The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Chinese Edition: 威廉默斯 • 阿 • 布雷克，理所当然的侍奉, 王志勇等译 (北京：当代中国出版社，2013). Translated by Wang Zhiyong and others (Beijing: Contemporary China Press, 2013). Available from Reformation Heritage Books.
The Christian’s Reasonable Service, English edition: Wilhelmus à Brakel. 4 vols., translated from the Dutch by Bartel Elshout, edited by Joel R. Beeke(Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992–1995). Available from the publisher and on Amazon.
Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) was a pastor and theologian who ministered during the Dutch “Further Reformation,” which was a Puritan-like movement in the Netherlands during the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-centuries. His major systematic work, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (CRS), combines theoretical theology with practical application and is presented with warm pastoral affection for his readers. It is a complete and “deeply devotional” system of Reformed theology that was first introduced to Chinese readers in 2013.1
The Chinese edition of CRS has been well received by the church in China; most of the 21,000 copies printed were sold before sales were suspended by authorities. As one of the few systematic theologies published in mainland China it was much prized by local seminaries, house churches, lay preachers, and the wider Christian community. Some house churches even organized small groups to study CRS to more fully harness the benefits its publication offers.
Brakel’s stated goal for CRS was to serve his own local congregation in Rotterdam. Received well in its own time, now, more than three centuries later, the service Brakel rendered to his local congregation has been extended to China’s many house churches. For many Chinese Christians, Brakel’s CRS is like rain in abundance, showered down from heaven to feed the hungry souls in God’s church in China. Its combination of the theoretical and practical aspects of theology aptly meets the church’s spiritual needs in China.
First, as a theoretical work of theology, CRS meets the educational needs of the Chinese church for a robust system of doctrine. The house churches in China are largely conservative, Bible-believing, and less exposed to and influenced by liberal and progressive theologies than those in the West. The church in China has not, however, fully benefited from the biblical and doctrinal developments of the global church for many reasons. One reason is that there are not many doctrinal works available in Mandarin. The Chinese edition of CRS is therefore a rare and precious gift to many Chinese Christians.
Vitally, CRS is a system of biblical doctrine. Brakel constantly grounds his teachings in Scripture, adopting a plain and accessible style of argument that includes many scriptural proofs. These characteristics are helpful for Christians in China since many are unfamiliar with scholastic methods and philosophical arguments but have a good working knowledge of the Bible. When he does use some of the technical terms of scholastic theology, he generally defines those terms in simple language. Someone new to theology does not need a theological dictionary to read CRS.
Covenant theology, a hallmark of Reformed thought, figures prominently in CRS and serves as a major framework in organizing Brakel’s thoughts.2 He also, however, gets into the details of Reformed covenant theology.3 This is helpful because this central biblical theology is very much undertaught in the churches in China.4 Notably, his order of doctrine differs from many other Reformed systems in that he treats the doctrine of the church between the doctrines of Christ and salvation rather than after the doctrine of salvation. Adopting this order does not signal a deviation from standard Reformed covenant theology, however. He simply thinks readers need to learn what partaking of the covenant of grace is before learning how one becomes a participant of that covenant. This further amplifies the importance of covenant theology to Brakel, whose presentation should help the churches in China give attention to this important biblical doctrine.
Furthermore, Brakel has a very useful and considerate way of dealing with doctrinal differences and errors in the history of the church. He adopts the practice of always introducing the difference or error before defending his own position. This practice is very helpful to many Chinese Christians, including preachers, because many of us are unfamiliar with the range of theological differences and errors in history. Brakel’s apologetic method is also helpful, as he typically raises a question and then answers it in plain terms, arguing from the Scriptures. These features of CRS meet the polemical and apologetic needs of Chinese Christians very well.
These characteristics of CRS as a theoretical work of theology meet Chinese Christians where they are. In CRS we have a classic and thorough work of systematic theology in the Reformed tradition. However, just as importantly, we also have a work that is highly approachable. This makes CRS a useful instrument for teaching doctrinal truths to Christians of all classes in China.
