How One Book Changed My Life
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.