by Brian Carpenter
We live in a time of tremendous abundance as far as sound theological literature is concerned, and for that we ought to be grateful. It was not always so. The church almost lost several centuries of the most helpful theological works imaginable. As the only minister in the family, I have inherited my Grandmother’s theological library, such as it was. When I look at what she had available to her in the 1940s and 1950s, I am dismayed. About the best she could do was the Barclay’s Commentaries and the Abingdon Bible Dictionary. But Barclay was a theological liberal who didn’t believe in the Resurrection or in miracles, and the Abingdon Bible Dictionary represented the dominance of theological liberalism in the mainline churches of the day. Good theology was far harder to come by. For instance, Martyn Lloyd Jones was instrumental in pulling together a theological lending library in the 1930’s and 1940’s in order to preserve old copies of Puritan works so that they could be rediscovered by pastors and scholars. Many of these volumes were well over 100 years old then. One had to travel to London to read some of them, as they were not allowed to leave the building. He also helped found the Banner of Truth Trust in 1957, in order to make modern reprints of these books available.
One of the very best of the Dutch works now available through the labors of Reformation Heritage is Wilhelmus a Brakel’s four-volume systematic theology, The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Brakel was, first and foremost, a pastor, and his concern for the sheep flowed easily from his pen. This is theology written for laypeople. These are the words of a man who wanted his readers to know the Lord and His Word more intimately. He wanted his readers to walk in all godliness and zeal for the faith once delivered to the saints. The more abstract theology is explained with clarity, and practical advice is available in abundance here. These volumes formed the basis for much of the family worship and instruction in Dutch families for two hundred years. Brakel became known, lovingly, as “Father Brakel” by the Dutch for this very reason.
One of the problems with some of the English and American works stems from the fact that the English language has radically changed in the last four hundred years. Old works written in the older style of English must be “translated” into more modern English. Sometimes it’s hard to know how far to go in this modernization process. This is an ongoing problem that the publishers of these works wrestle with on a regular basis.
However, this problem is happily absent in the case of The Christian’s Reasonable Service. These works are modern translations of the Dutch, footnoted where necessary to retain some old Dutch colloquialism (such as the phrase “grease makes stains,” for instance). Most of the Scripture quotations are in the King James Version, which helps retain some of the correspondence between what Brakel is asserting and the Scriptures he cites. I’ve tried plugging in some of the modern translations just for fun, and it doesn’t work. I see why Dr. Beeke elected to cite the older translation.
Volumes One and Two contain discussions of all of the traditional topics of theology, which are explained with an admirable simplicity, always with an eye towards the practical implications of the more abstract doctrines. Anyone who masters the information in these will be admirably outfitted with a firm grasp of the basic framework of Reformed doctrine and theology.
Volumes Three and Four are, by far, my favorites. Brakel has an excellent section discussing the Ten Commandments, and I highly recommend his explorations of the Fourth Commandment. They are probably more edifying than anything I’ve read on the Sabbath, and give a good deal of the history of Sabbath-keeping in the early church. For example, Brakel asserts that one of the ways that the ancient Christians were identified by their enemies was by their Sabbath observance. Incidentally, his treatments of the Sabbath put to rest much of the nonsense about differences between the “Continental” and the “English” Sabbath observance. There are almost no discernible differences between the Dutch Sabbath observance and that of the English and the Scots.
Brakel also gives practical advice on godly living. Indeed, this is where he shines the brightest. He gives advice on fasting, spiritual meditation, singing, loving Christ, loving God, praying, dealing with temptation, coping with despair, making your calling and election sure, mortifying your flesh, and many other such topics. He is stout and sound and yet warm and approachable. I find it to be a most compelling combination.
Another minister in my presbytery and I have made it our practice to give a set to each new minister who comes to our presbytery. Any minister who reads and understands Calvin, Hodge, Turretin, and Brakel will really be a well-armed man as far as systematic theology is concerned.
But I think this is also a set of books that every Christian should own, not just pastors. And they should not merely adorn your bookshelf, but rather they should be close and constant companions as you walk the straight and narrow road of the gospel-driven life. They will give you much help on your journey to your true home. The cost is less than $25 per volume when you buy as a set. That is very reasonable for hardback books of this size. Do yourself a favor; forgo a couple of nice restaurant meals and buy this set of books instead. It will be a feast for your soul.
Get your copy of The Christian's Reasonable Service from the Reformation Bookstore.
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