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A Beautiful Way to Teach Doctrine

The Glory and Necessity of Doctrine

Teaching theology is one of the most important things that pastors do. In Scripture, Paul strongly exhorts Titus to, “teach what accords with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1). In fact, the importance of teaching trustworthy theological fundamentals to the congregations of Christ’s people is among the most earnest and soul-preserving responsibilities discussed in the Pastoral Epistles (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6; Titus 1:9). Conversely, failing to teach proper doctrine is a devastating error, and results in the corruption of hearts, minds, and lives (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3, 10; 6:3). 

Doctrine is beautiful, and teaching it glorious. Yet in some circles, theology has garnered a bad rap. It is perceived as belonging to the ivory tower, and has a reputation for being dry, dusty, and hopelessly irrelevant. In this article, I would like to discuss one of the most beautiful and winsome methods to teach doctrine that I have encountered. Here, we will be looking at the gracious presentation of Christian theology as given in Petrus Van Mastricht’s (1630-1706) masterful work, Theoretical-Practical Theology.[1] [1]

The Theoretical-Practical Method

Petrus Van Mastricht is a little-known theologian today. His wikipedia page [2] is still a sparse skeleton. Due to the fact that his works have been very slow to come into the English language, his brilliance has long been outshone by the likes of other writers such as Turretin and Bavinck. But there was a time in which that was not so. Cotton Mather said that, “The World has never yet seen so valuable a system of divinity…. ‘Tis orthodox, ‘tis concise, ‘tis complete. In one word, it is everything.”[2] [3] Jonathan Edwards famously advised his student in a letter, “Take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice & controversy; or as an universal system of divinity; & it is much better than Turretine or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.”[3] [4] Jonathan Edwards Jr., Samuel Hopkins, Abraham Kuyper, and Karl Barth also consumed the TPT with great enthusiasm.[4] [5] Of course, they were reading either the Dutch or Latin versions.

So what made this work so highly esteemed?

What makes the TPT so beloved to many of his readers is the four-fold method that Van Mastricht applied as he worked through every doctrinal heading. And this is exactly where I think pastors and bible teachers would do well to pay attention: Van Mastricht architected every doctrine upon four foundation stones — the exegetical, the dogmatic, the elenctic, and the application.

Let’s take a quick look at each of the four cornerstones of Mastricht’s method. I hope you will see here how beautiful and gracious doctrine appears when presented in this way, and how winsomely this presentation can capture the hearts of our people.

1. The Exegetical

The work of theology begins with biblical exegesis, the analysis of the scriptural text at an observational level. The word “exegesis,” as you know, comes from the Greek word meaning “to lead out.” And the faithful laborer likewise is to allow the text to lead the way in theology. Any given method or system is only as good as it is biblical. No matter how rigorously logical, philosophical, historical, or speculative a system may be, it can be regarded with some suspicion if it is not first biblical. The pastor’s primary work too, along with that of the systematic theologian, is to take the people of God into the Word of God, the Biblical text.

Simply stated, there is no substitute for Scriptural explication.

Van Mastrict does this with aplomb. In fact, every major section or doctrinal heading in his volumes begins with the exegesis of a particular Scriptural text. The TPT begins with an analysis of 1 Timothy 6:2-3, in which Paul exhorts Timothy to

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the soundwords of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing…

Mastricht believed this instruction was fundamental to the work of teaching theology.[5] [6] Similarly, his major chapter on “Holy Scripture” begins with an exegesis of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. This pattern runs throughout the entire work. Before telling us what any given doctrine means, Mastricht tells us what the Scripture says.

The good preacher who seeks to bless his congregation with edifying doctrinal truth should likewise begin with Scriptural analysis. We should rarely begin a lecture with “Today we are going to consider Calvin’s view of predestination” or “In this lecture we have a look at Edwards’s view of the Lord’s Supper…” But rather our starting point should be, “Let’s begin by opening our Bibles to…”

I am not ruling out the value of a good introduction to a sermon, but our people will be far more apt to trust our teaching if we root it in divine revelation rather than the genius of men.

2. The Dogmatic

After beginning with an exegetical portion, Van Mastricht then moves on to systematizing biblical truth under well-established categories. Here we move from Biblical observation to theological classification. The TPT is after all a systematic theology rather than a redemptive historical presentation (Biblical Theology). In the dogmatic sections, we are looking to discern what the message of the whole Bible is on any given topic. Here, each of his major headings is clearly defined. Some examples include: The Existence of God, the Names of God, the Attributes of God, and so on.

After discussing the authority of Scripture in Volume One, Van Mastricht curiously moves directly into “Saving Faith” in Volume Two, placing it much earlier than many other systematics. Perhaps this is because he wants the reader to understand from the very beginning that theology makes demands upon us. It claims us. It provokes and challenges us. It calls us to faith and drives us to repentance. In his dogmatic headings, he divides each major concept into any number of helpful sub-sections, consistently presenting each concept with entirely understandable and easily followed sub-topics. For instance, saving faith is subdivided into compact sections on “faith as act of the intellect,” “faith as an act of the will,” “faith as an act of the affections,” and “faith as an act of receiving,” and so on.

