Monday, July 9, 2012

The Virtuous Life as the Christian's Reasonable Service

About a decade ago, a new psychological movement entered the scene:  Positive Psychology. Positive psychology seeks to help people in the pursuit of authentic happiness. Rather than seeking to correct weaknesses and problems, Positive Psychology aims at understanding positive emotion, building strength, and providing guideposts for the good life in order for individuals to realize their potential for lasting fulfillment (Seligman, 2002). This approach focuses on character strengths, otherwise called virtues. Thinking about virtues, however, is not new. Countless philosophers throughout history have reflected on virtues, Aristotle being one of the more well-known in this area.

I would like to introduce a still rather unknown Christian pastor and theologian who has written an extremely insightful and practical work in which virtues take an important place. The Dutch divine Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711), writing in the context of the Dutch Further Reformation, was a master of experiential theology. His magnum opus is The Christian’s Reasonable Service (Brakel, 1999/1700). The work gives a systematic treatment of the six loci of Reformed doctrine, namely the doctrine of God, man, Christ, the church, salvation, and the last things. However, his style of writing is very different from that of contemporary systematic theologians. According to translator Bartel Elshout, à Brakel masterfully “establishes the crucial relationship between objective truth and the subjective experience of that truth” (Elshout, 1997). As practical as it is theoretical, it is said of this work that: “One will find in it a presentation of his own situation, and, because of this, one will feel for the author the same trust that a patient will have towards his physician when he describes for him in detail the nature of his illness and what he suffers and observes as a result” (Kist, 1808).

The English translation of The Christian’s Reasonable Service comes in 4 volumes, of which volumes 3 and 4 are most helpful to soul care. In these 2 volumes, we could say, à Brakel presents a positive psychology for the Christian life, though this positive psychology looks very different than the contemporary movement mentioned above. à Brakel’s positive psychology is thoroughly biblical and is meant to restore the soul to a life of faith, hope, and love. Though secular people can live good lives, the truly virtuous life is made possible through the indwelling Holy Spirit who enables the believer’s transformation of the intellect, the will, the affections, and the inclinations. à Brakel would define virtue as “that within man which perfectly harmonizes with the will of God as presented in the law” (vol. 3: p. 243). Though this may sound like a rather legalistic view of virtues, the opposite is true. à Brakel’s discussion of some of the virtues that stand out to him—holiness, glorification of God, uprightness, prudence, love for God and Christ, fear of God, obedience, hope in God, spiritual strength/courage, contentment, love for one’s neighbor, humility, diligence, and compassion—shows that he truly cares about the individual and the church that he or she is part of. It was for these reasons that he was highly esteemed and very influential, so much so that many called him (even to this day) endearingly Father Brakel (Brinkman, 2006; Reuver, 2007). In his treatment of the virtues, à Brakel defines each virtue in a very specific manner. He then seeks to motivate believers to pursue the exercise of the virtue, by explaining why the virtue is important, what happens if one does not have this virtue, the beauty of having this virtue, and by providing some suggestions for growing in the virtue. Furthermore, à Brakel discusses spiritual disciplines that will be helpful in growing in the virtuous life, such as prayer, fasting, watchfulness, solitude, meditation, singing, and the use of experience, and self-examination.

à Brakel is important for several reasons. He is balanced in the two aspects of sanctification, mortification and vivification. Whereas the Puritans, and some counselors today, seem to focus heavily on the mortification of sin, à Brakel takes a different approach. Though he certainly does not neglect mortification, he seeks to motivate people primarily by holding out worthy ideals so that people are motivated to the vivification of excellent biblical virtues. à Brakel also demonstrates a right balance between inward focus and outward action. Both contemplative/meditative and action-oriented principles are found in his treatment of the virtues and disciplines. Lastly, obviously untainted by modern psychology’s division of approaches  to psychotherapy (experiential, behavioral, cognitive, existential, etc.), à Brakel’s work demonstrates a rather holistic approach addressing the many aspects that make up the image of God, such as behavior, thoughts, emotions, and the will.

This work (especially, the third and fourth volume) has great potential to strengthen the personal faith of the counselor. The language may seem a little heavy (due to its being written about 500 years ago and the use of the KJV) , but if that can be overcome, treasures and advice of great worth for one’s spiritual life abound, and countless “interventions” are provided that can help the counselee find comfort, build strength, and fight sin. As such this work is a great contribution to those who seek to find true and lasting fulfillment in and through God’s love and grace; a most positive psychology indeed.

Brakel, W. à. (1999). The Christian's reasonable service: in which divine truths concerning the covenant of grace are expounded, defended agianst opposing parties, and thier practice advocated, as well as the administratio of this covenant in the Old and New Testaments. (J. Beeke, Ed., & B. Elshout, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books.  Accessible online from:
Brinkman, A. J. (2006). Wie is wie in de mystiek. Kampen: Ten Have.
Elshout, B. (1997). The Pastoral and Practical Theology of Wilhelmus à Brakel, ed. (J. R. Beeke, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.
Kim-van Daalen, L. “Wilhelmus à Brakel´s Spirituality of Virtues and Its Implications for Soul Care.” Puritan Reformed Journal. Vol. 3:1 (2011): 279-306.
Kist, E. (1808). Beoefeningsleer. Dordrecht, NL: Blussé en Van Braam.
Reuver, A. d. (2007). Sweet Communion:Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation. (J. A. Jong, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillmen. New York: Free Press.

Lydia Kim-van Daalen
PhD student in pastoral theology/Christian Psychology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

No comments:

Post a Comment