Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Preface" to Wilhelmus à Brakel's The Christian's Reasonable Service

Those acquainted with Dutch Reformed orthodoxy will know that the name of Wilhelmus à Brakel is among the most venerated of the theologians representing the Dutch Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie) period which is similar to and coincides with English Puritanism. This veneration is largely due to the profound influence of his magnum opus De Redelijke Godsdienst, now being made available in English for the first time as The Christian’s Reasonable Service.
The importance of this work was recognized soon after its publication in 1700. Even though à Brakel had great difficulty finding a publisher for the initial edition (finally finding a Roman Catholic publisher!) his work was in demand within a very short time. New and improved editions soon followed, twenty in the eighteenth century alone. The respect for à Brakel was such that he was commonly referred to as “Father Brakel,” a title not only expressive of high esteem but also of the authority he commanded and the influence he exerted. He is still known today in the Netherlands by this honorary title. It ought therefore to be self-evident that Father Brakel is considered one of the fathers of the Reformed tradition to be found in present day orthodox Reformed circles in the Netherlands.
One of à Brakel’s contemporaries, Abraham Hellenbroek, who spoke of his friend as being a man of tender and intimate piety, recognized the importance of this work when he stated in almost prophetical terms that this work was so valuable that it would transcend the passage of time. We trust that the very fact that this work is now being made available to the English-speaking world will assist in validating these words.
To provide one practical illustration of the influence of this work in the Netherlands which now spans nearly three centuries, we wish to relate an incident from the life of the Rev. G. H. Kersten, the founder of the denomination (the Gereformeerde Gemeenten—the Netherlands Reformed Congregations) which has initiated and undertaken the translation and publication of this


classic. When Rev. Kersten was approximately twelve years old, his parents discovered that their young son, in whose heart the Lord had begun a saving work, was reading regularly far beyond midnight. In order to keep himself awake, he placed his feet in a basin filled with cold water. What book was it that so captivated the mind and heart of this young seeker after God? à Brakel’s Redelijke Godsdienst. When asked by his parents why he sacrificed his sleep to read this weighty book which was well beyond the level of twelve-year-olds, he responded, “I must know how the Lord converts His people.” The reading of these volumes clearly placed a stamp upon the writings and entire ministry of Rev. Kersten.
Why is it that à Brakel’s work is one of the true classics of the Dutch Second Reformation? Why has this work been so influential? Why do we trust that The Christian’s Reasonable Service will be a valuable addition to the rich heritage of post-Reformation orthodoxy?
The uniqueness of à Brakel’s work lies in the fact that it is more than a systematic theology. His selection of the title is already an indication that it was not merely his intention to present a systematic explanation of Christian dogma to the public. 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 His Creator 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 in 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 this work is permeated with practical application of the doctrines he so thoroughly explains. à Brakel’s intent in writing is inescapable: He intensely wished that the truths expounded may become an experiential reality in the hearts of those who read. 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, by quoting profusely from the Scriptures. You will find his selection of quotes to be a most impressive feature of this work, proving he had a profound grasp of the Scriptures and their comprehensive context. This scripturalness is rationally reinforced by his frequent resorting to the scholastic method to validate his positions.
As a man taught of God, he very 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.
These 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 astute theological acumen entirely 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 theologian par excellence.
In reading this work, one cannot but be struck by its kinship with English Puritan literature. This is particularly evident in the third and fourth volumes which are devoted almost entirely to the life of sanctification. As is true for the Puritans, à Brakel was a most able physician of souls. How ably he proves himself to be a divine intimately acquainted with spiritual life and all its vicissitudes! The chapters pertaining to sanctification particularly validate Hellenbroek’s observation that à Brakel was a man of tender, intimate piety. Like the Puritans, he makes it unmistakably clear that godliness is a scriptural vindication that we have experienced the truth in our souls. Inward experience manifests itself outwardly in true piety. à Brakel does not leave us in the dark as to what he understands the Christian life to be. We believe it will be difficult to find a work in English devotional literature which spells out the nature of true holiness as specifically and meticulously as à Brakel does.
The obvious similarity between à Brakel’s writings, which represent the cream of Dutch Second Reformation literature, and Puritan literature is highly significant. It proves that the Puritans and the Dutch Second Reformation divines (sometimes referred to as


the Dutch Puritans) were essentially cut from the same cloth. It will be difficult to find essential differences in Christian experience between à Brakel and such English Puritans as John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and John Bunyan. The divines of the Dutch Second Reformation have translated literally hundreds of English Puritans into Dutch, recommending them warmly to their congregations. The Dutch Second Reformation was greatly indebted to English Puritanism for a wealth of sound experiential material. On the other hand, few writings of Dutch Second Reformation divines were translated into English. The translation of à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service is an initial attempt to redress an imbalance of several centuries.
To acquaint the English reader somewhat with à Brakel’s life and times, as well as provide him with an overview of the Dutch Second Reformation, we have included the following in this volume:
(1) A translation of the applicable portion of Theodorus à Brakel, Wilhelmus à Brakel, en Sara Nevius (Houten: Den Hertog, 1988), authored by Dr. W. Fieret and A. Ros. Dr. Fieret is the author of the Wilhelmus à Brakel biography;
(2) A slightly revised appendix to Assurance of Faith: Calvin, English Puritanism, and the Dutch Second Reformation, by Joel R. Beeke (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), entitled: The Dutch Second Reformation (De Nadere Reformatie).
Hopefully, the translation of à Brakel’s work in four volumes (volumes 2, 3, and 4 should be available within a year, D.V.) will initiate in some small measure the merger of the rich heritages of the two premier experiential movements of the post-Reformation period: English Puritanism and the Dutch Second Reformation. Orthodox Reformed circles in the Netherlands have enjoyed this privilege already for centuries and have witnessed divine approbation upon these writings.
May God grant that the publication of this work will enhance the ongoing proliferation of Reformed experiential writings throughout the world. May this phenomenon prove to be preliminary to a Spirit-worked revival of lukewarm, famished Christianity. Then the vital Christianity à Brakel promotes throughout this work will again flourish and adorn the church of Jesus Christ. May David’s cry therefore be ours, “O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee: my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see Thy power and Thy glory, so as I have seen Thee in the sanctuary” (Ps 63:1-2). To that end may we pray without ceasing to the God of the covenant of grace—a covenant that has such a central place in this work—


crying out with the bride, “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my Beloved come into His garden, and eat His pleasant fruits” (Song 4:16).

Joel R. Beeke
Bartel Elshout

Source: Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 1, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1992), xix-xxiii.

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