Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
We may not have read his works, and we may not even have heard of him, but that says much more about us than it does about him. Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) is one of the most outstanding and influential theologians of the Dutch Second Reformation (c. 1600-1750). His magnum opus, a major work of systematic theology entitled De Redelijke Godsdienst, originally published in 1700, went through some twenty editions in the eighteenth century alone and is now available in English as The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Joel Beeke calls this his “desert island book”: if you’re stranded on a desert island and have only your Bible and one other book, this should be it!
Why title a work on systematic theology, “The Christian’s Reasonable Service”? Well, if you have at all caught the spirit of the Dutch Second Reformation, as it is called, it makes perfect sense: God’s self-revelation rightly understood inevitably compels the redeemed heart to serve him as the “reasonable” thing to do. Like the English Puritans the Dutch “Further Reformation” was marked by a zeal to see doctrine lived out and experienced in faithful service to God, and à Brakel’s compendium of Christian theology models this worthy goal famously. Taking his title from Romans 12:1 states his goal precisely.
Written not just for theologians but for those in the pew The Christian’s Reasonable Service is no bare display of theoretical teaching. Rich with learning it is indeed, and each next section reflects long, careful, informed consideration. But it breathes of worshipful devotion and faithful pastoral application also. This – systematic theology pastorally considered – is theology as it ought always to be done, and it was for centuries as popular in the world of the Dutch as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was in the English world. It often served as fathers’ reading material for their children in their daily devotions.
This pastoral intent is obvious from just a glance through the Table of Contents. The esteemed Dutchman covers all the major departments of theology, but all of volume 3 and much of volume 4 are given to an exposition of Christian living and practical godliness – the ten commandments, important Christian virtues (love, the fear of God, obedience, hope, contentment, self-denial, sincerity, patience, prayer, etc.), the Lord’s Prayer, spiritual exercises (fasting, watchfulness, secret prayer, meditation, singing, etc.), spiritual growth, temptation, spiritual deadness, perseverance, and so on. If this seems like imbalance, consider it a needed corrective. Little of this is seen in your typical Systematic Theology, but who could deny its rightful place? A pastor-theologian always, à Brakel unpacks the biblical teaching regarding the Christian life with precision and care.
Here are the opening lines of his first chapter:
The Knowledge of God from Nature
The title of this book, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, has been derived from Rom 12:1, “… which is your reasonable service.” Religion consists of four matters: 1) its foundation or basis, 2) its form or essence, 3) its regulative principle, and 4) its practical manifestation.
The Foundation of Religion
First, the foundation of religion is the character of God. The works of His omnipotence and benevolence are indeed reasons to stimulate man to serve God; however, they are not the basis for such service. This foundation is the very character of God. God possesses within Himself all glory and worthiness to be served, even if there were no creature. No creature could have its existence, except it be of Him and through Him. By its very existence the creature is obligated to God’s majesty to exist for the purpose of serving God, having its origin in Him and existing by virtue of His influence. If this creature is rational, then God, because He is God, obligates him who has been placed directly under his Creator to honor and serve God and devote his entire existence to Him. The character of God eternally obligates the creature, and therefore also man, to this. “Who would not fear Thee, O King of nations? For to Thee doth it appertain” (Jer 10:7); “Thou hast established the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinances: for all are Thy servants” (Ps 119:90-91).
The Form or Essence of Religion
Secondly, the form or essence of religion consists of man’s knowledge, recognition, and heart-felt endorsement of this binding obligation, which is to live unto God at all times and in all things with all that he is and is capable of performing. This is so because He is God and by virtue of His nature this is His worthy due. For this reason he willingly devotes and sacrifices himself unto God, surrendering himself to the service of God. He does so because He is his God, it is his obligation, and it constitutes his felicity. “O Lord, truly I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant” (Ps 116:16); “One shall say, I am the Lord’s; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord” (Isa 44:5).
This humble, worshipful tone continues throughout, and à Brakel’s approach is simple. With each next section he states the doctrine, then gives it fuller explanation with biblical support, then handles various objections, and finally gives some pertinent exhortations and applications. The method is effective and is strikingly reminiscent of the Puritans.
Volume 1 of this English edition begins with more than a hundred pages of introductory maters – a Biographical Sketch of the author, an informative historical overview of the Dutch Second Reformation, and à Brakel’s own Preface, “To the Congregation of God.” And volume 4 concludes with a lengthy Appendix, “The Administration of the Covenant of Grace in the Old and New Testaments,” which includes a discussion of typology and a surprisingly robust defense of the future conversion and restoration of Israel to her land – interesting not least in that no one would accuse Wilhelmus à Brakel of harboring dispensationalist sympathies!
Of course as a Baptist I find areas of à Brakel’s theology objectionable, particularly in areas of ecclesiology, covenant theology, and so on. And every reader will wish to tweak points here and there, of course. Yet, overall, all sides will find his expositions rich, informative, warm, and refreshing. Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service deserves the new life it receives in this publication. Especially valuable for historical theology, theological students of all stripes will profit deeply from this famous work.
Fred G. Zaspel is Executive Editor here at Books At a Glance.
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The Christian's Reasonable Service