19 December 2006

van mastricht and doctrinal diversity

I continue to read through various works of 17th century Reformed theology on a variety of topics. I hope to get back to some of the information on Suarez soon. In the meantime, a sidenote.

Peter Van Mastricht (1630-1706) was a German-Dutch theologian who studied at Utrecht under the tutelage of Gisbert Voetius and later taught there. Van Mastricht is probably best known for his Theologia Theoretico-Practica (1682-87), a comprehensive and infuential work that was translated into Dutch and won much acclaim (including that of Jonathan Edwards). In this way, Van Mastricht deeply shaped the experiential piety of the Nadere Reformation in the Netherlands, as well as larger currents of Reformed theology, even within English-speaking divinity from the late 17th century onward.

An excerpt from his Theologia Theoretico-Practica on the topic of regeneration has been translated into English and was first published in 1770, though it was re-issued in 2002 as A Treatise on Regeneration (SDG Press), edited by Brandon Withrow. Van Mastricht's treatment of regeneration is, in many respects, typical of the late 17th century and many aspects would be readily recognized, particularly the explanation of regeneration as an instantaneous introduction of a new principle of life into the heart by the Spirit, logically prior to faith.

I'm less interested in the details of Van Mastricht's account, however, as I am with how he interacts with views of Reformed theologians with whom he differs on matters of detail. In this regard, his treatment of regeneration in connection with infant baptism can serve as an example, as he recognizes that on that matter "the orthodox are divided" (52). He divides opinions into several categories.

First, there are those who, in the case of infants, "deny that regeneration can precede baptism" and thus the baptism of infants only "seals regeneration as future, when the elect infant shall arrive to the age of discretion, so as to be capable of faith and repentance" (52). Prominent in this connection, Van Mastricht mentions "the celebrated Amyraut" (should we refer to this now as the "Amyraldian view"?), though a similar position was held by a number of Puritans. Van Mastricht suggests that such a view may conflate regeneration "which bestows the spiritual life in the first act or principle (by which the infant is effectually enabled, when he arrives at the exercise of reason, to believe and repent), with conversion, which includes the actual exericses of faith and repentance" (52-3).

Second, there are those who "modestly declining to determine the point," leave the question of the timing of regeneration in relation to infant baptism up to "the sovereign will of God" (53). In this connection Van Mastricht cites Zanchius, Ames, and Spanheim. One can hardly object strenuously to such a view, though Van Mastricht's own views fall elsewhere.

Third, there are those Reformed orthodox who believe that "regeneration is effected at the very time of baptism" in infants, "ordinarily at least." In this connection he cites LeBlanc, as well as "the celebrated Peter Jurieu, Beza, and others" (53). He noted earlier that Reformed theologians are all fully agreed that there is no regenerating power in baptism itself (as some Catholics held) nor that the Spirit's work is tied to the administration of the sacrament in an absolutely inseparable way. As he notes later, it not sheer lack of baptism, but contempt of it, that is damning.

Fourth, there are those, incuding van Mastricht himself, who hold that "the baptism of infants...presupposes regeneration as already effected" and thus this prior regeneration is effectually sealed by baptism. He labels this a "common opinion" among the Reformed orthodox and judges it as the "most agreeable to truth" among the various options he enumerates (53).

Van Mastricht goes on to defend his position, appealing to various biblical texts, but also considering specific texts that seem to weigh against his own view. In doing so, however, Van Mastricht interacts primarily with the third position, which sees regeneration in infants as ordinarily tied to baptism. Some of his argument is directed at what he takes to be the views of Roman Catholics (seeing baptism itself as effecting regeneration) and Lutherans (seeing the Holy Spirit's regenerating work as confined to baptism). Yet he notes that the position contrary to his own, seeing baptism as the ordinary means of regeneration in infants, is held by "eminent men among the Reformed themselves," now adding the names of "Pareus, Davenant, Ward, and Forbes."

What is noteworthy to me in all of this is that Van Mastricht's presentation of the range of Reformed opinion is presented with care and even-handedness, never simply dismissing those views that had currency among various prominent Reformed divines, even when he disagrees with them. Moreover, while presenting his own views as "most agreeable" to Scripture, he gives alternative positions their due, recognizing them to have a reasonable basis in Scripture and theological reflection and presenting their proponents as "celebrated" and "eminent" figures fully within the bounds of "orthodox" Reformed thought.

This sort of disagreement and discussion strikes me as rightly modelling the way doctrinal differences should be handled within the broad boundaries of Reformed thought (or, indeed, even wider traditions) on matters of detail and ongoing reflection.