Tag Archives: Petrus Van Mastricht

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

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Van Mastricht on the Relationship Between Science and Scripture

I’m reading Aza Goudriaan’s Reformed Orthodoxy and Philosophy, 1625-1750.  In this fascinating book he describes and evaluates the conception of the relationship between theology and philosophy in the thought of Gisbertus Voetius, Petrus Van Mastricht, and Anthonius Driessen.  An important thing to keep in mind is that, during this era, philosophy included what we today would call science.

Goudriaan notes that Van Mastricht followed in the line of Voetius and insisted that philosophy must be subordinate to Scripture; reason must always bow to revelation.  This became important in struggles with the Cartesians.  While Descartes himself “professed willingness to adjust his philosophical thoughts to theology” (59), later Cartesians were not of the same mind.  Van Mastricht rejected the later Cartesian claim that philosophy is revealed by God or that it is divine.  Likewise, he rejected the notion that philosophy “has an evidence Scripture lacks.”  Indeed, says Van Mastricht, “what God says deserves more credit than the musings of humans whose rational abilities are fallible” (59).

The fact that all of this has reference especially to natural philosophy (or what we would call ‘science’) becomes clear in the next paragraph:

Van Mastricht notes that while the previous Cartesian claims concerning the relationship between theology and philosophy tend to equate the two, the steps that follow imply the “superiority and domination” of philosophical thought.  One of these steps is the hypothesis that the Bible “speaks in natural matters in accordance with the erroneous opinion of the people.”  Moreover, “the judgement about places of Scripture regarding natural matters — of whether they are accurate or popular — is to be left to philosophers.”  In addition, the conclusion is drawn that the Bible should not be considered a source book for physical knowledge.  A further step is made when philosophical criticism suggests that “Scripture, in practical and moral matters, speaks in accordance with the erroneous opinion of the people.”  Then, the suggestion is made that even “in matters of faith” the Bible is not to be taken at its word, as it is claimed to “speak in accordance with the erroneous opinion of the people” in this realm too.  It is not difficult to see that on this trajectory finally the conclusion seems inescapable that philosophy is a superior means to finding out truth.  Accordingly, the final chapter of this first part of Van Mastricht’s Gangraena discusses the claim “that philosophy is the infallible interpreter of Scripture.”  (59-60)

George Santayana call your office!  Indeed, ” those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history…”  There’s evidence here of what happens when science is allowed to determine our interpretation of Scripture and when biblical inerrancy is discarded.  This is an important reason why historical theology is valuable and much needed in our day.