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Catching up on Petrus van Mastricht

The great Dutch theologian of the Nadere Reformatie, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), has only recently been introduced to the English-speaking world with the publication of his Theoretica-practica theologia (Theoretical and Practical Theology). In this article we will survey past scholarship on Mastricht, anticipating that further studies will emerge in the light of this new translation.

Jonathan Edwards: Better than Turretin

In 1747, Jonathan Edwards wrote the following to Joseph Bellamy:

As to the books you speak of: Mastricht is sometimes in one volume, a very large thick quarto, sometimes in two quarto volumes. I believe it could not be had new under 8 or 10 pounds. Turretin is in three volumes in quarto, and would probably be about the same price. They are both excellent. Turretin is on polemical divinity, on the 5 points & all other controversial points, & is much larger in these than Mastricht, & is better for one that desires only to be thoroughly versed in controversies. But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice & controversy, or as an universal system of divinity; & it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.

Richard Muller: Locating Mastricht

In his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Richard Muller locates Mastricht within the era of high orthodoxy (ca. 1640–1685–1725). Muller notes that at this time the “architectonic clarity of early orthodoxy is replaced to a certain extent or at least put to the service of a more broadly developed and even discursive system.”[1] There is an expansion of polemical argumentation and the creative phase of early orthodoxy gives way to a phase of elaboration, refinement, and modification, which is evident in such prominent theologians as Voetius, Turretin, and Mastricht. Muller goes on to describe the posture towards philosophy during this time as Reformed theology now encountered the new ideas of autonomy introduced by the Enlightenment:

Among the major transitions that took place as Reformed theology passed from early orthodoxy into the high orthodox era was the transition from a philosophical development focused on the reception, assessment, and critical appropriation of the various trajectories of Christian Aristotelianism and of the late Renaissance developments … to the encounter of these older, highly nuanced approach with the new rationalists of the seventeenth century. … [T]he high orthodox, ca. 1640, were beginning to feel the impact of Cartesian thought. Just as the early orthodox era manifests not a monolithic appropriation of the older Aristotelian philosophies, but the reception of elements of various trajectories, so does the high orthodox era manifest varied receptions of the newer rationalism among the Reformed, and, indeed, the continuance of themes and issues from the older trajectories, now modified and altered by the changed philosophical context. Specifically, elements of the older Thomism, Scotism, and nominalism can still be detected as mediated through and modified by philosophical currents in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—and elements of Cartesian thought and its modifications can also be found both debated and appropriated by various individual Reformed thinkers.[2]

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) had waged a strong polemic against the encroachment of Cartesianism upon the church and theology, which sought to subvert the authority of Scripture to an alien philosophy and special revelation to autonomous human reasoning. This mantle of maintaining the basic Reformation principle of sola Scriptura would be taken up by Mastricht at the University of Utrecht. In a future article we will consider Mastricht’s polemic against Cartesianism.

Ernst Bizer: Mastricht First Introduced into the English World

The Reformed scholastics in the Netherlands, including Mastricht, were first introduced into the English world with Ernst Bizer’s essay that was translated from the German in 1965.[3] This was the primary source at the time in English on conservative Calvinism in the Dutch Republic. He purports a pro-Cartesian interpretation of the Dutch Reformed theologians and argues that while Mastricht and others opposed Cartesianism, they were nevertheless “bound to confuse their outmoded worldview with their faith [and] their concept of truth was closer to the ‘new philosophy’ than is suspect.”[4] This view, however, has been challenged by more recent scholarship.

Aza Goudriaan: The Relationship between Philosophy and Scripture

Aza Goudriaan, in his volume, Reformed Orthodoxy and Philosophy, 1625–1750, focuses on the relationship of theology and philosophy as formulated in the thought of three key Dutch Reformed theologians: Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676), Petrus van Mastricht (1630–1706), and Anthonius Driessen (1684–1748).[5] All three were at the forefront of the philosophical debates that swirled in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially instigated by the arrival of Renee Descartes (1596–1650) in the Netherlands in 1628. “If it is true,” Goudriaan writes, “that orthodox Protestant theologians made more extensive use of philosophy than the Reformation itself, the question can be posed how they actually used philosophy. Or it can be asked what theological positions they held in areas that philosophers could also reckon to their territory.”[6] By studying these three theologians, Goudriaan “seeks to understand better how Dutch Reformed theology integrated and responded to philosophical views in the period from 1625 through 1750.”[7]

Voetius, professor of theology at the University of Utrecht, was initially the premier defender against the Cartesian encroachment upon the Dutch Reformed Church that sought to undermine both her theology and piety. This mantle would be taken up by his successor at the university, Petrus van Mastricht. As might be expected, Goudriaan demonstrates that Voetius and Mastricht were in essential agreement with one another in their theology and polemic against Cartesianism as they engaged it from distinctly Reformed premises and commitments.

