Jean Frédéric Ostervald (1663-1747) on the method of theological study

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In the prolegomena of his work Compendium Theologiæ Christianæ, section 4, Jean Frédéric Ostervald (1663-1747) notes that one of the chief reasons why many students of theology make little or slow progress, is that they lack a method. Despite Ostervald’s leanings towards Arminianism and Socinianism, the advice he offers here is worth taking note of. While Ostervald himself does not lay down a very elaborate method, he does make a few points which beginners in theology should take to heart. I have slightly edited the format for clarity:

“In order to discover my own sentiments, relative to the method of Theological study, in the first place I would observe, before I treat of Theology itself, that there are some kinds of study which ought to precede, or even be annexed to it.

  1. The first is the study of the languages, especially Latin, the utility of which extends itself to almost all sciences, but especially Theology. Likewise, Greek and Hebrew, which, it is plain, are necessary in order to attain an accurate knowledge of the Sacred Scripture. Now, the study of the languages is peculiarly adapted to youth, because in that age they are attained with greater ease. With respect to the languages, this rule is to be observed, much practice, and but few precepts. The knowledge of them may be attained with little trouble, by frequent reading, daily exercise, and repeated interpretation.
  2. Some knowledge of Philosophy is also requisite, viz. so much as is necessary for the investigation of truth, and to direct the mind in a proper method of reasoning. Logic is of service to this purpose. The other branches of Philosophy, though not contemptible, yet are not of such utility. But here caution should be used, lest vain curiosity, too much subtlety, a spirit of contradiction, or an itching desire for disputation be extracted from it: these are the common defects of philosophers.

These things being premised, we come to Theology itself, and here it is to be observed:

  1. That at their very entrance upon theological study, they ought to begin with the reading of the Sacred Scripture, and persevere in it, through their whole lifetime, according to that of Paul, 2 Tim. 3, where he says that the Sacred Scripture can make the man of God perfect; and here again, method should be used, the historical books ought to be attended to first, then the dogmatic and moral [books], and afterwards the prophets. About this, see Etienne Gaussen’s dissertation De Natura Theologiae.

  2. To the reading of the Scripture ought to be annexed Sacred History, extracted from a short compendium of History and Chronology, which ought indeed to be carefully perused and understood by beginners, so that they might have an accurate knowledge of the principal epochs, most memorable events, illustrious men, and other things of similar importance, according to the order of the different periods of time.

  3. Before they come to a more tedious study of the several topics of Theology, they ought to have their minds furnished with a more general idea of it. Beginners ought to avoid all prolix [i.e. verbose, overly elaborate] authors, and lay them entirely aside, until a more proper season; let it suffice them for the present to have some short and simple compendium of Christian Theology, nay, even a Catechism. For the capital points of Theology are treated in catechisms. Formerly, in the primitive Church, no such persons were to be found as we at present call Professors, but only Catechists. Such a compendium ought to be seriously and frequently read, until it be firmly riveted in the memory. Afterwards let them proceed to the study of more prolix and special systems.”

Ostervald adds a last piece of advice to the above, saying that the scholastic method should be avoided as it is “the pest of Theology and Religion,” since, according to him, it takes “the Gospel, which is plain and perspicuous in itself, and reduces it to a hard science.” However, recent scholarship has shown that scholasticism, as used among Reformed theologians in the Post-Reformation era, was merely a useful method employed in the schools which sought clarity and precision in theology, and did not necessarily lead to an alteration in the content of theology. For more on this, read Willem J. van Asselt’s Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

To summarize, beginners in theology should take heed to study, as handmaidens to theology, the biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) and the language of the Western Church for 1800+ years (Latin), together with philosophy, particularly logic. With regard to theology itself, beginners should diligently study the Bible, redemptive history, church history, and the catechism/confessions (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort). This should lay a firm foundation for a beginner to build on and discern from in his future studies.

John Edwards (1637-1716) on the wrong and right ends of studying divinity

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“…when we apply our selves to the study of divinity, if we do not propound to our selves pure and upright ends, we shall miscarry in our enquiry into those divine truths. Want of true intention in these sacred studies doth oftentimes blast them. Some are busy in their searches after divine knowledge, but it is to satisfy their curious and inquisitive humors. Or they intend to make their reading and studying subservient to nice quarrels and controversies. They read many authors, and devour many books, that they may talk and dispute, and nourish and maintain that principle of opposition which is in them. Or, they desire to know more than others out of a principle of pride and ostentation: they know, to be known, and to conciliate applause. Or, they make the study of divinity serviceable only to their preferment, which is no uncommon thing with this rank of men. Or there are some other sinister designs which they are governed by.

