Wilhelmus à Brakel

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Wilhelmus à Brakel (2 January 1635, Leeuwarden – 30 October 1711, Rotterdam), a contemporary of Gisbertus Voetius and Hermann Witsius, was a major representative of the Dutch Further Reformation (known in Dutch as De Nadere Reformatie). This movement was contemporaneous with and greatly influenced by English Puritanism. Scholars in the Netherlands have defined this movement as follows:

“The Dutch Second Reformation is that movement within the Dutch Reformed Church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which, as a reaction to the declension or absence of a living faith, made both the personal experience of faith and godliness matters of central importance. From that perspective the movement formulated substantial and procedural reformation initiatives, submitting them to the proper ecclesiastical, political, and social agencies, and/or in conformity therewith pursued in both word and deed a further reformation of the church, society, and state.”

à Brakel and his ministry functioned at the approximate center of this Pietistic movement, both historically and theologically. On a time line, beginning in 1606 with the ministry of the father of the Nadere Reformatie, Willem Teellinck, and terminating in 1784 with the death of Theodorus Vander Groe, à Brakel's ministry (particularly his most important pastorate in Rotterdam from 1683–1711) marks the center of this time line. However, more significantly, his ministry represents a remarkable balance of the Nadere Reformatie relative to both its early and concluding stages.

His prominence as a major representative of this movement is largely due to his magnum opus The Christian’s Reasonable Service. After its initial publication in 1700, this four volume work was quickly recognized as a monumental contribution to the literature of the Nadere Reformatie. It has been argued by scholars that this work is a synthesis of the best Puritan literature published in England and the Netherlands. Nadere Reformatie scholar, F. Earnest Stoeffler puts it this way, “He supplied Reformed Pietism with a theological textbook which…came out of a tradition wholly native to the Netherlands. In it he…preserved the balance between the mystical and ethical elements in Christianity which is so characteristic of the great Pietists in the Reformed communion.”

As a result of this work, à Brakel has permanently endeared himself to hearts of Reformed believers in the Netherlands. Already during his lifetime, the affection for him was such that he was fondly referred to as “Father Brakel”—a title by which he is known in the Netherlands until this day. For more than three centuries the influence of The Christian’s Reasonable Service has been such that “Father Brakel” continues to be the most influential of all the representatives of the Nadere Reformatie (frequently referred to today as Dutch Puritanism). Since the publication of The Christian’s Reasonable Service in English, his influence is growing steadily among scholars, as well as lovers of Puritan literature.

The uniqueness of à Brakel's work lies in the fact that it is more than a systematic theology. His selection of the title is already an indication that it was not merely his intention to present a systematic explanation of Christian dogma to the public. In selecting the words of Romans 12:1 as the basis for his title, à Brakel not only wished to indicate that it is an entirely reasonable matter for man to serve the God who has so graciously revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ by means of His Word, but he primarily wished to convey that God demands from man that he serve Him in spirit and in truth, doing so in an intelligent, reasonable, and godly manner.

à Brakel wrote this work for church members—not for theologians, though it was his wish that they benefit from it as well. This explains why this work is permeated with practical application of the doctrines he so thoroughly explains. à Brakel's intent in writing is inescapable: He intensely wished that the truths expounded may become an experiential reality in the hearts of those who read. He establishes the crucial relationship between objective truth and the subjective experience of that truth.

Experiential theology explains how the doctrines of Scripture become an experiential reality in the hearts and lives of believers. One could say that experiential religion is doctrine experienced. It is unquestionably à Brakel’s intense desire that his exposition of the doctrines of Scripture would lead to the experience of the reality of these doctrines. Once you grasp this, you will observe how in the theological sections of his chapters he lays the ground work for the experiential application. His aim in “doing theology” is the edification of the believer. He does this by describing what the experiential application of the expounded doctrine should be, and by describing what it often is when believers struggle to appropriate the precious truths of Scripture.



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