a beautiful design, is bewildering and confusing to the eyes, with the rays of so many dazzling stones all converging to produce a single brilliance; but soon it so focuses the eyes on itself that they delight in examining every single part, from every angle, multiple times. In the same way, the image of the modest theologian I have fashioned in my imagination strikes the mind with such beauty and loveliness that I think it would be useful, and no less pleasant, to prolong our contemplation of the image and analyze more closely the individual parts that constitute it. It might just be our good fortune that the careful examination of the many virtues that here converge together transforms us into this same glorious likeness.  Therefore, come, gentlemen, let us examine one by one how the modest theologian learns, how he teaches, and how he lives.

No one can teach unless he has already duly learned, and no one will duly learn unless he takes as the foundation for his studies the virtue which the descendants of ancient Romulus found no name for, but we Christians call humility. The first step to true wisdom is the recognition of one’s own ignorance. We must realize first and foremost that however intelligent we might be concerning the natural and human sphere of things, when it comes to the spiritual and divine, we are dolts, idiots, blockheads, dim wits, and, as one reads in the ancient text of the Israelite Church [cf. Job 11:12], the foals of wild asses. This is what Job’s relative Zophar, Asaph, David, and Solomon, wise men par excellence, openly confessed about themselves. This is the only condition under which one gains entrance into the school of heavenly wisdom. For you must assume that its hallowed gate is inscribed with this excellent warning from Paul in golden letters: “Let no one deceive himself. If anybody appears to himself wise in this world, let him become foolish so that he can become wise” [1 Cor. 3:18]. People whose heads are swelled and puffed up from the conceit that they have mastered traditional learning are like children who have filled up their sacks with seashells and cockles they happened to come across on the seashore only to be obliged to empty them so that they can hold silver, gold, and actual treasures. So must we strip our minds of all false conceit of knowledge in order to make room for true wisdom. The emptier true wisdom finds the premises, the happier she is to enter and lavishly spread out her abundant riches.

When he has prepared his mind in this way and has emptied it of the harmful ballast[1] of preconceived notions, the modest candidate of divine wisdom should hand his mind over to God alone, the preeminent teacher of heavenly truths, to form and fashion. He should hang on his words and receive without exception and in the submissiveness of faith all divine utterances, which now are only to be found in the writings of the Old and New Testaments. His sole and primary aim should be to wholly envelop himself in the crystal-clear light of the Holy Spirit in order to be convinced with clear and certain proofs and firmly persuaded beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is God who speaks in Scripture.

Once this conviction is firmly settled in the mind, all the contrary grumblings, all the objections raised by counterfeit learning, all the casuistry of contentious flesh will as a matter of course grow dim in the light of such brilliance. And this is brought about by one argument, which is enough for the modest mind, that when God speaks the human intellect is to be silent, listen, and believe. This is not the foolish gullibility of a pusillanimous spirit ignorant of its own nobility, as the prating of some people contends, but the high-minded submission of an informed intellect to the clearly perceived reliability of ultimate truth. It stands to reason that heavenly wisdom has its hidden mysteries that our human minds cannot penetrate, mysteries that blaze with a light of their own that befits God, yet as far as our understanding is concerned, they are wrapped in a solemn darkness which curiosity must not profane in its desire to get a closer look. It is the pride of a demented wisdom that refuses to factor in these mysteries unless every inch of them has been examined and weighed in the scales of our usual modes of reasoning.

On the other hand, a theologian endowed with a spirit of modesty concludes that when God bears witness about himself, he ought to believe him in everything for the sole reason that he bears witness. He is persuaded by valid reasons that it is consonant with the enormity of divine perfection to reveal things about itself and its counsels that wildly surpass the narrow limits of man’s intellect. When it comes to this, it is the pinnacle of wisdom to stand in awe, not to scrutinize.[2] Our very thirst for knowledge, however commendable it is under other conditions, has to be bounded and hemmed in by this modesty. It is praiseworthy not to know many things that you cannot examine except through an irreligious effort destined for failure.

I am certainly not saying this so that idleness can have a wall to hide behind. A vast gulf separates the traits of idleness and those of modesty. Forgoing learning about God, deliberately remaining ignorant of things that can be known, being deterred from striving to the top by the effort involved in climbing, lazily hanging back on lower ground and priding oneself on this as though it were the safest and most sensible course of action, all the while scornfully criticizing the efforts of those who doggedly strive to make progress and, as Paul instructs, leave the elementary doctrine of Christ to press on toward maturity[3]—this is not, trust me, gentlemen, this is not praiseworthy modesty but blameworthy and damnable sloth and indolence, whatever specious pretext it hides behind. However self-satisfied such a shiftless and malingering person may be with himself, he shall hear the Lord call him bankrupt and good for nothing.

The theologian should exhibit the same spirit of modesty in teaching as he does in learning. He should above all remember that he is but the interpreter of God’s words; to these he may not add or take away anything. When dealing with the utterances of God he must comport himself with the utmost good faith, discretion, and conscientiousness. Imposing a meaning drawn from his own ideas or from anywhere else on them, or twisting them in any way, even the slightest, so that they harmonize with one’s preconceived notions is reprehensible—it’s well-nigh a sin! On the contrary, one must uncover the true and genuine meaning on the basis of the most meticulous analysis of the language and all relevant information, and then communicate it to the consciences of one’s audience in straightforward speech so as to clearly bring out the wisdom, holiness, genuineness, grandeur and what the Greeks elegantly called transcendent character[4] of Holy Scripture. When it comes to religion, daring to say nothing except what you have heard God say and have gathered from what God has said after exerting all your mental effort—this alone is true modesty in a theologian.

