Some (Early) Thoughts on Jonathan Edwards’s Favorite Book: Theoretical Practical Theology by Peter Van Mastricht

I have not yet finished reading the first volume of the newly translated masterpiece of Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, translated by Todd M. Rester, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) but I have read deeply enough into this volume to know that it is very good.

Indeed excellent.

Image result for van mastricht

In the age of the internet where seeming everything is apparently a click away, (especially with data mine treasures like the Edwards website from Yale), we sort of expect to have access to every academic source we could ever need. It would seem justifiable to believe that someone, somewhere out there on the interwebs had already done the work of translating this excellent work of classical Reformed theology into modern English. But sadly, except for a few items such as Mastricht on regeneration, and a short essay on preaching, this was not the case.

Until now.

Believe it or not, but this seminal work on Reformed theology from one of the esteemed Dutch masters is just this year finally accessibly for reading by many in the English-speaking world for the first time in history.

This volume is going to be followed by as many as six more volumes which will fill out the whole complete set. I have reason to believe that this series will shortly take its place in seminaries and pastoral libraries alongside such excellent Reformed multi-volume sets as Turretin and Bavinck; both of which also required previous massive labors of translation to bring to many of us on this side of the Atlantic.

This volume on “prologomena” (or foundational assumptions and beginning points) is prefaced with several contemporary statements of the work’s historical importance. Editor Joel Beeke and translator Todd Rester both make meaningful comments about the impact they hope the work will have. I am especially thankful for Todd Rester, whose skill is clearly evidenced in the smooth reading of this English edition. The layout, design, and even the typeface make this work wonderful to read. But it is Rester’s skill in bringing the original Latin (and Dutch editions) into modern English that makes this work so delightful to both the eye and mind.

Also, the volume comes with an introduction to Peter Van Mastricht’s life by Adriaan Neele, as well as a somewhat detailed funeral oration given by Henricus Pontanus at the author’s own time of death. Together, these essays help the uninitiated reader to gain a handhold on the biographical life of the esteemed writer who was doubtlessly better known on the continent than across the Atlantic.

Even though this first volume barely gets into Peter Van Mastricht’s actual theological system–we don’t get much further than defining theology and introducing Holy Scripture in this first volume–we can see the method and style of this historic Dutch theologian beginning to unfold. We can also clearly see his heart. As I read the first parts, what became plain to me was that Van Mastricht did not see theology as merely an academic or intellectual enterprise. No, theology plainly and profoundly affects mind, heart, and life. Over and over, PVM insists that theology, when done well, produces a mature believer who “lives to God through Christ.” Much of his work is biblical, almost in the same way that William Ames filled his Marrow of Theology with citation after citation of Scripture. It is fuller though and less punctiliar, as the author easily and naturally toggles back and forth between his own assertions and Scriptural citations. Nary a page will proceed without plenteous Biblical citations and proof texts.

In every section, we can expect to see four things from PVM: (1) an exegetical exposition of a Biblical passage, (2) a doctrinal definition given in somewhat classical form, (3) an elenctic question and answer conversation or debate, and (4) a practical application for the heart and life of the believer.

The exegetical sections tie each main theme directly to Scripture. Clearly, PVM wants to be biblical (even bleeding bibline, as Spurgeon once said!). After that, he attempts to both define the doctrine that he is working through and show its place and relevance among the other Christian doctrines. Or to say it another way, he attempts the process of systematizing the categories of theology within their proper relation and function. Next, he attempts to answer questions that his students, or even opponents, would ask. Here, he often challenges himself deeply to work through the opposing arguments of pagans, heretics, Arminians, Lutherans, Socinians, and atheists. Finally, and this is where his heart for the Lord really shines through, PVM makes special attempts to apply the doctrine at hand to the heart and life of his readers; often speaking to students and ministers, but never straying too far from the lives of common, everyday Christian believers. Each of these is necessary to doing Christian theology, and as I read, I often thought about how this fourfold method would preach and teach well in the church chancel or seminary classroom. It seems like such a wise way to articulate doctrine in this method, and I can imagine myself preaching sermons or teaching lessons with this fourfold method in the future.