But the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world are different, as on several other accounts, so in regard of the end. It is no wonder then that those who in their search after religion and truth are led only by by-ends (such as curiosity, affectation of disputes, pride, ambition, or covetousness) never attain to a spiritual discerning of the most important doctrines of Christianity, and the saving truths of the Gospel, and to any relish of the goodness and excellency which are in them: it is no wonder that these are hid and sealed up from them.

But the right and true ends whereby men should be acted in their pursuit after divine knowledge are of another nature. They should make God’s glory the first and chief end of all: and next to that they should desire to know the truth, that they may acquaint themselves with their particular duties, and that they may live and practice according to their knowledge: also that they may be beneficial to those who are of weak understandings and mean capacities: that they may edify the Church of Christ, and set forward the conversion and salvation of mankind. These are godly intentions which should be prosecuted in the discharge of the pastoral office: the want of which it is to be feared is one root of that defection and degeneracy in the doctrines of Christianity which I’m complaining of. For an upright and well-designing mind is the best refiner of our thoughts and notions in religion: and a man of simplicity of heart will understand more than an Angelick or Seraphick Doctor. But on the other side, the truth is hidden from those men’s eyes whose aims are corrupt and unwarrantable, selfish and worldly; as we may remember that one of the reasons assign’d by our Saviour why the persons he spoke to did not understand his doctrine, was because they sought their own glory, John 7:18.”

– John Edwards (1637-1716), The Preacher, Vol. 2, p. 78-80

John Owen (1616-1683): Distinguishing between the matter and manner of knowing

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“The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge, is not so much in the matter of their knowledge, as in the manner of knowing. Unbelievers some of them may know more, and be able to say more of God, his perfections and his will, than many believers, but they know nothing as they ought: nothing in a right manner, nothing spiritually and savingly; nothing with an holy, heavenly light. The excellency of a believer is not, that he hath a large apprehension of things, but that what he doth apprehend (which perhaps may be very little) he sees it in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving soul-transforming light: And this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thoughts, or curious raised notions.”

– John Owen (1616-1683), Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (3rd edition), p. 141-142

Wilhelmus van Irhoven (1698-1760) on assurance

Wilhelmus van Irhoven

Wilhelmus van Irhoven (1698-1760), also known as Willem van Irhoven, was a Voetian professor of theology and church history at the University of Utrecht from 1737 until his death. Prior to taking up his position at Utrecht, he spent fifteen years as a Dutch Reformed pastor not far from Utrecht, in the town of Ede, Gelderland, from 1722 to 1737. During his pastorate, he wrote a large work dedicated entirely to the doctrine of assurance, titled Gronden van het Verzekerd Christendom (first edition 1730). The title translates as Grounds of Assured Christianity and, to give you an idea of its size, the third edition of this work (1744), from which I translated the excerpt below, is over 700 pages long. The work is a collection of lectures in question and answer format, loaded throughout with biblical references, which Van Irhoven presented to congregants on various occasions and which he called winteroefeningen (winter exercitations).

After having discussed adoption, regeneration, faith, and conversion in the first four chapters, Van Irhoven turns to a discussion of assurance in chapter 5. He starts the chapter by arguing that, in order to enjoy the assurance of being in a state of grace (that is, being saved in Christ), you have to know and be conscious of whether you are truly born again, whether you truly believe, and whether you have truly been converted. These things may be ascertained by the Word of God, by your conscience, and by the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, whether you are in a state of grace may be tested by your deeds which are wrought by faith, as well as by your sensitivity to and brokenness over sin.

Below is an excerpt from later in the chapter.

Q. Can it be properly and clearly deduced from God’s Word that one can be assured of one’s adoption as a child of God?

A. Yes, see Is. 63:16. You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Gal. 4:6. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ See also Rom. 8:29, 30…

Q. How is one assured of one’s adoption as a child of God from the consciousness of one’s good inward state?

A. By the fruit of faith. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. Jn. 1:12.

Q. Can one be assured of one’s election?

A. Yes. See 1 Thess. 1:4. For we know, beloved brothers, your election of God. And 1 Thess. 5:6. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. See furthermore 2 Pet. 1:10. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these things you will never fall. Lk. 10:20. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. And so forth.

Q. How are you assured of your election?

A. By considering that faith and conversion are the fruits and effects of election. Acts 13:48. And as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. Rom. 8:30. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Q. Can one also be assured of the love of God and Christ towards us, that our service is pleasing to them, that they will hear our prayers, and so forth?

