Reading Difficult Books: A Personal Reminiscence (by Dr. Steven Dilday)

Shortly after my conversion to Christ, I became a regular listener to the radio broadcast of Dr. R.C. Sproul.  Through Dr. Sproul I was exposed to Reformed theology for the first time, and, from the first, I was captivated.  I was quite interested, of course, when he mentioned that he thought that Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will was the most important, most theologically formative, book that he had ever read.  I ordered it immediately and waited anxiously for its arrival.  When the book arrived, I could not get the wrapping off fast enough.  I started into it immediately, but was more than a little surprised by what I found.  I discovered that I was not able to read it.  Well, I was able to read and pronounce all the words, but I had never before seen a single sentence continue for a page and a half.  By the time I reached the end of a sentence, I could not remember how it started.  Moreover, he spent the first quarter of the book simply discussing the definition of the terms that he would be using (not the most exciting reading), definitions which were formulated through a sophisticated interaction with Puritan theology and early eighteenth century European philosophy (of which I knew nothing).  Difficulties crowded in on every side, but my determination was roused.  I had Dr. Sproul’s testimony that the reading of this volume would be profitable, so I prepared myself for the labor.  It was hard work; sometimes I would spend a whole afternoon just trying to understand a single page.  If memory serves, it took me the better part of a year to work through the whole.  And what profit had I for my effort?  Much in every way.  First, I really learned to read; I have not since had that difficulty in reading.  Second, I developed a love for the literature of the Puritans which has consumed most of my waking hours since that time.  Third, the book did more to shape my general theological method than anything else that I have read.  Fourth, I never forgot the contents of the book, Edwards’ striking harmonization of divine sovereignty and human freedom.  In the final evaluation, the hours spent in the reading of that difficult book were among the most well-spent of my entire life.

Currently, I am laboring to translate Bernardinus de Moor’s Commentarius, a massive Systematic Theology.  This is difficult reading, but I have undertaken the labor because I am firmly convinced that Christian people will profit immeasurably, if they will but do the hard work of reading it.  In this day and age, it seems that few Christians want to struggle with the difficult books, preferring the lighter devotional books.  Although I have nothing against devotional books, to leave off the reading of difficult books is, in my estimation, a great mistake.  Why?  Because some truths are difficult and can only be mastered through difficulty.  Soren Kierkegaard once observed that, if a man can have a thing in an easier way, then he should take it in an easier way.  Indeed, it is a great convenience to have water from the faucet rather than having to pump it from the well.  But some things cannot be had in an easy way, and some truths concerning God, God’s Christ, and God’s Scripture will not be mastered easily.  Although such truths are attained in difficulty and discomfort, they are frequently among the most edifying and nourishing.  This has been my experience, but not just mine.  C.S. Lewis, in his preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God, said, “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others.  I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

So, if you desire to know the system of divine truth present in the Scriptures better, I commend De Moor’s Commentarius to you.  It is not easy reading, but, should you give the requisite effort, I believe that you will find yourself well-recompensed for your labor.

Who is Bernardinus de Moor? and why Translate his Commentarius? (Part 2)

 

            The translation of De Moor’s Commentarius is certainly a massive undertaking.  It raises the question:  Why expend the effort?

The great Scottish divine William Cunningham said, “The English language, though it contains many valuable works on particular doctrines and on separate subjects in systematic theology, contains comparatively very few systems; i.e. very few works in which all the leading doctrines of Christianity are arranged in systematic order, proved from the word of God, and their connections and relations pointed out.  Systems of theology have been chiefly the productions of Continental writers, and are to be found principally in the Latin language, —one fact among many others of a similar kind, which establishes the necessity of students of theology acquiring the capacity of reading Latin with perfect ease and readiness.  Systematic theology, however, has been always a good deal studied by Scottish Presbyterians; and indeed Bishop Burnet alleges that the Presbyterian ministers of the era of the Restoration had for their principal learning an acquaintance with the systematic writers of the Continent….  Calvin, Turretine, Maestricht, Pictet, Marckius, and Witsius, are the authors who have been most generally studied in Scotland as writers on systematic theology; and there can be no doubt that the study of the writings of these men has tended greatly to promote correct and comprehensive views of the scheme of divine truth….  [T]he English language does not contain a great deal, comparatively speaking, that is of much value in the way of systems of theology.”[1]

“Correct and comprehensive views of the scheme of divine truth”, and all the means that foster such views (including these massive Continental Systems), are certainly to be coveted with a holy covetousness.  Since “the capacity of reading Latin” is relatively rare among Ministers and students, and since this does not seem likely to change any time in the near future, it seems desirable to render these works into English.  Calvin, Turretin, and Witsius are available in English, but Mastricht, Pictet, Marckius, and a great many more remain locked up in the Latin tongue.  Since translation seems desirable, and yet a translator has limited time and strength, where would be the most economical and advantageous place to being?

If there was a System, written relatively late in the period of Reformed Orthodoxy, which surveyed and summarized the preceding Systems, this would be valuable in and of itself, giving some knowledge of the others, and would be a springboard for other translation projects in the future.  As it turns out, such a System does indeed exist.  “[Bernardinus de Moor] wrote a commentary on à Marck’s dogmatic compendium…which represents the most comprehensive dogmatic text that was ever produced in the Netherlands.  In this work of seven volumes (1761-1778), de Moor classified and combined material from the Reformed dogmatics produced by his predecessors at Utrecht and Leiden into a whole.”[2]  “The Commentary gives an all-round description of theology….  The Commentary has the character of an extensive and comprehensive handbook for theology….  [T]he primary task was to lend an overview of the clearest expositions for each theological topic.”[3]

May the Lord bless this work again, now in English-speaking lands, so that He might be glorified, and His people edified.



[1] Theological Lectures (New York:  Robert Carter and Brothers, 1878), 39, 40.

[2] Willem J. van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids:  Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 176.

[3] J. Martin Bac, “Clear and Distinct Freedom:  A Compendium of Bernardinus de Moor (1709-1780) in a Cartesian Context,” Reformed Thought on Freedom, eds. Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2010), 202.

Who is Bernardinus de Moor? and why Translate his Commentarius? (Part 1)

Bernardinus de Moor was born on January 29, 1709.  He studied at the great Dutch University of Leiden, which had been a center of Reformed scholarship from the time of its founding in 1575.  Its faculty had included some prominent Reformed theologians, such as Franciscus Junius (1592-1602), Franciscus Gomarus (1594-1611), Antonius Walaeus (1619-1639), Johannes Hoornbeeck (1653-1666), and Herman Witsius (1698-1708), among others.  De Moor attended at Leiden from 1726-1730, and had the opportunity to study under Johannes Wesselius (1712-1745), remembered for his Dissertationes academicæ, and Johannes à Marck (1689-1731).  De Moor was especially attached to à Marck, and à Marck, shortly before his death, asked De Moor to continue his work,[1] which he would indeed do.

After his time at Leiden, De Moor labored in the pastoral ministry at Ingen, Broek in Waterland, Zaandam, and Enkuizen.[2]  He was appointed as professor of theology at Franeker in 1744, but, before he was even able to deliver his inaugural address, he was appointed to succeed his former teacher, Johannes Wesselius, as professor of theology at Leiden, upon Wesselius’ death (1745); de Moor continued in this position for the rest of his life.

It seems that in his teaching method, De Moor honored the dying wish of his teacher and friend, Johannes à Marck.  The substance of De Moor’s lectures survives in his massive Continuous Commentary on Johannes Marckius’ Didactico-Elenctic Compendium of Christian Theology (1761-1778; in seven volumes).  As its title indicates, De Moor’s lectures were something of a running commentary upon the Compendium of à Marck, while also drawing upon and digesting the fruits of two centuries of Reformed theological thought.  De Moor’s Commentary is a masterpiece.

Why undertake such a massive labor?  Next installment

 

 


[1] J. Martin Bac, “Clear and Distinct Freedom:  A Compendium of Bernardinus de Moor (1709-1780) in a Cartesian Context,” Reformed Thought on Freedom, eds. Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2010), 201.

[2] Willem J. van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids:  Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 177.