Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Rare Look at Protestant Scholasticism

Adriaan C. Neele. Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706: Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety. Leiden: Brill, 2009. 344pp. $147.00.

Reviewed by Ryan McGraw

For too long, Peter van Mastricht has been a neglected figure in Reformed theological reflection. Through his work, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706: Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety, Adriaan C. Neele has offered both the Academy and the Church a tremendous service. Dr. Neele has contributed significantly to research on Protestant Scholasticism, as well as drawn attention to the theologian of whom Jonathan Edwards said was better than Turretin and whose Theoretico-Practica Theologia was the most important book he had read outside of the Bible (11).

The basic purpose of Neele’s work is to examine whether or not there is any connection between exegesis of Scripture, doctrine, and praxis in Mastricht’s theological method (1). Neele notes that this question has been largely neglected in connection to studies of Protestant Scholasticism. His basic conclusion is that both Mastricht’s theology and piety in his Theoretico-Practica Theologia are closely tied to and drawn from the biblical exegesis that serves as the foundation for each chapter.

This book is divided into eleven chapters under four major divisions. The first part addresses the life of van Mastricht as well as the general character of his Theoretico-Practica Theologia. Prior to Neele’s work (including his previously published and less extensive work on Mastricht), there have been no major studies of either Mastricht’s life or of his theology. Neele divides Mastricht’s life into four distinct periods in order to demonstrate the development and the consistency of his thought and method. These are first, the setting of a Cocceian Church with an anti-Cartesian bent on Mastricht’s part. Second, an ecumenical church in which he produced his first theological work. Third, his work in a Lutheran-Reformed Church and his employment as a Hebraist and theologian at the University level. Fourth, continuity of his life’s work and emphases culminating in the publication of his Theoretico-Practica Theologia. Neele shows that Mastricht’s magnum opus was the culmination of a consistent pattern of theological thought that was shaped by the various contexts and conflicts in his life.

As for the work itself, Mastricht’s purpose was to prepare a textbook on theology that would help prepare men for preaching (53). Neele observes, “For Mastricht, theology and preaching distinct, but not separate” (67). The structure and method of the Theoretico-Practica Theologia is relatively unique in that its author treats each topic under four heads: Exegesis, Doctrine, Elenctics, and Praxis (139, 227). Mastricht’s contemporaries employed each of these categories in their works, but none of them used all four of them concurrently as an organizing principle of theology. The thrust of Neele’s book is that for Mastricht, these four categories formed an organic unity in the Theoretico-Practica Theologia in which the exegesis of Scripture was the foundation for each of the other three sections. Chapters 4 through 11 illustrate this fact via painstaking scholarship.

Mastricht’s chosen title is worth some attention. Neele notes that Mastricht stepped into the medieval debates concerning whether or not theology was more theoretical or more practical in its nature. Most Protestant theologians asserted that theology was both theoretical and practical, but that it was more practical than theoretical. Neele asserts that Mastricht’s approach was largely unique among his contemporaries by arguing that theology was neither theoretical nor practical, but theoretical-practical (92). In other words, all theory is practical and all praxis is theoretical, thus creating an inseparable union between doctrine and piety. Mastricht based this assertion upon 1 Timothy 6:2-3, which teaches that true doctrine accords with godliness. While Neele correctly asserts that this approach was largely unique in the seventeenth century, it should be noted that John Owen adopted a similar definition of theology in his Theologoumena Pantodapa.

At this stage in the argument, Neele makes some useful observations about Mastricht’s “scholastic” method. If we read Mastricht on his own terms, scholasticism can refer either to theological content or to theological method. With respect to the former, Mastricht and his fellow Protestants rejected Scholasticism in many respects. With regard to the latter, Mastricht in particular adopted the scholastic methods of theological studies, simplified them, and used them as an effective tool to produce greater clarity in his theological writing (91-92, 136). This certainly agrees well with the recent assessments of Richard Muller and other leading scholars on this subject. Neele notes, however, that it is not appropriate to contrast scholastic method and content in absolute terms. This is demonstrated, for example, by Mastricht’s wide use of Thomas Aquinas. One other peculiar feature of Mastricht’s method is that he treats the nature of saving faith prior to introducing the content of his theological system. Neele suggests that the reason for this was to combat Cartesianism, which sought to establish truth upon reason and natural theology rather than upon faith and supernatural revelation (111).