As I said above, I have not yet finished the work–and will have several more volumes to go to do so–but it is already endearing itself to me as an especially heart-felt, Biblical, and practical work of Reformed theology. Jonathan Edwards certainly liked it. We know this was Edwards’s favorite book because he wrote in a letter to Joseph Bellamy, dated January 15, 1747, the following words:

As to the books you speak of: Mastricht is sometimes in one volume, a very thick, large quarto; sometimes in two quarto volumes. I believe it could not be had new under eight or ten pounds. Turretin is in three volumes in quarto, and would probably be about the same price.1 They are both excellent. Turretin is on polemical divinity; on the Five Points, and all other controversial points; and is much larger in these than Mastricht; and is better for one that desires only to be thoroughly versed in controversies. 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. (WJEO 16:217).



Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought by Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel


A new and significant work on Jonathan Edwards has just come out, thanks to our good friends at Eerdman’s publishing. This new edition is the mutual brainchild of Edwards scholars Oliver C. Crisp (Fuller Seminary) and Kyle C. Strobel (Biola University), each of which has been interviewed here at in the past. This new work is an attempt to provide an overview of the thought of the great Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards.

Regular followers of this site will perhaps already be aware of some of the individual contributions of Strobel and Crisp (see book list below) and this new combined effort seeks to provide an overview of Edwards’ overall theological trajectory. Some key doctrines explored in this text include Edwards’ views on the Trinity, Creation, and the Atonement. Readers of Crisp in particular will not be surprised to see the concepts of idealism, occasionalism, and continuous creation treated in his contributory sections.

Book Links Mentioned in Video Review Above:
Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought

The Case for Christ

Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation

Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation

Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians

Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia

Formed for the Glory of God

After Jonathan Edwards

Book Review – A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards: Continuous Creation and Christology, by S. Mark Hamilton

S. Mark Hamilton has written a very exceptional and handy new volume on the metaphysics of Jonathan Edwards, especially as regards his somewhat unusual ideas of continuous creation and idealism, and their respective relationship to Christology.

Entitled, “A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards: Continuous Creation and Christology,” this work is published by the emerging new leader in Edwards publication projects, JESociety Press. Before we get to a review of the book itself, we should take a moment to note what a good thing this is for Edwards scholarship in general.

Having a press that is devoted to Edwards alone is a marvelous thing. This means that it can be small, nimble, and tightly focused on projects that advance our specialized field. JESociety Press plans to remain concentrated on publishing new projects by both respected scholars and emerging new writers alike for the tailored audience that eagerly anticipates them. While bigger publishers like Crossway do gobble up manuscripts on Edwards from time to time, they are not always as willing to give more technical treatises like the one being considered in this review the availability they deserve.

Moreover, JESociety Press, with this volume as a first foray, is also introducing a new line of monographs entitled “A Series of Treatises on Jonathan Edwards.” This new lineup promises to give readership “lively, assessable and in-depth treatments of Edwards-specific subject matter.” Each of these new volumes is also promised to be concise (Continuous Creation is only around 100 pages), which I believe will make these books all the more valuable. Hamilton

S. Mark Hamilton’s own learned contribution to Edwards scholarship on continuous creation (pictured: right) comes with high recommendations from Gerald McDermott, Douglas Sweeney, Sam Storms, and Oliver Crisp (his doctoral adviser), so my hopes were high for this volume. Thankfully it did not disappoint me in any way. Actually, even the very Forward by Crisp had me intrigued; here the esteemed professor at Fuller Seminary admits that his student will be challenging some of his own ideas within. Drama!

Crisp also admits that the concepts contained herein by his student are heavy and rank among some of the great thoughts that can be entertained by the human mind. As I delved in to the introduction, I considered myself duly warned.

In the beginning of the work, Hamilton introduces the reader to the concept of Edwards’ idea of continuous creation; that is, that God is constantly re-creating the universe at every instant, which is akin to His sustaining the universe (Colossians 1:15-17). Rather than creating just once, and then letting the universe spin (so the enlightenment machinists), Edwards has an idea that God is always and constantly recreating everything that is. But this idea, if accepted, comes with some tangential “baggage” that likewise must be toted to keep the concept coherent. Thus, in order to make this view hold together (note: Hamilton is not arguing a defense of continuous creation; he is only trying to help readers understand Edwards more clearly) he will have to dig into related areas that this notion of continuous creation may affect.

On page 11, Hamilton gives the outline for the book. First, he will deal with the fact that Edwards held to some form of immaterialism. That is to say, the universe is actually a product of God’s uncreated mind, and all else that “is,” consists of either created minds with the power to perceive, or else the mental impressions that God places upon those minds. As I understand it, Edwards’ believes that the universe is somewhat like the movie the Matrix, with reality somehow impressed into the minds of God’s intelligent creatures, all the while they perceive that they are actually “there.” This chair that I am sitting on as I write is not really here. My created mind perceives it to be there; but there is no “stuff” below me. All that exists in Edwards’ metaphysical world is the Uncreated Mind of God impressing ideas into our created minds.

