• Presbyterian Reformed Church

The Life and Work of William Twisse

By Dr. William Young

William Twisse was born near Newbury, England. His father, a clothier, had him educated at Winchester, from which at the age of eighteen he moved to New College, Oxford. During the sixteen years spent as an undergraduate and later a fellow of the college, he acquired a profound knowledge of philosophy and theology. In 1604 he became Master of Arts and was ordained to the ministry. He was further awarded the Doctorate in Divinity in 1614, and served Sir Henry Seville in transcribing and correcting the great work of Thomas Bradwardine on the cause of God against the Pelagians. His secluded life at the University was cut short when King James I appointed him chaplain to his daughter Elizabeth, the princess Palatine, to accompany her to Germany. By his expositions of Scripture, Twisse was the instrument in the hands of Providence to prepare the princess for the severe afflictions she was to experience. After two months at the court of the elector Palatine, the Doctor was recalled to England, where he became Vicar of Newbury. James Reid, in his biographical account of the Westminster Divines, states, “And in a country village, and mean house, by very close study, he laid the foundation of those rare and elaborate works, which have been the admiration of all the reformed churches both at home and abroad.” He refused to give up his quiet scholarly mode of life for promotion, either to the position of Warden of Winchester College or Professor of Divinity in the University of Franeker in the Netherlands.

His faithfulness in refusing to obey the royal edict that the Sabbath-desecrating book of Sports be read in all churches, as well as his international fame for his massive Latin folios against Arminianism, was acknowledged by the Long Parliament which appointed him Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly in 1643. He had been forced out of Newbury by the Cavaliers, or king’s soldiers at the beginning of the English Civil War, and spent his last years in poverty, in view of Parliament’s inability to make regular payments of the stipends allotted to members of the Westminster Assembly. Robert Baillie, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Assembly gives the following account: “The Proloqutor at the beginning and end has a short prayer. The man, as the world knows is very learned in the questions he has studied, and very good, beloved of all, and highlie esteemed; but merelie bookish, and not much, as it seems, acquaint with conceived prayers [and] among the unfittest of all the company for any action; so after the prayer he sitts mute. It was the canny convoyance of those who guide most matters for their own interest to plan such a man of purpose in the chaire.” Letters, ed. Laing, II, 108.

As Baillie intimates, Twisse was not at home in the chair at the Assembly. The heated debates no doubt disturbed him and his health broke down. He fainted in the Pulpit on March 1645 and was carried home, where he was frequently visited by members of the Assembly, as the Minutes indicate. He died in July, 1646 at the age of seventy-one, after having uttered the words: “Now, at length, I shall have leisure to follow my studies to all eternity.” Robert Harris was appointed by the Assembly to preach the funeral sermon, and the interment at Westminster Abbey was attended by the Assembly in a body. At the restoration of King Charles II, his bones were dug up by an order of the Council, and cast, with those of other worthies, into a common churchyard in a hole. Reid informs us that Twisse’s children were cheated out of their inheritance and of the generous provision made by Parliament, but that “God was so pleased to appear for them, in his kind providence, that they obtained a decent support.” (p. 58).

Twisse excelled in his scholarly writings on controversial questions, especially in defending the doctrines of grace against Arminians and Jesuits. While he counted others to be better versed in practical and pastoral Divinity than himself, he nevertheless regarded it his duty in 1641 to publish his On the Morality of the Fourth Commandment, as still in force to bind Christians, in answer to Dr. Prideaux’s lecture concerning the Sabbath, and to the preface by the translator. In addition to the pointed replies to the defense of the book of Sports, the work contains interesting digressions on the views of the continental Reformed theologians Revetus, Walaeus, and Thysius as well as the Lutheran Cheninitz. Twisse sees clearly that pious practice on the Lord’s Day must be grounded in a rational understanding of the doctrinal foundations provided in Scripture revelation, and that weakness on that fundamental level provides a handle for the enemies of Sabbath observance. Therefore he argues in defense of the institution of the Sabbath from the creation, the permanent validity of the Fourth Commandment, and the change of the day by divine appointment. He further points out “that it is nothing strange that the Lord’s Day should be called by the name of the Sabbath and makes the pertinent observation that “of Christian liberty from the yoke of Jewish ceremonies I have read, but of Christian liberty unto sports and pastimes under the gentle notion of recreations, and that on the Lord’s Day I never read till now.” (p. 245).