We can almost see how easily this could preach from the pulpit!

The dogmatic section is often the longest of the four sections, though not always. As much as possible, Van Mastricht carefully moves from one idea to the next, so as not to lose the reader in the forest of ideas. This much is sure however: Van Mastricht writes as a theologian who wants to be understood rather than revered.

3. The Elenctic

We do not often use the word “elenctic” anymore, but it is a word that deserves some recovery. If didactic means to teach concepts directly, elenctic means to teach them responsively. Another word for this is apologetics. Here we think of doctrine in dispute, in doubt, or in defense. As a pastor, this is something I often fail to emphasize in my teaching. The Dutch master helpfully appends to every major doctrinal category a treatment in which he proactively answers commonly asked questions. Here, he resolves disputes within the Christian tradition, or takes on the challenges from unbelievers, agnostics, heretics, and other religions.

For instance, in his section on the “Spirituality and Simplicity of God,” Van Mastricht expertly anticipates several areas of follow-up. He takes on anticipated questions such as “Does God have a body?”, “Can God be represented by images?”, and “Can we imagine God as a man when we are praying to Him?”. The first question might be asked by a sincere child, the second by a Roman Catholic opponent, and the third by a mature saint simply trying to be more faithful in prayer.

As a second example of the elenctic process, Mastricht raises and answers a number of questions about Scripture’s authority. He considers challenges related to Islam and the Qur’an, the Roman Catholics and the Apocrypha, and complexities related to the Greek manuscript tradition. We cannot help but notice how practical these questions are still, even today, for apologetics.

As preaching pastors, we should realize that as we deliver our sermons and teach our lessons, there will always be some people asking “Yeah, but…” questions in their minds. We see Paul doing this very thing in Romans 9, where he expects certain objections to his doctrine of divine sovereignty. Some of these questions will come from a place of honest, humble searching. Other questions come from a hardened-heart which cannot wait to rebut the speaker. Still other questions arise from mirky, false teaching that has previously clouded the understanding. Preachers may learn from this process to anticipate these questions in advance and answer them even before they are asked.

4. The Application

Finally, Petrus Van Mastricht does a masterful job of applying every doctrine to the heart of the believer. These sections, quite honestly, are worth their weight in gold. These portions are the reasons why Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards said the virtually unknown Dutchman was incomparable. For example, under his doctrine of “Holy Scripture,” Van Mastricht gives us seven motives for loving Scripture. A regular list-maker, Mastricht reminds us that believers treasure Scripture because: (1) we love its author (2) its human writers were worth emulating (3) we are moved by the excellency its contents (4) we are provoked by its promises and threats (5) we are rewarded by its profitability for living a godly life (6) we are empowered by its energy to transform and sanctify and (7) motivated by its superlative call to live for the glory of God alone. In this three-page section, he quotes no less than forty Scripture texts, all of which are waiting to be mined for spiritual gold!

In another section on “Saving Faith,” Van Mastricht takes on the age-old struggle of doubt. Here, he carefully distinguished different types of doubt, including: hardened unbelief, faith seeking understanding, lack of trust, and temerity of conscience. The reader feels at this point that she is sitting in a personal counseling session with a sage. He also gives the reader another list consisting of nine possible sources of doubt including: Satan, perversity of heart, foolishness, ignorance, desire for sin, fear of persecution, selfishness, faintheartedness, and contempt of grace.

Benefits and Summary

I cannot help but believe that Petrus Van Mastricht has given the church an incredible gift in his Theoretical-Practical Theology, of which more volumes will be released in English in the coming years. Besides the harvest of biblical, systematic, apologetic, and practical help in these volumes, Van Mastricht has also given pastors a method that can be easily adapted in our own preaching and teaching. If we would begin with Scripture by working through it on an observational-textual level, move next to defining and classifying its major themes and emphases, follow up by anticipating the questions that we believe our people may have, and then strike to the heart in terms of practical application, our theological lectures may shine forth with more beauty. Perhaps then our people will be less averse to the negative reputation of doctrine, and more likely to savor and treasure the good deposit of faith that has been handed down to us through the generations.

Teaching doctrine is after all a very beautiful thing.

Matthew Everhard is the Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith [7] [7]as well as A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity [8], [8] and has an active YouTube Channel [9]  on books, Bibles, and Reformed theology.

[1] [10] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical Practical Theology, translated by Todd M. Rester, of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society; edited by Joel R. Beeke. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books), 2018 & 2019. This series will eventually contain some seven volumes. As of this writing, only two volumes are currently in print in English, namely Volume 1, “Prolegomena,” and Volume 2, “Faith in the Triune God.” Hereafter, I will refer to this work as simply TPT.

[2] [11] TPT 1:lvi.

[3] [12] WJE 16:216-217.

[4] [13] TPT 1:lvi-lxiii.

[5] [14] TPT 1:64-66.