Campegius Vitringa (1659–1722) and his commentary on Isaiah

Campegius Vitringa was a leading scholar in 18th-century Biblical studies. He had a wide influence not only during his life but also afterwards, long into the 19th century. Franke, Bengel, Delitzsch, Gesenius and the Princeton theologians, among others, appreciated him greatly. In the 20th century Vitringa was largely overlooked. In the postmodern climate of recent decades, however, growing attention has been paid to pre-critical Biblical scholarship. Postmodernism has made people aware that everyone has his own prior understanding and that the Enlightenment claim of neutral scholarship is unfounded. Scholars — whatever their personal convictions — are rediscovering the value of the history of interpretation to Biblical studies.

Convinced that the insights of a scholar such as Vitringa — who was the heir of centuries of Renaissance scholarship as well as of the theological heritage of the Reformation and Protestant Orthodoxy — may help us to understand the Bible better today, Charles K. Telfer, associate professor of Biblical Languages at Westminster Seminary California, has written a monograph on Vitringa with a focus on his magnum opus, a commentary on Isaiah (1720).

After a biographical chapter and a chapter in which Telfer gives an overview of what has been written on Vitringa heretofore, Telfer first analyses the Praefatio to the first volume of his Isaiah commentary, the second chapter of his Doctrina Christianae religionis and the canones hermeneuticos. These canones hermeneuticos were the third part of a work published in 1708. Its full title was Typus doctrinae propheticae, in quo de prophetis en prophetiis agitur, huiusque scientiae praecepta traduntur. In this work, Vitringa gives rules for the interpretation of the prophetic literature in the Bible. The canones hermeneuticos are very insightful for understanding the exegetical approach that Vitringa takes.

Four elements are crucial in Vitringa’s hermeneutics: 1. a passage must be viewed in its immediate, broader and ultimately canonical contexts; 2. with regard to the concrete fulfilment of eschatological passages, the interpreter ought to show humility, preferring to keep professing ignorance in the hope that God will give greater light to coming generations in this area; 3. the interpretation which sets forth the most glorious fulfilment of the passage must be preferred; 4. Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. The last element is the most important for Vitringa. It is inseparably linked with his high, orthodox view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

For Vitringa, the meaning of Scripture is what the words of the passage in their immediate and canonical contexts imply. Because he unreservedly includes the latter as a category, he cannot be seen as a forerunner of the historical-critical approach to Scripture, although he certainly was aware of text-critical issues. His emphasis on canonical context stood in the tradition of Christological reading of the Old Testament. The true meaning of the text had both literal and spiritual dimensions.

Vitringa did appreciate Grotius, but his main critique of him is that Grotius dismisses the normativity of the New Testament perspective. In his understanding of Scripture, and especially the Old Testament, he must be seen as a moderate follower of Cocceius. His main critique of the latter is that Cocceius is too quick to connect Old Testament prophecies to the historical situation of European Christians, although this element is not wholly absent in Vitringa’s own commentary on Isaiah. Vitringa took an optimistic view of the future of the church of Christ on earth, finding grounds for that conviction in the prophecies of Isaiah.

On several occasions, Vitringa emphasizes that the regenerating and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit is necessary to interpret the Scripture rightly. His appeals to the spiritual experience of the interpreter, or his complaints at the lack thereof, reveal him to be a representative of the Nadere Reformatie (Dutch Second Reformation). Vitringa himself spent his entire career at the theological faculty of Franeker University. Before going to Leiden, he had studied theology at Franeker. He formed a particular bond with Hermanus Witsius, one of the professors there. Witsius must be considered as one of the main representatives of the Nadere Reformatie in the academic world of the era after Voetius.

Although Telfer does not state it, Witsius can be seen as a Voetian, albeit one with sympathies for Cocceius. He thus formed a bridge between the Voetian and Cocceian streams of the Nadere Reformatie. Telfer also recognizes the importance of the friendship between Vitringa and Johannes d’Outrein, who both studied at Franeker. D’Outrein translated the works of Vitringa into Dutch. It seems to me that d’Outrein was less critical towards Cocceius’ exegetical approach than was Vitringa. However, like Vitringa, d’Outrein was known for his pietistic emphasis, and it is for that reason that he is reckoned among the movement of the Nadere Reformatie.

Telfer shows Vitringa’s contextual sensitivity at every level of exegesis, his commitment to New Testament normativity in the reading of Isaiah (in which redemptive history is the ultimate hermeneutical horizon), his nuanced views of the historical fulfilment of prophecy, and his concern for pastoral application. A scholar’s scholar, widely admired for his mastery of the original languages and his intense historical focus in exegesis, Vitringa was also appreciated for his orthodox views, warm-hearted piety, and love for the church.

Telfer’s monograph is of interest to Old Testament scholars. Church historians will value it, especially those focusing on pietism and also all who study the intellectual history of the late 17th and early 18th centuries: the period of the early Enlightenment.

Charles K. Telfer, Wrestling with Isaiah: The Exegetical Methodology of Campegius Vitringa (1659–1722), Reformed Historical Theology Volume 38 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), hardcover 219 p. €100 (ISBN 978-3-525-55102-8)

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