But this is all not so simple. What do we make of time itself? Does it progress? Is it eternally present to God? Does it lapse moment by moment? Does the past still “exist” once it is gone, or is it destroyed? All of these questions, Hamilton tries to explain in his second chapter on time, a view which he calls “stage theory.” In the third chapter, Hamilton deals with occasionalism which is the idea that God is the sole causal factor in all that transpires in the universe. Hamilton does not think that Edwards believes God needs to recreate the lesser created minds instant by instant, but he does argue that the percepts given by God to those minds are in a constant state of being “updated” through God’s direct agency. And while all of these things are interesting enough on their own, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is in the Christology of Jonathan Edwards.

Here we see the subtitle of the work coming into full effect, “Continuous Creation and Christology.” True enough, if the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests that the Son of God took on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this opens up quite a few other questions about Edwards’ metaphysics: What of Jesus’ physical body? Does it possess physicality (material) outside of its “idea,” or does it too exist as an impression from the Uncreated Mind (God) to the created minds of men? And even more startling, we must ask, what about the mind of Jesus of Nazareth itself; is it created or uncreated? Does the human mind of Jesus of Nazareth need be constantly recreated? If Jesus is to be truly incarnate as a human being, he must exist in his humanity in the same way as all human creations do, right? And yet this is made quite a bit more complex still by the fact that the Son is also eternal and timeless; begotten by the Father. The reader is challenged to work through these complex questions alongside Hamilton as he considers each one in turn.

When Hamilton is working through Edwards’ first hand materials, he is primarily doing work in his Miscellanies and his book Original Sin. It is in the latter that we see his doctrine of continuous creation explained most fully, and in the former that Edwards talks about such ideas as idealism and occasionalism freely. There are moments when Hamilton, in order to explain what Edwards likely thought, is somewhat forced to make conjectures and leaps to fill in that gaps that are not fully explained by Edwards himself in his extant writings. Of course, he rigorously works through the relevant literature, and especially interacts with Crisp in the footnotes.

Since the book is short, the reader moves through these questions a bit fast. Perhaps too fast at times, although Hamilton tries to give the reader enough illustrations and examples to keep his or her mind focused on the topic at hand. Several times, just when my focus was about to “tap out” from mental perplexity, Hamilton would give just the right illustration that helped me to jump back on board and cling on a bit longer. Readers will find themselves preserved from mental fatigue by helpful handholds such as the recurring “cupcake” illustration (p. 32-33), a Monet painting reference (page 38), an illustration of an actor watching himself on film (p. 40), a memorable old-school slide projector (p. 56) and so on.  The constant use of these illustrations gives the reader the assurance of “Okay, I’m still with you!”

Without giving too many spoilers, Hamilton holds that Edwards does have a coherent view of continuous creation that sustains challenges from other problematic issues related to Christology. Edwards’ view of immaterialism is that the universe consists of minds and ideas only. He holds that the ideas must be constantly recreated, but not the minds. This prevents him from having to admit that the created mind of Jesus of Nazareth (as distinct from the uncreated mind of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity) need be remade continually. This makes Edwards, in Hamilton’s view an “immaterial realist.” Thus, Hamilton concludes the following propositions can be discerned in Edwards’ metaphysics:

  • The humanity of Jesus is a real substance, composed of an immaterial mind and a body composed entirely of ideas presented to Him by the Spirit
  • The mind of Jesus persists through time by enduring moment-to-moment whereas the body of Jesus, like all other perceptible objects, is continuously created and re-presented ex nihilo to the mind of Jesus (p. 92-93).

The book does get embroiled in quite a bit of jargon. Each chapter introduces new terms to the reader that must be considered before one or the other is finally preferred by the author. Is time discreet or dense? We must become familiar with fusion theory and fission theory. Neophytes will struggle to keep up with terms like idealism, occasionalism, substances, minds, immaterialism etc. Readers may do well to keep the new Edwards Encyclopedia close at hand. Thus, the constant introduction of new terms may give some uninitated readers the sense of playing “catch up” throughout the book. On the other hand, the brevity, clarity, and illustrations of the book make it an attainable read for all who are interested to go further into Edwards’ somewhat idiosyncratic thoughts on metaphysics.



