Much has already been said concerning the pastoral use for the first volume of the new translation of Petrus Van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology (for example, see Ryan McGraw here). It is, quite explicitly, a pastoral work. This should not deter the student or layman, however. There is enough accompanying the first volume to commend it in the biographical sketch of Mastricht’s life, the funeral oration by German reformer Henricus Pontanus, and Mastricht’s own The Best Method of Preaching. While the exegetical, dogmatic, and elenctic (or polemic) divisions of each of Mastricht’s sections that make up the Prolegomena are deep and edifying, the practical considerations separate it from much that is available in current theological publications, and from much that has come before.
Practicality is in rather short shrift as of late. Recent conferences and popular-level works promoting aesthetics and spiritual friendships lack any semblance of applicability. The first volume of Mastricht’s work stands in stark contrast to this; pure, practical, and prudent.
Academic pursuit of knowledge can lead, as Paul aptly states, to puffing up rather than building up. It is a very real temptation to allow theological works like this to take up a corner in the mind, but eventually gather dust and be neglected. In Neele’s "Life and Work" which opens the volume, a sermon by one Bernard is quoted, and it serves as an excellent reminder to the reader:
There are those who seek knowledge for the sole purpose of knowing, and that is shameful curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to sell their knowledge: and that is shameful profit. And there are those who seek knowledge in order to be known: and that is shameful vanity. But there are also those who seek knowledge in order to edify: and that is charity. And there are those who seek knowledge in order to be edified: and that is prudence. (xlii)
The last two of Bernard’s statements are worthy of memorization, and serve as a great companion to the practicality of each of the sections of Mastricht’s work. For instance, in looking at The Nature of Theology which opens the volume, one is struck by the practical points and motives he lists. The first is examination, properly distinguishing between “false and so-called theology...upon which hangs either the eternal destruction or eternal salvation of the soul.” (86) Considering a proper definition of theology, and its nature, is not just an academic practice or the realm of scribbled notes. It is the difference between eternal blessedness and eternal misery.
There are many in the pews who might consider this to be the exclusive work of the pastor, or the seminary student, but Mastricht’s application extends to “all.” Some motives of studying Christian theology are “its excellence...its delightfulness...its usefulness…[and] its necessity.” (89-92) Mastricht goes so far as to state that “the psalmist makes every kind of human happiness depend upon this study.” (92) Here we can see the imminent practicability of studying theology for the layman, and not just the pastor. We ought to acquire these volumes of Mastricht and read him not just for the sake of a checklist, but for the good of our souls. The work is soaked in Scripture, and would make, as McGraw has suggested, an excellent devotional companion. It’s short enough to be read in a month, and possesses a wealth enough for decades.
I cannot commend this first volume highly enough to fellow laymen (and pastors, of course), and am eager for the publication of future volumes. In an age lacking practical wisdom, Mastricht encourages us to take up and read.