Interview with Bartel Elshout

Derek Thomas Articles
Dr. Derek Thomas interviews Bartel Elshout on his translation of "The Christians Reasonable Service" by Wilhelmus a Brakel.

DT: Bart [1] , you translated into English, from its Dutch original, the four-volumed work, The Christian's Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel. Can you first of all tell us a little about à Brakel? Is this a case of  "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much" again?

 BE: À Brakel (1635-1711), a contemporary of Voetius and Witsius, was a major representative of the Dutch Second or Further Reformation (known in Dutch as De Nadere Reformatie). This movement was contemporaneous with and greatly influenced by English Puritanism. Scholars in the Netherlands have defined this movement as follows:

The Dutch Second Reformation is that movement within the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which, as a reaction to the declension or absence of a living faith, made both the personal experience of faith and godliness matters of central importance. From that perspective the movement formulated substantial and procedural reformation initiatives, submitting them to the proper ecclesiastical, political, and social agencies, and/or in conformity therewith pursued in both word and deed a further reformation of the church, society, and state.

à Brakel and his ministry functioned at the approximate center of this Pietistic movement, both historically and theologically. On a time line, beginning in 1606 with the ministry of the father of the Nadere Reformatie, Willem Teellinck, and terminating in 1784 with the death of Theodorus Vander Groe, à Brakel's ministry (particularly his most important pastorate in Rotterdam from 1683-1711) marks the center of this time line. However, more significantly, his ministry represents a remarkable balance of the Nadere Reformatie relative to both its early and concluding stages.

His prominence as a major representative of this movement is largely due to his magnum opus The Christian's Reasonable Service. After its initial publication in 1700, this four volume work was quickly recognized as a monumental contribution to the literature of the Nadere Reformatie. It has been argued by scholars that this work is a synthesis of the best Puritan literature published in England and the Netherlands. Nadere Reformatie scholar, F. Earnest Stoeffler puts it this way, "He supplied Reformed Pietism with a theological textbook which...came out of a tradition wholly native to the Netherlands. In it he...preserved the balance between the mystical and ethical elements in Christianity which is so characteristic of the great Pietists in the Reformed communion."    

As a result of this work, à Brakel has permanently endeared himself to hearts of Reformed believers in the Netherlands. Already during his lifetime, the affection for him was such that he was fondly referred to as "Father Brakel"--a title by which he is known in the Netherlands until this day. For more than three centuries the influence of The Christian's Reasonable Service has been such that "Father Brakel" continues to be the most influential of all the representatives of the Nadere Reformatie (frequently referred to today as Dutch Puritanism). Since the publication of The Christian's Reasonable Service in English, his influence is growing steadily among both scholars and lovers of Puritan literature as well.

DT: How is The Christian's Reasonable Service different from other volumes on theology?

BE: The uniqueness of à Brakel's work lies in the fact that it is more than a systematic theology. His selection of the title is already an indication that it was not merely his intention to present a systematic explanation of Christian dogma to the public. In selecting the words of Romans 12:1 as the basis for his title, à Brakel not only wished to indicate that it is an entirely reasonable matter for man to serve the God who has so graciously revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ by means of His Word, but he primarily wished to convey that God demands from man that he serve Him in spirit and in truth, doing so in an intelligent, reasonable, and godly manner.

This brings us at once to the heart of the matter. à Brakel wrote this work for church members--not for theologians, though it was his wish that they benefit from it as well. This explains why this work is permeated with practical application of the doctrines he so thoroughly explains. à Brakel's intent in writing is inescapable: He intensely wished that the truths expounded may become an experiential reality in the hearts of those who read. In a masterful way he establishes the crucial relationship between objective truth and the subjective experience of that truth.

I am therefore fond of referring to The Christian's Reasonable Service as an experiential systematic theology. When reading this work, one cannot escape the conclusion that the author is a capable and articulate theologian indeed--a theologian, however, who is first and foremost a minister of the gospel, whose aim it is to glorify Christ and edify His church. It is this experiential flavor that has made this work such a favorite for more than three centuries.

DT: What exactly do you mean by "experiential," and how does this govern the way he "does theology"?

BE: I would define experiential theology as that theology which explains how the doctrines of Scripture become an experiential reality in the hearts and lives of believers. One could say that experiential religion is doctrine experienced. It is unquestionably à Brakel's intense desire that his exposition of the doctrines of Scripture would lead to the experience of the reality of these doctrines. Once you grasp this, you will observe how in the theological sections of his chapters he lays the ground work for the experiential application. His aim in "doing theology" is the edification of the believer. He does this by describing what the experiential application of the expounded doctrine should be, and by describing what it often is when believers struggle to appropriate the precious truths of Scripture. In doing so, he magnifies Christ and touches the heartstrings of every true believer. Therefore, when reading The Christian's Reasonable Service you will be both educated and edified. What a rare and unique combination!

DT: Can you give us an example of how his contribution is distinctive?

BE: Let me do so by quoting the final paragraph of the chapter entitled "The Divine Persons":
Behold, must you not admit that faith in the Holy Trinity is profitable? Is it not the only foundation of a truly godly life and the fountain of all comfort? Therefore, consider God as being one in essence and existing in three Persons. Take notice of the operation of each Person in the administration of the covenant of grace, especially as it occurs within you. If you may entertain appropriate thoughts, make appropriate comments, and have appropriate exercises concerning each Person of the Trinity, you will experience considerable and consistent progress in godliness. There will be a wondrous illumination concerning the unity of the Godhead as you consider each individual Person, and of the Godhead in its Trinity as you contemplate its unity. If so much light, comfort, joy, and holiness may be derived from perceiving what is but an obscure glimmer of the Trinity, what will it be and how will the soul be affected when he may behold God's face in righteousness, and awake, satisfied with His likeness? (Ps 17:15). Then they will walk by sight (2 Cor 5:7), and they will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). Therefore, "Blessed is that nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom He hath chosen for His own inheritance" (Ps 33:12). [Vol. 1, ch. 4, p. 191]
In this quote you hear the heartbeat of à Brakel's experiential theology!

DT: Who should read these 4 volumes? Is there any way of reading an extract or two to get something by way of a flavor of his writing?

BE: I would recommend the reading of these volumes to every serious student of the Scriptures. The uniqueness of this work is such that both the scholar and the "average" church member will greatly benefit from reading it. Having said that, however, I would especially recommend its reading to ministers of the gospel. Since their initial publication (that is, the English translation), countless pastors from around the world have expressed their appreciation for these volumes. Many have personally thanked me with tears for having translated this magisterial work into English.

For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with à Brakel, his magnum opus The Christian's Reasonable Service, and/or the Dutch Second Reformation, I have written a small booklet entitled The Pastoral and Practical Theology of Wilhelmus à Brakel (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997). In addition to providing the reader with pertinent historical and biographical information, you will also find a representative sampling of quotes from all four volumes. I think you will find this little volume a helpful introduction to à Brakel.

[1] Can we call you "Bart" or would you prefer something more formal, like Rev. or Domini? Answer: You may certainly refer to me as "Bart"!