Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1 (Petrus van Mastricht)

Not open for further replies.


Puritanboard Clerk
Petrus van Mastricht, Prolegomena, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester, vol. 1, Theoretical-Practical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018.

Recent (that is, pre-1992 A.D.) Reformed theology can be sadly described as a generation arising “which knew not the Reformed Orthodox.” To paraphrase Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring: Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. Petrus van Mastricht’s theological method was one of those “things.” To be sure, he was not completely forgotten. Some readers know that Jonathan Edwards spoke highly of him. Be that as it may, his method, and more importantly, his conversation partners, has been lost.

Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) was a pastor and professor in the Netherlands in the last moments of “Reformed High Orthodox” (cf. Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This volume represents another fine release from Reformation Heritage Books.

Mastricht defines theology, ala Ames, as the art of living rightly to God. As God is not a God of confusion, but order, theology must have a proper method. His theology is not purely exegetical nor polemical nor simply devotional. Rather, it is theoretical-practical. It is use of “method” that combines diligent thinking about God with ordered living for God. Indeed, without order one can only live haphazardly for God, if at all. By contrast, the Reformed theologian will exhort “the will, so that what the intellect perceives is carried over into practice, for it is the chief end of theology and its highest apex” (Mastricht 65). As the translator notes, this is a modified Scotist view. The will follows the intellect in choosing among the range of goods. On the other hand, the will is actually moving the person rather than simply accepting the what the intellect offers.

Mastricht is most keen to present theology in a certain order, following the apostolic “pattern of sound words.” This is more than a mere defense of the discipline of systematic theology. A method, or pattern, aids the memory, strengthens virtue, and equips the preacher. This method takes note of the covenant, as covenants are always rightly ordered (2 Samuel 23:5). In fact, that the whole biblical text, without doubt, is a “covenant ordered in every respect” (van Mastricht 67).

Mastricht appeals to church history to defend setting forth the Christian system under a method:

“For example, in the eight books of Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, the four books of Origen’s On First Principles, the seven books of Lactantius’s Divine Institutes, the five books of Gregory of Nazianzus’s On Theology, the books of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and his Enchiridion, Rufinus’s Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, Theodoret’s Epitome of Divine Dogma, Prosper of Aquitaine’s little book of Sentences, the four books of John of Damascus’s On the Orthodox Faith, the four books of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, and what commentators on those books have written, such as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, and others; see especially Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. And, finally, see the work of those theologians who escaped from the papacy: Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bullinger, Musculus, Aretius, Vermigli, Ursinus, Zanchi, and a thousand others who were occupied to the utmost with rendering the heads of theology into systems” (68).

We should note two things from his list: he gladly used the medieval theologians, but he saw the Reformed as superior. The wise student will use both. Even the pre-Christian theologians knew this. In a clever phrase from Philo, Mastricht notes that lack of a method produces “knowledge without knowledge” (Philo: Volume II, trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1929), 214–15.).

In his use of a method, Mastricht has to avoid several dangers. He cannot eschew method in general, as the Anabaptists do; nor can he exalt reason unduly, as the Socinians do; moreover, he must be careful of using too much of scholasticism, else he would lose the gains of the Reformation. He writes: “The Reformed, against the Anabaptists and enthusiasts, demand a method, but not, precisely speaking, a philosophical one. They demand a natural method, that is, a method that is suitable for theological matters, and for assisting the judgment and strengthening the memory—however much that method might otherwise depend on the discretion of the writer. We have previously demonstrated such a method in §§III–V, and in this method we are supported by the continual practice of the God-breathed Scriptures, which follow diverse methods according to the matters arising in them.’ (Mastricht 70).

On Natural Theology

Whatever misgivings Mastricht may have about medieval scholasticism, he is no biblicist, being fully committed to natural theology in its proper place. He writes: “natural theology is partly in the will, which is inclined to the good, understood as such, which, as experience declares, not even savages themselves reject. Nevertheless, natural theology must be carefully distinguished from pagan theology as such, because the latter is false and the former is true” (77-78). By contrast, “Socinus, together with his followers, denies natural theology, and the Anabaptists are in basic agreement with him through their hatred of philosophy” (83).

On Elenctic Theology

Elenctic theology, most notably exemplified in Francis Turretin, seeks to refute false teaching. Elenctic theology, given its place in Mastricht’s work, is a part of practical theology. In the second half of the volume Mastricht defends the Reformed faith from the claims of Jews, Muslims, and Roman Catholics. Not all of his apologetic will probably work today, but much of it is quite insightful and worth meditating on.

Against Rome, he notes that Scripture’s authority must be public and knowable, otherwise it would be useless for correction: “Finally, the rule must be received and be public, for otherwise how will it solve controversies that arise among brothers” (119)? Against the Jews’ belief in an enduring oral law, he asks “if the oral law is preserved, how could the written law have been lost? And if there was an oral law, Moses both wrote it and was ordered to write it” (142)?

Other criticisms of Rome are quite familiar to us today: Rome has to appeal to the scriptures to justify their view of the church, which is circular reasoning. Moreover, even if the church is the pillar of the truth, that pillar is still built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles

Conclusion and Analysis

For all of Mastricht’s warm exhortations to pursue a method in theology, this volume, while methodical, lacks what we would call an architectonic principle around which it is structured. Perhaps that is a good thing, as it shows the Reformed had no desire to make everything flow from predestination or justification or covenant (though Mastricht does say that Scripture is ordered around the covenants). Included in this volume is a brief treatise teaching young ministerial students how to preach.
Not open for further replies.