Richard Baxter and the Mechanical Philosophers

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David S. Sytsma
Oxford Studies in Historical Theology
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190274870.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David S. Sytsma’s work, Richard Baxter and the Mechanical Philosophers, challenges the common notion that Richard Baxter, one of the most prominent Puritans of the seventeenth century, was simply a practical or devotional theologian. By analyzing Baxter’s unexamined and poorly appreciated theoretical works, including The Reasons of the Christian Religion, Christian Directory, and most importantly, Methodus theologiae christianae, Sytsma maintains that Baxter deserves to be better known as a philosophical theologian (1). In this book, Sytsma successfully demonstrates Baxter’s mastery of both medieval scholastic theology and the broad Reformed tradition as well as Baxter’s serious involvement with the new philosophies of the era, known as “mechanical philosophies.” Sytsma’s excellent work provides a carefully arranged chronological and topical discussion of Baxter’s polemical engagement with mechanical philosophies, and it expounds in particular Baxter’s views of the nature of motion and its relation to God, the nature of the soul and the threat of materialism, and the mechanical philosophies’ radical implications for ethics (14). Sytsma’s analysis of Baxter’s major theoretical works, manuscript treatises, and correspondence reveals Baxter’s critical evaluation of mechanical philosophies and explains why Baxter believed the philosophical innovations promoted by René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Thomas Hobbes, and Benedict de Spinoza could be a potential seed for theological heterodoxy (258).

This book’s most notable strength is Sytsma’s historical contextualization of Baxter’s thought. Providing a case study of Baxter’s correspondence with Henry More, Joseph Glanvill, Robert Boyle, and Edward Stillingfleet, Sytsma successfully proves that Baxter’s (early) response to mechanical philosophies was engaged in particular with the Latitudinarians’ reception of Gassendi’s Christian Epicureanism (41). In contrast to the Dutch Reformed opposition to Cartesianism, a historical motivation of Baxter’s (sudden) criticism of mechanical philosophy was the rising popularity of “corpuscular philosophy” (which views nature as reducible to material particles) among the early Latitudinarians and the members of the Royal Society in mid-seventeenth-century England (48). Discussing Baxter’s polemics with regard to the re-emergence of anti-Calvinist Anglicanism among the early Latitudinarians in England, Sytsma also demonstrates that Baxter was neither a “protorationalist” nor a “transitional figure” between the old-style Reformed Orthodoxy and the age of the Enlightenment (72). Instead, articulating Baxter’s views of the noetic effect of sin (80), sense perception as the origin of knowledge (87), and his prioritization of the knowledge of existence over essence (86), all of which are contrary to Cartesian philosophy, Sytsma reveals Baxter’s intellectual continuity with medieval scholasticism and with his Reformed heritage going back to John Calvin and Peter Vermigli (101). Especially in his discussion of Baxter’s perception of the relation of the will to the intellect, Sytsma’s argument about Baxter’s “eclectic voluntarism” is persuasive: while Baxter shared Thomas Aquinas’s view of the corruption of the will that exercises a contaminating impact upon the intellect, he also preferred Duns Scotus’s position on the dignity and freedom of the will in the face of the intellect’s practical judgment regarding the good (82).

While Sytsma constantly emphasizes the eclectic nature of Baxter’s philosophical theology, he also points out Baxter’s intellectual originality in his response to mechanical philosophies. Sytsma explains the possible influence of Girolamo Zanchi, Amandus Polanus, and Johann Comenius on Baxter’s appropriation of the early modern Reformed tradition of “Mosaic physics” that regarded the Bible, particularly the Genesis account of creation, as a reliable source for natural philosophy (114). However, the main difference among them, according to Sytsma, is whereas Zanchi and Polanus first discussed the lower forms of creation and then moved up to analyze humanity, Baxter moved from a discussion of humanity and its faculties down to the sensitive, vegetative, and passive aspects of creation (116). Underscoring Baxter’s high regard for the rational soul as the image of God (vestigia Trinitatis), Sytsma convincingly argues that while Baxter shared the Dutch Reformed Voetian group’s general opposition to the Cartesian division between philosophy and scripture, he uniquely developed a “Trinitarian natural philosophy” by eclectically using the Trinitarian metaphysics of Tommaso Campanella (134): God’s three attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness are reflected in the realm of nature. Sytsma’s articulation of Baxter’s Trinitarian natural philosophy is seamlessly connected to the discussion of Baxter’s eclectic reception of Copernicanism. Sytsma successfully demonstrates both Baxter’s remarkable openness to the empirical advances of the era, such as the new astronomy of Galilei Galileo and Gassendi, and his clear rejection of mechanical philosophy that excluded an intrinsic source of causality in the motion of things. Sytsma persuasively contends that Baxter regarded mechanical philosophy’s reduction of the conception of motion to “local motion” and “collision of material particles” as a serious threat to the Aristotelian and Thomist view of “substantial form,” which Baxter also called “active nature,” “active form,” and “essential virtue” (166). For Baxter, change of motion indicates the inherent existence of substantial form, which is an intrinsic source of motion in things, and the motion’s teleological orientation analogically reflects active (and passive) creatures’ degree of continuity with God’s attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness manifested in nature by God’s activity: “Since God is an active and living God, his creation should likewise have an analogous activity and life” (170).

Sytsma’s analysis of Baxter’s Trinitarian natural philosophy based on the concept of substantial form as the source of intrinsic activity clearly explains why Baxter believed that the rational soul’s immateriality is a “slippery ground” for proving the soul’s immortality: immaterial acts and objects do not necessarily presuppose immaterial (incorporeal) agents (199). In contrast to Gassendi’s dualism between materiality and immateriality and Thomas Willis’s materialization of the animal soul, Baxter grounded his argument of the soul’s immortality in “essential human inclinations” that are intrinsically oriented to perfection unattainable in this life (214). Sytsma convincingly argues that Baxter saw the danger of Christian Epicureanism represented by Gassendi potentially lying in ethical implications that are integral to the moral and political thought of both Hobbes and Spinoza (217). Articulating Baxter’s employment of Francisco Suárez’s De legibus in the discussion of natural law, Sytsma expounds that Baxter considered both Spinoza’s and Hobbes’s view of naturalistic natural law (neccessitarianism) as unacceptable, since they identified natural law with appetite and power and rejected both human freedom and divine providence (248).

This book is a distinguished work of scholarship, and Sytsma’s discussion and contextualization of Baxter’s philosophical theology is remarkable. Sytsma’s work is a welcome addition to the scholarship of Baxter and Reformed and Puritan theologians in the early modern period, and Sytsma makes a major contribution by analyzing a wide range of Baxter’s unexamined theoretical works. I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
January 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David S. Sytsma is assistant professor at Tokyo Christian University and research curator at the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research.

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