How One Book Changed My Life (Part 2)
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.