Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
How would you like to finally be able to read in contemporary English the set of books that Jonathan Edwards said was the best thing ever written besides the Bible? As pastors, we all know there are far too many good books being published that we should read, but I want to present you with a set of books that you must read.
The Dutch Reformed theologian Petrus van Mastricht published his comprehensive Theoretical-Practical Theology in Latin in 1698. The third of seven volumes in English has recently been published through Reformation Heritage Books.
Why should 21st-century pastors want to purchase and read it? Here are three reasons.
Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 1: Prolegomena
Petrus van Mastricht
Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretical and Practical Theology presents one of the most comprehensive methods of treating Christian doctrine. In it, Mastricht treats every theological topic according to a four-part approach: exegetical, dogmatic, elenctic, and practical. As a body of divinity, it combines a rigorous, scholastic treatment of doctrine with the pastoral aim of preparing people to live for God through Christ. Students and pastors will find it a valuable model for moving from the text of Scripture to doctrinal formulation that will edify the people of God.
Volume 1, Prolegomena, provides an introduction to doing systematic theology. This volume also includes Mastricht’s homiletical aid “The Best Method of Preaching,” as well as a biographical sketch by Adriaan Neele to help readers understand the significance of Mastricht’s life and ministry.
1. Historic Orthodoxy
First of all, Petrus van Mastricht is sound, solid, and eminently biblical. Though not a well-known figure today, his work could be described as the cream of historic Reformed theology. Consider what Jonathan Edwards had to say about the book: “But take Mastricht for divinity in General, doctrine, practice & Controversie; or as an universal system of divinity; & it is much better than Turretine or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.”
Mastricht does not represent a narrowly Dutch perspective on theology. He himself praised “the British theologians” (i.e., the Puritans), and admired the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. In his late 17th-century work we find a mature synthesis of the best of both British and continental Reformed orthodoxy that went before. I can’t help but agree with Edwards: if you want just one older work to summarize the best of biblical and Reformed doctrine and piety, Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology is the one.
If you want just one older work to summarize the best of biblical and Reformed doctrine and piety, Theoretical-Practical Theology is the one.
Most would admit that the ministry today often suffers from a lack of serious dealing with historic Christian thought on its own terms. Reading Mastricht would do much to remedy that. And this would bring two clear advantages.
First, it would help us follow Mastricht in meeting perennial errors with solid biblical truth. For example, Mastricht would give us welcome reinforcement as we battle the besetting modern sin of rationalism. He literally wrote the book against it, tenaciously opposing the errors of Descartes with his aptly titled Gangrene of the Cartesian Innovations. Readers of his theology will observe frequent direct dealing with rationalist unbelief, and by it they’ll be better equipped today to take captive modern minds to obey Christ. This is especially clear in his systematic defense of the truth and divine authority of Scripture, and his strong polemic against atheism in his proofs of God’s existence. It’s a poignant irony that the tables have turned today and Mastricht’s method, with that of the rigorously rational Reformed theology he represents, has come to be critiqued itself as rationalist. The opposite is evidently true: Mastricht is an excellent example of the proper use of reason, to put reason in its proper place.
Moreover, throughout his work Mastricht manfully opposes one of the strongest opponents of the Reformed faith, the pope of Rome, with his tyranny, his superstition, and his false gospel of human merit, all promoted under the banner of Christianity. This should offer modern ministers no small help as we fight these creeping errors in our day, as Protestants depart with increasing frequency to Rome.
But Mastricht also models for us how to oppose errors that arise from within the Reformed churches themselves. For example, woven into various places of the work is a critique of Cocceianism, a sort of “Reformed dispensationalism” in his day which devalued the Old Testament, arguing that the saints then had incomplete forgiveness and thus defective piety. Most ministers will recognize the relevance of this for our day, in which many even among the Reformed treat the Old Testament more as a foil than as a guide for godliness in the New Testament.
Seocnd, Mastricht will not only help pastors deal with such errors that are obvious to them. His historic Reformed orthodoxy will help by contrast to uncover problems of which even the conservative church of our day is largely unaware. For example, against our American conception of religious liberty, he argues that civil government should establish Christianity and suppress its competitors. Against modern textual criticism, he defends the providential preservation of the church’s Received Text of Scripture. Other such things could be added: he explains that the entire Lord’s Day should be kept holy as the Christian Sabbath, he urges that households practice daily family worship, and so forth.
Mastricht should help many realize, perhaps for the first time, that much labeled “reformation” in the modern church is in a fact a departure from the old paths, the good way of God’s unchanging truth (Jer. 6:16). To put it simply, pastors today need robust biblical orthodoxy, and in Mastricht they will find it in abundance.
