Vos on Justification and Union with Christ

Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) was a Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at the theological college of the Christian Reformed Church (later Calvin Seminary) and most famously at Princeton Theological Seminary. Though typically neglected by mainline (i.e., liberal and Barthian) writers because of his commitment to confessional orthodoxy and to the historicity of the faith, Vos was nevertheless a pioneer of the contemporary study of “Biblical Theology.” In this passage he addressed the issue of the “center” of Paul’s theology. His words remain relevant, especially for those who fancy themselves his theological descendants.

Naturally the problem becomes most accentuated where it touches the center of Paul’s teaching. This, we may still insist, is the doctrine of justification. Recent attempts to dislodge it from this position, and to make the mystical aspect of the believer’s relation to Christ, as mediated by the Spirit, entirely coordinated with it—so that each of the two covers the entire range of religious experience, and becomes in reality a duplicate of the other in a different sphere—we cannot recognize as correct from the apostle’s own point of view.1 In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and of subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical.

“The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” The Princeton Theological Review 1:161-179. [1903]. See also John Fesko, Justification, ch’s 10-11.

Louis Berkhof commented on this same question in much the same way. See also Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation, ch’s 9, 10.

While union with Christ and the sanctification that results from that union are more than forensic,they are the consequences of God’s forensic declaration. Both justification (“Let there be….!”) and inner renewal (“Let the earth bring forth…!”) are speech-acts of the Triune God…Like ex nihilo creation, justification is not a process of transforming an already existing state of affairs. In other words it is a synthetic rather than an analytic verdict.

Horton points us to Calvin’s comments on Eph 3:17,

By faith we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered for us and rose from the dead for us, but we receive him, possessing and enjoying him as he offers Himself to us. This should be noted carefully. Most consider fellowship with Christ and believing in Christ to be the same thing; but the fellowship which we have with Christ is the effect of faith.

(Quoted in Fesko, Justification, 278-79).

Fesko says,

One cannot help but observe that much of the recent literature in the confessional Reformed community that pits imputation against union with Christ has unwittingly imbibed from the theology of the historical-critical school. Some have embraced the presuppositions espouses by theologians such as Schweitzer and Ritschl and have placed an antithesis where there is none (ibid, 280).

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  1. Interestingly, Geerhardus Vos moved from this position as he developed his theological system. This piece was written prior to Vos fully working through the implications of what he saw in Paul. By the time The Pauline Eschatology was published, eschatology became the overarching category for Vos and justification fell in line with that basic thesis.

    This doesn’t necessarily imply that Vos’ later work is correct (although I am persuaded of it), it does mean that “those who fancy themselves his theological descendants” are more correct in disagreeing with this statement from 1903 and building on his more mature and developed work found in The Pauline Eschatology. See Gaffin’s piece in Jerusalem and Athens for more detail.

  2. I was using the word “mature” primarily in reference to Vos developing his theology as he aged. Clearly “mature” wouldn’t be the appropriate term if you disagree with The Pauline Eschatology. In that case, Vos would have become “demented” perhaps.

    Later in his career, eschatology took a much more prominent role for Vos. He started to think more in terms of historia salutis and the eschatological union of believers to Christ particularly in his death and resurrection. Gaffin traces this theme out in Resurrection and Redemption.

    To cut to the chase, if Christ’s resurrection is his justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification and there is no priority of any of these “benefits” within this singular act, then there is no priority of one benefit over any other in historia salutis. Now, if you stress the eschatological union of the believer to that act, ordo salutis will be patterned after historia salutis. So then, for later Vos, eschatology takes primacy over forensic justification. This is why Gaffin will say that eschatology precedes soteriology.

  3. Camden,

    I understand what Dick teaches. I’m interested here in the claim that Vos’ theology changed. Was there an “early” Vos and a “later” Vos on this question and if so, where does that appear?

    I’m quite familiar with his Pauline Eschatology. I remember when I read it and where I was when I read it. Did he in PE reverse himself from what he wrote in 1903?

