Why Should Pastors Read Peter van Mastricht?
March 5, 2019
I have been warmly commending, Peter van Mastricht’s Theoretico-Practica Theologia for a decade. However, students have wondered whether my promises that someone was translating it into English were empty. Now that these promises are finally coming to fruition with the publication of this first volume, as one pastor asked me, “Why should I buy and read another systematic theology?”
One answer is to appeal to the glowing endorsement of the book from Jonathan Edwards, which is included on the back cover. Comparing Mastricht with Turretin, he noted, “they are both excellent.” Yet he added that Turretin was fuller on controversial points while Mastricht was better on the whole as a “universal system of divinity.” This led him to say that, as a whole, this book “is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting only the Bible.”
While a commendation from such a great luminary like Edwards will be enough to sell the set to many, others need more incentive. Below are four reasons why pastors should both buy Mastricht and not let him collect dust on their shelves. I will conclude with some suggestions on how to use this work in the ministry.
1. Mastricht wrote his theology for preachers
While modern pastors and students likely will not (and should not) adopt Mastricht’s exact method of preaching, they should learn from his goals. Today, it is common for men either to be academic theologians or to labor for the church without seeing any relevance of academic theology to the ministry of the local church. In the period known as Reformed orthodoxy, many ministers wedded a precise academic theology with the devotional needs of local congregations. The skill of translating content back and forth between these realms has become rare. Mastricht wrote his theology with scholastic precision without losing sight of the ministry and piety. This process should be a vital component of training pastors in every age.
2. Mastricht’s system was comprehensive
Mastricht wove exegesis, systematic theology, elenctic theology, and practical theology into a single system. He had something approaching the precision of Turretin and the devotion of Brakel. However, he neither reached the same level of precision as Turretin nor the same depth of devotion as Brakel. Yet few authors do everything that Mastricht does in a single volume. Turretin’s elenctic theology is fuller than Mastricht’s, but Mastricht includes it. Brakel’s pastor counsel is more robust than Mastricht’s, but he does not neglect it. At the same time, Mastricht’s exegetical and positive treatments of theology outstrip both of these other authors. While many classic Reformed authors included aspects of each of Mastricht’s four divisions in their theological systems, he is the only one that this author knows of that divided each chapter of his theology into these categories. This makes his work more comprehensive than most.
3. Mastricht’s theology was exegetical
Some readers enjoy the devotion of Brakel’s Christian’s Reasonable Service only to be disappointed with the quality of his biblical exegesis at points. Every author has strengths and weaknesses. While Mastricht’s devotional sections are not as searching or extensive as Brakel’s, his engagement with Scripture is often more satisfying. A good example is his treatment of the covenant of grace from Genesis 3:15. He drew out the idea that in the text there is a singular Seed of the woman and a corporate seed of the woman, both of which stand in opposition to the Serpent (singular) and his seed (plural). He thus established the union between Christ and his people in the application of the covenant of grace and showed the contrast and conflict between the church and the world. The basic ideas of his treatment of the covenant of grace as a whole were embedded in his exposition of this text. This pattern is true in virtually every chapter of his work. This feature not only makes modern readers grapple with and remember key passages of Scripture related to each doctrine. It gives us a window into understanding early-modern approaches to interpreting Scripture more fully. This is important because it represents a model of biblical interpretation that was unafraid of drawing theological conclusions and applications from Scripture, which can provide a refreshing challenge and compliment to modern biblical interpretation.
4. Mastricht’s theological system promotes devotion to the triune God
People do not frequently associate scholasticism with piety. Yet Reformed scholastic theological, such as this one, wove communion with God directly into their definitions and practice of theology. While earlier authors such as Junius, Polanus, and Wollebius addressed the godly character of the theologian in tandem with the nature of true theology, theologians of the Dutch Second Reformation often developed the practical implications of theology more fully. This is most obvious in one of Mastricht’s teachers, Johannes Hoornbeeck, who wrote a theological system dedicated exclusively to bringing out the practical implications of each doctrine. Mastricht falls solidly into this tradition. He frequently organized his praxis sections around the four uses of Scripture listed in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He defined theology as the doctrine of living to God through Christ (per Christum). This makes it clear that the aim of theology was to know the right God in the right way, which is through Christ as the only Mediator between God and man. The Spirit makes this possible by using divinely ordained means to bring us to Christ and to make us like him.
The trinitarian devotion implied in his definition of theology carries through the entire work. Mastricht devoted a distinct chapter to each divine person as well as one to the doctrine of the Trinity more broadly. He also self-consciously wove the glory of the triune God into every locus of theology. While such trinitarian reflection and devotion was rare in English literature during the seventeenth-century, the Dutch concern over the Arminianism marginalization of the Trinity, who denied that the Trinity was a fundamental article of the faith, promoted a more robust use of the doctrine. Although academic theologians are giving increasing attention to the Trinity, these reflections rarely reach the average pastor, let alone Christians more broadly. This makes Mastricht’s way of doing theology is both timely and refreshing.
Most Latin Reformed theology will never be translated into English, but van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology certainly deserves to be. After buying Mastricht, how do you prevent it from collecting dust on your shelves? The best way is to plan how you will use it and when. This could involve breaking the work into segments that you can read one week at a time until you finish it. Some have done this with works, such as Bavinck, and have included friends to make it more profitable. You can also read sections based on what you are doing. For example, pastors administer the sacraments regularly. Pick up Mastricht on this subject next time you prepare for a baptism or for the Lord’s Supper (once this volume is translated). Or, read Mastricht on the Trinity while you are preaching through John’s gospel or on the attributes of God while preaching through the OT. Doing so prayerfully and regularly can only enrich and deepen your ministry. However you choose to read Mastricht, read him to grow in your affection for the Triune God and his Word. Let us show our gratitude to God who is providentially making this great work available to us in English by taking advantage of it in our studies.
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.