Petrus Plancius – Theologian and Geographer

Facing the opposition of a government that equated religious syncretism with peace, Peter Plancius persisted in pointing out the doctrinal errors of fellow pastor Jacob Arminius. It was not, as some historians think, a needless fastidiousness. Arminius’s teachings implied a different view of the Christian life and were dangerously regressing from the Reformation’s rediscovery of the Gospel.

            Eventually, Plancius became known as the main representative of the Reformed position against Arminius. His battle for orthodoxy was long and assiduous but didn’t consume all of his time. Between sermons and meetings, he drew maps and organized daring expeditions in order to open merchant routes from Holland to the East.


Student and Pastor

            Plancius was born Pieter Platevoet (literally “Peter Flatfoot”) in 1552, in a town in West Flanders called Dranouter (now in the Flanders region of Belgium). His father, a fairly wealthy man and recent convert to Protestantism, sent him to Germany and England to achieve a good education. Peter’s studies focused on theology but included astronomy and cartography. In 1576, Peter was ordained as a pastor and returned to his homeland, where he preached to a Reformed congregation.

            His activities became increasingly difficult as Roman Catholic Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Governor General of the Netherlands, placed heavy pressures on the Reformed churches. They were dangerous times, and Plancius experienced a few narrow escapes from death.

            When the Spanish troops occupied Brussels in 1585, Plancius was forced to flee north to Amsterdam, where he served as minister for nearly forty years. It was there, in 1587, that he first met Arminius, a 27-year old who had studied under Beza and had come to pastor a church in Amsterdam. Plancius, seven years his elder, was part of an examining committee of five ministers. Eventually, Arminius passed the examination and was installed as pastor.


Denunciation of Arminius’s Preaching

            Things progressed fairly well, even though Arminius began to progressively move away from some of the doctrines he had learned in Geneva. This shift came to the surface in 1591. He had been preaching from the book of Romans, and he had just arrived at Romans 7, Paul’s account of his inner contradiction between a love of God’s law and a wearisome propensity to sin. On the surface, there was also a contradiction with the previous chapter. The same Apostle Paul who, in chapter six, says we have been “set free from sin” (v. 22), calls himself “sold under sin” in chapter seven (v. 14).   

            What happened? Was Paul talking about someone else? If he talked about himself, was it before or after he met Christ? Traditionally, Reformed exegetes gave a straightforward interpretation: Paul was talking about himself at the time he was writing the Letter to the Romans, as an Apostle appointed by Christ after his radical conversion on the way to Damascus. Arminius found it unconvincing. How can a regenerate person describe himself a “sold under sin”?

            In reality, the confusion dissipates when one takes into consideration the rest of chapter seven, where Paul describes his “delight in the law of God” and “desire to do what is right” (vv. 22, 18), which are unique characteristics of believers. Besides, there are other places in Paul’s writings where he expresses the same frustration with his sins. In other words, Paul was simply reflecting the common experience of Christians in this present age, when, as Martin Luther explained, they are both justified and sinful.

            According to a contemporary writer, Arminius’s preaching on this chapter “procured him some ill will and but little favor with most of his ministerial brethren.”[1] He was soon accused of Pelagianism (the belief that man has in himself the ability to obey God), and of contradicting the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism (i.e. HC Q/A 60 and 114)[2]. It was a serious matter with a powerful impact on the Christian life. Arminius’s interpretation could only lead to self-righteous perfectionism or despair.

            Arminius continued to preach on the Epistle to the Romans and Plancius continued to denounce other deviances from the Reformed confessional standards. It was not just a matter of sinful nature. Arminius started to doubt the Augustinian doctrines of God’s sovereignty and grace and the Reformation’s teachings on sola gratia and sola fide.

            Arminius was repeatedly called to explain his actions in front of civil and church authorities, but he always defended his orthodoxy and was dismissed with a warning. In reality, he had simply decided to hide some of his beliefs and to express others in a guarded manner, hoping this would “conduce to peace.” “I have been silent upon some truths which I might have published,” he said, “for I know that it is one thing to be silent respecting a truth and another to utter a falsehood.”[3]

            In 1603, he was appointed professor at the University of Leiden, in spite of Plancius’s opposition. As professor, Arminius was able to quietly influence other men. After his death in 1609, one of these men, Conradus Vorstius, became his spiritual successor. Once again, Plancius alerted both the authorities and the people of the lasting effect of Arminius’s teachings, and continued to do so until they were officially declared unorthodox at the Synod of Dordt (1618/19).

            Plancius didn’t participate at the synod but was given the task to work on an official translation of the Bible into Dutch – a project he never finished because he died in 1622.


Plancius the Geographer

            While he fiercely defended the confessional standards in both his preaching and his participation to meetings, Plancius kept busy pursuing the intriguing vision of opening new trade routes from the Netherlands to the Indies. Until then, Dutch merchants had to buy their spices from the Portuguese, who had monopolized the trade. Plancius knew enough about geography to believe it was possible to sail north through Russia and Norway and then south-east to the Indies and the Moluccas.

            His knowledge of cartography and navigation, probably acquired at the university, had first come to public notice in 1590, when he created five maps for a Bible – from a map of “Paradise, together with the countries, cities, and places mentioned in the book of Creation” to “a description of the whole world, newly improved in many places.” According to Arminius’s biographer Carl Bangs, “it was this last map which suddenly made Bible scholars out of sea captains” because of “its availability and its improvements.”[4]

            The States General asked Plancius to make another map, which was printed in 1592 and reprinted soon after. Within the next two years, he published a series of maps of different parts of the world, including information about their inhabitants and their products. No one knows how he gathered this information.

            As the next step, he encouraged three merchants (who were his neighbors) to plan a sea voyage to the source of the spices they were at that time buying from Portugal – particularly the East Indies and the Moluccas. He also gave courses on navigation to sea captains and taught them to measure the portions of the sky which were not visible from Europe. This happened right at the time he was fighting for orthodoxy in the church. Sometimes, these plans distracted him from his sermon preparation, and some people complained that he talked about sea voyages from the pulpit.

            Plancius continued to work with trading companies: first the Dutch East India Company (of which he was a founder) and later the West India Company. For them, he created over one hundred maps. In the meantime, he promoted missionary work in the Dutch trading empire.

            Today, he is recognized as the founding father of Dutch cartography. He was also the first to depict the Columba constellation on a map of the sky (he originally called it Columba Noachi, or “Noah’s Dove”).

            If Plancius’s theological impact is remembered at all, it’s often as the work of an “extremist” who was “well known for fanaticism.”[5] Our culture understands Arminius better: a man who spread his convictions quietly, while maintaining an appearance of peace. But Plancius had seen and experienced too much persecution to let this matter go. It would only take one step in the opposite direction to lose much of the progress made by the Reformation. It would only take one condition added to God’s free grace to lose the message of the gospel.

[1] Caspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D., translated from Latin by John Guthrie, Nashville, Tenn., E Stevenson & F. Owens, 1857, p. 67.

[2] “How are thou righteous before God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (HC 60, 1563, emphasis added).

“Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly? No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live, not only according to some, but according to all the commandments of God” (HC 114, 1563).

[3] Jacob Arminius, from a letter to Adrian Borrius, 1605, quoted in Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1985, p. 269

[4] Bangs, Arminius, p. 179.

[5] Jan Den Tex, Oldenbarnevelt: 1606-1619, Cambridge University Press, 1973, pp. 447, 444.


Simonetta Carr