This series of essays reflects upon Adonis Vidu’s new book about the divine missions to see how we who hold specifically to confessionally Reformed theology can think about and appropriate his arguments. The first post surveyed the book’s contents, and the second considered how Vidu’s thesis relates to the continuity of God’s plan of salvation between Old and New Testament, namely regarding the covenant of grace. This post now considers how Vidu presents the nature of salvation, suggesting that his concern to recover a proper, traditional, and rightly held set of metaphysical categories for our doctrine of God has overly affected his concept of salvation.
Although it is implicit throughout the book, Vidu plainly stated in his conclusion that his explanation of the divine processions and missions emphasizes ontological dimensions of salvation. He wrote,
By recovering and renewing a theology of the divine missions, we are suggesting a more ontological approach to the economy of salvation, one that strives to see both the immediate operations and created effects of God but also what is present behind them and within them: a new manner of divine presence. The forensic, judicial approach emphasized by the Reformers need not be threatened by the heavier ontological account. There is no need to pit this approach against a so-called participationist account. Nevertheless, inevitably an approach to theology that foregrounds the divine missions will situate the forensic on the background of the ontological, whether we call it participationist or not.1
Readers who want the full details of his formulation of the missions relationship to personal salvation should read Vidu’s entire book— which is very brief and in no way tedious—but the basic idea is that the divine missions actually pull believers into a kind of creaturely participation in the processions. The influence of Eastern understandings of deification and the essence-energies distinction will immediately register with those familiar with aspects of Orthodoxy, a point which Vidu in no way tries to hide. Still, Vidu clearly affirms throughout his commitment to the forensic aspects of Protestant thought, even if he downplays them. So, we should not overstate the point as if Vidu denies the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Nevertheless, there is a question about whether he has balanced a proper framing of the processions and missions’ implications for soteriology in order to protect that doctrine thoroughly.
First, there is the direct complication that Vidu speaks frequently of salvation, often mentions forensic understandings of salvation, and clearly has some ontological aspect involved too but never specifically addresses the doctrine of justification as that forensic saving act very explicitly. This omission complicates the discussion because it neglects the traditional Protestant distinction about specific benefits of salvation, which depending on the benefit may or may not be forensic, so perhaps making the whole discussion too general. To speak of the Protestant conception of salvation as forensic is true but not nuanced in respect to the other issues Vidu raises.
There are some potential explanations for this generalization. On the one hand, Vidu does seem to suggest that “sanctifying grace,” traditionally a transformative category in Roman Catholic theology, can be construed in Protestant terms as a forensic concept.2 In this respect, the forensic, namely justification, would enable the transformative or ontological aspects of salvation, which closely resembles – although is perhaps not quite there – traditional Reformed notions of the ordo salutis. So, Vidu may have hinted briefly and implicitly at the place of justification by faith alone in his system, possibly securing its typical place in Reformed soteriology.
On the other hand, Vidu’s obvious awareness of generic evangelical theology and his pushback against some uncalibrated aspects of its soteriology possibly play a role in his generalization. In other words, the unspecific nature of his claims regarding Reformed theology’s traditional formulations may owe to how his focus was not on the Reformed tradition but on broader evangelical thought. Truly, in some wider evangelical depictions, salvation often looks as if it is nothing more than penal substitutionary atonement and then not that precisely formulated, leading to some of the concerns that Vidu raised, as has Oliver Crisp.3 Even that version of “forensic” salvation, however, is not the Reformed view that emphasizes justification and sanctification as Christ’s twofold benefits given to believers by faith.
