The Headings of Theology Should Be… (Van Mastricht)

Theoretical-Practical Theology Volume 1: Prolegomena I appreciate Petrus Van Mastricht’s emphasis that Christian theology should be practical. Here’s how he explained theology with a little more detail:

“The heads of theology should be

  1. Positively proved from the Scriptures, confirmed by reasons, and explicated (explained/developed) in all their members, which is like a solid foundation for the entire structure;

  2. Elenctically (polemically) vindicated against the artifices of all opponents, for without that vindication the constructed foundation neither stands sufficiently on its own nor becomes sufficiently rooted in the hearts of those who theologize;

  3. Practically applied, without which the prior points will be entirely and plainly useless.  For just as practice without theory is nothing, so theory without practice is empty and vain.  For that reason, in his most wise counsel, the Savior joins them together: ‘if you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:17).”

(Petrus Van Mastrich, Theoretical-Practical Theology, volume 1, p. 69-70.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Our (Ectypal/Analogical) Knowledge of God (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation
Bavinck, vol. 2

We can know the true and living God in a personal way. We can know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Rock. But we can’t know him in an exhaustive way. We can’t know him in his inner being or as he is in himself. We can know him because he’s revealed himself and because he gives us his Spirit in and through Christ, but we cannot know him apart from revelation, his Spirit, and Christ. I appreciate how Herman Bavinck discussed this topic (analogical & ectypal knowledge):

1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.

2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.

3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, that is, with the existence of finite being.

4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his nature, in his habitual disposition to his creatures.2 Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.

5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 110.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Relationship between Systematic Theology and Practical Theology (Murray)

John Murray explained the relationship between systematic theology and practical theology so well in his charge to Edmund Clowney when Clowney was installed as professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (1963). Here’s what Murray said:

Practical theology is principally systematic theology brought to practical expression and application. And this means the whole counsel of God brought to bear upon every sphere of life, particularly upon every phase of the life and witness of the church. He would be a poor theologian indeed who would be unaware of, or indifferent to, the practical application of God’s revealed counsel. But likewise, and perhaps more tragically, he would be a poor exponent of practical theology who did not know the theology of which practice is the application. I charge you to make it your concern to be the instrument of inflaming men with zeal for the proclamation of the whole counsel of God and of doing so with that passion and power without which preaching fails to do honor to the magnitude of its task and the glory of its message.

John Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

To Prefer Disputing Rather Than Living? (Van Mastricht)

 A Christian theologian should not just be noted for his learning and academic skills, but also for his piety and love.  Time and again in Scripture God calls his people to trust him and obey him, to love him and love others.  Solid biblical doctrine does have to do with intellect, but it’s also a matter of the heart and one’s ethics.  Petrus Van Mastricht (d. 1706) was a very able Reformed theologian who was brilliant in many ways.  However, in his major work on systematic theology, Van Mastricht was very clear that theology and practice go hand in hand.  He called his systematic theology “Theoretical-practical theology.”

In the first volume of this work, Van Mastricht discussed whether theology was theoretical or practical.  He said it is not just theoretical, a matter of the intellect, but also practical, a matter of living.  In fact, Van Mastricht argued that theology is “preeminently practical.”  Here’s one of his conclusions:

“So then, first, it is not true theology, and a person is not a true theologian–and thus not a genuine Christian– (1) who either in speech or indeed, makes theology in the Christian religion the art of knowing and disputing, while at the same time he ignores and neglects the practical knowledge of living and is one who has merely the words of the saints, but not their life, as Bernard of Clairvaux said somewhere.  Even Seneca calls this a fatal itch of clever men, that they prefer disputing rather than living; (2) who passes himself off as a theologian and a Christian, but in the meantime does not live for God through Christ, but rather lives—be it for the world, or the flesh, or leisure—fundamentally, for himself; or (3) who though perhaps he even strives to live for God, does not live for God so much through Christ as through his own strength.”

Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical Practical Theology, volume 1, pages 107-108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


Doctrine and Practice Walk Together (Van Mastricht)

 I recently got a copy of Petrus Van Mastricht’s newly translated Theoretical-Practical Theology: Prolegomena (vol. 1)I agree with Michael Horton: this is a remarkable gem!  Van Mastricht was a Dutch Reformed theologian who was quite influential in his day and beyond.  Not only is his work solidly theological and biblical, it is also very practical, as you can tell from the title.  It is true that sometimes Reformed theology is taught in a dry manner with little or no application.  However, I very much agree with those like Van Mastricht who say that theology is eminently practical and applicable.  Below are a few quotes of his that show how theology and practice go hand in hand.  It’s also worth mentioning that Van Mastricht often referred to Paul’s words to Titus in 1:1, where the apostle mentions the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness (NASB). 

…Theology must be taught according to a certain method, and it must be the kind of method in which theory and practice always walk in step together.  In fact, they must walk together in such a way that theory precedes and practice follows in every one of theology’s articles. (p. 67)

We approve, out of all methods, the one that the apostle not only commends in this text to Timothy, when he wishes that theological matters first be taught and then admonished, that thereby practice be perpetually joined to theory, but also employs everywhere throughout his epistles, especially those he wrote to the Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and others. By this method, I say again, practice should be joined to theory, not only in the whole corpus of theology, in such a way that the first place is especially reserved for the things that must be believed and the second for the things that must be done, but also that in each member of theology, practice should walk in step with theory in a continuous agreement. (p. 69)

He [Paul] also commands that what can be taught should also be applied, adn that doctrine should be according to godliness, that is, theoretical-practical.  He prohibits Timothy from teaching in any other way. (p. 73)

Christian theology unites theory with practice, and is ‘a knowledge of truth that is according to godliness’ (Titus 1:1). (p. 79).

Indeed, the study of theology, to the extent that it is true theology, is not sufficient, unless… it is earnestly devoted to practical theology and to practice. (p. 95)

In fact, here’s how Van Mastrich defines Christian theology:

…Christian theology is best defined as the doctrine of living for God through Christ. (p. 66)

Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol 1: Prolegomena.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WIm 54015

Divine Purpose and Foreknowledge (Augustine)

The Protestant Reformers did not make up their teaching about God’s foreknowledge, sovereignty, and divine purpose.  Here’s Augustine:

“Now God foreknew everything, and therefore could not have been unaware that man would sin.  It follows that all our assertions about the Holy City must take into account God’s foreknowledge and his providential design; we must not advance theories which could not have become matters of knowledge for us, because they had no place in God’s plan.  Man could not upset the divine purpose by his sin, in the sense of compelling God to alter his decision.  For God in his foreknowledge anticipated both results: he knew beforehand how evil the man would become whom God himself had created good; he also knew what good, even so, he would bring out of man’s evil.”

Of course, ultimately the Reformers did not lean on Augustine, but Scripture:

“[God] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11 NIV).

“[Jesus] was handed over…by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge…” (Acts 2:23 NIV).

“The plans of the LORD stand firm forever…” (Ps. 33:11 NIV).

“He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.          No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (Dan. 4:35 NIV)

To be sure, there are quite a few other Bible texts that affirm the truth that God is sovereign and in total control of all things.  Nothing surprises him; his counsel will stand and nothing can thwart his plans or purposes.  This is good news for Christians.  Not only do all things come our way by the good and sovereign will of God, but our salvation is also secure because it is part of his sovereign plan in Christ.

The above quote from Augustine is found in City of God, XIV.11.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

God’s Wrath, God’s Love, and the Cross (Carson)

Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God God’s love and his wrath are on display throughout the Bible.  I realize “the wrath of God” sounds harsh in many people’s ears, but it clearly is a teaching of the Bible.  It’s a teaching that has to do with the perfect justice of God.  Here’s how Don Carson well explained the love and wrath of God:

“The reality is that the Old Testament displays the grace and love of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in new covenant writings.  Similarly, the Old Testament displays the righteous wrath of God in experience and types, and these realities become all the clearer in the new covenant writings.  In other words, both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New.  These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – in the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s love?  Look at the cross.

Do you wish to see God’s wrath?  Look at the cross.

Hymn writers have sometimes captured this best,  In Wales Christians sing a nineteenth-century hymn by William Rees:

Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
Throughout heav’n’s eternal days.

On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.

D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, p 70-71.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015