Translating Van Mastricht: An Interview with Dr. Todd Rester

On July 1, Dr. Todd M. Rester (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) will join the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary as associate professor of Church History. Dr. Rester has taught at Calvin Theological Seminary, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and Kuyper College. He has translated works by William Ames, Franciscus Junius, Abraham Kuyper, Wolfgang Musculus,  and Petrus Van Mastricht for organizations such as the Dutch Reformed Translation Society and the Acton Institute. In addition to serving as Director of the Junius Institute, he is a post-doctoral research fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast.

This June, Reformation Heritage Books released Volume 2 (“Faith in the Triune God”) of 7 volumes planned in the English translation of Petrus Van Mastricht’s classic systematic theology, Theoretical-Practical Theology. Dr. Rester generously agreed to discuss his translation of the project as well as his upcoming move to Philadelphia to join the faculty at Westminster.

Van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology is several hundred years old, and, until this translation, was unavailable in English. You’ve estimated that there are more than 1.5 million words to translate in the project. Why is a book like this worth the labor?

The simple answer is the content and the method. Mastricht’s work was published originally in 1698-99 in Latin and represented a theological system still committed to, for example, Scripture as the foundational and final authority, the classic Trinitarian and Christological formulae of Western Christianity, the Reformed confessions and covenant theology, and a vibrant emphasis on practical preaching.

The Dutch Reformed Translation Society and the project team, of which I am a part, has taken on Mastricht’s work because, I believe, it speaks to an urgent practical need arising from contemporary crises in basic Christian orthodoxy and in theological method. Often times theologians struggle to combine exegesis, doctrine, polemics, and practice in a clear and profitable way. Mastricht is a helpful voice not only for scholars but also profitable for pastors.

Why has it taken so long (a little more than 300 years) for an English translation to come about?

I do not think Mastricht’s influence has declined simply because of its publication in Latin. In the mid-eighteenth century several decades after his death it was also published in Dutch, which did prolong the work’s influence into the nineteenth century in the Netherlands. In America, Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries on the east coast in the early years of the American republic were familiar with Mastricht, and Latin editions can be found scattered in seminary library accession lists in the early 1800s. In North America, changing philosophical commitments and perspectives arising in a post-Enlightenment context as well as the rapid expansion of the American frontier, however, seem to me to explain why the work declined in influence.

Translation projects of this size are momentous affairs which take a high degree of purpose, will, and sacrificial investment by a community of people. It is a philanthropic gift to future students, pastors, scholars, and generations to come. One example of such an endeavor represented by an invested community would be the 19th c. Calvin Translation Society that gave us 54 volumes of English translation of Calvin’s Institutes, letters, and commentaries, which has served—and still serves in some measure—generations of pastors and scholars until a new translation or edition would surpass them.

In order to have a similar translation for Mastricht, there needs to be a similar level of focus and investment. It is a high credit to the Dutch Reformed Translation Society, its board and its invested community of supporters that this project team and translation have occurred. It takes a knowledge of the historical sources and a vision for subsequent generations to see such a task through to its completion.

Jonathan Edwards considered Theoretical-Practical Theology to be superior to Turretin’s Elenctic Theology; Cotton Mather recommended it as, next to the Bible, a pastor’s best reference. How do you account for the influence of this book at that time?

I think Mastricht’s emphasis on preaching, saving faith, and practical godliness as part of the theological method appealed to both Edwards and Mather. In fact, if you read Turretin’s preface carefully, even Turretin lamented that his work only handled the debated questions necessary for seminarians in their academic exams. Turretin thought that theology should have a fuller orbed character as well. And that is where Mastricht fills a gap in the systems available at the time. . .

Continue reading “Translating Van Mastricht” here.

Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 2: Faith in the Triune God is available for purchase through the Westminster Bookstore.