Results tagged “Van Mastricht” from Reformation21 Blog

The general contours of the doctrine of Scripture are familiar. Orthodox Protestants confess that Scripture has God as its primary author and is self-authenticating, supremely authoritative, necessary for this age, clear enough to be understood by the masses, and sufficient as a rule of faith and life. The word of God is also the primary means of grace. As such, the visible church is born of the word, now written in Scripture, not the other way around.

Protestants on the Efficacy of Scripture

Lutheran and Reformed theologians differ somewhat, however, on the efficacy of Scripture. Lutherans argue that the word has an inherent power to save; Reformed critics suggest this view is a little too close to Rome's more magical notions of sacramental efficacy. Some of those same critics can also claim, however, that "Lutherans are completely correct" in at least one respect: "always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit." God's word, Bavinck continues, "is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective,...continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit" (RD, 4.459).

So, Protestants agree on the efficacy of Scripture but disagree on how to construe its saving efficacy. By insisting God's word always operates to save, Lutherans appear to reduce the Spirit's activity to something like an impersonal power. They must then explain the apparent failure of the word to save some people by arguing that "God, working through means, can be resisted" in a way that "God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot" (Pieper, CD, 2.465). Reformed theologians, on the other hand, deny the Spirit always exerts the power of God's word to save all people indiscriminately. They instead restrict the saving power of Scripture to the elect and argue it is efficacious to this end only through the personal, particular, and irresistible work of the Spirit.

The Universal Scope of Biblical Efficacy in Reformed Theology

In their discussions of the point, Reformed theologians are primarily concerned with the efficacy of God's word as the primary means of saving grace. This does not prevent them, however, from recognizing a wider, variegated, and universal scope to the efficacy of Scripture. Consider two examples from the Dutch tradition.

First, Petrus van Mastricht, who defines the efficacy of Scripture, its "eighth property," as the "moral and instrumental...power" it has "from the Holy Spirit" to "work effectually" in the world. Scripture is therefore said to be both "able" and "active," penetrating the soul, exposing its secrets, working on the spirit, illuminating the mind, regenerating and converting the heart, kindling faith, and sanctifying, strengthening, consoling, and preserving the saints. "Indeed, people the world over sense the efficacy of the Word when they are converted by the mere preaching of the gospel." But he describes a common and non-saving efficacy of Scripture too, since "even reprobates themselves experience it when they lose their speech (Matt. 22:46), when they yield (Mark 6:20), when they fear (Mark 6:20; Acts 24:25),...and when they are hardened and blinded (Isa. 6:9-10)" bit God's word (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1.131).

Second, Herman Bavinck, who argues that "the word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance." Unlike the sacraments, therefore, which are only for the visible church, "the word of God also has a place and life outside of it and also exerts many and varied influences" (4.448-49). So, "this power of the word of God and specifically of the gospel must, with the Lutherans, be maintained in all its fullness and richness" (449). Again, the word "is always efficacious; it is never powerless" (459).

The efficacy of Scripture is not, therefore, one-dimensional. "Both Scripture and experience teach that the word does not always have the same effect." On the contrary, it has many diverse effects that can be organized into two general kinds: "If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down" (459). And so, "the word that proceeds from the mouth of God is indeed always a power accomplishing that for which God sent it forth."

This is not only true of "the gospel but also of the law." When Paul says "the letter kills" (2 Cor. 3:6), Bavinck claims, "he is saying as powerfully as he can" that the law "is not a dead letter. Instead, it is so powerful that it produces sin, wrath, a curse, and death" (458). So also, "the gospel exerts its effect" not just on the elect and unto salvation, but "even in those who are lost; to them it is a reason for their falling, an offense and foolishness, a stone over which they stumble, a fragrances from death to death (Luke 2:34; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8)" (458).

Conclusion

Of course Scripture would produce none of these effects apart from the Spirit but it never is apart from the Spirit. It is "perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man's sanctification and salvation" but by the Spirit it "always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish." It may raise the hearer up to God or strike the reader down in the dust, but it always has its divinely intended effect and it "never returns empty" (458).

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 (Part 2)

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In addition to modeling and teaching submission to the Word of God, Petrus van Mastricht--in the recently translated prolegomena of his Theoretical-Practical Theology--powerfully corrected my thinking on the relation of reason and theology.

Reason is incorporated into theology.

First and foremost, Mastricht taught me that reason is welcome in theology. He taught it by his example--his admirable order and logic, his careful distinctions, his steadfast refusal to reason in a circle (135, 160, 170, 173) or to presuppose anything not self-evident or proven elsewhere (81, 88, 99, 182), and his free use of arguments from nature and reason (68, 73-74, 117-119, etc.).

