Review: Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology Volume 3: The Works of God and the Fall of Man

Although it is bad practice to believe in golden ages in the absolute sense, the present is certainly a high point for the church in the specific sense of the English-speaking world gaining increasing access to rich material from Protestant Orthodoxy that was previously usable only by scholars. The explosion of translations and good editions has helped make deep theology more readily available in English. One of the most exciting ongoing publishing endeavors in this regard is Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology.

Van Mastricht (1630–1706) was a minister and theologian in the Dutch churches during the period of late orthodoxy. He was born in Cologne, but his family hailed from Maastricht. He studied in Utrecht, Leiden, and possibly other universities as well. While serving as a pastor in Duisburg, he completed his master and doctoral degrees. He then served as professor of Hebrew at the University of Duisburg before succeeding Gisbert Voetius as professor of Hebrew at the University of Utrecht.

Theoretical-Practical Theology was Van Mastricht’s magnum opus, and the full translation of this valuable work is set to be seven volumes. There are a few aspects about publishing to note before thinking about the content of volume three. First, Todd Rester has done an amazing job on the translation. Although clearly preserving technical vocabulary that is important for research purposes, Rester has also managed a highly readable and polished English rendering of Van Mastricht’s Latin. This feat should not be overlooked, since Latin is often tersely written with long, winding sentences that are full of subordinate clauses. Second, Rester’s footnotes are also an immense help to everyone trying to get a better grasp of Van Mastricht’s work and his engagement with sources, which will prove to be an aid to those who need the English translation and scholars who could use the original Latin. In comparison to our English version of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which is sloppy in its research and recording of sources used by Turretin, Rester’s edition of Van Mastricht will likely prove definitive and permanently useful.

Van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology gives us a glimpse into an early modern Reformed debate about the use of theology. Whereas some argued that theology is strictly a theoretical science, others including Van Mastricht saw it as fundamentally practical, specifically as it addresses God’s people concerning their walk with God. Van Mastricht’s approach then provides an interesting format.

Under each topic, Van Mastricht considers the issue in four parts: exegetical, dogmatic, elenctic, and practical. Every chapter starts with the grammatical exegesis of a particular text that grounds Van Mastricht’s reflections on the issue for the duration of his discussion. This initial part demonstrates again how the Reformed were committed to exegesis as the fundamental ground of their theology even late into the Orthodox period, never defaulting to simple philosophical or merely dogmatic arguments. It also, however, shows how exegesis is supposed to come to fruition in doctrinal construction.

The other three parts of each chapter unpack the implications of Van Mastricht’s exegesis. The dogmatic section more thoroughly states a rounded doctrinal formulation, drawing upon other texts and nuancing the issue in light of other doctrines. The elenctic part is essentially polemical, stating the alternative views and refuting them. The practical section states how every doctrine ought to affect a believer’s life and conduct for comfort and sanctification.

Theoretical-Practical Theology Volume 3 concerns God’s works of creation and providence as well as humanity’s fall into sin. The initial chapters concern God’s decrees. Especially important in this section is Van Mastricht’s take on inseparable operations—the doctrine that states that all of God’s external works are indivisible. In this respect, Van Mastricht posited a robustly Reformed view aligned with classical theism. Amidst many contemporary debates, we must realize that real Reformed theology is ecumenical, meaning creedal and traditional. The Socinians were those who argued for a debauched biblicism that distorted the truth that Christians had seen in Scripture for millennia. We need a strong dose of Van Mastricht’s sentiment today.

The next major topic concerns the image of God, which includes the topic of original righteousness and the covenant of works. In God’s providence, he formed Adam in covenant with him, which was tied to Adam’s initial state in original righteousness. Van Mastricht’s rigor is particularly apparent in this section as he threads the needle between various errors in thinking about humanity’s original constitution. Arguably, he made a few missteps that left him with some inconsistent conclusions. Such is the nature of things for all writers though, and we should focus more on his achievements than problems.

The discussion about the broken covenant of works handles the same issues, discussing guilt, original sin, and actual sin. These chapters show Van Mastricht’s most forceful rebuttals of Rome, namely in arguing that all sins deserve God’s everlasting curse and must be equally forgiven in Christ for all who believe. He argued that Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity. Perhaps one odd feature of Van Mastricht’s view is that he said that, even if Adam had succeeded in the covenant of works that was made with him for himself and his posterity, his descendants would have been left to fulfill its demands for themselves individually. Although not itself unorthodox, since his argument for this covenant’s legal nature is thorough, this particular position seems at odds with the federal premise that God made the covenant with Adam as a public person or representative.

Van Mastricht wrote near the end of the seventeenth century, and his polemics show how the Reformed were aware of developing ideas that would lead to what we call the Enlightenment. His concern to refute Descartes shows this point clearly. Nevertheless, his polemics also show how the Reformed balanced rigorous exegesis with rigorous logical engagement with opponents. Classical Reformed theology is biblical in foundation but unafraid to implement extra-biblical (different from anti- or contra-biblical) reasoning. We are part of a greater tradition, not only holding to the Scripture as confessed by the churches, but also responding with the most suitable weapon at hand to tear down spiritual strongholds that oppose biblical truth.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. V M saw theology as essentially practical, but did not see the use of scholastic theological method as antithetical to the practical use of theology for Christian piety.
    “The practical section states how every doctrine ought to affect a believer’s life and conduct for comfort and sanctification.”
    “We need a strong dose of Van Mastricht’s sentiment today”
    Thank you!

  2. In procuring this great work, what would be the total volumes aimed at in production?

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