Edwards Encyclopedia Preview

Forthwith, the world’s first look at the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (pre-order this volume here), edited by Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Adriaan C. Neele (Eerdmans, 2017). The edition shown in the video below is not the final version, but is rather an advanced, uncorrected proof provided by the good folks at Eerdmans Publishing. The hardback edition will be released in November of this year, and will weigh in at well over 700 pages. It will likely be the definitive one volume reference work on Jonathan Edwards for decades to come. Contributing authors include: Robert L. Boss, Jonathan S. Marko, Oliver Crisp, Joel Beeke, Sean Michael Lucas, Thomas S. Kidd, Rhys S. Bezzant, Jeffery C. Waddington and many more.


Video Book Review: Meet the Puritans (Beeke & Pederson)

Today, is having a look at the excellent volume entitled Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson. This is a wonderful compendium that introduces Edwardseans and other interested readers to the lives and the writings of the great Puritans of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Book Review – “Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts,” by Toby K. Easley

You have probably already heard something of Jonathan Edwards’s reputation as a preacher. It has been said that Edwards was a drab manuscript reader who held his notes just a few inches from his face. It has been said that when he did look up occasionally from his ink-quill notes, the famed Puritan held his gaze unflinchingly, fixed upon the bell rope, dangling helplessly near the back of the plain-style church.

You may have even gone on to actually read many of Edwards’s long-form sermon manuscripts, and wondered whether you wouldn’t have been bored nearly to death yourself listening in the Northampton Church for hours upon end! And yet somehow this man was used as a spark in one of the greatest revivals in the history of our young nation, in the Great Awakening (1740-1742).

So, how do we reconcile the fact that Edwards has a reputation as a mere dissertation reciter (apparently bringing no more panache and flare into the pulpit than a court-stenographer), with the fact that Edwards is also the famed fire-and-brimstone herald of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which shook its hearers to the ground in Enfield Connecticut?

This is the challenge that Dr. Toby K. Easley (D.Min, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) tackles in his new book Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts.  Simply stated, Dr. Easley  seeks to discover whether Jonathan Edwards ever progressed as a preacher. Did he get better as he aged? Could he ever put away the notes? Did he ever go “off script”? Could he ever set aside his well-prepared treatises and simply let fly from the sacred desk?

In other words, did Edwards ever go “beyond the manuscripts?”


In this exceptionally well-written work, Easley argues that, yes, Edwards did progress as a preacher. He did learn new ways to articulate his well-formulated and richly ornate sermons. Throughout this work, Easley traces the personal development of Jonathan Edwards as a preacher and homiletician. To do so, Easley monitors closely three factors: (1) First Edwards’s personal biography. Dr. Easley guides us through the chronological events which shaped Edwards as a preachers. (2) Second, Easley interacts with some of the sermons themselves as pieces of oratory and rhetoric, examining and comparing their content. (3) Third – and this is what makes the book relentlessly fascinating – Easley personally combed through many of the sermon manuscript notebooks themselves, looking for clues as to how Edwards progressed (or stagnated?) as a preacher and orator. To do so, Easley ventured to Yale’s Beinecke Library to study them firsthand. In fact, as readers will see, Easley identifies five stages through which Edwards progressed as a pulpiteer.

The following are the handful of stages (in this reviewer’s own words) which Dr. Easley identifies in Jonathan Edwards as a developing preacher. Many readers will find that they too have tread some of the same ground ourselves over the years.

1. The Listener. Edwards began his preaching career far before he ever wrote a sermon or entered a pulpit. Most preachers do. He began as a sermon hearer. As the son of another Puritan divine of note, Timothy Edwards, and the grandson of the famed preacher Solomon Stoddard (who by the way, eschewed notes and advocated for impassioned and informed extemporaneous sermons), young Jonathan learned what a sermon ought to sound like far before he ever preached one. His own father’s methodology probably influenced his work from an early age, and Edwards’s penchant for accuracy, depth, and clarity likely bound him to well-structured written forms from early on.

2. The Manuscript Addict. In his earliest stages of sermon manuscripting, Edwards wrote his thoughts out in the fullest possible way. This would prove to become a difficult, but not impossible, habit for Edwards to break. He clearly preferred thinking his thoughts out in long form before entering the pulpit to address God’s people in the church. His other writings such as his Miscellanies bear this truth out. He thought pen in hand, and couldn’t help it. His early stages of preaching in New York, Bolton, and Northampton show sermons that most closely resemble written treatises: full, precise, and well-ordered. Early on, Edwards began with the standard Puritan sermon order of Text, Doctrine, and Application (Use), and would hardly deviate from this for the rest of his life. This stage of full manuscripting would continue, for the most part, throughout the 1720’s and 1730’s.