He taught it indirectly, in his explaining various points: for example, that the student of theology should master, in addition to biblical studies, the liberal arts, including languages, philosophy, and history (94). Or that natural theology, though limited, is real, that many true facts about the true God can be truly known by nature, the senses, and reason (77-78, 82-83). Or, moreover, that the truth and authority of Scripture can and should be confirmed by reason (131-137).

He also taught it directly, when he explained two proper uses of reason in theology. Reason, he said, may be an instrument, the use of which is "necessary in every inquiry of truth, even of that which is occupied with Scripture"; and it may be an argument, "so that the truth derived from Scripture, as from its own first and unique principle, we may also confirm with natural reasons" (155-156).

Mastricht's teaching on this point particularly changed my thinking. I had been laboring under the idea that no theology could be learned anywhere but the Bible. The heavens may declare God's glory (Ps. 19:1), and nature morality (Rom. 1:26), but, I thought, no one can hear the word of nature except through hearing the Word of Scripture. Indeed, in my mind nature was entirely mute without Scripture: the fundamental principle of all knowledge, all predication, all reasoning, was found only in the Word of God.

But Mastricht's vision of faith and reason, I discovered, was much more true and satisfying. In it the Bible is indeed the "perfect rule of living for God" (117), and absolutely necessary in order to know Christ for salvation (129-130), but even so, some truths taught supernaturally in Scripture are also taught naturally in nature (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15). Moreover, God has mercifully preserved the mind of sinful man so that even pagans recognize certain facts about him (Acts 17:28). Thus while Christ is indeed the light of men (John 1:4), even if man's reason does not recognize him as such, it is still able to learn natural truths naturally. And this is especially true outside the domain of theology: as Mastricht argues, though theology is helped by nature, its foundation is Scripture; but the foundation of all other disciplines is "nature and human investigation" (100).

Furthermore, Mastricht instructed me in the way that these truths practically inform our teaching and defending of the faith. Consider, for example, how in his defense of Scripture he appeals to commonly accepted rules of verification to establish the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture (132-133, 148-149, 118-119), and cites objective evidence to prove that the Bible is indeed the Word of God (133-137, 149-151), explaining that the Spirit's internal testimony to the Word is not itself an evidence, but rather the gift of power to see and to believe the evidence (183). Similarly, in next year's forthcoming volume 2, Mastricht masterfully calls heaven and earth, reason and logic to witness against atheism to the existence of God, and in arguing for God's attributes, not only proves them all from Scripture, but confirms them all from nature.

Thus Mastricht not only changed my thinking on an important, even foundational matter in Christian theology, but also changed my practice. Now that my doubts concerning the natural knowledge of God are gone, I find great joy in making use of it. Among other things, in my ministry I am now free in teaching certain doctrines to use natural and rational arguments, both to confirm the godly in the biblical faith, and to leave the wicked without excuse. And in this way I have the privilege to follow not only Mastricht (78, 12), but the apostles (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-29; Rom. 1:18-20, 26-27), and Christ himself (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30).

Reason is subordinate in theology.

But in addition to the two proper uses of reason and theology, Mastricht presents a third use that he condemns, that is, reason "as a norm or principle of truth on account of which something is believed" (156). In that way, reason would no longer be the handmaiden of theology (78), but would either join or replace Scripture as its perfect principium. But this cannot be. As Mastricht explains, "Reason is blind (1 Cor. 2:14-15), darkened (John 1:5), deceptive and inconstant (Rom. 1:21ff.), and finally, imperfect (cf. Rom. 1:19 with 1 Cor. 2:12)," "The heads of religion transcend reason because they are mysteries (1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1)," and "Christ, the prophets, and the apostles never refer us back to reason but always to Scripture (Isa. 8:20; 2 Peter 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:14)" (156). This is why Mastricht was a fierce opponent of Cartesianism (xxxv), but also why he at times used strong words against medieval scholastic theology (85), even though throughout his work he shows his debt to it. Though reason is necessary in theology, and there is true natural knowledge, neither can presume to replace Scripture as the perfect rule of living for God.1

So Mastricht taught me not only the goodness and necessity of reason in theology, but also its proper limits. I am hopeful that in the discussion of this important topic, Mastricht's balanced method will prove for many, as it did for me, a wholesome model.

1. On this topic see also the excellent digression in Pontanus's funeral oration for Mastricht, lxxxi-lxxxvii.

*This is the second post in a short series by Michael Spangler


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