By Forrest Strickland |
It is often the case that many printed items from the early modern world that are now especially rare were some of the most ubiquitous in their day. Newspapers, academic disputations, ordinances, devotional books—the kinds of works that kept printers afloat—were intended to be read, shared, and eventually discarded. Seldom were they intentionally preserved in a library. A rare seventeenth-century dissertation preserved in The Tresoar collection, the central holding institution of books and archives of the province of Friesland, is one of those few.
Wolbrandus Stoterus, a native of Duisburg in the Holy Roman Empire, defended his Theses theologicae de septimo capite ad Romanos in 1615 at the University of Franeker. His thesis engages in a debate that was far grander and potentially far more destructive than this concise work indicates. Stoterus, no doubt encouraged by his fervently Reformed professor Sibrandus Lubbertus, rushed headlong into a debate that nearly consumed the Dutch Republic. The theological controversy that led to the Synod of Dort began, in large part, because of a disagreement over the interpretation of one Bible verse, Romans 7:14: ‘We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin’ (NIV). Diving into the breach, Stoterus began his thesis by asking whether the person Paul describes in the verse is a Christian or not, regenerate or unregenerate.
His academic motto was ‘piety, temperance, and accuracy,’ but Stoterus pulled no punches in his response: those who argued Paul described the unregenerate seek to ‘bring Pelagianism back into this world.’ With ninety-one additional points of argument, citing Scripture, the Church Fathers and Aristotle, he supported his allegedly temperate case.
Theses like Stoterus’ seem less monumental than the kinds of printed works for which the Dutch Republic is famous, such as the Blaeu Atlas or the Elzevier’s Republics. But the wheels of the Dutch print market continued turning because of short, cheap publications like Stoterus’ thesis. Printing the octavo thesis required little capital and few working hours. Franeker was a university town, and its print industry was driven significantly by the publication of works by professors and students. Between 1600 and 1615, Robertus Doyema in Franeker printed at least twenty-nine disputations, including Stoterus’.
Most seventeenth-century dissertations that are available in modern special collections and archives were bound shortly after they were printed in sammelband compendiums by publishers or collectors. In bound collections of dozens and even hundreds of other theses, these most ephemeral works were saved from a near certain fate.
The Theses theologicae de septimo capite ad Romanos was not preserved in a sammelband: it is a single dissertation of only 24 pages. Its insubstantial binding and small format makes the thesis a perfect candidate for being lost, used to destruction, discarded, or otherwise forgotten. The number of early modern Dutch dissertations that are now lost or known only because of references to them in other sources far exceeds those dissertations that survive.
Around a hundred copies of Stoterus’ dissertation were likely printed for his own purposes—distributing them to professors, sponsors, friends and family. Printers of disputations often printed further copies for their own benefit. It is possible that well over one-hundred copies were printed in total. Now, only one copy survives, Tresoar’s.
If Stoterus thought his disputation would bring peace to a church in crises, he was engaging in a fool’s errand. Stoterus’ dissertation likely caused little more than a mild ripple in its time. There was no lack of polemical and sensational literature on predestination in the 1610s. However, it served a helpful purpose for its promoter, Sibrandus Lubbertus. Contained in its few pages were dozens of references to Scripture and the Church Fathers that supported the Contra-Remonstrant claims. It is a dense and concise work that provided early modern readers with references to the relevant biblical texts and places where the Church Fathers addressed the topic. In the battle for theological dominance, it was a convenient tool with which Sibrandus Lubbertus could refute his opponents, the Arminians. The utilitarian nature of this dissertation is seen in the mise-en-page: paragraphs span much of the page and nothing divides the text into more comprehendible sections except easily missed numbers that signal a new point of argument.
His thesis was an opportunity to demonstrate his Reformed bona fides, by unflinchingly engaging the most toxic debate of the day. Such a rare source is a window into the academic life of a Dutch university during one of the most tumultuous eras in the Republic’s history. But the rarity of this work is easily overlooked. Thanks to a collaboration between Tresoar and Google Books, a reader can scroll through a digital scan of it online. Though many thousands of theological students wrote theses and celebrated their publication, Stoterus’ is one of the few whose work can be read by anyone with an internet connection.
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Forrest Strickland is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has served as a research student with the USTC since beginning his PhD in 2017. He is the author of the forthcoming Protestant Ministers and their Books in the Dutch Republic, 1607–1700, 2 vols. (Brill). His doctoral research investigates Dutch ministers and the culture of print in the Golden Age. He is a former Arminius Fellow at the University of Leiden-Scaliger Institute. You can follow him on Twitter and Academia.edu