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Redemption in Christ: A Review Article

Ryan M. McGraw

Peter van Mastricht (1630–1706), Theoretical-Practical Theology: Redemption in Christ, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester and Michael T. Spangler, vol. 4; 7 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2023, 741 pages, $50.00.

Steadily moving towards completion, this fourth of seven projected volumes of Peter van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology tips readers past the half-way point of a momentous publishing endeavor. Mastricht gives modern readers a glimpse into another world. His scholastic precision and distinctions, constructive engagement with early church and medieval theology, and extensive practical application have become theological rarities in modern times. Representing some of Mastricht’s best material, this volume expounds the person and work of Christ, devoting nearly seven hundred pages to the Savior’s glory. Here readers will find a precise, warm-hearted, and engaging treatment of one of the most foundational and central areas of Christian doctrine. Rather than attempting to cover the massive amount of ground travelled here, this review aims to give readers a general feel for the work, highlighting some features illustrating its character.

In eighteen chapters, Mastricht moves through Christ’s incarnation, offices, states, and work of redemption. Tracing his covenant theology highlights the foundation on which the rest of the book is built, opening his Christology with a superb treatment of divine covenants. Genesis 3:15 provides the organizing exegetical principles, both for grasping Christ’s work in terms of the covenant of grace and for reading the entire Bible coherently. Rather than using standard terminology of the covenants of redemption and of grace, he taught that there was an eternal covenant of grace between the Father and the Son that was the foundation of the historical covenant of grace with the elect in union with Christ, these covenants being both distinct and related. Mastricht furnishes readers with one of the clearest and most thorough treatments of conditionality in the covenants of redemption and of grace. The “eternal covenant of grace” is unconditional respecting the elect because Christ fulfilled all its conditions in their place as their surety. On the other side, while maintaining clearly that the covenant of grace is conditioned on faith supplied by the Spirit, he distinguished elements of the covenant given as means to ends from those that are the ends of the covenant. Thus, the Spirit gives to the elect unconditional calling, regeneration, and faith (implying repentance) through conversion based on the covenant of redemption. Yet justification, adoption, and glorification follow the condition of faith as the ends of the covenant (e.g., 40). Conditionality in the covenant of grace thus prevents both Antinomian and Pelagian ideas that we are saved through our own doing, whether partly or wholly, because the Spirit supplies faith as the pivot of receiving the benefits of union with Christ. Faith is the condition of the covenant of grace, not in that it confers the right to the reward, which rests on Christ alone, but in that it confers the possession of the reward (41). Because this volume is occupied with Christ and his work of redemption, the ensuing material on Christ’s incarnation, offices, states, and redemption all fall under the eternal covenant of grace conditioned on Christ, rather than the historical covenant of grace conditioned on faith. The remainder of the volume thus outlines what Christ did in fulfilling the eternal covenant of grace on behalf of God’s elect.

Some outstanding chapters and features in the book are worth highlighting. For instance, his reduction of Christ’s many names under the heads of “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” make his treatment easy to follow and remember without shortchanging the rich treasure trove of Christ’s names in Scripture (chapter 3). Also, chapter eleven explores the life of Christ in depth in ways that are both rare in systematic theologies and reminiscent of Thomas Aquinas’s extensive treatment of the topic. Though believers cannot imitate Christ in everything he did, his entire life provides both a foundation for the gospel and a moral pattern of Christian living in the Spirit (e.g., 392–94). In an age when Christians often reduce Christology to Jesus dying for our sins, not knowing how every aspect of his humiliation and exaltation are relevant to Christian faith and life, this chapter (particularly the practical section) is indispensable for fleshing out a Christ-oriented view of Christian living and experience. The Reformed church needs a broader view of Christ than we often have to fuel our prayers, devotion, and preaching. Augmenting his dogmatic treatments, the depth of his explanations and expositions in the elenctic parts contribute greatly to the value of the work. Often some of his clearest theological statements and distinctions appear here, contrasting orthodox viewpoints with those of opponents. Moreover, his Trinitarian theology is consistently pervasive, especially in rooting each aspect of Christ’s person and work in the inseparable operations of all three divine persons and in the appropriate works of each person. This carries the advantage of teaching readers how to situate Christian doctrine in the Trinity in a way that is simultaneously robustly God-centered and intensely personal, both of which the church today needs.

