Translating Van Mastricht: An Interview with Dr. Todd Rester

June 03, 2019

by 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?

Mastricht is a helpful voice not only for scholars but also profitable for pastors.

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.

Mastricht fills a gap in the systems available at the time.

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?

Without a community that a translated text serves, there is no need for translation.

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.


What do you hope that ministers of the gospel will take away from Van Mastricht?

Mastricht earnestly believed faithful expository preaching of the Scriptures is the perennial need of the Church to lead people to saving faith in Christ. He was also confident that doctrine was for life, for assurance, for comfort, and for the equipping of the saints. If readers of these volumes gain a sense of that urgency and are kindled to a similar vision for their churches and communities, I think we could say job done.


You’ve worked extensively as a translator. In addition to Van Mastricht, you’ve brought works by William Ames, Franciscus Junius, Abraham Kuyper, and Wolfgang Musculus into English. What drew you, originally, to the work of translation?

Translation is an art that has to be culminated in conversation with other scholars

I would have to say that translation starts with conversations over texts with professors, friends, and colleagues; that is, intersecting communities around a text, a true collegium and colloquium, a reading together and a speaking together. For every one of those works you mentioned, I think of a group of colleagues and friends who helped bring it into print. Without a community that a translated text serves, there is no need for translation. But with a community, shared interests spark closer readings and sharper scholarship as well as, for example, a resourcing of early modern theological works that have dropped out of the conversation.

I am the richer for the community of professors, friends, and colleagues that have not only encouraged but sharpened my appreciation of translation work over the years. I could never do it alone, and quite honestly, without the element of collective service to Christians and to scholars, I’m not sure that I would want to.


What are the qualities of a good English translation?

In the case of early modern theology, clarity, technical precision, literary eloquence, and when necessary, footnotes that advance a reader’s comprehension of the text. These are things that I strive for. There is an art to communicating a technical discourse that reflects long arcs of conversations and controversies over centuries with a readable style. It is an art that has to be culminated in conversation with other scholars, and it has been a pleasure for me to do so over the years.


In addition to your translation work, you’re bringing to Westminster a great deal of experience in historical research. What is the value of rigorous historical knowledge to pastors and theologians graduating from Westminster?

If we do not read a text within its historical context we will most likely misinterpret it.

Historical knowledge brings a finer grained appreciation of doctrinal development. Texts are instruments that are intended to do something. If we do not read a text within its historical context we will most likely misinterpret it. In the case of pastors and theologians that could mean misunderstanding a text, a doctrine, or a practice as well.


What drew you to teach at Westminster?

My wife and I both came to Reformed convictions through our different experiences at different universities and colleges. She had the privilege of Reformed and Presbyterian professors during her time at Covenant College. However, I was in a state university that had Reformed student ministries and bible studies.

My first exposure to Westminster Theological Seminary was with the works of J. Gresham Machen, Murray, Van Til, among others in Christian reading groups. I’ve deeply appreciated the emphases on Scripture, redemption, and the bright line of antithesis between belief and unbelief. My goal in my academic career thus far has been to find ways to grow personally as a Christian and as a scholar but for the purpose of service to the Church through the training of pastors.


This year we’re celebrating 90 years since Westminster’s founding. As a historian, how do you think the American church has changed in those 90 years, and what role has Westminster played in that?

There certainly are changes in the demographics of America since then aren’t there? However, I am struck by the similarities of then and now: the decadence of the roaring twenties, the despondency of many following a period of international war, an economic collapse, rising nationalist and populist sentiments globally, and skepticism regarding the Christian faith.

While the years roll by there is still a need to stand on Scripture.

With war and economic trouble come displacement of people in search of more profitable careers and lives, not just internationally but domestically as well. With peace come transient periods of calm and ease. And while the years roll by there is still a need to stand on Scripture and hold forth the difference that biblical Christianity and confessional orthodoxy make. In many important and basic ways, the needs of the Church are still the same today as they were then, faithful preaching of God’s Word to witness to the world and to build the people of God.