In this respect, injecting Reformed theology’s traditional categories concerning the various benefits of salvation, which avoids collapsing salvation into one uni-faceted thing, helps gain some ground for how to appropriate Vidu’s arguments within a more specifically Reformed doctrinal system. These categories diversify our understanding of salvation’s results upon the believers. Difficulties may remain respecting Vidu’s argument that missions pull believers into a creaturely relationship with the processions— more on this below. Still, Reformed theology has never reduced salvation to a merely forensic idea. Yes, justification itself is truly only forensic, which I think Vidu affirms. All the same, we are truly renovated in sanctification as the present (already) deposit of our future-but-guaranteed (not yet) glorification. Indeed, glorification is ontological in the sense of raising our nature to a higher spiritual condition, making sanctification a foretaste of that ontological change. The one qualification must be that the ontological change that occurs in glorification is not one that raises us above creatureliness as if there is a ladder to climb between physical and spiritual existence.
So, the main thrust of a salvation which is both forensic and ontological has ready categories in the Reformed tradition, and Vidu’s presentation could have been more specific in deploying these traditional distinctions in relation to his project to connect salvation to the procession and mission relationship. While celebrating that many in Baptist circles have recovered the principles for seeing and preaching Christ in the Old Testament, although not always welcomely received, this concern about soteriology is precisely why some of us have urged caution about a hasty adoption of Christian Platonism as the metaphysic needed to support that correct view of Scripture.
The second issue concerning the proper framing of Vidu’s application of his trinitarian theology to soteriology concerns the issue of faith formed by love (fides caritas formata). Although eschewing a purely Roman understanding of the doctrine, he nonetheless attempts an ecumenical resolution to bring the Roman and Protestant understandings closer together. He wrote,
The Catholic insistence that faith must be formed by love (fides caritas formata) is not welcomed by Protestants, who fear synergy, as this love is precisely the habitual love of the believer. But if we understand that the love that forms faith is not habitual love but precisely Christ’s contagious love, Protestants, too, can accept this broader definition of faith as formed by love. Faith, then, cannot be a mere operation of the believer. It is a drawing into the Trinity by the indwelling Son, a self-communication of the Son by the believer.4
Although the nuance here is interesting, it is entirely beside the point that divides Protestants and Romanists on this issue. The disagreement concerns what sort of faith justifies. Rome claims that only a formed faith secures justification whereas Protestants view justifying faith as a receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation (Westminster Shorter Catechism 86). Protestants are not afraid to affirm that faith will be formed by love but are quick to assert that this belongs to the doctrine of sanctification rather than justification, contrary to Rome. Vidu’s undifferentiated description of salvation, generally speaking with no reference to the traditional Reformed benefits of salvation that are justification and sanctification, prevents him from seeing how his attempt at ecumenicity never quite lands the point on the right issue.
The final issue concerning the nature of salvation as Vidu applied his trinitarian theology to it regards the lack of attention of some wider contexts that frame our need for salvation, which also inform the Son and Spirit’s work for and in us. Vidu himself flagged the point: “so even a descending Christology must pay attention to the human condition assumed by the incarnate Son.”5 Although the clearest statement to the issue, this work throughout focuses almost entirely upon how salvation is construed as if the Trinity alone is the limiting factor in explaining soteriology. The implication almost seems to be that our problem is the need to be joined in a creaturely way to the divine processions by virtue of the missions. But even then, why is that our need? We must ask: What is that human condition assumed by the Son in his Incarnation?
The Reformed answer is that God made a covenant with Adam as our first representative that required him to render perfect obedience in order to obtain eschatological life— even the beatific vision if you like. Adam broke this covenant, causing the entire race to default on our principle debt of perfect obedience and accruing the penalty debt of death on account of sin. In his passing comments about penal substitution, Vidu may land some punches against a truncated evangelical version of the doctrine that focuses superficially on punishment. Reformed theology, however, has never had such a curtailed view of penal substitution. Rather, we understand that humanity had covenantal debts that required satisfaction, which is why the confessions consistently speak of Christ’s “satisfaction” rather than his “atonement,” which Christ did satisfy for the elect by his active and passive obedience. This abbreviated description of the doctrine may not satisfy those with strong reservations about penal substitution but should nonetheless show that Vidu’s criticisms may dent evangelicalism but have little to do with what confessional Reformed theology affirms about the nature of Christ’s death.
