Results tagged “Scholasticism” from Reformation21 Blog

How One Book Changed My Life (Part 3)

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Previously I discussed how Petrus van Mastricht, in the recently translated prolegomena of his Theoretical-Practical Theology, taught me to submit to the Word of God (part 1), and how he gave me a biblical and balanced view of the use of reason in theology (part 2). In this third and final part I discuss what was the most life-changing for me, and I trust for many who will read it: Mastricht's definition of theology itself as "the doctrine of living for God through Christ" (98).

Theology is for living.

 In defining theology Mastricht takes his start from Paul's words in 1 Timothy 6:3, that doctrine is "according to godliness" (63, 98), and from there builds his definition, arguing that everything in Scripture points to the end of living for God (Rom. 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:15; Rom. 14:7-8; Col. 3:3-4; Phil. 1:20-21; p. 98), and moreover, as faith without works is dead (James 2:17), and knowledge without love (1 Cor. 8:1; 13:1-2), so is doctrine without practice. Theology is not, therefore, merely theoretical. Nor is it mixed, partly theoretical and partly practical, as if some doctrines should be practically applied and others not. Indeed, though Mastricht's title, Theoretical-Practical Theology, describes his method--every chapter treats theory (exegesis, dogmatics, and elenctics), then practice--it does not describe theology itself, which he insists is entirely and preeminently practical (106-107). In theology, theory is necessary, but its goal is practice; or as he puts it in his book on preaching, "the practice of piety" is "the soul of a sermon" (4). And "piety," is nothing less than a life in union with the Lord Jesus Christ (11).

Mastricht is sure that no Christian will differ from his definition of theology, if not in words, at least in substance (104). Such a definition is manifestly biblical, and such a theology as it defines meets the manifest need of our world, and of our churches: not talk, but power (1 Cor. 4:20), not a dead faith (James 2:17), but a faith working through love (Gal. 5:6).

But though I now agree that Mastricht's definition is profoundly biblical and necessary, I admit that I used to be unconvinced. I feared that such a practical definition unduly removed from theology its status as a science, that it focused on practical precision at the expense of wholesome truth, and that in preaching it encouraged legalistic application instead of warm preaching of Christ and him crucified.

Mastricht's teaching and example have proven that all my fears were false. He explains that theology is not less than a science, it is more (100, 104-105), and that because among all disciplines it has the highest goal, living for God, it therefore has the highest excellence and dignity (104). Moreover, he never sacrifices truth to practice. Practice is indeed the goal of the entire work, but the explanation and defense of the truth is so vital for that end that it takes up the majority of its pages: each chapter's express treatment of practice is only one part of four, and the work's final sections on morality and piety (forthcoming volume 7) together make up less than one tenth of the whole (see p. 52, n. 8). Moreover, his application, though heart-searching, is not distracted by vexed questions of casuistry: it is brief, pithy, biblical, and broadly applicable.

And regarding my fears about preaching, though it is perhaps true that some "practical" preachers are legalistic and frigid, I found that Mastricht certainly was not. His love for God and Christ fills the work with a delightful aroma, and as I showed in my first article, the Practical Part of each chapter should warm the heart of any true believer. So now after reading this volume, far from fearing practical preaching, I have embraced it, seeking as Mastricht taught me to make the practice of piety the soul of all my sermons.

Living is for God, through Christ.

But there is one reason above all that kept Mastricht, and should keep those who follow him in practical theology, from any hint of cold precisionism. Theology is not merely about living: it is about living for God, through Christ. Its chief end is God's glory, and the great means it seeks to that end is our union and communion with God (103), which comes only through the Mediator, Jesus Christ (102).

Thus if I could name just one defining feature of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology, it is that it is full of the glory of God. God's name, his Son, his Spirit, his perfections, his Word, and his salvation are the subject of every page, and Mastricht urges every reader to embrace them with faith and love. Thus though the book brought certain needed changes in my life, in this way it met my greatest need of all: to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3), and therefore to live, through Christ, for God (Rom. 6:11). My prayer is that for all who read it, it would do the same.

Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC.

