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Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 3: The Works of God and the Fall of Man, by Peter van Mastricht: A Review Article

Ryan M. McGraw

Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 3: The Works of God and the Fall of Man, by Peter van Mastricht. Ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester, vol. 3, 7 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021, xlvi + 631 pages, $38.00.

Classic Reformed theology is often different in character, presentation, and, sometimes, even in content than contemporary expressions of Reformed thought. This does not so much mark the absence of continuity in the Reformed faith as it does the fact that older authors lived literally in a different world than we do. Their scholastic methods and categories are often as foreign to us as our modern questions over things like gender and sexuality would have been to them. While older voices like Peter van Mastricht cannot address every issue facing the church today, they often bring a razor-like precision and depth of piety to the table that cannot fail to help us as we engage the Scriptures in the context of our modern world.

Matters related to creation and providence are particularly pressing at the present time. In addition to gender ethics, virtually every topic related to creation, mankind, and sin are controversial today. This includes things like human identity and the image of God, the days of creation, the covenant of works, the historical Adam, and many more. While van Mastricht could not have had modern controversies in view, he treats most of these topics without being weighed down by the polemics that press themselves upon us. For this reason, his theological project continues to have great potential for the church today, making an old voice a fresh one and bringing “outside counsel” to bear on our questions and concerns. This review evaluates both the content of Mastricht’s third volume as well as the translated and edited form of his work, illustrating both areas of value and room for improvement.

Mastricht’s content includes a wide-ranging and satisfying treatment of God’s decrees and his works of creation and providence, concluding with the doctrine of sin. Continuing his distinct format, each chapter opens with exegesis of a particular passage of Scripture, followed by dogmatic, elenctic, and practical sections. The first part of the volume, which is book three of part one, includes twelve chapters spanning God’s decrees, predestination, election, reprobation, creation, the days of creation, good angels, bad angels, the image of God, providence in general, and the covenant of nature, or covenant of works. Book four directs reader’s attention to “man’s apostasy from God” through sin. Its four large chapters explore the violation of the covenant of nature, original sin, actual sin, and the penalties of sin.

In the preface, the translator and editor note four distinctive points of Mastricht’s work: “his mediating lapsarian position,” his rejection of Copernicanism, his views of demons and magic, and “his doctrine of the third heaven” (xxvii). Regarding the first, Mastricht sought to adopt elements of both supra and infralapsarianism, attempting to cut through divisions among Reformed authors regarding the logical order of God’s decrees as they respect redemption in Christ. Whether or not he succeeded is up for debate, since he posited an initial decree of election and reprobation to display God’s glory (supralapsarian), followed by a later decree to elect and reprobate particular created and fallen individuals (infralapsarian). Regarding Copernicanism, Mastricht rejected the idea that the earth revolved around the sun on theological rather than scientific grounds, since the earth was the central focus of God’s works of creation and redemption. Even rejecting his scientific conclusions, readers should appreciate his theological concerns. Demons and magic were important to Mastricht due to his stress on genuine spiritual warfare, and while excluding the power of miracles from demons, magic existed as a real influence of natural demonic power above human ability. As far as the third heaven, Mastricht taught that it was both a real created place in which God dwelt with glorified saints and angels. The translator and editor rightly flag these areas as marking distinct points of contribution to Reformed orthodoxy with relevance to contemporary issues.

At least a couple of doctrinal issues stand out for their pervasiveness in this book. One outstanding feature of Mastricht’s work, common to Reformed orthodoxy but largely absent from Reformed theology in the past two hundred years, is his persistent appeal to the Trinity (e.g., 1, 3, 5, 57, 102–103, 117, 124, 156, 175, 254, 299, 303, 306, 310, 353, 370, 497). One interesting example of his appeal to the Trinity is in relation to man as God’s image: hinting at God’s Triunity through the simplicity of his soul while having many faculties, and in the distinction between his faculties and his essence. Both point to unity and plurality in God (299). Unlike Augustine’s famous treatment of vestiges of the Trinity in man, Mastricht refused to make such parallels overly specific or concrete. Unity and diversity in a human soul imply, point to the fact, that unity and diversity existed in his Creator. Through countless such examples Mastricht always gives the impression that the Triune God is the central theme of systematic theology. Since the Bible, the Trinity, and Jesus Christ have always stood at the heart of any genuinely Christian theology, this refreshing feature continuously reminds readers that theology is about glorifying and knowing the Triune God. The other pervasive doctrinal feature is Mastricht’s constant assertion and defense of the idea that God is not the author of sin (e.g., 9, 47, 88, 96, 219, 283, 319, 333–334, 424, 460, 465, 472, 485, 512, 541). Sin in relation to God’s goodness and sovereignty have always been at the heart of the so-called “problem of evil” in Christian theology, and Mastricht provides a consistent and persistent Reformed answer to this issue. While this volume is filled with other profound theological insights, these two stand out as emphases that Mastricht seems to have prioritized as worth special attention.