The bulk of Neele’s work (chapters four through eleven) illustrates Mastricht’s method in order to demonstrate the close relationship between exegesis, theology, and practice. Chapters five through eight draw attention to each of Mastricht’s four categories respectively. Chapters nine through eleven illustrate how he used these categories in the formulation of theology by drawing attention to his doctrine of God and of the Holy Trinity. His exegesis is rooted in the words of the text of Scripture according to the original languages. His doctrine unveils the subject matter of the text by drawing conclusions from the exegesis and by comparing the content of the text in question with the rest of the Word of God (173). The Elenctic section is not simply a refutation of error, but a positive formulation and refinement of the doctrine in question (183). According to Neele, this is the most scholastic aspect of the Theoretico-Practica Theologia, since it is rooted in the Medieval quaestio method. The practical segment of each chapter corresponds exactly to the order and the structure of the exegetical section. Mastricht believed that application “is the soul of the sermon” (191). In the application, the glory of God is the point of departure as well as the central focus.

One useful feature of Neele’s work is his treatment of Mastricht’s Trinitarianism (206). In light of the recent renewal of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity, his treatment is a welcome addition to current discussions. In this writer’s opinion, Mastricht develops a practical and devotional Trinitarianism that is possibly comparable only to John Owen’s Communion with God. Neele notes that the Trinity was fundamental to Mastricht’s entire theology (251). Another distinct feature of Mastricht’s approach to the Trinity is that he placed his treatment of the concilium pacis (or covenant of redemption) within his chapter on the Triunity of God (278). While it is true that this approach is distinctive, it is not entirely unique. Wilhelmus a Brakel, who was a Dutch contemporary of Mastricht, included his treatment of the pactum salutis immediately subsequent to his chapter on the Trinity because he believed that this topic was intimately tied to our understanding of the Trinity.

The last portion of the work consists of eight appendices. These appendices compare various works by Mastricht with the Theoretico-Practica Theologia in order to demonstrate the consistent development of his thought, to compare him to his contemporaries, and to analyze the structure of his chapters on the doctrine of God. The last appendix is of particular value and interest since it traces the manner in which Jonathan Edwards depended upon Mastricht in five critical areas of his theological development.

This reviewer has detected two down sides of this work. The first is the cost of the book. Most readers will not be able to spend nearly $150 on a monograph. However, the book should be readily accessible through the inter-library loan services of a local library. Second, the prevalence of untranslated quotations from both the Dutch and Latin authors, particularly in the footnotes, will likely frustrate readers who do not possess a basic knowledge of these languages. Despite this drawback, Neele’s text remains basically perspicuous to all English speaking readers.

The primary value of this work is twofold. On the one hand, Neele has re-introduced Mastricht to scholarly studies as an important figure in Post-Reformation Protestant theology. He has demonstrated clearly that Protestant Scholasticism was not simply concerned with theological method, but that these methods were used as a vehicle to communicate carefully digested biblical content. On the other hand, this work should be useful to ministers. It may sound strange to recommend an academic text that is heavily adorned with Latin and Dutch citations to the average minister. Yet it is often the case that ministers struggle with how to connect the application of their sermons to the exegesis of the text of Scripture. Moreover, doctrinal considerations that are related to the text are often not given much development, or are they are left out entirely. Sermons should be positive and not polemic in nature, but sometimes a moderate use of Elenctic theology is useful to distinguish truth from error even in preaching. The difference between Mastricht and most of the rest of us is that he self-consciously developed and connected each of these themes to a single passage of Scripture, and all for the purpose of preaching. The great strength of Neele’s work is he has labored intensely to present Mastricht’s thought on his own terms. This reviewer hopes that Neele’s work might in some measure whet the appetites of many readers for the translation of Mastricht’s work, which is not underway via the Dutch Reformed Translation Society.


The review above first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal.