Redemption and Revelation (Vos/Horton)

Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama As we grow in the Christian faith we learn more about God’s word (and vice-versa).  Sometimes we take huge steps in understanding Scripture and sometimes we take smaller steps. Either way, we’re growing in grace and knowledge.  For me, one major area of growth in understanding Scripture was when I began to learn about the relationship between progressive revelation and redemption.  Michael Horton does a nice job of summarizing Geerhardus Vos’ excellent teaching on these points. (Note: it’s worth reading a few times slowly!)

In defining biblical theology, Vos argues for this integration of word-revelation and act-revelation, both in subservience to redemption.  First, he says, it is ‘the historic progressiveness of the revelation process.  It has not completed itself in one exhaustive act, but unfolded itself in a long series of successive acts.”  Thus, “revelation does not stand alone by itself,” but is “inseparably attached to another activity of God, which we call Redemption.”

Here again we are reminded of the point emphasized by Bavinck and Berkouwer, that one cannot develop abstract theories of scripture or hermeneutics, but must always develop them from the content itself (viz., the unfolding plan of redemption).  Revelation is not gnosis, a way of salvation by discovering God’s hidden essence or will, nor is it in any way an end in itself.  Redemption cannot be reduced to revelation ([contra] neo-orthodoxy).  It is not an act of downloading eternal ideas or principles onto our noetic desktop or revealing that which has always been true.

Rather, says Vos (in line with the Reformed scholastics), “Revelation is the interpretation of redemption.” This is what interests us in terms of revelation.  So revelation unfolds in exact proportion to the unfolding of redemption, announcing and interpreting the acts of God in history.  In redemptive history, there are objective-central and subjective-individual events, the former referring to unrepeatable founding events such as the exodus and the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.  There are no second or third crucifixions or Pentecosts, and yet every new believer is crucified and raised with Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and empowered as his witness by being baptized into these realities.  This is what Vos means by “subjective-individual” redemptive events.

Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, p. 233.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Predestination and Reformed Theology (Vos)

Vos The doctrine of election (predestination) is tied tightly to other aspects of Reformed theology.  Geerhardus Vos expresses this well in his Reformed Dogmatics (recently published in English for the first time thanks to Logos and Lexham Press – see here and here).  Vos asks this question (in vol. 1.5.4): “At what points is the doctrine of predestination or election related to the rest of Reformed doctrine as a whole?”  Here’s his answer (summarized):

1) It is a direct consequence of God’s sovereignty, as that has been shaped based on Scripture.  Luther came to predestination from man and his salvation.  Calvin did so from God.  God is everything and the creature is nothing, and the creature, even in its highest importance, remains subordinate to God and must serve him.  Whoever gives up the doctrine of predestination must therefore also drop the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and subsequently falsify biblical teaching at numerous places.

2) The doctrine of human inability after the fall is inseparably connected with predestination, so that one must maintain them both together or drop them both together.  One of the two; it depends on God or it depends on man who will be saved.  If one chooses the first, then one has accepted predestination.

3) Predestination is related to mystical union and the body of Christ.  The elect form a body.  In a body the members must be fitted to each other and are intended for each other.  If this body of Christ originated accidentally by the free-will choice of individual men, then there would be no guarantee that it would become a properly proportioned body.  God must decide in advance how many ought to belong to it, who those many shall be, and when they should be fitted into it.  Predestination is nothing other than the decision of God concerning these matters.

4) Predestination is no less related to the doctrine of the merits of Christ.  Christ earned for us 1) satisfaction of our debt of guilt by his passive obedience, 2) eternal life by his active obedience.  According to Scripture, the Holy Spirit applies the merits of Christ to his people.  If man himself decides by not believing or believing of himself, then faith is a work of man and no longer a fruit of the merits of Christ.  Christ cannot have merited for us what we ourselves provide.  And so it is, not only with faith but with all other parts of this application of salvation.  Denial of predestination includes, so viewed, a denial of the actual merits of the Mediator.

5) Predestination also relates to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  God, by sovereign election, decides both the coming into the state of grace and the preserving of those who have once come into it.