How One Book Changed My Life

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Books are marvelously powerful. Thomas Aquinas is said to have feared the "man of one book," and no wonder: a great book has great power to transform the soul. And in my own life, the recently translated prolegomena volume of Petrus van Mastricht's late seventeeth-century Theoretical-Practical Theology has been such a book. I assisted with the editing, so I have carefully read and re-read this volume, as well as the next on the doctrine of God. And though I cannot claim that it has yet made me a man Aquinas would fear, I cannot deny that it has shaped me for the good.

There are three particular aspects of Mastricht's work that changed me, and my hope in describing them in these articles is that others might read the book and be similarly transformed. In this first part I will discuss his submission to the Word of God, in part two, his thinking about reason and theology, and in part three, his definition of theology as "the doctrine of living for God through Christ."

Mastricht models submission to the Word.

Jonathan Edwards called this book the best ever written after the Bible, and surely one reason is that it is thoroughly biblical. Consider, for example, the order of Mastricht's chapters: each begins with an "Exegetical Part," which carefully examines a particular text of Scripture in order to lay the foundation for the Dogmatic, Elenctic, and Practical Parts to follow. The very structure of his work shows that theology is rooted and grounded in the Word of God.

The same is shown in Mastricht's citations from Scripture, which are copious and carefully chosen to prove his theological points. Indeed, this is a book to be read with an open Bible. Moreover, he also makes abundant use of Scriptural language in quotation and paraphrase, especially in each Practical Part, where he marshals passage after passage to stir up his students to apply the truth that they have learned. Consider this excerpt (p. 111) in which he exhorts his readers with motivations to live for God:

(1) Because we are the children of the living God, should we not live also, and live for him, and for his glory, and by his precepts, since he is our Father (Mal. 1:6)? (2) We are members of Christ, united with him who lives in his people (Gal. 2:20). Will we not live in him? How can we be dead men in union with the living one? (3) We have in Christ the Spirit of life (Rom. 8:14). Should we therefore lie down like the dead? (4) We are, if true Christians, living members, living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5), trained in a living faith (James 2:17, 26). By this faith, then, should we not live? ... (5) We have God, who lives and gives life (Rom. 9:26; 1 Thess. 1:9). We have the Father, who grants life to us (Gen. 2:7), and that spiritual and immortal; the Son, who by his death acquired and restored life to us (Eph. 2:5); the Holy Spirit, who by regeneration confers the seeds of spiritual life (John 3:5-6), and that by a living seed (1 Peter 1:23). And why did the triune God do all these things, except that we might live for him, that we might render our life to him?

It is hard to read such sections and not be moved by the power of God's Word, and impressed by this teacher in whom that power was clearly at work. Mastricht's model in this way convicted and encouraged me, that I would be more faithful to demonstrate such submission to the Word in my own life and teaching.

Mastricht teaches submission to the Word.

It should be no surprise, then, that what Mastricht modeled he also he taught, that the Scriptures are the "perfect rule of living for God" (117). He begins his chapter on Scripture in the Exegetical Part (113-117) by explaining 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that all Scripture is divinely inspired, and given for the end "that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." In the Dogmatic Part (117-131) he explains this teaching in great depth, discussing among other things the properties of Scripture: its authority, truth, integrity, sanctity, perspicuity, perfection, necessity, and efficacy. In the Elenctic Part (131-181) he thoroughly defends the truth and divine authority of Scripture, and addresses at length the claims of Scripture's opponents, one after the other: Muslims, Jews, Socinians and Anabaptists, and Papists. And with these truths exposited, explained, and defended, in the Practical Part (182-201) he directs them in all their weight and power to the believer's heart and life. His ten applications include defending the Word, loving it, studying it, meditating on it, discussing it with others, and practicing it in our lives.

After reading his chapter on Scripture I was more convinced than ever that the Bible is God's perfect Word, and the perfect rule for living for God. And I was more convicted than ever that I must live in submission to the Word of God, and also that like Mastricht, as a minister I must teach that submission to God's people. Motivated by this chapter I recently preached 2 Timothy 3:16-17, explaining to the people that just as the Bible is the perfect rule for the minister of God, so it is for all men and women of God. And I exhorted them, as Mastricht exhorted me, to use the Bible for the end that God intended: that through Christ, they might live for him.

In the subsequent posts in this short series, we will consider the place of reason and the role of Christ in Mastricht's theological exposition.

Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC. 