Also noteworthy is the fact that some aspects of this volume illustrate the intersection of science and biblical exegesis, with which the church has wrestled in every age. Readers may find it surprising that Mastricht argued emphatically that “the Reformed deny” the theory of Copernicus, and Descartes in Mastricht's view, that the earth revolves around the sun (160, 171). He drew this conclusion from exegesis rather than from science, on the grounds that Scripture refers to the earth as fixed and unmoved. Though he regarded versions of the Copernican theory as “philosophical conjectures” (161), he referred to the alternative theory of the famous scientist, Tycho Brahe, as better fitting the phenomena in Scripture. Christians should conclude that Mastricht’s principle that Scripture and exegesis take priority over science is sound. However, the issue is whether or not his interpretation of Scripture was sound in rejecting the revolution of the earth around the sun. As fixed and permanent, the earth is established and sure, yet this fact says nothing about the relationship between the earth and the sun in scientific terms. Proper use of Scripture often limits the range of conclusions we can accept through scientific investigation, but we must remember that Scripture is not a scientific textbook. Instead, it aims to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ, equipping us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15–17). While we must decide other matters, such as the days of creation, on exegetical rather than scientific grounds, we must be wary of making Scripture say more than it does as well. Mastricht was right that the certain Scriptures always trump merely probable science, but his teaching on Copernicanism should chasten us into caution regarding how much scientific knowledge Scripture supplies us with. In the end, however, Mastricht rightly asserted that the earth, as man’s dwelling place with God, is the central focus of the biblical narrative.

Finally in relation to content, the practical part of this work will likely always stand out to most readers, since this feature has been largely absent from most systematic theology in the past hundred years plus at least. Mastricht does not disappoint in this regard, furnishing us with imaginative and interesting uses of various doctrines. For instance, he concluded from God’s decree that we should follow God’s example by acting with wise counsel because “in this also we bear the image of God” (22). Even something incommunicable in God, like an eternal immutable decree, thus finds dim reflection in practical Christian living. Likewise, he noted that God’s elect should imitate him in that we should choose for our companions in love those whom God has elected (75). Similarly, regarding providence, we should imitate God’s attributes displayed in his providence as far as we are able in a creaturely way (340). However, Mastricht’s practical application was not forced, but natural, and sometimes indirect for that reason. For example, in applying the covenant of works, he noted that it is “not so much practical, as it is the basis and foundation of all the practice which belongs to the states that succeed it, namely those of sin and grace, inasmuch as that practice cannot, apart from a knowledge of the covenant of nature, set any roots in our heart” (403). Even such indirect application could remind readers why various doctrines were important to them on a wider scale.

Turning to the translated and edited form of the work, the translation and organization of the material is solid and easy to follow, with a few critical caveats. In some places editorial comments would have made this seventeenth century work more accessible to modern readers. For instance, Mastricht ascribed vegetative and sensitive souls to animals in his discussion of the days of creation (167–168, 173, 181, 257). Flowing from Aristotelian categories, familiar at the time, vegetative souls referred to a mere principle of life, while sensitive souls distinguished animal life from plant life. Mankind alone among physical living things possessed rational souls, which lay at the heart of being God’s image. In modern terms, Mastricht was not teaching that animals had “souls” like human beings do. He merely followed the customary categories current in his time for distinguishing various classes of living things, which are no longer familiar to most of us. Explaining such facts would make better sense out of Mastricht’s inclusion of plants under “ensouled things” (288). The same comment applies to antiquated or technical or historical terms like “genethliacs” (172), “microcosm” (254), “positive law” (359-360), “ambrosia” (385), and “the fabulous revelations of Brigitta” (471). Mastricht lived in a very different philosophical, scientific, and historical world than we do, which requires some explanation.

In a few places, translating Latin terms more literally would have conveyed a clearer meaning. The example that comes to mind is Mastricht’s assertion, “the Decalogue as the substance [materiam] of the covenant of works” (396). “Material” would likely be a better translation here, since Mastricht believed that the Mosaic covenant was the covenant of grace, though the epitome of the law under this covenant was identical to the law under the covenant of works. “Substance” could lead some modern readers to assume that he meant that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works. Instead, he believed that the law and terms of the covenant of works were published under Moses, only to a different end than they were under Adam (389). “Material” in the first reference is likely opposed to “form,” indicating that the components of the covenant of works were present without formally placing Israel under that covenant. Admittedly, this is a thorny question in historical theology related to seventeenth century covenant theology, with many modern readers missing the nuances of older Reformed views on this point. This point simply illustrates the difficulty inherent in translating theological Latin into English.

Lastly with respect to form, readers should learn what to expect from Mastricht in order to know how to use his work. The dust jacket to this set of books famously cites Jonathan Edwards as saying that Mastricht is “better than Turretin.” Yet this statement can be potentially misleading because these two authors had very different aims in their theological works. Mastricht is better than Turretin but, for modern readers, likely only after reading Turretin. Mastricht is often less explicit than Turretin in his explanations, but fuller than Turretin in his exposition and application. For example, while Mastricht stated that second or subordinate causes are both necessary and contingent in different respects (331), Turretin added that they are contingent in production (divided sense) but necessary in the event (composite sense). Mastricht hinted at this common distinction by appealing to the “divided” and “composite” sense of an action elsewhere (e.g., 334, 425, 527). However, where Mastricht stated a fact using and assuming the meaning of technical terms, Turretin often gave the explanation of the fact as well as of the terms. This is true also where Mastricht assumes ideas like habitual and actual sin, without providing precise definitions for them or distinct explanations of them (492). In short, Mastricht is less systematic and precise than Turretin, while he is fuller in the scope of the material he treats. Turretin can help readers understand Mastricht better, while Mastricht can supply elements muted by the narrow scope of Turretin’s work.

Volume 3 of Mastricht’s theological magnum opus will spur readers simultaneously to deep contemplation of the Reformed faith and to heart-felt devotion to the Triune God. He will not answer every question that a modern audience has, but he will promote theological maturity and Christian piety among readers who live in a different world but under the same Lord of all.

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 2022.

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