Vos does say a bit more about these points – and they are worth reading for sure!  The full discussion is found in volume 1 of his Reformed Dogmatics.

(This is a repost from December, 2014)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Eternal Punishment (Vos)

The Collected Dictionary Articles of Geerhardus Vos When Scripture talks about the eventual fate of the unrepentant, those who never turn to Christ in faith, it is a bleak picture of God’s wrath and punishment.  It’s not a fun thing to talk about, but it is a reality that makes Christians so thankful for Christ and his saving work and the eternal life he gives.  It also is one of many reasons why we share the gospel with those who don’t believe.  One aspect of this topic is the fact that the punishment is eternal.  Here’s how Geerhardus Vos explained it:

The judgment assigns to each individual his eternal destiny, which is absolute in its character either of blessedness or of punishment…. Only two groups are recognized, those of the condemned and of the saved (Matthew 25:33, 14; John 5:29); no intermediate group with as yet undetermined destiny anywhere appears. The degree of guilt is fixed according to the knowledge of the Divine will possessed in life (Matthew 10:15; 11:20–24; Luke 10:12–15; 12:47, 48; John 15:22, 24; Romans 2:12; 2 Peter 2:20–22). The uniform representation is that the judgment has reference to what has been done in the embodied state of this life; nowhere is there any reflection upon the conduct or product of the intermediate state as contributing to the decision (2 Corinthians 5:10).

The state assigned is of endless duration, hence described as aionios, “eternal.” While this adjective etymologically need mean no more than “what extends through a certain aeon or period of time,” yet its eschatological usage correlates it everywhere with the “coming age,” and, this age being endless in duration, every state or destiny connected with it partakes of the same character. It is therefore exegetically impossible to give a relative sense to such phrases as pur aionion, “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8; 25:41; Jude 1:7), kolasis aionios, “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), olethros aionios, “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), krisis aionios or krima aionion, “eternal judgment” (Mark 3:29; Hebrews 6:2). This is also shown by the figurative representations which unfold the import of the adjective: The “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “the never-dying worm” (Mark 9:43–48), “The smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:11), “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). The endless duration of the state of punishment is also required by the absolute eternity of its counterpart, zoe aionios, “eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

In support of the doctrine of conditional immortality it has been urged that other terms descriptive of the fate of the condemned, such as apoleia, “perdition,” phthora, “corruption,” olethros, “destruction,” thanatos, “death,” point rather to a cessation of being. This, however, rests on an unscriptural interpretation of these terms, which everywhere in the Old Testament and the New Testament designate a state of existence with an undesirable content, never the pure negation of existence, just as “life” in Scripture describes a positive mode of being, never mere existence as such. Perdition, corruption, destruction, death, are predicated in all such cases of the welfare or the ethical spiritual character of man, without implying the annihilation of his physical existence.

Geerhardus Vos, The Collected Dictionary Articles of Geerhardus Vos (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2013).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Reformed Theology and the Kingdom of God

Coming of the Kingdom From time to time I read critiques that Reformed theology doesn’t really do justice to the kingdom of God, or that it is weak on kingdom theology.  In other words, some current theologians, teachers, and authors are critical of Reformed theology because (in their view) it relegates the kingdom of God to a minor place in the overall theological scheme.

Before disproving this accusation, I think it is worth nothing that in evangelical circles the term “kingdom” has taken on an almost faddish status.  In today’s evangelical world when a few popular figures emphasize the kingdom in a trendy way, others latch on and it goes viral overnight (“kingdom” becomes a hip evangelical word like “authentic” or “vintage”).  What happens then is those evangelicals who equate Reformed theology with TULIP/Calvinism say that Reformed theology has a weak view of God’s kingdom because TULIP doesn’t talk much about the kingdom.  I realize this is debatable, but it is worth discussion.

However, one thing is clear: historic Reformed theology does not ignore the kingdom of God.  Kingdom theology makes up one of the great and important threads of Reformation doctrine.  We have to remember that there’s much more to Reformed theology than TULIP.