Second, as a practical work of theology, CRS meets the educational needs of the church in China because it is full of warm pastoral counsels and gives much attention to practical, spiritual topics—so much so that it can be likened to a manual of Christian counseling. Brakel is not the only Reformed theologian to integrate practical theology into the system of doctrine, but the level of attention he gives to Christian virtues makes his book unusual in the history of systematic theology.5 One rarely finds a work that so fully joins together the theoretical and practical aspects of theology. For those who are familiar with the genre of cases of conscience in the seventeenth century, Brakel’s treatment of spiritual topics will be quite familiar.6 In CRS, the theology of conscience has been skillfully transformed into a practical theology.
Brakel deploys the theology of conscience to develop his teachings on holiness and sanctification. In so doing, he combines the traditional elements of an exposition of the Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer with more than two dozen virtues carefully sourced from the era’s cases of conscience. By folding this practical instruction on piety into his systematic theology, he goes well beyond earlier Reformed theologians. This section of the work contains forty chapters on virtues and goes a long way toward fulfilling his stated purpose of defending both the truth and true godliness.7
For Chinese Christians who desire to live for God, CRS is a great companion. It is a deep well from which Christians, counselors, and preachers alike can learn doctrinal truths and draw practical wisdom. From this perspective, CRS is like rain in abundance, showered down from heaven to feed the hungry souls in God’s church in China.
The Chinese edition of Brakel’s CRS has been especially well received among China’s Reformed Christians who are grateful to have it.There are some minor issues in the Chinese edition: the added Chinese titles to each volume may not be helpful as they do not show the structural significance of the theology of the covenant;8 the decision to leave the indexes out, especially the scripture index, is unfortunate; also unfortunate was the decision to leave an introductory essay about the Dutch Second Reformation untranslated; and Brakel’s pastoral warmth may get lost a bit in the Chinese translation. All these are minor issues, however, that have not obstructed its usefulness. I commend and recommend this translation of this classic work of Reformed theology and am grateful that it is now available in Chinese.
- Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Theology: Historical, Experiential, and Practical Studies for the Whole Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020), 351.
- See CRS, introduction notes to chapters. 24 and 30.
- See CRS, chapters. 12, 13, and 16.
- Editor’s note: Reformed theology emphasizes God’s covenants with humanity as the biblical framework for holding all the various parts of Scripture together and displaying the theological unity and coherency of the whole. Here, our reviewer is suggesting that many believers in China who know the stories, commands, promises, proverbs, and praises of Scripture still frequently fail to grasp the covenantal structure and unity of its teachings which Brakel’s work emphasizes.
- William Ames, Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1997), originally published in 1623, and Petrus van Mastricht’s more academic Theoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018–), originally published 1683–1698, are similar to CRS in in their attention to practical spiritual and pastoral concerns.
- Cf. Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (available online at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A69129.0001.001). In short, the genre of cases of conscience offers practical guidance according to God’s moral laws, “applied with moral integrity to various situations.” It is also known as “casuistry” and is a branch of biblical theology. See Beeke, Puritan Reformed Theology, 325.
- See the preface of the third edition of CRS (1, cxvi): “May the Lord also bless this edition. May it be useful in defending the truth and true godliness, both of which are under assault in these days. They are assaulted on the one side by people of a corrupt mind who propose reason to be the rule for doctrine and life; on the other side by people who, in striving for holiness and love, set aside the truth and stray towards a religion which proceeds from nature, revolving around the practice of virtue.”
- The added titles for the four volumes are 神圣之道， 信心之道， 美德之道，and 生命之道.
Tony Wang served at the Living Water church in Beijing as a lay preacher for many years before he was called to full-time ministry. He holds an MDiv degree from Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Mississippi) and is a doctoral candidate at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, Michigan). He and …View Full Bio