Definition of Theology: “Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum” and its historical trajectories

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By Jake Griesel

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), defining theology in a sermon on Hebrews 5:12 in Northampton, New England, 1739, stated: “Divinity is commonly defined, the doctrine of living to God; and by some who seem to be more accurate, the doctrine of living to God by Christ.”

By “some who seem to be more accurate”, Edwards was referring to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706). The title of this blog, Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum (Theology is the doctrine of living unto God through Christ), was taken from Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretico-practica theologia (1699), I.iii, and is his definition of theology. This definition, however, was not an invention of Mastricht, but had a theological and historical trajectory which goes back earlier in the Post-Reformation era.

Mastricht undoubtedly drew from William Ames (1575-1633), who in his Medulla S.S. Theologiae (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity – 1627), chapter 1, defined theology as “Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi” (Theology is the doctrine of living unto God).

Ames’ definition, in turn, can be linked to William Perkins (1558–1602) in his A Golden Chaine (1592), where he defined theology (and the body of Scripture) as such: “The bodie of Scripture, is a doctrine sufficient to live well.” (est doctrina bene vivendi).

Again, Perkins evidently adopted his definition from Petrus Ramus (1515–1572), who in his De Religione Christiana (On the Christian Religion – 1572), Chapter 1, wrote: “Theologia est doctrina bene vivendi.”

Thus we see that the definition of theology as Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum had an historical trajectory of thought spanning across an era of around 165 years, in which it was developed, modified, and translated from Latin into English. And on top of that, this was done in five different European cities as well as in America (in the case of Edwards), as can be shown here:

Edwards (1739) Northampton

Mastricht (1699) Utrecht

Ames (English translation, 1642) London

Ames (1627) Franeker

Perkins (1592) Cambridge

Ramus (1572) Paris

This shows that the Post-Reformation writers did not work in isolation, but drew their thoughts from one another and stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before them – a firm indication of the catholicity of the Reformed tradition in the Post-Reformation era.

Jonathan Edwards (refer to the quotation at the top) had a very high regard for Petrus van Mastricht:

“But take Mastricht for divinity in general, doctrine, practice, and controversy; or as an universal system of divinity and it is much better than Turretin or any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.” [Letter, Edwards to Joseph Bellamy 1746]

Why was Mastricht’s definition of theology as Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum so important to Edwards? Edwards tells us:

“It comprehends all Christian doctrines as they are in Jesus, and all Christian rules directing us in living to God by Christ. There is nothing in divinity, no one doctrine, no promise, no rule, but what some way or other relates to the Christian and divine life, or our living to God by Christ. They all relate to this, in two respects, viz. as they tend to promote our living to God here in this world, in a life of faith and holiness, and also as they tend to bring us to a life of perfect holiness and happiness, in the full enjoyment of God hereafter.”

[A special thanks to Prof. Adriaan Neele from Yale Divinity School, who taught me about this trajectory in my third year of theological studies, and has been an inspiration to me ever since.]

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Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) on the Covenant of Works

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Historical Dutch Reformed theology echoes many of the same biblical and Reformation truths as the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian tradition. For example, read how Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) explains the covenant of works and the imputation of Adam’s sin in his The Christian’s Reasonable Service (De Redelijke Godsdienst), Vol. I, p. 384:

“The relationship with Adam consists in this, that the human nature of the human race, at that moment solely existing in Adam, was created as being in the covenant of works.  Adam did not enter into the covenant of works subsequent to his creation, but was created in this covenant, being in this covenant from the very first moment of his existence.  At the very moment that he formulated his first thought, he was conscious of God and the covenant, and could not but approve of this covenant.  Therefore, the human nature and its totality, as well as the entire human race in Adam, were created in that covenant.”