2. Biblical Balance
Mastricht’s willingness to engage in the aforementioned polemics should not give the impression that controversy made him imbalanced. It was in fact his stated method in controversy to find, between the extremes of error, the golden mean of biblical orthodoxy. And in this too he would give great help to ministers today.
For example, he deals early in his work with a popular issue today: what we should think of “Scholasticism.” Today’s trend is to use this word quite favorably, and even to call the Reformed Orthodox like Mastricht “Reformed Scholastics.” Mastricht himself, however, considers and intentionally rejects that label, preferring to use “Scholastic” to describe Aquinas and the other high medieval doctors, whose theology, he says, is fatally flawed. He defines Scholastic theology as “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.” However, this does not mean he thinks Scholastic theology has no usefulness to Reformed theologians. Rather,
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.
That Mastricht can say both things is exemplary. If we listen to some voices in our day, we would think the theologian’s choice is either to reject wholesale the classical theism of the medieval church or to warmly embrace Aquinas and become a “Reformed Thomist.” Mastricht shows us the biblical manner of avoiding both extremes.
He does the same in regard to the thorny question of conditions in the covenant of grace. In what sense are things besides faith required for salvation? Must Christians have the grace of repentance or good works to get to heaven? Mastricht makes a careful distinction that avoids both legalism and antinomianism. Strictly speaking, faith is the only condition of the covenant of grace, because it alone puts a sinner in saving union with the Lord Jesus Christ. But we may speak as the Bible does of other things as conditions, more broadly defined, because they necessarily precede, accompany, or follow faith.
No one has saving faith, for example, without first having God’s law crush him with despair of any hope outside of Christ. No one can exercise real faith without at the same time turning from sin by repentance. And there is no true faith that doesn’t produce good works as its fruits, so much so that although faith alone procures the right to salvation (John 1:12), the final possession of that salvation requires in addition works, worked in the sinner by the grace of God (Rom. 2:6–10).
Mastricht’s theology abounds with clarifying biblical distinctions like this, which not only open up the riches of the Bible’s teaching but also steer the Christian clear of the extremes of error which would harm his soul. What maturity and usefulness it would bring to our preaching and counseling today if we could learn from Mastricht this blessed art of biblical balance.
3. Comprehensive Practice
These blessings of orthodoxy and of balance are admittedly also found in other theologians. But a uniquely outstanding advantage of Mastricht is that he takes all the biblical truth he expounds and defends and applies it consistently and carefully for the eternal good of sinners’ souls.
The “practice of piety,” Mastricht says in his little book on preaching, is the “soul of the sermon,” and so it also is the soul of his theology. Each one of the chapters of his lengthy work concludes with a substantial “Practical Part,” and the entire theology is rounded off by a brief systematic summary of practice, in his “Outline of Moral Theology” and “Sketch of Ascetic Theology: The Exercise of Piety.” His method of always following theory with practice is intentional: thus his title, Theoretical-Practical Theology. And he defends it explicitly from 2 Timothy 1:13, writing that all sound doctrine must always be “in faith and love.”
Mastricht takes all the biblical truth he expounds and defends and applies it consistently and carefully for the eternal good of sinners’ souls.
Pastors today can learn from Mastricht’s comprehensive application. In counseling preachers, he lists six types of “uses,” and in his theology he employs them all in rich variety. For example, in forthcoming volume 4, he turns the doctrine of Christ’s cross to 15 distinct applications, running the gamut of Christian experience, from the heights of joy to the depths of sorrow, and spanning the compass of Christian piety, from meditation to repentance to the Christian art of dying well. In Mastricht’s application there is something for every person, in every circumstance—a rich but balanced diet of nourishing soul food.
Mastricht’s application is also discriminating. That is to say, he by no means assumes all his readers (even in his original audience of seminary students) are in the same spiritual state: some are strong, and some are weak; some are rejoicing, and some are grieving; some are struggling but sincere, while others are content but self-deceived. His application honestly addresses this reality of diverse spiritual experience, and therefore also constantly calls readers to self-examination, that they may know whether they’re in the faith and in what ways their faith is weak or strong.
Our pulpits today suffer greatly from a lack of comprehensive and discriminating application. Some preachers go so far as to omit all application, saying it’s better left to the Holy Spirit. Some seem to believe it’s unkind to ever question whether church members may not be true believers. And even though most faithful ministers do want to feed their hearers solid spiritual meat, they lack good models and good instruction as to how to do so. By both precept and example, Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology will teach pastors to be faithful physicians for souls in need of healing, to meet the deep spiritual poverty of man with the boundless riches found in Jesus Christ.
We therefore heartily commend Petrus van Mastricht to every gospel minister. We pray and expect that the Lord will through this work bring great blessings to many ministers, and through them to a multitude of souls, for generations to come.