Peter van Mastricht on Keeping Your Faith in Seminary

I recently discovered a book on how not to lose your faith in seminary. As I read the book description, I simultaneously understood the reality of the temptation that the authors aimed at and I was thankful that the institution in which I teach self-consciously militates against such tendencies. It is possible to study theology and learn about the God of Scripture while growing distant from him while doing so, and even by doing so. The purpose of theology is the true knowledge of the true God. The good of our neighbors is one of its primary results. If we lose sight of this purpose, then studying Greek and Hebrew, church history, systematic theology, preaching, and other subjects related to the ministry can become abstract ways of holding the triune God at a distance rather than Spirit blessed means of knowing him more fully.

Defining Theology

How we define theology plays a large role in determining how we pursue the study of theology. While post-Enlightenment Reformed theology tended to define theology as a discourse concerning God and systematic theology as the science of God, classic Reformed authors generally defined theology as the doctrine of living to God and the system of doctrine as spiritual wisdom. Following in the train of Peter Ramus, William Perkins, William Ames, and many others, Peter van Mastricht defined theology as “the doctrine of living for God through Christ.” This had enormous implications for how he approached the task of theology. It potentially has equally enormous implications for how we pursue theology and whether or not the academic pursuit of theology draws us near to the triune God or drives us far from him. After noting how Mastricht defined theology, the bulk of this post will focus on how his theoretical and practical definition of theology shaped the academic pursuit of theology and what we can learn from this model today. A subsequent post will examine his definition of theology in more detail.

How we define theology has vital implications for how we study and teach theology. If our definition of theology is merely scientific and dry, then our pursuit and propagation of theology will likely be scientific and dry. Conversely, if our definition of theology includes the true knowledge of the true God, then even when we study academic and even dry theological works, then we knowing the right God in the right way will never be far away. As noted above, Mastricht defined theology as “the doctrine of living for God through Christ” (64). He noted that theology must be both theoretical and practical. He argued this point primarily from 1 Timothy 6:2-3, which indicates that God’s truth accords with godliness (66). Herman Bavinck would later echo Mastricht, who wrote, “Just as practice without theory is nothing, so theory without practice is empty and vain” (70). Theology is doctrine in that it involves teaching. However, it is the doctrine of living to God because this is the goal and meaning of life for human beings. These assertions reflect the idea that the Bible never speaks about the knowledge of God in abstraction. Eternal life is knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (Jn. 17:3). There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). Without faith in Christ, it is impossible to know the right God in the right way. For that matter, without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). If theology has any biblical meaning, then it must involve coming to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit (Eph. 2:18). While these are my texts rather than Mastricht’s, they illustrate the value of his definition of theology. If theology is the doctrine of living for God through Christ, then should we not study theology, whether in church, in the seminary, or at home, aiming to live to the Triune God through what he teaches us about himself in his Word?

Why it Matters

What implications should the theoretical-practical character of theology have for the academic study of theology? Mastricht listed eleven (94-95). These points can help us understand the implications of classic Reformed definitions of theology more fully. He recommended the following:

  1. First, we should “presuppose the excellence, usefulness, necessity, sanctity, grandeur, and even the difficulty of theology.”
  2. Second, students must have a teachable, hard working, and pious character in order to study theology. John Owen, whose prolegomena Mastricht earlier cited (74), went so far as to say that students who had correct theological opinions yet were not born of the Spirit and united to Christ were Christian philosophers rather than true theologians.
  3. Third, theological students must aim in their studies at the glory of God, the good of the church, and their own salvation.
  4. Fourth, an “introductory curriculum” should include philology (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin), philosophy (logic, physics, metaphysics, mathematics, and “practical philosophy”), and history (including geography and chronology).
  5. Fifth, biblical studies follow, which should included theoretical and practical conclusions drawn from Scripture.
  6. Sixth, dogmatic or positive theology comes next, which introduces catechetical teaching and the system of theology taught in Scripture.
  7. Seventh, elenctic or polemical theology follows, by which we learn to refute errors.
  8. Eighth, practical theology flows out of the preceding, which includes moral, ascetic, casuistic, and political (church government) theology.
  9. Ninth, “antiquarian theology,” or the study of ecclesiastical history is helpful.
  10. Tenth, the process of continual hearing, reading, meditation, prayer, and disputation solidify and develop our skills as theologians.
  11. Eleventh, all of these studies should progress in an orderly manner over the years. He then recommends following a course of studies according to the standard counsel of authors such as Erasmus, Hyperius, Crocius, Alsted, “and the one to be considered above all, Voetius.”

Can students lose their faith while studying theology in theological seminaries? Can they transform reflections on the majesty of God for the purpose of serving the church, using every tool at their disposal to do so, into parsing words and memorizing vocabulary in order to pass tests? Of course they (we) can. Yet defining theology as the theoretical-practical doctrine of living to God through Christ makes it wholly our fault when this happens. Like studying theology in any context, the purpose of the academic study of theology is to know God and to make him known. Is it possible that defining theology in this theoretical-practical way might transform theological education today? It would at least remind both teachers and students of who they are and why they are doing what they are doing.


Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

Ryan McGraw