Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

19

THE BREDENBURG DISPUTES

Among the most protracted of the Dutch controversies was the bitter quarrel which erupted around the well-meaning figure of Johannes Bredenburg (1643–91), a dispute which reached such a pitch of intensity that it eventually generated a formal schism in the Dutch Collegiant movement. A fringe Church in numbers, the Collegiants, from their origins in the second quarter of the seventeenth century down to the early eighteenth, were disproportionately prominent in Dutch intellectual debate owing, above all, to the special emphasis they placed on the intellectual and spiritual freedom of the individual.1 As such they were both a new and highly innovative phenomenon in the wider European, as well as Dutch, context, reflecting in a theological mode the wider psychological and spiritual reaction against the pressures of confessionalization gripping western culture in the late seventeenth century.2

The Collegiants might almost be described as an anti-Church, avowedly shedding all traditional accoutrements of ecclesiastical authority and power, as well as traditional notions of doctrinal orthodoxy. Joining the Collegiants, in contrast to other Churches, entailed no particular confessional allegiance or forms of outward observance or discipline, beyond a doctrinally vague, albeit usually fervent, commitment to Christian ideals. No one, whatever their views, was excluded from their midst, provided they accepted their manner of meeting and conducting their services. The Collegiants, observed Locke, 'admit to their communion all Christians and hold it our duty to join in love and charity with those who differ in opinion'.3 But they also exhibited a strong commitment to debate and study, and were intensely dedicated to the advancement of Christian commitment by these means.

Furthermore, the dialectic of internal debate generated a gradual shift away from the mystical spiritualism and Millenarianism, which predominated among them in the 1640s and 1650s, towards an increasingly rationalist and 'enlightened' attitude, which prevailed later. For several decades these deliberations among the Collegiants, including the early stages of the Bredenburg controversies, took place in an edifying atmosphere of good will admirably free from intolerance and bigotry. Their 'colleges' could rightly claim to surpass any other Christian community known in Europe in their ability to accommodate a wide spectrum of theological and philosophical opinion. Nevertheless, so fraught was the general intellectual atmosphere by the last

1 Lindeboom, Stiefkinderen, 345–52; Fix, Prophecy and Reason, 3–32.

2 Israel, Dutch Republic, 587–70, 911–14.

3 Locke, Passages, 307.

-342-

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