Ryan M. McGraw
Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 2: Faith in the Triune God, by Peter Van Mastricht, trans. Todd M. Rester, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Michael Spangler. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2019, xxx + 660 pages, $50.00.
There has been a recent upsurge of interest in classic Reformed theology. Due to the fact that much of this material is buried in Latin texts, this translation of Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology (originally published 1698–99) has a vital role to play in mediating historical Reformed thought to a modern English-speaking audience. This second volume (of seven total projected) focusses on the doctrine of God. Mastricht provides a model of mature Reformed thought on the divine essence and the Trinity, guiding us toward heart-searching application in each chapter.
This volume constitutes a rich feast of meditations on the glory of God. Pages 1–42 simultaneously complete Mastricht’s Prolegomena and transition to his theology proper under the topic of saving faith. Pages 43–496 explore God’s names and attributes. The last ninety-five pages focus on God’s Triunity. Following his intellectual predecessor, William Ames (1576–1633), Mastricht taught about the nature of saving faith as a bridge between prolegomena and theology proper. This was an important move because it reminds his readers that theology is the doctrine of living to God through Christ. Saving faith is vital for the true knowledge of the true God and Christ must be the object of that faith.
The section on the divine attributes is the largest part of this volume by far. Contra the opinions of some modern authors, placing the divine attributes prior to the Trinity and devoting more space to the attributes than the Trinity is not evidence that Reformed orthodox authors, like Mastricht, marginalized the Trinity. Instead of viewing the Trinity as an appendix to the doctrine of God, it is more proper to view the Trinity as the climax of Mastricht’s doctrine of God. He also interlaces the Trinity into his treatment of the divine names and attributes, frequently showing how God’s self-revelation culminates in Christ. He follows the standard threefold division regarding the doctrine of God: whether God exists (foundation), what kind of God he is (names and attributes), and who he is (Trinity). Mastricht on the divine attributes leads readers into fruitful and engaging reflection and meditation upon what kind of God we worship. His division of the Trinity into four chapters, covering who God is in general as Triune, and then each divine person in turn, leads us to the height of our knowledge of God. God has revealed himself as Triune in order to reveal his majesty in the gospel and to lead us to know and worship him. Put together, Mastricht drives us to and through saving faith in Christ to rejoice in the glory of God in the Spirit.
In addition to the general usefulness of this volume, several features stand out. Readers of volume 1 of this translated set of Mastricht will find his fourfold division familiar. Each chapter includes an exposition of a text of Scripture (exegesis), followed by a dogmatic (systematic) summary of each doctrine treated from Scripture as a whole, leading into a refutation of opposing views (elenctic theology), and concluding with application aimed at the reader’s heart. These features continue to make the Theoretical-Practical Theology a well-rounded theological textbook, which is what attracted Jonathan Edwards and many others to it in the past.
Throughout the volume, Mastricht treats the systematic doubt of Rene Descartes (1596–1650), asking whether this method is proper in theology. This is important historically, in part because Cartesian philosophy became one of the primary dividing points with the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, and partly because it illustrates the ongoing relationship between theology and philosophy in historic Reformed orthodoxy.
Mastricht also provides readers with an extensive defense of divine simplicity, which teaches that God is his attributes and that he has neither parts nor passions. His treatment of this topic pervades almost every chapter on the divine attributes and spills into his treatment of the Trinity. This doctrine is hotly contested today and Mastricht provides readers with a thorough classic treatment of the subject.
In my endorsement to this multi-volume set, I stated that Mastricht had the precision of Turretin and the devotion of Brakel. While this is true, the present volume illustrates ways in which we should qualify this statement. Mastricht has the precision of Turretin, but not the clarity of Turretin. He often assumes and uses rather than defines and explains key theological ideas and connections. This is true, for example, in his passing glance at the controversy surrounding Calvin’s teaching on the aseity of the Son. Contrary to the Western tradition, Calvin taught that eternal generation referred to the Son’s person and not to his essence. Yet Mastricht neither hinted at the complexity of this debate, nor did he adequately develop Calvin’s viewpoint (561), which most other Reformed authors did. Mastricht adopted the common Reformed approach to this subject in defending Calvin’s orthodoxy while rejecting his position on eternal generation. While Calvin argued that eternal generation referred to the Son’s personhood and not to his essence, Mastricht taught that the Father was the fountain of the deity and that he “communicated” the whole divine essence, including aseity, to the Son and to the Spirit (e.g., 2:530, 533–534, 546, 556). This is a complex debate that the uninitiated would not likely be aware of by reading Mastricht alone.
In addition, Mastricht shares the devotion of Brakel, but not his depth of devotion. The practical elements of doctrine in his system are edifying, but he largely expected his readers to develop them further. Readers will not find searching application to the extent that they will find it in Brakel. However, for readers who know something about Reformed orthodoxy more broadly, Mastricht will often push them beyond what they have learned elsewhere. This is especially evident in his extensive treatment of the economy of the divine persons in three separate chapters at the close of the volume. Reading Mastricht is like reading the conclusion rather than the introduction to classic Reformed dogmatics. This is not so much a weakness in his work as it is something that readers should be aware of as they read him.
This translation of Mastricht’s doctrine of God should prove to be fruitful, both for church officers and for others who are interested in delving into classic Reformed texts. Much of his material assumes a broader knowledge of the theology that was common in his context. Readers who are unfamiliar with this context will still find here a rich feast for the soul, while those who are familiar with it will often stretch beyond what they have read on these subjects elsewhere. This work confirms the fact that this is one of the best Reformed systems of doctrine ever written. Serious students of Reformed thought cannot afford to ignore it.
Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, December 2019