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Theoretical-Practical Theology, by Petrus van Mastricht

Ryan M. McGraw

Theoretical-Practical Theology, by Petrus van Mastricht. Edited by Joel R. Beeke, translated by Todd M. Rester, vol. 1 of 7 vols. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2018, xci + 238 pages, $50.00.

Theology has changed and persisted over the centuries. While the creedal and doctrinal core of Christianity remains stable, other things shift and adapt to contemporary problems. Theological developments occur in response to the challenges of the times as well. However, while contemporary theological models often contribute much to our understanding of exegesis, they are sometimes less precise and frequently less devotional than their Reformed scholastic predecessors. Modern readers do not likely associate the words “scholastic” and “devotional,” and “precision” often takes on a pejorative meaning. The first translated volume of Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretico-Practica Theologia challenges all of these assumptions.

Contemporary readers will find much in his work that has familiar Reformed content, but his combination of scholastic precision and fervent devotion in an academic system of theology is so different from most current theological models that it will seem novel to many. This first volume directs readers to rethink their approach to theology in light of the definitions and character of theology. This material will not only leave readers longing for the rest of the planned set to appear, but it will also add a needed voice to contemporary approaches to the nature and study of theology. This review focuses on Mastricht’s definition of theology, his doctrine of Scripture, and his distribution of theology, which correspond to the three chapters comprising this volume.

Mastricht defined theology as “the doctrine of living for God through Christ” (64, 98–104). This highlights his place in the historical development of Reformed theology, reflecting a decidedly pre-Enlightenment bent. The historical introduction by Adriaan Neele shows excellently how and why this is the case. The funeral oration, on the other hand, while a relevant piece of history, is tedious and less helpful because the speaker spent most of his time digressing about the worthiness of other authors and his assessment of Dutch education and politics. Mastricht, like Jonathan Edwards who commended his work heartily, lived on the cusp of Enlightenment thought. He was famed in his day as one of the primary opponents of René Descartes. While most post-Enlightenment authors classified theology as a science and defined theology as a discourse concerning God, Mastricht perpetuated the earlier Reformed tradition by treating theology as encompassing all theological habits (especially wisdom; p. 100) and defining it as “the doctrine of living for God through Christ.” In his view, “doctrine” envelopes all philosophical habits and it stresses the objective, or theoretical, nature of theology. However, “living for God,” stresses the idea that the Bible is concerned primarily with the experimental rather than merely the intellectual knowledge of God. “Through Christ” reflects the fact that there is no saving knowledge of God apart from faith in Christ. The value of this definition of theology is that, even though it is partly couched in philosophical categories, it provides readers with a definition of theology that reflects the goals of Scripture. The Bible directs us to knowing God and obtaining true spiritual wisdom rather than merely teaching us a scientific system of doctrines. This is something that has resonated with believers in every generation. Mastricht directs us in a right path in this regard without sacrificing theological precision in favor of experimental piety.

If faith in Christ is necessary for the true knowledge of God, then, as Mastricht’s second chapter stresses, we cannot know Christ apart from divine revelation (84). Mastricht gives five reasons why the finalized canon of Scripture is superior to other forms of revelation and why it is necessary to know God by his Word and Spirit only (119). His treatment of the eight properties of Scripture is full and satisfying (126–31). While he upholds what we now call the full divine inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the original autographs of Scripture, his treatment is deeper and broader than these issues. This is important in our day when there is a tendency to highlight controverted attributes of Scripture to the neglect of a full doctrine of Scripture. Mastricht also includes useful pastoral points, such as the idea that those who do not know the original languages of Scripture may not have a grammatical certainty or certitude of knowledge, but they may have a spiritual certitude or certitude of faith (184–85). This illustrates Mastricht’s use of scholastic distinctions by maintaining the priority of the original text of Scripture without denying the sufficiency of translations to produce saving faith in the non-specialist.

Mastricht’s final chapter in this volume introduces briefly the distribution of the system of theology. Without rejecting organizing principles used by others, he argues that the simplest division of theology is into faith and love, or what one should believe and what one should do (205–6). This corresponds roughly to the earlier division of the system, used by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, into what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. This reflects Ramist-oriented theologians, such as Amandus Polanus and Johannes Wollebius, as well. In addition to this broad distribution, Mastricht stands out for dividing each chapter of his theology into exegetical, dogmatic, elenctic, and practical sections. This makes his treatment well organized, easy to follow, and particularly full. His method has the advantage of being well rounded theologically and pastorally, making his work particularly suited to helping pastors.

In many disciplines, experts either become obsessed with definitions and method, or they ignore them entirely and simply do the work. In theology, we should land somewhere in the middle. How we define theology and how we understand its purposes will affect our goals in teaching and studying it, as well as what we hope to do with what we learn. This first volume of seven of the Theoretico-Practica Theologia defines theology in a way that weds doctrine and experience, knowledge and wisdom, content and faith, and principles and holiness. It is a holistic approach to theology for whole people who are being wholly redeemed by Christ. Modern readers may prefer the exegetical depth of newer authors. No author can be everything to everyone. Yet Mastricht contributes something indispensible, and often forgotten, in contemporary theology. Theology is about knowing the right God, in the right way, for the right reasons. This neither negates the need for objective academic theology nor converts it into popular or practical theology. Instead, it creates an organic union between things that are often separated, but should not be. Reading Mastricht is important, both due to his content and because he gives us a different perspective from a different context. This is a perspective that we need to learn from, adopt, and adapt, until we speak its language fluently with our own accent.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, October 2018.

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