A. Yes. 1 Jn. 4:16. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. 2 Thess. 2:16. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace. Song 7:10. I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Our religion is a pleasing sacrifice to God, Rom. 12:1. Our charity towards our fellow men is a fragrant smell and an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. Phil. 4:18. And regarding our prayers, see 1 Jn. 5:14, 15. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

Q. How is one assured of the love of God the Father and of Christ towards us, that our service is thus pleasing to them?

A. By considering the ground and cause of our adoption as children. 1 Jn. 3:1. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God. Jn. 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Likewise, also from the fruits of faith and conversion. Jn. 14:21, 23. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him.

Q. Can one also be assured that our sins are forgiven and will moreover be daily forgiven?

A. Yes. Ps. 103:3. Who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases. Prov. 28:13. He who confesses and forsakes his sins will obtain mercy. Matt. 6:14. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Q. How are you assured of the forgiveness of your sins?

A. By the fruit of faith. Acts 10:43. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Q. Can one also be assured that God will safeguard us, so that one will always remain in the state of grace?

A. Yes. 2 Tim. 4:18. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.

Q. How are you assured of your safeguarding?

A. Again by considering the fruit and the result of faith and conversion. Jn. 10:27, 28. My sheep will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. Prov. 24:16. For the righteous falls seven times and rises again. Ps. 37:24. Though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand. 1 Pet. 1:5. Who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Q. Can one also be assured of his future salvation?

A. Yes. Ps. 17:15. I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. 2 Cor. 5:1. For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Q. How are you assured of your salvation?

A. In the same way, by the result of faith. Jn. 3:36. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.

Van Irhoven goes on to argue that although some Christian have doubts about their salvation at various stages in their lives, yet an habitual working faith (that is, true faith which produces good works) together with the paternal goodness of God by which He assures his children of their adoption, would bear witness to one’s conscience that one is indeed saved. Furthermore, this assurance of salvation does not remove the fear of God in a believer, nor does it allow the believer to live in carnal carelessness, but rather provides the believer with all the more reason to fear God and obey his commandments.

For previous posts on assurance, see these ones by Heinrich Bullinger, Jeremias Bastingius, Gervase Babington, Joseph Alleine, Bénédict Pictet, and Geerhardus Vos.

Bénédict Pictet (1655-1724) on the assurance of election

Benedict Pictet

In addition to previous posts on the assurance of election from Heinrich Bullinger and Joseph Alleine, this is my translation of Book VII, Chapter III of the Theologia Christiana of Bénédict Pictet (1655-1724), who served as professor of theology at Geneva and was the nephew of Francis Turretin.

1. Not only is the election of believers certain and immutable, but they can also be certain that they are elected; of course not by ascending into heaven to unfold the book of life, but by descending into themselves, as it were, paging through the book of conscience, and observing in themselves the fruits of election.

2. For firstly and truly, if believers can know that they have faith, they can be certain of their election, because faith is the effect of election; yet they can know that they possess faith, as is sufficiently proved by that passage of Paul, in which he commands believers to examine ‘whether they be in the faith,’ (2 Cor. 13:5) for in vain would the apostle command this, if it were impossible to know it.

3. Secondly, if believers can know that they are the children of God, then it follows that they can be certain of their election. For verily it is clear that all the children of God are elected, and so beyond controversy it is affirmed, since Paul teaches that ‘the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God,’ (Rom. 8:16). [So it comes down to] whether or not a believer believes the testimony of the Spirit, and if he believes the testimony of the Spirit, he knows that he is a child of God, and if he knows he is a child, he is therefore certain of his election.

4. We are likewise said to be ‘sealed by the Holy Spirit unto the day of redemption,’ (Eph. 4:30). For how could this take place, that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, unless we perceive it? Indeed the operation of the Holy Spirit imbues souls with such sweetness and joy, that it cannot be hidden from a believer; hence John says, ‘hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.’ (1 Jn. 4:13). Now how can it be possible that we know that the Holy Spirit has been given to us, and yet be ignorant of our election, since the Holy Spirit is given to none other than the elect?

5. Not least do the examples of the saints establish this truth, who, being sure of their salvation and election, asserted boldly and with the greatest confidence that no created thing, not even death itself, could separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:38).

6. But here various things are to be noted. Firstly, the believer is not always certain of his election, nor equally so at all times, for this assurance is often shaken by the cross [i.e. afflictions] or violent temptations; hence the complaining voices of the saints toward God, as if he had completely deserted them, and ‘the right hand of the Most High had been changed.’