Goudriaan deals successively with specific loci where the relationship between theology and philosophy was acutely tried and tested, including: reason and revelation; creation and the physical world; the providential rule of God over the world; anthropological issues of the relationship between the soul and the body; and divine and natural law. He notes that both Voetius and Mastricht had aligned themselves with the older Aristotelian philosophy against the newer Enlightenment philosophy, yet the debate was not waged over whose philosophical system was correct. This in itself would have been a losing concession, for it was precisely their aim that Reformed theology not be corrupted by alien philosophical concepts or categories that ultimately undermined Scriptural authority and teaching.

Philosophy was instead viewed by them as an instrument or servant of the most basic Reformed principle, namely, the authority of Scripture as their principium cognoscendi. For them Scripture was not subordinated to philosophy, but philosophy to Scripture. This starting point alone accounted for the full-orbed nature of creation with its rich diversity, including spirits and bodies, heaven and earth, which Cartesian dualism could not account for or bring into any real, dynamic relation. Because of this common commitment to the Reformed principle of Scripture’s authority, Goudriaan observes, “the theological development from Voetius to Driessen supports the broader claim that biblical Christianity outlives the philosophical and conceptual apparatus with whose help it is explained.”[8] To put it another way, philosophy was not the indispensable lord of theology, but its disposable handmaiden—it would, therefore, continue even when philosophies changed or failed.

Goudriaan’s conclusions are consistent with what we see in Mastricht’s Ad Verum Clariss. D. Balthasaren Beckerum. He does not utilize Aristotelianism to combat Bekker’s Cartesian and Spinozistic intention of disenchanting the world by casting doubt on the existence of spirits, including the devil, and rejecting any interaction between spirits and bodies. Rather, he formulates his argument on the basis of Scripture as its starting point and the true worship of God as its goal, thus wedding theology and piety.

Adriaan Neele: Doctrine and Piety

The only book-length treatment devoted wholly to Mastricht in English is Adriaan Neele’s Petrus van Mastricht (1630–1706), Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety.[9] In this work Neele “deals with the post-Reformation Reformed concern for right doctrine and piety.”[10] He addresses a misunderstanding of past scholarship that has essentially separated the two. Neele describes the situation as follows:

In respect to [doctrine], scholarship has tended to appraise the theology of the seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox era, which includes the Nadere Reformatie, Puritanism and Pietism, as rigid and polemic; i.e., an abstract doctrine with little or no regard for practical significance. Consequently, the concern for orthodox doctrine has been seen as stalling the biblical exegesis of that era. In particular such exegesis has been critiqued for serving only to proof-text dogmatic and polemic works. Furthermore, the concern for doctrine has been regarded as leading to the relapse to Scholasticism and the neglect of the vitality of the Reformer’s humanism. … In respect to piety or praxis pietatis, which is a distinct feature of the seventeenth-century Reformed thought, scholarship has often negatively appraised its subjectivism, mysticism, and pietism, which deviated from Scripture. In addition, piety usually is described in opposition of the post-Reformation Reformed (Scholastic) orthodoxy. Contrary to these two emerging perspectives, more recent scholarship recognizes that piety is a working out of the theology of the seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy, which includes methodological aspects of scholasticism and Renaissance humanism.[11]

Neele redresses these issues by demonstrating the way in which Mastricht wedded doctrine and piety, theology and life, and correlated Scripture, doctrine, and praxis in his Theoretico-practica theologia, with particular focus on his Doctrine of God.[12] As this was Mastricht’s magnum opus, Neele has laid a substantial foundation for the direction of future Mastricht studies. The aim of his study, however, was not exhaustive, even as he invites “further study on Mastrich’s life and work, so that a fuller portrait may emerge and more completeness may be achieved in respect to the content of his publications.”[13] This invitation Theoretical and Practical Theology now available from Reformation Heritage Books.

[1] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:73.

[2] Ibid., 1:74.

[3] Ernst Bizer, “Reformed Orthodoxy and Cartesianism,” in Journal for Theology and the Church, vol. 2, Translating Theology into the Modern Age, ed., Robert Funk (New York, 1965); orig. “Die reformierte Orthodoxie und der Cartesianismus,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 55 (1958).

[4] Ernst Bizer, “Die reformierte Orthodoxie und der Cartesianimus,” in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche55 (1958), cited by Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht(1630-1706), Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety, Brill’s Series in Church History vol. 35 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 7.

[5] Aza Goudriaan, Reformed Orthodoxy and Philosophy, 1625-1750: Gisbertus Voetius, Petrus Van Mastricht, and Anthonius Driessen, Brill’s Series in Church History vol. 26 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2006).

[6] Ibid.,2.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 331.

[9] Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety, Brill’s Series in Church History vol. 35 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009). This study arises from his earlier doctoral dissertation The Art of Living to God: A Study of Method and Piety in the Theoretica-practica theologia of Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) (Th.D. thesis, University of Utrecht, 2005: Pretoria: Pretoria University Pres, 2005).

[10] Ibid., 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Also observed by Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:62.

[13] Neele, Petrus van Mastricht, 285.


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