Reconciling the Divine Processions-Missions Relationship with Confessional Reformed Theology: An Engagement with Adonis Vidu’s The Divine Missions: An Introduction (Part 2)

This series interacts with Adonis Vidu’s thought-provoking new work about the divine missions. His project, fitting well in the recent retrieval of classical theism, is to explain how God’s ad intra operations, namely the personal processions of each person of the Godhead, relate to his ad extra works, which are indivisible. The main contours of his position simply trace out the traditional distinction of theologia and oikonomia, providing a rich exploration of trinitarian grammar. A major, expected strength is how he works to provide systematic coherence in his presentation of God’s works in relation to God’s essence. Whereas the first post overviewed the book’s contents, this post engages more thoroughly with it to see how those holding to confessional Reformed theology, here specifically the doctrine of the covenant of grace, can think through Vidu’s work and reconcile his arguments with our views.

Vidu’s primary and most valuable argument is that the divine missions extend the divine processions as their created effects. Although this thesis richly informs how to formulate the connection between God in himself and the immutable God, whose external works are inseparable, and how those external works are appropriated to a specific person in the economy of redemption, Reformed readers will note some differences from their view of redemptive history. Specifically, Vidu’s explanation of the Son and Spirit’s “sequential” missions leave questions about how to connect his views to our understanding of the unified covenant of grace.

Vidu argues that the unfolding of redemptive history corresponds to the sequential missions of the Son and Spirit. It’s important to get a sense of some of this argument before constructively engaging to incorporate the main concerns into a specifically Reformed framework. Several quotes from Vidu will help establish the shape of his position:

Augustine all but implies that there existed a mission of the Spirit in the Old Testament saints. This cannot be said about the Son, since he was incarnate in time.1

In this chapter we will develop the argument that just as the procession of the Holy Spirit is consequent upon the begetting of the Son, the mission of the Spirit follows upon the mission of the Son. Pentecost thus naturally follows the ascension, and the Spirit can be fittingly called the Spirit of Christ, or the Spirit of the Son.2

As we have seen, a mission entails a union between a divine person and a created term, or the extension of a procession to a created effect – because a mission is not simply a theophany but a divine self-communication. But, precisely for this reason, the work of the Spirit in the conception of Christ cannot be understood as a mission prior to the Son’s mission…The missions of the Spirit, in other words, cannot get off the ground, not unless there is another created effect, not the humanity of Christ, to which it becomes united.3

Any claim that the Spirit was given [to Mary for Christ’s virgin conception] in a manner different from his Old Testament presence threatens the uniqueness of the Pentecostal dispensation of the Spirit.4

Not only does the Spirit function between Christ and the believer in a way similar to the mediation of God’s presence by the Spirit in the OT, but Christ is said to be present himself through the Spirit.5

But there’s more: the Son’s mission not only mirrors his being begotten of the Father; it also ushers in the Spirit’s own mission. Their missions are ordered to one another in the same manner as their processions. Ascension is the presupposition of Pentecost because it represents the historical summation of the Son’s mission, the completed return of his love to the Father. It may then be said that the ultimate outcome of the Son’s mission is the Spirit’s own mission.6

Vidu’s concern to protect the proper order of the divine processions is significant and noteworthy, needing to be adopted by all.7 The question is not whether we should allow a formulation of the divine missions to revise our understanding of the processions–with Vidu, we should not–but whether the specific historically sequential missions are required as argued to achieve this protection. Perhaps more specifically, is the historical aspect of the divine missions all that there is to say about them? Much contained in the above quotes is spot on, and the proceeding discussion is not meant to critique the main points but to make sure that we fit it well into a Reformed view of redemptive history.

The specific issue to address is the implications of the historical sequentiality of the Son and Spirit’s missions. Vidu’s point that the Spirit’s mission to indwell believers, manifested at Pentecost, is dependent upon the Son’s mission, namely to procure redemption, is exactly right and already squares with the Reformed ordo salutis. The question is: How did believers living prior to the Son’s incarnation and the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost relate to these missions? There is a risk of bi-furcating Old Testament and New Testament salvation as well as not squaring the historical execution of the missions with the eternal decree. The purpose here is to situate those concerns within the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace.

From one angle, the historia salutis point about the Son and Spirit’s mission is non-controversial. These historical works as the persons act in creation are the manifestation of the divine missions. But 1) is it proper to say that the missions began at those historical enactments and 2) can we relate those historical enactments to an ordo salutis concerning believers in the Old Testament as well?

The missions do not begin in history but in God’s eternal decree, which is executed in history. This point is necessary to uphold divine eternality, since God’s decree never began, and divine simplicity, since God is not distinct from his will. Although the Son became incarnate at a specific time in history, that mission appeared as history changed not as the Son began his mission. The same must be said of the Spirit’s mission as well, namely the triune decree, issuing from the one shared divine will, each mission eternally “assigned.” These missions then appear in the fullness of time but are eternally present. The missions as extensions of the processions must then not be totally conflated with history, lest we risk temporalizing God’s decree and compromising his eternality, immutability, and impassibility–and if it need be said, there would be no disagreement between Vidu and myself on these issues.

