More than mere head knowledge, theology transforms the way we live in this world. In this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and Joel Beeke consider the richly devotional theology that Wilhelmus à Brakel wrote to encourage Christian families.
Dr. Stephen Nichols: Well, once again, we are in the library of the office of Dr. Joel Beeke. It's good to see you again, Dr. Beeke. I was hoping you'd pick out one of these. In your work as an author, you're also translator/editor, and you've had a number of books to your credit, of books in Dutch language, Latin, that you've brought to English-speaking audiences, and that’s this one. We've got Wilhelmus—we were debating whether we should call it “Vilhelmus” or “Wilhelmus”—we'll call it Wilhelmus à Brakel, and this is The Christian’s Reasonable Service. You want to tell me about this book, or why this one?
Dr. Joel Beeke: Yes, yes. What happened is back in the 1990s, around 1991, I interviewed all the ministers in my denomination at that time, and said, "If there's one book you think should be translated from Dutch to English, what would it be?" All of them, but one, said at it should be The Christian’s Reasonable Service. The Reformed Church of America made a decision to translate this massive work back in the mid-1800s. It's in their minutes, but nobody ever did anything about it, and so it's been waiting.
Nichols: They had the idea.
Beeke: Yeah, that's right.
Nichols: They just couldn't pull it off.
Beeke: It's been waiting to happen.
Beeke: We had an individual by the name of Bartel Elshout, who was a very, very good translator from Dutch to English. He had been an evangelist and had some spare time in his particular work for a while. He was willing to translate the whole thing if I would serve as editor, so that's how we proceeded. But we needed funds. I raised $100,000-plus to support him for six years as he would translate for twenty hours a week.
Nichols: Oh, my. Wow.
Beeke: Because I had a full-time ministry, I didn't take anything from my role. Every week he would send me some material, another chapter from, what the Dutch finally call, “Father Brakel,” without any Roman Catholic overtones. It just built week after week. I look forward to this material. It's so warm. It's savory. It's really a systematic theology written for educated lay people. He wrote it for the churches, volumes one and two. Volumes three and four was the old Dutch style, where your ethics were always an outflow from your systematics, so your ethics would not go liberal and become a standalone discipline and stray from Scripture. Volumes three and four, when we got into them, it was unbelievable. There are just all kinds of interesting chapters. One chapter is on how to use the promises of God. One chapter is on spiritual courage. One chapter is on zeal. Spiritual desertion. Can you imagine a whole chapter on prudence, diligence, meekness, humility, peaceableness? This is the way the old divines used to do ethics.
Nichols: These are the vices and the virtues.
Nichols: But lodged in theology, lodged in our doctrine.
Beeke: Lodged in theology and lodged in Scripture, that's right. The beauty of this work, which it impressed me so much, and the reason I picked it out is because if I was on a desert island, and I had one book I could read beside the Bible—well, I get four books, of course—I’d take Brakel, because it’s just such a pastorally warm book. He grounds it in Scripture. He then tells you what happens in church history about that teaching. Then he has all these applications, and it’s outstanding pastoral applications. Volumes three and four, it’s almost like the whole two volumes are just pastoral applications of these Christian graces. It's just an amazing, amazing set of works. When you finish a big project, you just say, “Oh yeah, glad I got that.”
Nichols: The burden is lifted.
Beeke: I was sad to be done because I just wanted to keep on going.
Nichols: You’re so into the writings.
Beeke: I was so into it. So much spiritual food for my own soul. Since that day, we have sold 30,000 sets of it.
Nichols: That’s amazing.
Beeke: We’ve reprinted it five or six times.
Nichols: That’s great.
Beeke: Four volumes, and this is a big set to buy. We’ve never ever had a single person complain about anything. I can’t tell you how many pastors, too, have come to me—I mean, hundreds of them—written letters or come to me at a conference and said, “You talked me into buying Brakel. I didn’t know who in the world he was, but this guy is just so great. I love the book.”
Nichols: This is doctrine and the pursuit of holiness right there in these four volumes.
Beeke: Yeah, that’s right.
Nichols: Could you just unpack the title for us? Christian’s Reasonable Service. Why that?
Beeke: In Dutch, it’s the [speaks in Dutch], which means a “reasonable,” [speaks in Dutch], “religion of God,” or “service of God.” It comes from the Dutch translation of Romans 12:1, where it says, “This is your reasonable service—to give your whole body,” which means, of course, your whole being, “to God.” That was Brakel's own title. Rather than just calling it “Reasonable Service,” we thought the best word to put there was “Christian's Reasonable Service.” It was really what he was getting at, so that's how we translated it.
Nichols: This is your volume, and it is full of papers. There's emails, there's papers stuck in here. I see you've got a lot of your books with papers sticking out of them, and some bulging covers.
Beeke: Well, yes. When I publish a book, or when I edit a book, or when I have a chapter in the book, I put it in a special bookcase in my office because…
Nichols: I see it. It’s a very big bookcase.
Beeke: …because what happens is you often refer back to these things. Then if I get any correspondence on it, I just stick it in there in case we have a reprint; maybe someone found a typo, or book reviews. Sometimes you get ideas that maybe you tweak in the next edition or something. But one more thing I want to say about Brakel is…
Nichols: It's like your filing cabinet.
Beeke: Yeah, that's right. It’s rather messy. One thing I want to say about Brakel that people don't realize, is this set of books was as popular to the old Dutch divines in the Nadere Reformatie period, which was a Puritan period in the Netherlands, as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was to the English.
Let’s say, Steve, you were a farmer in the Netherlands. You come home in the evening and then family worship every night, you’d read the Bible, and then you'd read what they called [speaks in Dutch 07:07]. You'd read a piece of Father Brakel. Maybe two pages, if your kids were very young, maybe five pages if they were teenagers; but you'd work your way through all four volumes.
Nichols: It was a staple.
Beeke: Yeah. You get done, you start over again. A lot of the old Dutch people, especially those brought up in the Reformed experiential tradition, they grew up on this. This was just standard. There are tens of thousands of Dutch copies of this—the Dutch is actually two big volumes—all over the place, also in America.
Nichols: That strikes me as very much like the Dutch. The English are going to have a short book. The Dutch are going to have two big volumes as their typical book, right?
Beeke: Yes, in the old days; but now today, it's the opposite. The Dutch do not like big books.
Nichols: I'll let you make that comment. I'll leave you for that one. Thank you. Appreciate this. Thanks for drawing our attention to this and for letting us spend some time in your library. Thank you.
Beeke: Thank you.
Nichols: I'm Steve Nichols, and that was another episode of Open Book. Open Book is a podcast about the power of books and the people they've shaped. If you've enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating or review wherever you're listening. It's the best way to help others discover us. We'll be back in the library next week, so please join us again for another episode of Open Book.
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