  4. The idea of development in Vos’ theology is no hidden secret. It may be correctly argued that with reference to his understanding of the Kingdom – viz-a-viz the church – it underwent a dramatic shift in his career. As he moved less and less attached to the Kuyperianism of his homeland and became more at home in American Presbterianism (of the Old School variety) his consciousness of the spirituality of the church deepened. We can see this, for instance, if we compare his earlier The Teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom and the Church with his later Pauline Eschatology. In the former there is a resident Kuyperianism in which the kingdom and the church are distanced such that he can posit manifestation of the Kingdom in areas other than the church (i.e., culture, society, etc). His view of the Kingdom is all very this-worldly.

    Come the PE, after being influenced by Old Princeton and American Old School Presbyterianism, along with wrestling with the text of Paul’s letters, his focus shifts dramatically to heavenly and eternal realities. Eschatology and the age come work their way thoroughly throughout his thinking in a way it did not before.

  5. Jim,

    I don’t know. I’m not claiming that none of his views changed. Some of his views probably didn’t change. E.g., I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that he changed his view of covenant theology that he articulated in his inaugural lecture in GR.

    The question is whether he changed his view on the centrality of the forensic in Paul’s theology.

  6. Hi Scott,

    Sorry, I was making a de jure argument, not de facto. In other words, I was simply saying that its possible he changed his view on the centrality of justification, especially in light of how revolutionary his PE was for other issues.

  7. So then, for later Vos, eschatology takes primacy over forensic justification. This is why Gaffin will say that eschatology precedes soteriology.

    Without much by way of evidence, it is unclear as to how “eschatology precedes soteriology” might mean something like “eschatology replaces soteriology.” All the former is trying to do is gain perspective, nothing more or less.

    It seems ambitious to suggest that because eschatology precedes soteriology that justification was somehow eclipsed as central to Pauline theology. Rather, it seems to have simply built upon it in order to give eschatology its due place. After all, just as there is a history before and after the Cross, things that are central tend to have other things just to the right and left of them. Maturity has a funny way of never straying from foundationals, but rather heaping upon them. Otherwise, maxims like “standing on the shoulders of giants” make little to no sense.

  8. Even with development in Vos’s thought on the centrality of justification in Paul, the shift does not negate the clearly forensic nature of justification. The question revolves around whether Vos’s understanding of justification is governed by eschatology.

    None of us (the Christ the Center guys) doubts the forensic nature of justification and its absolute importance to orthodox theology. There are no transformative elements within justification. Period.

    The question here is this: Granted the centrality of the forensic in the citation of Vos above, does he maintain that view of the centrality in his later writings or does eschatology take that place? If such a shift took place in Vos, does that shift undermine the forensic nature of justification? I fail to see how it does.

    So then there are two kinds of questions here: A historical/textual accuracy kind. Did Vos make a shift? And a theological/normative kind. Does the shift (if it occurred) create problems for the forensic nature of justification? And if so, how?

    Do I understand you correctly to be saying that Richard Gaffin is misinterpreting Vos at this point? Please provide textual verification.

  9. Zrim is probably correct here that to say that eschatology precedes soteriology is not to obliterate soteriology. My thinking on this is that eschatology certainly flavors soteriology. John Fesko in his recent book on justification makes this point himself. In countering N. T. Wright’s notion of justification as ecclesiology, he notes, “While Wright is correct to to say that justification is eschatalogical, he is incorrect to divorce justification from soteriology. As Richard Gaffin notes, ‘All soteric experience derives from solidarity in Christ’s resurrection and involves existence in the new creation age, inaugurated by his resurrection.’ In other words, all soteriology, including justification, is eschatalogical because of its connection to the resurrection of Christ, the in-breaking of the eschaton” (Justification, pp. 237-38). This eschatalogical flavoring can be found in Vos’s “Pauline Eschatology” at pp. 150-152 where Christ’s resurrection is his justification and so is the basis for ours (via Rom 4:25). We likewise see that Christ’s resurrection is his glorification in Phil. 2:9-11. The resurrection being Christ’s adoption and sanctification is, according to Dr. Gaffin himself, working within the vein of Vos rather than being in Vos himself.

