Theoretical – Practical Theology, Volume 2: Faith in the Triune God, by Petrus Van Mastricht, tr. Todd M. Rester, ed. Joel R. Beeke. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019. Pp. xxxv + 660. $50.00 (hardcover). ISBN-13: 978-1601786746. [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]
Scholastic though it may be (at one point, Van Mastricht explicitly is critical of scholasticism [p. 504]), the theology of Petrus Van Mastricht repays the laborious reading and study. This first volume of Van Mastricht’s dogmatics proper (the volume of prolegomena has preceded) in English translation consists of a lengthy treatment of the attributes of God and a shorter exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity.
As forecast in the opening volume of prolegomena, every distinct section of the dogmatics is treated according to the following divisions: exegetical; dogmatic; elenctic; and practical. The opening exegetical part explains a text that teaches the doctrine under consideration. The dogmatical part sets forth the fundamental truths that the doctrine, or dogma, consists of. The elenctic defends the truth against objections and errors. The practical applies the dogma to the life and practice of the church and believer.
Especially profitable, and often moving, is the practical application of every doctrine. Dogmaticians do well to take heed to this aspect of Van Mastricht’s study, as exemplar for their own work. The practical theology of the attribute of “the truthfulness and faithfulness of God,” for example, includes the “consolation” of the believer “in all kinds of adversities…[that] God will neither nullify his kindness by them [the adversities], nor in them will he lie, against the assurance he has given (Ps. 89:33; Heb. 6:17-18)” (289).
Van Mastricht’s entrance into Reformed dogmatics in the book is suspicious. Rather than begin with the doctrine of God, as is usual in dogmatics, he begins with faith—the faith of the believer. No explicit defense of this opening of dogmatics is given. But the impression is left that the receptor of the truth of revelation—faith— controls, and thus shapes, the revelation itself. It is as if there is no objective revelation “out there,” quite regardless of the faith of humans. This would be a theology similar to a philosophy that makes man himself the creator of his knowledge of the world outside himself, if there is indeed a world “out there” at all. Besides, believing man does not come first in Reformed, or any other, theology. God is first, in the truth about Himself. Faith comes later, in the locus of the doctrine of salvation. The order of the Belgic Confession sets the standard for Reformed theology. Faith comes up in Article 22.
Nevertheless, the explanation, defense, and application of the doctrine of God show no ill effects from this dubious beginning. Van Mastricht draws his theology from Scripture and defends it, for the most part, with Scripture. “For the most part,” inasmuch as occasionally there is lengthy defense of sound doctrine from pure, and in the end unintelligible, reason. Overall, there is solid exegesis and abundant, apt quotation of Scripture.
There are also many quotations of other theologians, including the church fathers. Among the other benefits of the volume is an education in the history of dogma.
Van Mastricht’s development of dogma is exhaustive, for the reader, sometimes exhausting. However it may be accounted for, Van Mastricht had the gift, or weakness, of worrying a concept, if not to death, then to the wearying of the reader. This is the case, for example, with his work on the issue whether certain things are impossible for God, for example, denying Himself. The ordinary theologian contents himself with asserting that God cannot deny Himself because this is contrary to the very nature of God as God. Similarly, to use a less lofty example, God cannot make 2+2=5. This would be contrary to the God-ordained nature of reality and, therefore, absurd.
Does this simple, and brief, explanation satisfy Van Mastricht?
Not at all!
He goes on for more than two pages examining and clarifying this relatively unimportant issue (431-33).
Even more offputting is the Reformed theologian’s penchant for extended, extraordinary examination of really insignificant points of grammar. He pursues the possibilities of meaning into the furthest reaches of research in many languages. Regarding a Hebrew particle found in Psalm 2:7, 8, by the time the two-letter word has been examined in Hebrew, Arabic, the Massoretes, the Septuagint, the Targum, the Ethiopic, the Vulgate, and throughout the Hebrew Old Testament, one supposes that the entirety of the Christian religion rises or falls with the modest word, el. And then, at the end of this harrying of the particle, the surprising conclusion is that no decisive identification of the word is given. Instead, “whatever may be the case…” (540).
Especially prominent in the book, and important for Reformed churches and theologians in the 21st century, is Van Mastricht’s ardent and consistent defense of the sovereignty of God in salvation. He carries on a vigorous polemic against Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism. The polemic takes the form of a repudiation of a universal, saving (or, would-be saving) grace of God that fails to save many, because this grace is dependent on the will of the sinner. For Van Mastricht, the grace of God is strictly particular, for the elect only. And this grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ is effectual.