That situation of covenantal debt is the human condition and so must inform the Son’s mission. Vidu’s construction provides amazingly helpful insights about making sure that our formulation of the missions and processions protect classical orthodoxy and uphold traditional trinitarianism. It does seem, however, that Vidu neglected important traditional themes other than the Trinity. Our need in salvation is not simply to be joined creaturely to a divine procession. Rather, our need is to obtain reconciliation with God against whom we have rebelled. Vidu’s explanation of Christ’s death, even while rightly maintaining divine impassibility, gravitates more to metaphysical elevation than to covenantal reconciliation: “An ontologically-biased approach to the cross will not seek a constitutive logic, legal or otherwise, of atonement, bound up in some calculus that allows God to redeem. The cross does not move God. Rather, because God lay stretched on the cross, the cross acquires its power. Because God dies (in Christ’s human nature), death is defanged.”6 Our problem, however, is not strictly ontological since we did not need Christ’s cross by virtue of being creatures but because we are sinners. It is not clear how the cross is empowered ontologically to deal with sin. The ontological case, as it stands, does not clearly outline how it facilitates reconciliation between God and sinners. Yet, that need for reconciliation is precisely the other biblical consideration that needs to be added to the discussion as a proper limiting factor and explanatory category. In sum, especially the theme of the Son acting as the second Adam is the necessary supplement to round out the explanation of the Son’s mission and even how it relates to the Spirit’s.
As Fred Sanders has argued, properly formulated trinitarianism respects both theologia and oikonomia to provide the clearest description of the gospel.7 More specifically for Vidu’s more ontological salvation, Sanders aptly observed, “Not everything that God does is to be taken as revelatory of what he is. Some of what happens in the economy stays in the economy…There are other, non-biological aspects of salvation-history having more to do with the nature of humanity being saved than the character of the person doing the saving: metaphysical finitude, for example, characterizes not divinity but humanity.”8 He concluded, “the incarnational focus of divine self-revelation means that the Son of God undertakes his mission as a participation in our fallen human plight, not for his own sake but ‘for us and for our salvation’ as the Nicene Creed says. This being the case, what we see in Christ is God being himself under conditions that are not his native sphere, so to speak.” Sanders raised the necessary point that the divine processions as well as features of humanity’s need for rescue must both shape how we coordinate the relationship of processions and missions in respect to formulating its significance for soteriology.
This means, however, that traditionally Protestant soteriology should be strengthened by recovered trinitarian grammar of classical theism rather than to give ground, become less clear, or require revision. Perhaps the suggestion could be made that theology proper has the commanding place, meaning that a trinitarian formulation takes precedence to a soteric one. Even if true, the assumption should not be that the first immediate conclusion of a trinitarian formula in application to soteriology must be right if it means revising the latter. Rather, first we should do the hard work to see if other traditional theological categories help provide a resolution to bring both classical formulations together. After all, Vidu himself draws frequently upon John Owen who held his Thomistic trinitarianism fully in harmony with a robust Reformed theology of the covenants and soteriology.
The final installment in this series will look at Vidu’s book in relation to pneumatology and eschatology.
© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1. Vidu, Divine Missions, 55–56.
2. Oliver D. Crisp, Approaching the Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 96–114, 163–80; cf. Harrison Perkins, “The Context of the Cross,” Modern Reformation (July 7, 2020; accessed at https://modernreformation.org/resource-library/web-exclusive-articles/the-mod-the-context-of-the-cross/).
3.Vidu, Divine Missions, 63.
4. Vidu, Divine Missions, 110.
5. Vidu, Divine Missions, 42.
6. Fred Sanders, Fountain of Salvation: Trinity and Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), 32–53.
7. Sanders, Fountain of Salvation, 20.
8. Sanders, Fountain of Salvation, 21.
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