3. The Experimenter.  As Edwards further progressed in his career, he began using some modifications to the full-manuscript form. This may have been motivated by his desire to excel in the areas that his grandfather Stoddard had excelled, namely in delivery, and it may also have been encouraged by the shortage of paper, which Edwards consumed ravenously for all of his writing projects. He began using some abbreviations, and even symbols to convey words and even fuller thoughts. For instance, he uses a circle with a dot in the middle to represent “the world.” Or an X for Christ, or a concept related to Christology.

We should be very clear here: Edwards never did fully throw away the full-manuscript format, even as he sought to make his manuscripts more “user friendly” for delivery. Arched, horizontal lines across the duodecimal sized handmade notebooks, often served as visual cues, marking major sections. Some words were printed in all capitals to stand out and help summarize entire paragraphs while preaching. These flourishes were helpful for those moments when the preacher utilizes extempore expressions, and then returns to his notes to recover his bearing. Sermons for funerals or public occasions (preaching for the Boston clergy, for instance) continued to be written out in full hand however.

4. The Whitefield Admirer: A major leap seems to have happened in Edwards’s thinking about homiletics when George Whitefield came to town. In Whitefield, Edwards saw firsthand just how powerful oratory can be, when the preacher does not use prepared notes, but instead delivers the sermon from memory. Eye contact, easy of expression, natural speech – all seemed more powerful from Whitefield’s noteless exhortations. From this point on, Edwards appears to have been convicted to some degree about the deficiencies of his own preaching, perhaps hearing the now-gone voice of his Grandfather Stoddard echoing in his mind as well. Though he could not quite fully ditch the manuscripts, this period after 1740 begins to show evidence that Edwards tried harder and harder to make his notes briefer and more portable for pulpit delivery. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, for instance exists in two extant forms: one which is written in full, and another which exists in a bare minimal outline form.

5. The Mature Orator: The final stage of development took place, according to Dr. Easley, after Edwards left Northampton and began preaching to the Indians at Stockbridge. Here, he had to balance two different congregations; one English speaking and the other a Native American congregation through an interpreter. In this stage, Edwards re-preached prior sermons, and simplified many others as he worked on his major works such as Freedom of the Will. Commonly, he dropped technical terms and adopted illustrations from nature, hunting, and the broader human experience. The very nature of these congregations almost forced Edwards to learn new ways to communicate besides his well-tailored manuscript recitations.

If I might interject my own thoughts at this point – I wonder what would have happened if Edwards had gone to Stockbridge before Northampton? If he had learned to preach the simpler before the more complex? Would his time with the Mahicans have enabled him to speak more comfortably to his Colonial audience as he developed greater confidence in a more natural or free-speaking manner? We can only guess. God’s sovereignty ordered Edwards’s life as it has unfolded in our history books, and Stockbridge would be the conclusion to his career rather than the beginning.

Interestingly, Easley tells us the story of the time that Edwards – close to the time of his death – lectured for the students at Princeton holding them spellbound for nearly two hours. According to eyewitnesses, the time passed as if it was but a few moments. Edwards was riveting. As the eager young students consumed Edwards’s rich teaching, we can only wonder what it would have been like to see and hear Jonathan Edwards in his “prime,” confident, mature, and completely competent; having learned to preach in various settings with masterly control. Sadly, there are no recordings of Edwards, and we have only the eyewitness accounts and the manuscripts to help us. History tells us that Edwards died only a few weeks into his tenure as college president.

Overall, Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts is excellent.

Throughout, it contains applications for modern preachers learning our sacred art of exhortation. Dr. Easley gives many and varied suggestions for his pulpiteering readers, and one just may find some notable similarities between Edwards’s preaching journey and his own. To find one fault in this work, I could wonder why more pictures where not included of the manuscripts themselves. Easley describes them capably enough, but I often found myself asking, “I wonder what that manuscript looked like!” Only two pictures of the manuscripts themselves are included in the back, and I would have liked to see firsthand what some of Edwards’s sermons looked like, particularly in his outlining periods. But this is only a minor critique, and the book certainly excels this one flaw.

Perhaps many of us too, would do well to consider Jonathan Edwards’s journey as we press on to go “beyond the manuscripts.”