The Reformed theology of Petrus Van Mastricht is the theology of the Synod of Dordt. It is not the theology of most Reformed churches and theologians in the 21st century. One can hope that an effect of the translation of the dogmatics of Van Mastricht into English will be that Reformed churches and theologians will reconsider their theology of a common (saving) grace of God as expressed in the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel. At the very least, it ought to silence their claim that the doctrine of a well-meant offer is the Reformed “tradition.”
Again and again, in the most explicit, clear language, Van Mastricht contends for the particularity and efficacy of the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. On page 314 is an extended argument against the theology that God wills all humans to be saved. Van Mastricht condemns the idea that there are “contrary wills in God, of which one wills, for example, that Judas be saved, and the other does not.” In this context, the Dutch theologian distinguishes God’s will of “decree” from His “legislative” will, the latter being His command to all hearers of the gospel to repent and believe (314). With a happy phrase, he dismisses a will that has God desiring the salvation of all humans as a “fatuous will” (315).
Van Mastricht denies that 2 Peter 3:9 teaches a desire of God for the salvation of all humans: “The apostle does not say that God wills all altogether to be saved and none of them to perish, but only all believers” (318).
Only “the Pelagians and Pelagianizers, the Jesuits, and the Remonstrants (captivated by a perverse love of the dogma of the universal will of God to save everyone…)” teach “that God “will[s] each and every person to be saved” (334, 335). At once, Van Mastricht appeals to the Reformed doctrine of “absolute reprobation” (335-37). It is not amiss here to observe that with the increase of the noise in Reformed circles in the 21st century in defense of a well-meant offer of salvation, with its saving grace for all humans, there is a steady decrease in the volume of a confession of reprobation.
Answering the question, “whether the saving grace of God extends equally to each and every person,” Van Mastricht demolishes the popular, contemporary theology of a well-meant offer of salvation, which loudly claims to be the Reformed “tradition.” Writes Van Mastricht: “saving grace concerning things that accompany salvation they [the Reformed] do not allow, except as a grace proper to the elect” (367). The Reformed “acknowledge no universal grace concerning saving things, whether that grace be objective or subjective, because: (1) Scripture teaches no saving grace that is universal” (370).
Rejecting Arminian doctrine that God wills the universal salvation of humans, which will nevertheless is not realized, Van Mastricht affirms that whatever God wills concerning salvation He brings to pass. He appeals to Paul in Romans 9:18: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (439-40).
In the elenctic section of the “All-Sufficiency or Perfection of God,” Van Mastricht charges that the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians deny the sufficiency and perfection of God by their teaching:
(3) when there is alleged for him a willingness, or an imperfect willing, by which he earnestly wills what he never achieves, and is by that reason impotent, for he cannot produce what he wills, and likewise unhappy, inasmuch as he does not have what he desires. (4) When they attribute to him that he earnestly wills, in particular, that each and every person be actually saved, and since the majority escape this wish, he is sufficient neither for himself and for his own wish, nor for those for whom he wills this salvation (462-63).
In many other respects also, Van Mastricht showed himself to be soundly Reformed and a bold defender of the faith. Against those who deny or shrink from the doctrine of reprobation, he declared: “When there is no reprobation, there is also no election” (376). Concerning the apparent blessing of the ungodly with good earthly things and happenings, he stated: “God never sends upon his own, upon the godly, anything truly evil, or upon his enemies, upon the ungodly, anything truly good (Isa. 3:10-11), but only apparent good.” He added: “for the ungodly their good is harmful” (390).
As for justification, faith is not a work, an act of obedience, but “consists in the reception of… Christ as the one and only Mediator” (18-19).
Van Mastricht was at pains to ascribe all the glory of the good works of the believer to God: “[Our good works] are more God’s works than ours” (393).
Again and again, the Reformed theologian condemned the notion of a “conditional” salvation as Pelagianism (see 307-310). A God of a conditional grace and salvation is not the true God (310).
By stressing fellowship as the practical theology of the Trinity, Van Mastricht implies that fellowship is the essence of the covenant (520-26).
Admittedly, the book is heavy lifting, both as a volume (more than 600 pages) and regarding the content. At times, the author engages in proving or applying biblical doctrine by sheer reasoning. Occasionally, his profundity becomes virtually unintelligible.
Nevertheless, the book is solid, profitable Reformed doctrine. It reminds Reformed churches and theologians of the genuine Reformed tradition, especially with regard to the gospel of salvation by sovereign, particular grace, having its origin in God’s eternal election.