Other features of the book either reflect historical interest or will surprise modern readers. Reflecting his context in the Dutch Further Reformation (Nadere Reformatie), Sabbath-keeping appears rhythmically in this volume (e.g., 244, 359, 371, 385, 459, 461–62, 501–02, 505–06, 515–16) in ways found only in England and the Netherlands at the time. While this was more a matter of difference in emphasis than of theological substance, it reminds us that our contexts often shape the questions we ask and the answers we seek.

It will surprise some readers that Mastricht believed that the majority Reformed view about the Decalogue was that it was “the renewal of the covenant of works,” though with “an evangelical use” of driving people to Christ (45). Still, he distinguished the law itself as reflecting God’s character from its use as a covenant of works, enabling him and other Reformed authors to retain a place for the law as a rule of life for believers. In other words, God presented the covenant of works at Sinai, not as a way of life, but as an evangelical means of driving believers to Christ for salvation, which Reformed authors called the first use of the law. This use of the law was alien to the covenant of works itself, which could not drive people to Christ, let alone offer him to sinners. The Mosaic covenant continued to be an administration of the covenant of grace (46) because God never intended by it to place his people under a works covenant. While this viewpoint of the Mosaic covenant appears similar at first glance to the contemporary take on the republication of the covenant of works, Mastricht actually places a different option on the table for discussion.

Another noteworthy example of an unexpected twist is Mastricht’s suggestion that it was possible, if not likely, that Mary remained a virgin perpetually after giving birth to Christ (297; 314). Though shunning Roman Catholic views of Mary’s supposed conception without original sin, Mastricht believed that, though we do not know whether she always remained a virgin, it would be fitting if she were, because Christ himself had sanctified her womb. Though feeling like a remnant of medieval views of sanctity, this position was common among early modern Protestants.

However, Mastricht’s denial that the human nature of Christ subsists personally “by means of the divine personhood” (132) is potentially troubling. Known as enhypostasia, this idea affirmed the personal nature of Christ’s humanity while denying that Christ assumed a human person. Though some authors did not like enhypostatic language, this became the common way of stating that Christ was a divine person with two natures, making his human nature properly the humanity of the person of God the Son. John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, many Reformed authors, and most Lutherans affirmed this view in contrast to Mastricht. While retaining the integrity of Christ’s two natures in one divine person, he (in my view) weakens the truth of the union of those natures. At the least, his statement that the “orthodox” (i.e., the Reformed) abrogate “all subsistence from the human nature” (148) overreaches. Those affirming the doctrine still taught that Christ was one person and that the human nature had no personal subsistence of its own, but they added that Christ’s humanity was nonetheless personal due to hypostatic union with the person of the divine Son. This reviewer finds this more “Thomistic” version of the hypostatic union more satisfying than a completely depersonalized human nature in Christ, because it better accounts for the divine Son working personally through his proper human nature as an instrument of his agency. Mastricht is simply wrong in implying that Lutheran views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper were the driving force behind enhypostatic accounts of the hypostatic union (151–57), because enhypostasia predated Lutheranism. Overstating “orthodox” unanimity recurs occasionally in Mastricht’s work as a whole. Though reliable more often than not, his occasional overstatements should caution readers from taking all such assertions at face value. Reading more broadly in the literature of the time clarifies such points.

Volume four of van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology offers a rich feast of Reformed Christology. Though the meat he offers is often a bit tough and hard to digest, all his material is good meat. Prayerfully seeking spiritual nourishment through this book will make us better Christians and better preachers, and better preachers because better Christians. The Trinity, the Bible, and Jesus Christ are the core of biblical Christianity. We need books like Mastricht’s to remind us that these are more than fundamentals on which we build everything else; they are the way of life itself.

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, February, 2024.

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