Van Mastricht on the Scholastics

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While reading through Petrus Van Mastrichts' Theoretical-Practical Theology, I was intrigued to find his thoughts concerning scholastic theology. In his section on "the Nature of Theology," Van Mastricht wrote:

"It is asked, must theology be taught according to a certain method? As an example of excess, the Scholastics, according to their philosophical theology, loved the philosophical methods of Aristotle--whether it was his analytic or synthetic method--to the point of distraction."1

A little further on, he explained:

"Someone may ask what we should think about scholastic theology, which is a middle way between natural and revealed theology in as much as it teaches revealed things by nature method and arguments. By 'scholastic theology' we do not understand here revealed theology as it is taught in the familiar manner of the schools--which is the sense our Alstead meant when he published his scholastic theology--but rather that philosophical theology that is held in the schools of the papists in order to sustain their doctrine of transubstantiation and other sorts of superstitions. This philosophical theology was born under Lanfranc of Pavia, while he was contending with Berengar over transubstantiation. At that dispute, at every point, Lanfranc lacked the authority of both Augustine and Scripture, in so far as nothing in Augustine or Scripture presents itself in favor of transubstantiation. At least, at that time this philosophical theology was more modest, but afterward, when quite dreadful philosophical terms were contrived, gradually it became more impudent, all the way up to Peter Lombard in his Four Books of Sentences, and from there to Albert the Great and his disciples Thomas Aquinas. By Aquinas, without any shame, not only were those quite dreadful philosophical terms augmented to an enormous extent, but also, disregarding the Scriptures, the heads of the faith began to be demonstrated by philosophical reasons, and even Aristotle, Averroes, and others began to be considered equal to the Scriptures, if not preferred over them. Concerning this kind of scholastic theology, it is now asked, 'what should we think?'"2

Van Mastricht then proceeded to give a series of confirming arguments, by which he asserted the following:

"Since the papists generally find nothing in the Scriptures to reinforce their positions on transubstantiation, the absolute rule of the pope, their own satisfactions and merits, and all other kinds of papal doctrines, they commonly flee to philosophical subtleties and go to the thickets of quite dreadful terms. The Reformed generally think, for the reasons already noted, that the aforementioned type of scholastic theology ought to be rigidly proscribed, and in substance agree with the more discriminating of the papists, such as Desiderius, Erasmus, Melchior Canus, Denis, Petau, and others. Nevertheless, there are among the Reformed those who think we should take the middle way, that scholastic theology ought to be neither entirely preserved nor entirely eliminated, but that it ought to be purged of its blemishes, and only then can it be preserved."3

Finally, he sought to explain in what sense scholastic theology is useful when he noted:

"Scholastic theology is useful 1) in controversies with the papists, since you cannot engage very soundly and fruitfully with them if you are unfamiliar with their style, tricks and thickets; 2) in refuting pagans and atheists; 3) in building up souls concerning revealed truth itself; and, especially 4) in those questions that border on theology on one side and philosophy on the other."4

This, it seems to me, is a thoughtful analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of scholastic theology--an analysis that seems to be largely missing from discussions about it in our day.


1. Petrus Van MasctrichtTheoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) p. 70

2. Ibid., p. 85

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 86

If I had my way regarding theological training, I'd attempt to help students master the basic theological distinctions from the era of Protestant scholasticism. Those who think "scholastic" is a bad word probably don't know much about scholasticism. Truth be told, we all need a little - perhaps a lot - of scholasticism in our lives. Indeed, we all use distinctions as a basic way of communicating.

Sinclair Ferguson makes a good point in his book, The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (p. 47), regarding the helpfulness of distinctions: 

"Scholastic is often used as a theological slur intended to introduce a bad odor. Yet the people who use it thus are sometimes the very people who become hot under the collar if strangers refer to a fastball as a 'slider' (in baseball) or confuse an eagle with a double bogey (in golf) or, for that matter, describe someone living in the Carolinas as a 'Yankee' or a Scot as 'English'! Aren't these merely 'scholastic' distinctions? To ask the question is to answer it. Right understanding always involves making careful distinctions." 

During the Early Modern period, theological students were usually trained to make good and proper distinctions. The point of theological and philosophical distinctions is to disentangle ambiguous words and terms used in theological discourse as well as clarify what is meant or not meant when a phrase, term, or tweet is used (e.g., God's power or God's love). 

