Andrew Willet (1562-1621): Text Critical Concerns in Romans 1:32

The rigors of textual critical work were the obligatory work of the Reformation theologians as they confronted their Roman Catholic counterparts and their own textual critical inquiry and polemic. Rather than asserting a retardation of critical work due to this struggle, the reality of this tension stimulated and indeed demanded critical inquiry. There was no need to indulge in nonexegetical, hypothetical formulations as did the theologians of the 18th and 19th centuries.[1] Romans 1:32 serves as a splendid example of the academic and yet thoroughly theological struggle in which the Reformed Orthodox exegetes were engaged.

In the Latin, the passage reads, “Who when they knew the justice of God, did not understand, that they which do such things, are worthy of death, not only they which do them, but they also which consent unto the doers.”[2] Willet compares this with the translation of the “original”[3] or apographa, which reads, “The which knowing the justice of God, how they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only to do the same, but to have pleasure in them.”

He observes that the Latin translation fails on two accounts. The first, on a textual level, was the addition of the words, “did not understand” and “they which do them” which are not in the “original”/apographa. The second was that this translation fails in the sense by promulgating two contradictions. The first contradiction is established in comparison to the Greek. According to the Greek reading, the apostle means that it is “a more heinous thing to favor and patronize evil doers, than to be an evil doer. But after the other reading the latter, [or committing the sin], is greater,” the other reading being the Latin.[4] The second contradiction, Willet’s third point, is that the Latin translation itself concludes a contradiction, “For when they knew the justice of God,” Willet writes, “how could they choose but understand it.”[5] And fourthly, citing Chrysostom, Oecumenius and Theophylact for support, he says that they read and interpret this passage according to the Greek, not the Latin text.

Willet shows throughout his commentaries, that aside from canonical and ecclesiastical differences, certain renderings are simply unreasonable. He shows that the Latin text contains logical contradictions that no one should be expected to believe or to hold authoritatively. Indeed, these errors in reason reflect on an absence of academic rigor indicative of an exegetical tradition that relied on authoritative pronouncements and institutional advancements rather than a rigorous, reasoned exegesis.

Bellarmine responds that some Greek texts had the word asunhkan,(sp) “they understood not,” as are found in Origen’s commentary and that Titlemannus affirmed that he had seen an ancient Greek copy with those words. Secondly, critics of the Greek reading argued that it was a greater sin to do evil, as to commit murder, than only to consent. The third criticism was that one might have a theoretical knowledge and yet fail in practice, and so not understand the effect. And lastly, Cyprian, Ambrose, Sedulius, Haymo, and Anselm follow the Latin rather than the Greek apographa in this passage.[6] Willet’s Papist opposition raised textual, moral, reasoned, and Church tradition against the reading of the Greek apographa.

To these four objections Willet gives a fourfold reply. Allowing that some Greek manuscripts have the words, the most ancient of the Greek manuscripts did not have them as is “evident by the Greek commentaries and the Syriac.”[7] While conceding some Greek MSS had the additional words, that testimony was not sufficient to overturn the Greek texts that comprise the apographa. The extant Greek manuscripts of the Reformation recognized by the Church as autopiston, self-authenticating, did not have these words. As relating to Bellarmine’s notion of “consent” Willet argues that the “Apostle speaketh not of bare consent unto evil, but of savoring, patronizing, and partaking pleasure in them, which is more than to do evil; for this one they may do of infirmity, the other proceedeth of a settled malice.”[8]

Refocusing the discussion of Bellarmine’s nonexegetical insertion of the idea of practice back to discernment, Willet responds, “the understanding is the judgment of the mind, not in practice, and therefore to know a thing, and yet not to know or understand it, includes a contradiction.” And finally, Willet answered by saying that the “Greek authors and commentaries are more to be respected in this case, for the finding out of the best reading in Greek, than the Latin writers.”[9]

Aware of the variant reading within this passage, Willet is not content to allow textual matters alone to suffice for the determination of the best reading. Willet appeals to the manuscripts upon which his Greek New Testament was founded, arguing for the sense of the words within their context as well as the logic for inclusion or exclusion. Orthodox sense and context informed Willet of the reasonable limits of his exegesis and interpretation. Also, in that the Latin commentaries are one or more copies and renditions removed from the Greek, it is not surprising that Willet finds the best reading in the original language Greek commentaries rather than the Latin version.


[1] Contra Greenslade, The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, 47.

[2] Andrew Willet, [HR]Hexapla: That is, a sixfold commentary upon the most divine epistle of the holy Apostle S. Paul to the Romans (Printed by Cantrell Legge, Printer to the University of Cambridge, 1611), 97.

[3] Note that with his contemporaries apographa is called the “original” or equated with the autographa.

[4] HR, 97.

[5] HR, 97.

[6] HR, 97. Jackson, ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 10, 333-334. Sedulius Scotus was an Irish monk (d. 828) whose writings are a compilation of the Church Fathers and especially Origen.

[7] HR, 97.

[8] HR, 97. Poole, Commentary, 483. “Have pleasure in them; or, patronize, applaud such; see Psal. X. 3. This is set last, as worst of all; it is the highest degree of wickedness: and such come nearest the devil, who take pleasure in evil because it is evil.”

[9] HR, 97.

Published by Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr.

Dr. Peter William Van Kleeck, Sr. : B.A., Grand Rapids Baptist College, 1986; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990; Th.M., Calvin Theological Seminary, 1998; D. Min, Bob Jones University, 2013. Dr. Van Kleeck was formerly the Director of the Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, Grand Rapids, MI, (1990-1994) lecturing, researching and writing in the defense of the Masoretic Hebrew text, Greek Received Text and King James Bible. His published works include, "Fundamentalism’s Folly?: A Bible Version Debate Case Study" (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1998); “We have seen the future and we are not in it,” Trinity Review, (Mar. 99); “Andrew Willet (1562-1621: Reformed Interpretation of Scripture,” The Banner of Truth, (Mar. 99); "A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs" (Outskirts Press, 2015). Dr. Van Kleeck is the pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Manassas, VA where he has ministered for the past twenty-one years. He is married to his wife of 43 years, Annette, and has three married sons, one daughter and eighteen grandchildren.

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