The Christian's Reasonable Service
à Brakel's Objective in Writing this Work: To Minister to the Congregation
à Brakel's objective in writing this work was straightforward: to instruct and edify the congregation of the Lord. In this work we hear the heartbeat of one who was consumed with love for Christ and His church and who deemed it to be his singular calling to be a faithful pastor to His flock. This explains why à Brakel does not claim to have presented a ground-breaking treatment of Reformed theology--and indeed, his work is not a systematic theology in the classic sense of the word. It is more than a systematic treatment of theology: It is experiential systematic theology.
That this was à Brakel's intent is evident from the subtitle, in which he expressed that De Redelijke Godsdienst is a work "in which divine truths concerning the covenant of grace are expounded, defended against opposing parties, and their practice advocated [emphasis mine]." In other words, what à Brakel presents in this work is applied theology. The theology he presents is a living, experiential theology. One does not need to read long in this work to detect its warmth and spiritual vibrancy. Therein lies the secret of the success and prevailing influence of this work. à Brakel speaks the language of Scripture from and to the heart.
Its importance was therefore recognized soon after it was published (though à Brakel initially had difficulty finding a publisher). F.J. Los comments: "Being founded upon God's Word, Brakel's work has become the most popular dogmatics of the Reformed in the Netherlands."
As of today, at least twenty-six editions have been published in the Dutch language, to which must be added a translation into the German language and the recently published four-volume English translation, entitled The Christian's Reasonable Service. Never could à Brakel have anticipated that his work would be so widely received and would exert its influence until this very day--much less that this work would become available to the English-speaking world. Stoeffler makes a striking observation in this regard:
It is not difficult to see why this extensive treatment of Christian theology was most highly regarded by Reformed Pietists. All the subjects dear to their hearts were treated fully, and each carefully balanced with all the other, the whole having only one aim, namely, the promotion of godliness. The words of scripture and what could logically be deduced therefrom were regarded as the sole basis for any valid assertion. The preciseness of Lodensteyn and Voetius were combined with the lush mysticism of the older Teellinck and the older Brakel. The knowledge of the renowned Coccejus was drawn upon for purposes of interpreting God's dealings with his Church, and that of the famous Witsius in the interpretation of the covenant and of saving faith. All the Pietists on both sides of the channel had ever thought and said was here summarized and put in the language of the people. It is safe to assume that had it not been for the language barrier the younger Brakel would have achieved the distinction of being one of the outstanding Pietistic theologians in Europe and America [emphasis mine].
In the preface of this work, à Brakel expresses the wish that he could preach to all of the Netherlands, and even to all the world. He therefore rejoiced in the invention of the printing press which, by way of the printed word, enabled him to reach every Dutchman with the truth he yearned to preach. His wish has been fulfilled beyond what he could have anticipated. Stoeffler's prophetic assumption is presently being validated!
Since the value of this work is for a considerable part due to the experiential application of the truths it sets forth, let us briefly consider the experiential dimension of De Redelijke
The Experiential Dimension of this Work
In selecting the words of Romans 12:1 as the basis for his title, à Brakel not only wished to indicate that it is an entirely reasonable matter for man to serve the God who has so graciously revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ by means of His Word, but he primarily wished to convey that God demands from man that he serve Him in spirit and truth, doing so in an intelligent, reasonable, and godly manner.
This brings us at once to the heart of the matter. à Brakel wrote this work for church members--not for theologians, though it was his wish that they benefit from it as well. This explains why his work is permeated with practical application of the doctrines he expounds. In a masterful way he establishes the crucial relationship between objective truth and the subjective experience of that truth. He first establishes a solid biblical foundation for each doctrine with which he deals, quoting profusely from the Scriptures. His selection of quotes is an impressive feature of this work, proving he had a profound grasp of the Scriptures. This scripturalness is rationally reinforced by his frequent resorting to the scholastic method to validate his positions.
As a man taught of God, he ably defined and described Christian experience in biblical terms. The undeniably mystical flavor of this work represents biblical mysticism at its best--a Spirit-wrought mysticism that fully harmonizes with the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. This explains at once why Jesus Christ truly has the preeminence in this work. It is the Logos, Jesus Christ, who is the very marrow of God's Word and every doctrine contained in it. It is therefore self-evident that in the subjective experience of this Word, Jesus Christ also has the preeminence. No wonder then that this work brims with references to Him whom the Father has given a name above every name. For à Brakel the name of Jesus is sweeter than honey; you can almost sense the inner stirrings of his soul when he exalts Jesus as the Father's unspeakable gift to fallen sons and daughters of Adam.
The rich experiential applications found at the conclusion of each doctrinal chapter in the first two volumes make this work invaluable and pastoral. à Brakel was first and foremost a pastor who made his theological acumen subservient to the glory of God and the spiritual welfare of His church. In writing this work, à Brakel practiced what he advised all ministers to do. In chapter 28 he writes: "He [the minister] ought to use all his scholarship to formulate the matters to be presented, in order that he might express them in the clearest and most powerful manner. While using his scholarship, however, he must conceal his scholarship in the pulpit." When necessary, however, he will cause his scholarship to bear on an argument, thereby proving himself to be a qualified theologian.
The General Outline of this Work: The Six Loci of Reformed Systematic Theology
Even though the covenant of grace is the dominant theme and organizing principle of De Redelijke Godsdienst, the outline of à Brakel's devotional systematic theology follows the order of the six loci of Reformed systematic theology, which by that time had become the accepted structural framework for the presentation of Reformed doctrine. In examining the table of contents (see appendix), one will observe, however, that approximately sixty percent of his work is devoted to soteriology. If we consider that applications found at the end of nearly every chapter in his treatment of the first three loci are soteriological in nature, we could conclude from the table of contents alone that the experience of doctrine in the heart, and the outworking thereof in one's life, is the dominant theme of this work.
Though the scholastic structure of this work as such is not as pronounced as one would find for instance in the systematic theology of Francis Turretin, à Brakel's doctrinal chapters do have a scholastic flavor, as he uses the polemical objection/rebuttal and question/answer approach to bring important issues into focus. He uses this approach especially to define the truth sharply against the background of the frontburner issues of his day: Cocceianism, Labadism, and Roman Catholicism. Even when he uses this approach, however, one cannot help but detect the beating of a pastoral heart in the answers he gives. His overriding goal is to edify and build up the saints in their most holy faith.
This possibly explains why à Brakel unconventionally deals with ecclesiology before soteriology. Against the background of the Labadistic controversy and the pernicious influence of Anabaptism, à Brakel was leery of the individualism, unbiblical mysticism, and denial of the organic nature of the church that was infecting the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. This, along with the covenantal theme of De Redelijke Godsdienst, may have motivated him to define the church in Biblical terms as the divine organism in which the Spirit applies the work of Christ, thereby adding living stones to His spiritual temple. This prominence of the church in the divine operations in the hearts of men appears to be implied in the words of Psalm 87 that the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than the individual dwellings of Jacob. Strange and unbiblical practices prevailed in à Brakel's days, making the doctrine of the church a matter of paramount importance to him. à Brakel was first and foremost a pastor, and this makes it rather likely that he made theological considerations subservient to pastoral concerns.
Source: Bartel Elshout, The Pastor and Practical Theology of Wilhelmus à Brakel (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997), 20-24).