First, God’s kingdom is discussed in the creeds and confessions.  In the Nicene Creed we confess together that Christ’s kingdom “shall have no end.”  In the Heidelberg Catechism the following topics are discussed: Christ as King (Q/A 31), the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Q/A 83-85), and the petition in the Lord’s prayer, Your kingdom come (Q/A 123; cf. Q/A 128).  The Belgic Confession mentions the kingdom of God in articles 27 and 36 while the Canons of Dort speak about the kingdom in III/IV.10.  Similarly, the Westminster Standards discuss the reign of Christ and his kingdom extensively: WCF 8:1, 5; 23:3, 25:2, 30:1-2, WLC 42, 45, 53, 191, 196 and WSC 23, 26, 102, and 107.  Very clearly the Reformed Creeds and Confessions have much to say about the kingdom of God.  It is no mere footnote.

Second, the kingdom of God was discussed quite often by Reformed theologians in the past.  John Calvin (d. 1564) wrote about the kingdom so often in the Institutes it would take too long to list the references here.  In commenting on the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (d. 1583) spoke in-depth about the kingdom (Commentary, p. 176, 440-463, and 632-637).  Similarly, Thomas Watson (d. 1680) wrote much about the kingdom in several of his books, including The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes, and Heaven Taken by Storm.  Dutch theologian Willem Teelinck (d.1629) wrote about the kingdom of grace and how it applies to godliness in The Path of True Godliness.  The following Reformed theologians also had a lot to say about Christ’s kingdom: Herman Witsius, Herman Bavinck, Wilhelmus a Brakel, William Ames, and the list goes on.

Third, and finally, Reformed theologians of recent history have written on the kingdom of God.  For example, Herman Ridderbos wrote The Coming of the Kingdom and Meredith Kline wrote Kingdom Prologue (see also Geerhardus Vos’ The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church).  Kim Riddlebarger speaks of it in A Case for Amillennialism while Anthony Hoekma did the same in The Bible and the Future (see also C. Venema’s work, The Promise of the Future).  David VanDrunen has also recently done extensive study in kingdom theology (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms).  And the list goes on; I’ve only mentioned a small handful here.

If you thought that Reformed theology neglected the topic of Christ’s kingdom, I encourage you to check out some of the above resources.  Or, next time you hear someone wrongly accuse Reformed theology of ignoring the kingdom theme, you can (lovingly!) prove otherwise.  Reformed theology has a rich, biblical, and edifying view of Christ’s kingdom and what it means to be a citizen of it.

(This is a repost from February 2013)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

A Main Characteristic of Supernatural Revelation (Vos)

 Geerhardus Vos’ inaugural address as professor of biblical theology at Princeton in 1894 is one of the richest resources for gaining a Reformed understanding of redemptive history and biblical theology.  It’s one of those essays that I’ve gone back to so many times since I read it around 15 years ago.  Here’s one section that I’ve underlined and highlighted:

The first feature characteristic of supernatural revelation is its historical progress. God has not communicated to us the knowledge of the truth as it appears in the calm light of eternity to His own timeless vision. He has not given it in the form of abstract propositions logically correlated and systematized. The simple fact that it is the task of Systematic Theology to reproduce revealed truth in such form, shows that it does not possess this form from the beginning. The self-revelation of God is a work covering ages, proceeding in a sequence of revealing words and acts, appearing in a long perspective of time.

The truth comes in the form of growing truth, not truth at rest. No doubt the explanation of this fact is partly to be sought in the finiteness of the human understanding. Even that part of the knowledge of God which has been revealed to us is so overwhelmingly great and so far transcends our human capacities, is such a flood of light, that it had, as it were, gradually to be let in upon us, ray after ray, and not the full radiancy at once. By imparting the elements of the knowledge of Himself in a divinely arranged sequence God has pointed out to us the way in which we might gradually grasp and truly know Him. This becomes still more evident, if we remember that this revelation is intended for all ages and nations and classes and conditions of men, and therefore must adapt itself to the most various characters and temperaments by which it is to be assimilated.

 Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015