Another of Twisse’s shorter English writings is The Scripture’s Sufficiency to Determine All Matters of Faith Made Good Against the Papist, published in 1652, and reprinted with a preface by James Reid, 1795. In it he shows that a Christian may be infallibly certain of his faith and religion by the Holy Scriptures, by way of reply to what pretended to be a perplexing question, or a doubtful case of conscience. Joseph Hall, Bishop of Norwich, in his letter of approbation, writes: “There is a face of a style, by which we scholars know one another, no less than our persons by a visible countenance: whosoever hath read the witty and acute exercitations of this author upon the writings of Dr. Jackson, will easily find him in this tractate both for form and matter. This skulking and disguised challenger could not have met with a meeter combatant; a man so eminent in school-divinity, that the Jesuits have felt, and (for aught I see) shrunk under his strength, in their SCIENTIA MEDIA [middle knowledge, on which Twisse published a Latin Folio of 498 pages in 1639, W. Y.]. The man will find himself here over-answered and receive too much honour from such an antagonist…” (pp. 6, 8)

The most weighty of Twisse’s works are his laborious tomes on the Arminian controversy in which every question relating to the subject is thoroughly canvassed. In English is the posthumously published Folio, The Riches of God’s Love unto the Vessels of Mercy, consistent with his absolute Hatred or Reprobation of the Vessels of Wrath, Oxford, 1653. The text contains the writing of Samuel Hoard, the first elaborate attack on Calvinism in English, together with Twisse’s refutation point by point. The book was recommended by Dr. Owen, at that time Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. It is interesting that Hoard’s work also called forth replies by Davenant and Amyraut. Twisse, following Hoard’s order of treatment, first defends the Supralapsarian position through page 32, and then spends nine times as much space in replying to the objections against Infralapsarianism. Though Twisse enjoys the reputation of being the champion of Supralapsarianism, he emphatically declares the question as to the order of God’s decrees and the object of predestination to be apex logicus, a point of logic, and asks, “And were it not a mere madness to make a breach of unity or charity in the church of God merely upon a point of logic?” (p. 35).

Now Twisse was no enemy to logic in theological discussions. In fact his statement and defense of Supralapsarianism has been obscured if not ignored in later accounts of the question. It is therefore in order to hear his own precise formulation, which differs from that of others with whom he has been included as holding this high version of Calvinism. In treating of the teaching of Prov. 16:4 as to the manifestation of God’s glory as the end of his works, Twisse writes: “And from hence we conclude, that in case the end is such as has been specified, and all those actions following, congruous means tending to that end, therefore the decree of manifesting God’s glory, as above specified is first with God, and secondly, the decree of the means; which means although they are many materially, yet they come all under one formal notion of means tending to a certain end, which according to the several parts thereof bespeaks them all, and consequently they are all to be considered, as making up the object of one formal decree, called the decree of the means: and the intention of none of them is before another, but all intended at once, as means tending to the end which is first intended. In like manner if God shall be pleased to intend the manifestation of his glory in Man, or Angel, in the way of justice vindicative, the means necessarily required hereunto are Creation, Permission of sin, and Damnation unto punishment, and all three make up the object of one formal decree which is to be called the decree of the means. So that like as God doth not intend the creature’s creation, before he intends his damnation, in the same respect he cannot be said to intend his damnation before he intends his creation, or the permissions of his sin.” (p. 11). In this way, Twisse demolishes the Arminian objection that Supralapsarianism is guilty of the blasphemy that God has determined to create men in order to damn them. At the same time he hints gently that Infralapsarians have no reason to agree with Arminians on this point. Twisse’s way of presenting the matter may be read as a reconciliation of the supra- and the infra- positions. On the one hand, the unity of the eternal decree is safeguarded. All suggestion of a change of God’s intention in view of the fall is eliminated. On the other hand, it is admitted that creation and the fall are not means to salvation and damnation, though the decree of creation and of permission of the fall may be held as means to the end of the manifestation of the glory of pardoning mercy and vindicative justice. Twisse’s logic, to be sure, does not admit of the view some have found attractive in Supralapsarianism, i.e., that creation and the fall were in order to redemption. He could hardly join with John Kent in singing, “And all for the lifting of Jesus on high.”

Among the works in defense of Calvinism, most outstanding, is Twisse’s Vindiciae Gratiae, Potestatis, Et Providentiae Dei (Vindication of the Grace, Power, and Providence of God) published in Amsterdam, 1632. It is described as a scholastic reply to Arminius’ examination of Perkins’ short treatise on the manner and order of predestination. The title page also delightfully pictures Paul, Augustine, and Calvin, the champions of Free Grace, opposite Plato, Pelagius, and Servetus, the representatives of human wisdom. In addition to the texts of Perkins and Arminius, followed by Twisse’s detailed observations, there are several digressions, in which the author develops his own views systematically with prodigious erudition and rigorous reasoning, sometimes seasoned by refreshing wit. Bishop Robert Sanderson states that he read the volume “through to a syllable” (Works, Vol. 6, p. 353), although unhappily he was left unconvinced. William Cunningham remarks, “We think it somewhat doubtful whether any other man ever performed this feat.” (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 371 n.), and describes the book as “the great storehouse of materials on the Supralapsarian side…a folio volume of 800 pages of close printed Latin.”