What has changed is that contemporary American culture is more diverse and pluralistic in one sense and in another sense far more individualistic. Christians, and especially Reformed ones, must be clear on who they are biblically and strive towards faithfulness in holiness and love, before a watching world and within their congregations and families. Westminster stands for, with, and among biblically faithful churches and academic communities.


You and your family are moving to Philadelphia, PA from Belfast, N. Ireland. What are you looking forward to, coming to the Greater Philadelphia Area, and what will you miss about Belfast?

The answer to both questions is first and foremost the people! Yes, Northern Ireland is idyllic in many ways. I don’t know that I will have another townhome that overlooks the Irish Sea with Scottish mountains on the horizon, or a seaside jogging path that winds past a Viking landing site. But, I would have to say that most of all it was the family of God in Northern Ireland that made my family feel at home. We look forward to “getting stuck in” as they say in Belfast to the rhythms of church fellowship and life here in the Philadelphia area.


What books/articles are you currently reading? Anything you’d recommend?

As to books, recently with the EU project on early modern religious war I’ve been re-reading the anthology Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, especially as it critiques the secularization thesis regarding Western history from the Medieval to the modern period.

I am counterbalancing that book with picking my way through a German translation of Paolo Prodi’s Una Storia della giustizia entitled Eine Geschichte der Gerechtigkeit: vom Recht Gottes zum modernen Rechtstaat, or roughly translated as “A history of Justice, from God’s Law to the Modern Legal-State.” Prodi’s work is more discussed in non-anglophone considerations of the interplay of politics and religion from the medieval to the modern. It’s a dense read picking through the German translations of Italian political perspectives of European and global trends, as the work’s targets are manifold.

Seminary can help form your faith, but as you come be sure you have one.

On the nature of religious war in the early modern period as conceived of by the medievals, I’ve also been working through a book from the early 20th century, A. Vanderpol’s Le Droit de Guerre d’apres les Theologiens et les Canonistes du Moyen-Age, or “The ius belli among theologians and canonists of the middle ages.”

On the development of the modern totalitarian state, I’ve been chewing on a more recent work of political history, The New Inquisitions: Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism, and especially the resurgence in Europe and the United States of more emboldened forms of politische theologie and political religion (or the political as secular religion and a secular ideological orthodoxy) so popular in 1930s Germany.

Of those listed above, for students and scholars of historical theology and the early-modern period, Seeing Things Their Way is a thought-provoking work on historical method and a good piece of scholarship. For more devotional reading in New Testament Greek and early modern Latin, I’ve been working through Beza’s Annotationes on the New Testament.


Which five books would you recommend students read before coming to Westminster?

Only five?! That’s like choosing among children! I like Vos’s Biblical Theology, then there is of course Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Van Til’s Defense of the Faith comes to mind, and then Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, and Packer’s Knowing God. Seminary can help form your faith, but as you come be sure you have one.


What are some of your interests, apart from history and translation?

It’s important for Christians to build and to tend with a useful eye to a more beautiful future, whatever they do.

This is slightly cheating on your question, I think you mean what do you do besides read and translate books (and talk about what I read or translated!). While we have lived in the UK, we have traveled to all sorts of palaces, castles, monuments, museums, forts, festivals, nature trails, beaches, and ice cream shops and cafes in between all of the above. We have also enjoyed sampling and cooking new and exotic foods in Europe as well as introducing our European friends to some American favorites.

Before moving to the UK and back into rented housing, I used to have space for a woodshop to build and design furniture and projects around my home. I would enjoy getting back into that. I also did a small but satisfying bit of landscaping and gardening then too. It’s important for Christians to build and to tend with a useful eye to a more beautiful future, whatever they do. If at all possible, I find it especially satisfying to do these things with my kids chatting together at my elbow.


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

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