Ideally, the distinctions should help, not hinder, exegesis and theology. They need to have biblical support or at least clarify theological language. So, for example, consider the distinction between God's absolute power (de potentia absoluta Dei) and God's ordained power (de potentia ordinata Dei). God's absolute power is that power to do that which he will not necessarily effect (i.e., turning a stone into a child of Abraham). His ordained power involves his decree to do that which he has ordained to effect. Very simply, what God is able to do is not synonymous with what God has chosen to do.

This distinction has biblical support:

God's absolute power: "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matt. 3:9).

In another place, Christ brings together the absolute power of God with his ordained power: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matt. 26:53-54).

God could have sent more than twelve legions of angels to rescue Christ from his passion, but, according to his ordained power, he did not.

In the realm of justification, one must know the formal cause, material cause, instrumental cause, and final cause. One should know the difference between an "aestimatio" (Arminian view) and "secundum veritatem" (Reformed view) or the difference between the right versus the possession of life. 

Various traditions can agree that we're justified by the righteousness of Christ, but distinguishing what is meant by that is the difference between the truth and error. 

The seventeenth-century student of theology would likely know exactly what was meant by:

- justificatio activa et passiva
- habitus et actus fidei 
- unio mystica et unio foederalis
- justificatio ante fidem et post fidem
- impetratio et applicatio
- justificatio a priori et a posteriori
- justificatio in foro dei et in foro conscientiae

The act-habit distinction (see above, habitus et actus fidei) is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith, which we call the condition on our part, be the gift of God, and the power of believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

This distinction preserves God's grace in salvation, but keeps us from being "mere blocks" in the scheme of salvation. 

In terms of the atonement, besides understanding the efficiency-sufficiency distinction, a theological student should ideally know the difference between "acceptatio" and "acceptilatio" and the difference between the means of procurement (medium impetrationis) and the means of application (medium applicationis). The application of justification depends on Christ's intercession, not on his resurrection. This helps us to understand the importance of Christ's intercession, which is regrettably overlooked a lot.

Christ's death was a work of impetration that could be understood either as a physical cause or a moral cause. According to John Owen: "physical causes produce their effects immediately," and the subject must exist in order to be acted upon.  Moral causes "never immediately actuate their own effects." Christ's death was a moral cause, not a physical cause. Thus, those for whom he died do not need to be alive at the time of his death in order to receive the benefits of his vicarious sacrifice. Physical causes do not require human acts, but moral causes do.

We also distinguish regarding God's love. The (outward) voluntary love of God has a threefold distinction: (1) God's universal love for all things, (2) God's love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and (3) God's special love for his people. God's voluntary love, understood as an affection, has three major components. Reformed divines have not always expressed these distinctions in the same way; but the following three categories relate to God's love for the elect: (1) God's love of benevolence (amor benevolentiae), understood in terms of God's election and predestination, (2) God's love of beneficence (amor beneficentiae), whereby he wills to redeem his people,and (3) God's love of delight or friendship (amor complacentiae vel amicitiae), whereby he rewards his people according to their holiness.

Theological distinctions also help us in our doctrine of sin. Thus Maccovius argues:

1. Sin is either original sin or actual sin.

Original sin, springing from Adam, is the sin in which and with which we are born and which begins at the moment that we become human beings. 

2. Original sin is either imputed or inherent sin. 

Imputed to us as if we ourselves had committed it. 

Inherent sin is a depravation of our nature, and thus an inclination to all bad.

3. Imputation is a moral act, not a physical act.

It is not required that the person is in existence, but only that the person will be in existence. 

Moreover, a distinction may be made between sin committed out of weakness and sin committed out of full desire. Only those who are Christians can sin out of weakness. 

1. True believers sin more seriously than unbelievers.

A) Because we have greater knowledge
B) Because we have powers to resist.

2. Unbelievers sin more seriously than believers.

A) Because they rush into sin with great desire; but believers with a broken will.
B) The faithful feel sadness (repentance) about their committed sins, but unbelievers do not (only the consequences). 

I've merely touched on a few distinctions from a few theological loci. The works, especially from Roman Catholic theologians, just on distinctions in the Early Modern period are massive (see here for one example). I think the Reformed theological world - not to mention the broader theological world - might be a lot better off today if we were able to make sound theological distinctions. 

As Francis Turretin said, "we distinguish". Ah, the good old days, when theological education was actually that!