Conversely, claiming a kind of autocratic authority for oneself over the hallowed pronouncements of the All-Wise God and, as some do, marking up with your red pen the language they are written in, expunging this, adding that, rearranging this, replacing that and using your own conjectures to correct them, and thinking you are being lenient with the prophets and apostles whenever you pardon them for an awkward expression—this we should not simply call lack of modesty. That is putting it too gently. We should call it presumptuousness, impudence, contemptuousness, ungodliness. And similarly, when dealing with the content that is found in these enigmatic books, the case is no different: Having the license, as some people demand having, to remove anything extraordinary, miraculous or far-fetched by a far-fetched wrenching of the books’ simple language whenever they depart from the normal course of nature and require a complicated explanation that perhaps cannot be arrived at by the logical capacity of our minds is just as ungodly. In our sacred literature, not everything is equally obvious to everybody. The way some things are presented is fairly obscure due to ignorance of the past and the language. Other things are beyond the understanding of many simply due to their complicated nature. Being modest means that you explain them in such a way that you make no rash pronouncement and dictate no imperious rule, but rather modestly state what you think is most probable and likely after you have considered every angle, leaving room for the more well-versed among your audience to disagree.

For in all truth, nothing is so foreign and so at variance with the spirit of Christianity and New Testament freedom as the emergence of one person who elevates himself above his brothers who are his partners in an equally precious faith, makes them second-class citizens, and causes them to swear an oath of allegiance to his words. A man who knows himself and has learned, even from his daily efforts at making progress, what his shortcomings are and how many times he has been mistaken, even on occasions when he was fully confident he was right, should clearly have nothing to do with such an impulse. All of us who are instructors in the Christian faith are brothers sitting on equal terms at the feet of Christ, the Sole Teacher. Whoever claims authority for himself over his fellow students is insubordinate to the Teacher and wantonly tramples underfoot the basic rules of the classroom.

Conversely, willfully submitting to such authority, be it of one man or of several who conspire to establish a single tyranny, placing your neck under such a yoke and putting your legs into such stocks is not principled humility, but a craven want of spirit, and something unworthy of Dutch liberty. Let whatever spineless man so desires slip his feet into these shackles. They do not fit mine, nor will they. If students happen to gain insight into something outside of class, it is perfectly all right for them to divulge their opinion before the instructor, provided they do so with humility. If one deprives them of the freedom to do this, it is as though he keeps a rightful heir from entering upon his inheritance from his father, as the Hebrew proverb runs.

And so, the modest theologian does not forcefully impose his own opinions on anybody, nor does he spinelessly and naively adopt opinions others force on him. However, he is happy to grow as a result of other people’s insights and gladly gives them due credit with thankfulness. It is an absolutely absurd kind of pride, and even one the poets have lampooned, to use poorly concealed plagiarism to heap up a store of riches and adorn oneself with another bird’s feathers, all the while claiming for yourself the glory of having thought of something first. The well-known and memorable example of Nepotianus naturally comes to mind. Jerome wrote the finest epitaph for him, in which in addition to his other praiseworthy traits he commends him for the kind of modesty we are dealing with now. Although Nepotianus by constant reading and long reflection had turned his mind into a library dedicated to Christ, he openly made known what author he got anything from out of an innate modesty that was an adornment in one so young. Yet in this way, by disowning a reputation for learnedness, he was held to be exceptionally learned. “This is what Tertullian said,” he used to say, “this is what Cyprian said. Lactantius said this, Hilary said that. Minucius Felix spoke to this effect, Victorinus to that, and Arnobius in such and such a way.” What an admirable and praiseworthy example!

Joseph A. Tipton is a researcher in the field of early modern literature. His primary focus is on the Reformers’ use of classical Greek and Latin literature to represent and forward their own project of reform. He has published on the German neo-Latin poets Petrus Lotichius and Simon Stenius. Also active as a translator of Greek and Latin texts, Dr. Tipton has translated books two and three of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s Commonplaces for the Davenant Institute and is currently working on Samuel Rutherford’s Dictates on the Doctrine of Scripture for Reformation Heritage. Dr. Tipton lives in Orlando, Florida, where he teaches Greek and Latin at The Geneva School.

  • Joseph A. Tipton

1. Saburra, or ballast, is a particularly nice metaphor Witsius uses here. Just as the unequally distributed weight of a ship’s ballast can cause it to tilt in one direction or the other, so one’s preconceived notions can create a bias for one idea over another.
2. Witsius employs a clever word play here: “Stand in awe” is mirari, while “scrutinize” is rimari. Not only is there strong assonance, but the words are made up of the same letters, differently arranged.
3. A reference to Hebrews 6:1 (and interestingly after Erasmus’s Latin text instead of Beza’s, or in Latin that is more reflective of the Greek).
4. Witsius uses a Greek word, θεοπρέπεια, to express this idea.
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