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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