  10. Jeff,

    There are a lot of “ifs” in your first post. That’s fine and it may all be true but it was asserted that Vos’ thought developed on this question such that, at some point, he came to reject the centrality of the forensic. That may be but what is the evidence for this assertion?

    With Zrim I don’t see how his development of the eschatological aspect of Reformed theology unseats the priority of the forensic relative to union with Christ.

  11. Just a passing statement without meaning to allude to any personalities in this comments section here: Federal Visionists (and their related types) have been getting smacked down by just the name of Vos for so long now they have been in their labs crafting lawyerly responses, and we might be seeing the first fruits of such efforts here in this comments threads, perhaps unknowingly second or third hand manifestations of their effort. Back to your regular programming…

  12. I’m sorry, Jackson, could you be a lil’ less cryptic in your ‘statement’? Who here do you perceive as being the ‘manifestation’ of the fruits of FV responses?

  13. It would be interesting to know who Jackson thinks is a Federal Visionist here. I for one am deeply offended by the thought that my comments could be construed as such. If words, sentences, and paragraphs mean anything, that suggestion is nonsensical. I smell a breach of the ninth commandment lurking in a nearby bush.

    As for my couching my previous posts in “if” language that is simply because I make no claim to being an expert on Geerhardus Vos. A student of Vos, yes, an expert no. But I do know how to read and use words (although Jackson has caused me no end of grief and self-doubt). I reserve the right to disagree with my brethren when I am not convinced of something. And being heavy handed does not constitute persuasive argumentation.

  14. If you’ve done any time sparring with FVists you get to know how they operate. They had yet to develop a defense against Geerhardus Vos last I was in their company, but one knew it was coming. Vos, for them, is a hard nut to spin away or smear or quote out of context, and he stands as a great rebuke to the Federal Visionists self-applied mantle of being the greatest and most creative of biblical theologians of the Reformed world. Kline too gives them problems, but they just say “Framework Hypothesis!” to magically push Kline as biblical theologian out of the way. With Vos, such dismissal isn’t so easy. Vos also, of course, gave biblical theology such an annoying Reformed orthodox restraint, and did it so well (no FVist can hope to match Vos as a theologian).

    Now I worded my original comment carefully so as to avoid such responses as you have given, Jim Cassidy. Perhaps some here have picked up without knowing it some FV party-line on Vos they have lately developed. Maybe from some other forum, some email list, some blog. Perhaps not. I was just suggesting the possibility…

    As an aside: I kind of regret even typing the words ‘Federal Visionist’ here because they seem to have been somewhat defeated, finally, and have quieted down. I hope I don’t contribute to their reawakening.

  15. Jeff,

    Jackson is a Predestinarian/Particular Baptist and provocateur!

    What I’m trying to do is distinguish between historical and systematic/biblical theology. I understand that folk think that Gaffin is the logical outcome of Vos. This is why I pointed out all the conditions.

    What I’m trying to ascertain is whether there is any concrete evidence of any actual change in Vos’ view on the question of the centrality of the forensic relative to mystical union.

  16. Having just begun to (re-)read very closely and carefully The Pauline Eschatology, I am still waiting for more discussion on this topic with great anticipation (how’s that for being eschatologically-minded?),

    Vos’ discussion on pp. 54-58 seems to indicate that a proper focus on the eschatological entails absolutely no shift away from focus on the forensic aspects of salvation (justification in particular). Instead, the act of justification is what renders certain the outcome of the last day. In this sense, the doctrine of justification is itself eschatological through and through–in that it entails reconciliation with God not only over sins past and present, but even for all future sins as well, so that kingdom inheritance on the last day (i.e., the reward granted for fulfillment of the covenant of works, a blessing earned forensically) and its guarantee have been received in the present experience of the believer.

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