“For this reason all men are still born within this covenant of works discussed above [earlier in volume 1].  Upon Adam’s breach of the covenant, the human nature in its totality, that is the entire human race, broke the covenant.  It is therefore righteous [just] that this nature of the human race is rendered guilty, and that every human being, every person, by virtue of having this same nature, has the covenant breach imputed to him, and is deemed worthy of condemnation.  From this it is clear that only Adam’s breach of the covenant and not his subsequent sins are imputed to his descendants.  This is not merely because they are partakers of the same nature but because they were created in the covenant of works and have broken it in him.”

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) on the pastor and the church

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From Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), Our Worship (Onze Eredienst), p. 6-7

“In a genuine church…the gathering of believers” originates in “a historical past that goes back all the way to Pentecost in Jerusalem.  Such a church is rooted in a past of eighteen centuries, in which a temporary minister serves for only a set number of years to accomplish his holy service, and then that same service continues under the ministry of his successor.  That means that it is not the minister who created the church, but that the church existed long before him.  He was born in the church, he served in it, and therefore had to honor the traditions that developed within the church over the centuries.”

Kuyper is reacting to the “free-reining spirit” common today (yes, even back in c. 1900) where a minister starts his own church, gets some followers and goes from there.  Kuyper said that such a conglomeration is “nothing other than a circle gathering around a talented speaker”.  Kuyper’s response is classic: the minister is a very tiny part of a much greater thing.  He does not have the liberty to do what he wants with the church.  He’s an important servant in some sense, but he must remember that the church existed before him and will be there long after his tongue no longer speaks.  He’s a tool in the hands of Christ, used for a time to build something much more significant than himself: the body of Christ. “The church has authority over the minister and not the minister over the church”.

The minister serves Christ and his church – not the other way around.

Douglas Groothuis: Religion, A mental construct?

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“In recent years a host of brain researchers have been exploring and conjecturing as to the biological basis for religious beliefs.  The basic thesis of many of these opinions is that beliefs in God or the sacred can be explained on the basis of certain functions in the brain.  That is, neuroscience gives the answer to why we have religious beliefs, and it has nothing to do with any objectively real state of affairs that we perceive or discern.  Most of these accounts presuppose materialism and so beg the question philosophically: Since we know there is no God and no sacred realm (all is material), we need to explain (and explain away) why so many have religious experiences.  Of course, this is not an argument, but a presupposition not argued for.”

“However, it is no threat to religious belief if certain brain states correlate with certain religious beliefs or experiences.  We are material as well as spiritual beings.  The mind interacts with the body, as Scripture teaches and our experience confirms.  The threat to religious belief only appears when this correlation is understood as a reduction of the spiritual to the material (see chapter 17).”

“There is another problem for this reductive view: it works as a boomerang against itself.  If religious beliefs can be explained away as illusory simply because their neurological components (physical states) are identified, we must, by the force of the same argument, explain away as illusory the belief that religious beliefs are illusory (there is no God) because they too are merely neurological states.  This kind of reduction and refutation would extend to all beliefs that can be identified with brain activity.  But this conclusion results in an epistemological nihilism that is unsupportable logically and existentially.”

“It speaks volumes to note that while millions of dollars in grant money goes to explaining the neurological basis of religion, nothing goes to explain the neurological basis of atheism or skepticism.  Apparently, atheism and skepticism are innocent until proven guilty, whereas religious beliefs are just plain guilty.”

“In conclusion, all the advances in the knowledge of the neurological workings of the brain and its relation to religious beliefs and experiences in no way refute the truth of these beliefs.  That would be the work of philosophy.  Here, as in so many other areas, naturalistic science (i.e. materialist explanation) is an unaccredited usurper of intellectual authority.”

– Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, p. 384

Thomas Brooks (1608–1680): Am I too sinful to be saved?

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“O despairing souls, the arms of mercy are open to receive a Manasseh, a monster, a devil incarnate; he caused that gospel prophet Isaiah to be sawed in the midst with a saw, as some rabbis say; he turned aside from the Lord to commit idolatry, and caused his sons to pass through the fire, and dealt with familiar spirits, and made the streets of Jerusalem to overflow with innocent blood, 2 Chron. 33:1-15.

