Wim van Vlastuin: A Theology of Contentment

On September 11, Dr. Wim van Vlastuin gave his inaugural address as the Professor of Theology and Spirituality of Reformed Protestantism at VU University in Amsterdam. His lecture focused on the concept of participation in the English Puritan theologian Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646). More specifically, he analyzed Burroughs’ famous series of sermons published posthumously in 16451 under the title The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Scan on GoogleBooks). He does so, with the conviction that the spirituality that is reflected in this work has the potential of addressing an urgent need in modern-day fragmented societies.  Moreover, he argues that a focus on spirituality more generally is needed in order to overcome a one-sidedness in modern Christianity. Since the late middle ages, Vlastuin holds, there has been a strong emphasis on the mind (doctrine) and the hands (good deeds), while the attention for the heart (spirituality) has dwindled.

Following these introductory remarks, Vlastuin analyzed Burroughs concept of the believers relationship with God as it is set down in the Jewel. He notes Burroughs’ indebtedness to ancient greek thinkers, but is quick to add that he transformed their concepts in order bring them more in line with Christian thought. Thus, Burroughs made use of the greek notion of αὐτάρκεια, but applied it only to God. Divine self-sufficiency means that God enjoys perfect bliss in himself. Man, on the other hand, is not self-sufficient and can find true contentment only by means of partaking in God’s self-sufficiency. In contrast to an ontological understanding of participation in the Platonist sense, Burroughs followed Augustine in giving participation a decidedly Christological spin: Christians participate in God’s happiness through union with Christ. Yet, Vlastuin goes on, Burroughs theology and spirituality falls short of the christological concentration found in the magisterial reformers (Luther, Calvin) and in some of his contemporaries (Goodwin, Rutherford).

Having laid out Burroughs’ spirituality, Vlastuin moves on to a comparison with a more recent endeavor to emphasize the affective aspect of the Christian faith, namely the ‘Christian Hedonism’ of the American pastor and theologian John Piper (*1946). According to Vlastuin, Piper’s combination of Christianity and Hedonism does not concur with the classic Christian tradition. It amounts to an anthropocentric spirituality that cannot do justice to the painful reality of suffering. Burroughs’ “theocentric-anthroposensitive spirituality”, on the other hand, can accommodate suffering as well as self-denial while avoiding to fall prey to otherworldliness.

Towards the end of his address, Vlastuin reflected on the value of the concept of participation for theology today, particularly in its christologically modified form.

  • He argued that it has the potential to contribute to a better integration of salvation history and the ordo salutis. 
  • Secondly, it helps to integrate salvation history and the affective dimension of the the human heart. The love for the person of Christ does not disappear behind the knowledge of his “function” as the redeemer.
  • Thirdly, it provides the possibility of distinguishing creation and redemption without separating the two.
  • Fourthly, it provides a theological framework within which it is possible to talk about a participation of the believer in God’s nature without sacrificing the categorical distinction between creator and creature.
  • Finally, It does justice to the importance of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit

Vlastuin concludes his lecture with some observations about Burroughs’ spirituality. He highlights the fact that this spirituality does justice to the reality of suffering, it is firmly rooted in the awareness of the transcendence of God, and it provides an alternative to the consumerism of our age.