bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

To know is to esteem

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 5 September, 2011

Work took me last week to Leiden, for the graduation of the latest cohort of the Europaeum MA. My schedule there allowed me a few moments in the peace of Pieterskerk — a space as high-vaulted as a Dominican convent, and with a serenity achieved only perhaps because of its deconsecration. There is some beauty in its pared-down aesthetic, and some sense of the tensions within the Calvinist tradition, as that simplicity contrasts with the ornate organ loft at the west end. Equally redolent of those tensions is the understated wall-plaque to one of Leiden’s most famous (or notorious) professors of theology, Jacobus Arminius. His re-thinking of Calvinist doctrine — which, itself, was more often Calvinist than Calvin — took him towards a language of redemption where human will once more might have some role. Arminian doctrine — which also was sometimes more Arminian than Arminius — was to set the Protestant world alight in conflict, both in the Netherlands and in England.

The plaque to Arminius is late — twentieth-century — and like most in the church, in the vernacular. It is topped with another inscription (its date not stated) which is worth quoting:

Fuit in Batavia vir quem qui norant non potuerunt satis aestimare

Qui non aestimaverunt nunquam satis cognoverant

In other words, those who knew him could not esteem him high enough, and those who did not esteem him, never knew him well enough. I found those words affecting, an irenic reflection on the tragedy of conflict that Arminius himself was not to see. One wishes its sentiment could be true.

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