The soul of Mary Magdalene was full of devils ; and yet Christ cast them out, and made her heart his house, his presence chamber, Luke 7:47. Why do you then say there is no hope for you, O despairing soul?

Paul was full of rage against Christ and his people, and full of blasphemy and impiety, and yet behold, Paul is a chosen vessel, Paul is caught up into the heaven, and he is filled with the gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost, Acts 8:1-2; 9:1 ; 26:11; 1 Tim. 1:13, 15, 16. Why should you then say there is no help for you, O despairing soul!

Though the prodigal had run from his father, and spent and wasted all his estate in ways of baseness and wickedness, yet upon his resolution to return, his father meets him, and instead of killing him, he kisses; instead of kicking him, he embraces him; instead of shutting the door upon him, he makes extravagant provision for him, Luke 15:13-23.

And how then do you dare to say, O despairing soul, that God will never cast an eye of love upon you, nor bestow a crumb of mercy on you! The apostle tells you of some monstrous miscreants that were unrighteous, fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners; and yet these monsters of mankind, through the infinite goodness and free grace of God, are washed from the filth and guilt of their sins, and justified by the righteousness of Christ, and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, and decked and adorned with the precious graces of Christ, 1 Cor. 6:9-11. Therefore do not say, O despairing soul, that you shall die in your sins, and lie down at last in everlasting sorrow.

Did it make for the honor and glory of his free grace to pardon them, and will it be a reproach to his free grace to pardon you? Could God be just in justifying such ungodly ones, and shall he be unjust in justifying you? Did their unworthiness and unfitness for mercy turn the stream of mercy from them? No. Why then, O despairing soul, should you fear that your unworthiness and unfitness for mercy will so stop and turn the stream of mercy, that you must perish eternally for want of one drop of special grace and mercy?

Again, tell me, O despairing soul, is not the grace of God free grace, is not man’s salvation of free grace?’ By grace ye are saved,’ Eph. 2:8. Every link of this golden chain is grace. It is free grace that chose us, Rom. 11:5. Even so then at this present time also there is ‘ a remnant according to the election of grace.’ It is free grace that chooses some to be jewels from all eternity, that chooses some to life, when others are left in darkness.

The Lord Jesus Christ is a gift of free grace. Christ is the greatest, the sweetest, the choicest, the chiefest gift that ever God gave; and yet this gift is given by a hand of love . ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,’ &c., John 3:16, Isa. 9:6; John 4:10. . .’God so loved the world;’ so freely, so vehemently, so fully, so admirably, so unconceivably, ‘That he gave his only Son.’ His Son, not his servant, his begotten Son, not his adopted Son, yea, his only begotten Son.”

– Thomas Brooks (1608–1680), Works, Vol. II

John Flavel (c.1627–1691): What is Keeping the Heart?

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“To keep the heart then, is carefully to preserve it from sin, which disorders it; and maintain that spiritual frame which fits it for a life of communion with God.

1. Frequent observation of the frame of the heart. Carnal and formal persons take no heed to this; they cannot be brought to confer with their own hearts: there are some people who have lived forty or fifty years in the world, and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their own hearts. It is a hard thing to bring a man and himself together on such business; but saints know those soliloquies to be very beneficial. The heathen could say, “the soul is made wise by sitting still in quietness.” Though bankrupts care not to look into their accounts, yet upright hearts will know whether they go backward or forward. “I commune with my own heart,” says David. The heart can never be kept—until its case be examined and understood.”

– John Flavel (c.1627–1691), Keeping the Heart

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635): What a Comfort This Is!

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“What a support to our faith is this, that God the Father, the party offended by our sins, is so well pleased with the work of redemption! And what a  comfort is this, that, seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us, if we be in Christ!”

– Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), A Bruised Reed, p. 2