This decretal perspective on the missions then facilitates an affirmation of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of redemption. The Old Testament records of the Father addressing the Son (e.g. Ps. 2; 110) are not just prophetic–since they never “re-occurred” during the Son’s earthly ministry–but are constitutive. The Father addressed the Son according to his mission about his work for the elect from eternity. The mission then never began, even as it manifests at a certain historical moment, so it can appear in and apply to the Old Testament records. This is simply to calibrate our understanding of the missions above merely the historical level.

The continuity issue can then be elaborated under the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace. Although the Son became incarnate and truly effected redemption at a particular moment in history, because his mission and so its effects were eternal the effects and benefits of his mission (and the Spirit’s mission) could be applied beforehand. Traditional theology has articulated this principle in reference to the Son in the categories of incarnandus and incarnatus.8 Potentially, following Augustine as explored below, a similar distinction could be posed for the Spirit as donandum and donatum, although I seriously hesitate to tinker with theological grammar like this, even with a basis in Augustine. The Westminster Confession 8.6 clarifies the point more specifically in reference to soteriology:

Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever.

Admitting that the Son historically accomplished his mission in the incarnation, the confession nonetheless articulates that the results of that mission, namely the benefits of salvation, were applied to believers in the same way during the ages before the incarnation as to us.

Moreover, this seems to be the needed reconciling doctrine to account for the New Testament’s statements about Old Testament salvation, including specific explanations of Christ’s role. Peter argued that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:10–11) Paul said that the rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness “was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:1–5). Jude said that Jesus saved a people out of Egypt (Jd. 5). When Paul appealed to Abraham as the example of how Christians are justified by faith, the necessary premise that they are justified in the same way as we are, that is by Christ’s imputed righteousness (Rom. 4:1–5). The covenant of grace, explaining that salvation has always been based on Christ’s work, is the necessary conclusion of the New Testament appeals to Old Testament believers.

None of this suggests that Vidu necessarily disagrees with the claims articulated here, nor does it lodge a specific critique of his work. Rather, the purpose here has been to build on his arguments to reconcile them with traditional Reformed theology, specifically the doctrine of the covenant of grace. The point is not that what Vidu left unsaid implies or necessitates a different picture than the one painted here. Rather, the point is to draw more specific lines from what Vidu did say to fill in more details about how to relate that outline to a more precise description of Reformed covenant theology. In other words, the point here has been to build upon and appropriate Vidu’s material rather than criticize it. The next post will examine Vidu’s work concerning salvation in regard to, not continuity between the Testaments, but its very nature.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

Part One

Part Three

Endnotes

1. Adonis Vidu, The Divine Missions: An Introduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021), 12.
2. Vidu, Divine Missions, 27.
3. Vidu, Divine Missions, 34.
4. Vidu, Divine Missions, 35.
5. Vidu, Divine Missions, 46.
6. Vidu, Divine Missions,
7. Vidu, Divine Missions, 33–36
8. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols. (New York, NY: Benziger Bros., 1948; repr. Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 3.57.2; Abraham Calovius, Systema locorum theologicorum, 12 vols. (Wittenberg, 1655–77), 4:274; Caspar Olevian, De Substantia Foederis Gratuiti inter Deum et Electos (Geneva, 1585), 1.3.16; Samuel Maresius, Collegium Theologicum; sive Systema Breve Universae Theologiae (Gröningen, 1645), 10.5; Melchior Leydekker, De Veritate Religionis Reformatae seu Evangelicae (Utrecht, 1688), 4.2.37, 4.5.35, 4.11.17.

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4 comments

  1. I am very much enjoying this review and I have not read Vidu’s book. It seems to me that some of these tensions and concerns may be addressed by John Gill’s consideration of the Holy Spirit in the “pactum salutis.” Cf. Gill’s “Divinity” and Muller’s article, “The Spirit and the Covent: John Gill’s Critique of the Pactum Saltutis,” in Foundations, vol. 24, 1981.

    I am not defending all of or many of Gill’s uses of these ideas, but rather the noting the historic discussion relating the Holy Spirit’s activities to the covenants and Gill’s contribution.

    • I raise the pactum salutis as an issue in part 4. There’s definitely a connection between seeing the eternally decreed plan in a certain way in relation to its historical outworking and the way that we express these issues of salvation in the OT. I sent the review to Dr. Vidu, who was very positive and intends to respond at some point.

  2. Pastor Perkins,
    How would Dr Adonis Vidu’s book, ‘Divine Missions’, be helpful to me, a justified sinner, a sanctified saint, who lives in Peace with God? I have The Scriptures, The Westminster Standards, the Book of Church Order, and the blessing of the ordinary means? I also have The Harmonized Confessions, the Canons of Dort, and Recovering the Reformed Confessions.

    I am one of His faithful, adopted sons in Redemptive History, one of His elect, learning to rejoice in the suffering of the cross, praying, being grateful for His Grace, staying awake by the power of the Holy Spirit, prepared and looking for Him and His Return. He prepared this work for us who believe in Him because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thanks for reading. Books of various sorts are helpful to different kinds of people depending on their interests and what they want to learn about. Books by individual authors, when done well, help us to understand the Scripture, our confessions, and the realities taught therein in new ways but hold no binding authority. If you are interested in learning more at an academic level about how we explain how the Trinity is eternal yet somehow works in history without changing in himself, this book could be useful to you toward that end. Regardless of whether you want to read this book or not, books that help us focus on God, his qualities, and his works rather than ourselves and things about ourselves are always helpful reads.

      Blessings,
      Harrison

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