Secondly, many in the church tend to wrongly boast of this assurance with usurped confidence, greatly abusing it; hence it is sometimes better to hear the groans of a mourning believer, than the exultations of one who rejoices, not through faith, but of self-opinion. And it often happens that those who presume deceive themselves. But those who groan and, with the publican, dare not lift up their eyes, nevertheless possess the very thing which they sense they do not have, while others shall discover afterwards, by the just judgment of God, to be deprived of what they by vain presumption supposed they possessed.

7. Thirdly, one should not immediately despair of a believer, even though at individual moments he may not sense the testimony of the Holy Spirit, because the divine Spirit conducts himself with believers in such a way, that he rather often deprives them of the sense of his love for a number of intervals, in order that they, thinking humbly of themselves, may begin to grieve over the sins they have committed.

8. Fourthly, there is no true believer that is not sometimes certain of his election and salvation, for although the sense of present grace and the hope of the future may for a time be laid asleep in the children of God, yet the believing soul breaks out of that abyss when God restores to it the joy of his salvation. Hence, if sometimes the soul groans, struggles, sighs, is agitated, and fears, yet shortly afterwards it sings, trusts, rejoices, and triumphs, as if over a conquered enemy; as is seen in the cases of David, Asaph, Paul, and others. At any rate we believe that it is very rare that true believers die having doubts about their salvation.

9. Fifthly, this assurance cannot become effective apart from the pursuit of holiness; for a man who persists in sin and yet persuades himself that he is elected to eternal life and will be certainly saved – he who thinks such of himself would rather deceive himself with a vain hope. Indeed, on the contrary, a man who should indulge his carnal lusts, and rush headlong into sin, should be persuaded that he is in a state of damnation, and that eternal destruction hangs over him, unless he immediately turns and amends his ways.

10. Sixthly, this assurance is not incompatible with that fear and trembling, with which we are commanded to work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12). For this fear is not serviledistrustful, and despairing, but filial, humble, reverential, and of pious solicitude.

11. There are two diseases of the mind, which tend to corrupt faith: carnal security, and pride of heart. For both these evils, the remedy is fear: for pride, a humble and reverential fear; for security, a solicitous fear, that we should make use of all the necessary means. From the former the believer learns to think humbly of himself and highly of God; from the latter he learns that he must not be slothful in the way of salvation.

12. Seventhly, this doctrine of the assurance of election must be set forth cautiously and prudently, for the solace of afflicted consciences, not for the security of the profane. Nor should it ever be enforced without constantly requiring the pursuit of sanctification and repentance. If anyone should ask how he may obtain certainty regarding his election, let him have this answer: God has given him two books by which he may attain this knowledge – the book of scripture and the book of conscience. In the book of scripture the marks of election are delineated; in the book of conscience he can read and discover whether he has these [marks] in himself. These are 1) true faith, 2) hatred of and fleeing from sin, 3) a sincere pursuit after holiness, 4) unfeigned love to God, even in the midst of afflictions, 5) love to our neighbours and even our enemies, 6) and a heart disdaining the world, and panting after heaven.

John Calvin (1509-1564) and Matthew Henry (1662-1714) on 2 Tim. 4:13

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Over at the Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor provides Charles Spurgeon’s (1834-1892) noteworthy comments on 2 Tim. 4:13. The passage in question reads:

“When you [Timothy] come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”

To add to Spurgeon’s comments, here’s what John Calvin (1509-1564) and Matthew Henry (1662-1714) had to say on this passage:

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Calvin:

“It is evident from this, that the Apostle had not given over reading, though he was already preparing for death. Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise? Which of them will dare to compare himself with Paul? Still more does this expression refute the madness of those men who — despising books, and condemning all reading — boast of nothing but their own ἐνθουσιασμοὺς divine inspirations. But let us know that this passage gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading, that they may profit by it.”

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Henry:

“Paul was guided by divine inspiration, and yet he would have his books with him. Whereas he had exhorted Timothy to give attendance to reading, so he did himself, though he was now ready to be offered. As long as we live, we must be still learning.”

Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617-1666): Theology is not only speculative

Johannes Hoornbeeck

To add to previous posts from Edwards and Calvin on the practical nature of theology, this is from the Utrecht and Leiden professor Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617-1666), Theologiæ Practicæ, vol. 1, p. 7:

“Theology never teaches one only to speculate but always directs the action of the will towards some object whether good or evil, so that we may detest and flee the latter and truly so that we may love and pursue the former, and at every point in the same mode and order be directed to God.”