The work is divided into three books and contains thirty-six digressions, in which the author draws from his rich store of knowledge, not only of Reformed theologians, but of Patristic, Medieval, Arminian, and Jesuit writers.

The first of the ten digressions under the head of Predestination argues that the differences among Calvinists do not imply breach of fellowship. He proceeds, however, to argue vigorously in support of his version of the Supralapsarian position. The object of predestination is the mass of mankind not yet created, although reprobation is not apart from the consideration of sin. Opposing view are refuted and Rom. 9 is explained as providing Scripture grounds. The theses that election is an act of mercy and reprobation of justice are subjected to critical examination.

In Book II, the first digression presents a proof that God can afflict a creature not deserving punishment, on the ground that it is better to be and to be in misery than not to be at all. An initial emotional reaction may be checked when it is considered that God visited upon his beloved and most holy Son the penalties of hell or the equivalent. Augustine’s view in the De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), b.3, c.6-8, is set forth, and also the common objection from the Savior’s words about Judas, Matt. 26:24 . These are explained as expressing the judgment of erring men, by a common Scripture mode of speech, cf. Gen 1:16 ; 2 Chron. 28:25.

Many Reformed theologians, especially in defending the doctrines of the Atonement against the Socinians, have objected to Twisse’s claim that God, through his absolute power, can remit sins even without satisfaction. Such a view rests on the assumption that the exercise of justice, like that of mercy is optional with God. John Owen, in his masterly work on Divine Justice has replied to Twisse’s arguments and defended the position that the pardon of sin requires the satisfaction of divine justice, while he speaks of the man as “our learned antagonist,” “the very illustrious, and the accurate Twisse.”

Another Latin folio was published posthumously in Amsterdam, 1649 with a preface by Rivetus. It consists of an analysis of the conference privately conducted between Arminius and Junius and also an answer to the work of the Arminian Corvinus against Tilenus’ earlier position prior to his apostasy from Calvinism. Like the Vindiciae Gratiae, the second division of this work “On Predestination, Grace, and Free Will”, also contains digressions. The first of these treats of the punishment of original sin, and replies to Arminius’ reasons for denying that any infants are condemned on account of original sin. A second digression answers twenty exceptions of Arminius against Supralapsarianism holding the predestination of the uncreated mass. The third and fourth digressions contain curious historical information about the praedestinati, persons who were alleged to draw fatalistic conclusions from the Anti-Pelagian doctrine of Augustine. Among the questions discussed in replying to Corvinus, one may be singled out as being of special interest. In the Schools passions are ascribed to God, not quoad affectum, sed quoad effectum (not with respect to the affection, but to the effect). But the Arminians together with the followers of Vorstius have thought out a new theology, in which they ascribe to God an affection, by which he desires the salvation of all individuals. Twisse argues that God would then desire the creation of all, and that, in the absence of opposition, creation would necessarily follow. The Scriptures to which Corvinus appeals ascribe to God such desire in the same manner as eyes and ears, obviously not properly, but by an anthropopathism (p. 258f.)

The collected works of Joseph Mede, fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge contain fifteen letters by Twisse. In the first letter Mede is praised for the good work he has begun on the Book of Revelation, and the providence of God is suggested to be found in reviving the doctrine of the Reign of the Saints when Antichrist’s kingdom is nearing its end. (p. 758, 4th ed.) The letters contain a number of interesting remarks not only on obscure passages in Daniel and Revelation, but also on the settlements in New England, the frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and the holiness of times and places.

While the unusual views of this independent and original thinker are sometimes strongly asserted, it appears that as Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly he did not seek for their inclusion in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Prof. Mitchell observes, “Yet with all his eminence he did not claim, nor, proud as his brethren were of him, did they consent to mould their Confession according to his peculiar views either as regards the order of the divine decrees, or the nature of justification, or as to the power of God to pardon sin without requiring any atonement for it.” (The Westminster Assembly, p. 120) Nevertheless, Twisse’s great contentions for the sovereignty of God’s free grace and the observance of the Sabbath according to the revealed will of the Lord of the Sabbath have found immemorial expression in the documents produced by the Assembly of Divines.


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