Review: J. M. Vorster’s The Gift of Life (Part 1): Political Liberalism Or Liberation Theology?

North-West University Professor J. M. Vorster’s The Gift of Life: Toward an ethic of human personhood (2021) represents a crowning of his career as a Reformed Pastor, theologian, and ethicist in the South African context.1 I review this volume as a fellow office-bearer within the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA) with a view to her spiritual health and as a cautionary tale for those denominations with which she enjoys fraternal bonds. My review does not follow the customary form of outlining the contents of the book before engaging in critique. Instead, I focus on claims made by Vorster that are problematic from a biblical, confessional, and church-order perspective. This review is a sobering reminder of what can happen to a confessional Reformed communion that opens the door to identity politics. When freedom in Christ takes a disembodied political turn, gender and sexual distinctions are of little value in the family and the church. Vorster has led the charge in the RCSA in arguing for and implementing female ordination to special office. In The Gift of Life, he gives theological legitimization to this charge, and also entertains the acceptance of monogamous same-sex relationships: both under the auspices of freedom and equality in Christ per the likes of Galatians 3:28.2

I introduce this review with comments on the title of Vorster’s book. All Christians can agree that life is a gift from God, both temporally and eternally. However, the notion of “human flourishing” to describe the Christian pilgrimage is contestable. Terms synonymous with or approximating the word “flourishing” in The Gift of Life include “fulfilling” (3, 27, 32), “dignified” (71ff), “thriving” (182) and “blessed” (200). To be sure, there is a sense in which the Christian and the non-Christian alike can enjoy intermittent degrees of justice, success and even flourishing as they share in a common humanity under the terms of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 8–9; cf. Rom. 13). The book of Proverbs clearly bears this out (cf. Prov. 11:28; 14:11).

Yet, the goal of Christian “flourishing” is hardly a way to describe the plight of humanity East of Eden, especially outside of ancient theocratic Israel. Beyond the cursed nature of life due to sin, the book of Ecclesiastics teaches that common earthly existence is continually destabilized by vanity and emptiness. More profoundly, the Christian life that Jesus describes as “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount is not one to which a rational individual would aspire: a life of suffering, humiliation, and cross-bearing (cf. Matt. 5–7; 16:24–28). Were Vorster writing a book about Proverbs or the common good, then his title could be more fitting. But he has written one that construes all of life as subsumed by Christ’s one redemptive kingdom through special grace.

The tension introduced by the title to Vorster’s volume extends to the many aspects of its contents. Importantly, he claims to be arguing from a self-consciously Reformed position (5ff, 45). Yet, a cursory reading of the volume reveals that among his main supportive interlocuters are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a progressive Lutheran, and the neo-orthodox Karl Barth and his followers, like Jürgen Moltmann. When Vorster does interact with the orthodox confessional Reformed, engagement is thin and mostly critical. These observations cannot but raise several initial concerns with Vorster’s vision for “human flourishing” that utilizes a hermeneutic of “congruent theology.” Where do the author’s sympathies lie? Are they with the historic confessional Reformed tradition of the RCSA and her conservative sister churches, or with the theological progressivism of mainline Reformed churches in South Africa and abroad?

I. Political liberalism or liberation theology?

The Gift of Life must be commended for encouraging believers to be concerned for human dignity, human rights, and civic justice. On one level, Vorster roots this pursuit in the doctrine of natural law, which is shared by the historic Lutheran, Reformed and Presbyterian traditions. God’s natural law is revealed in the created order and is perceived by all of humankind because of their divine image-bearing, despite sin. While this revelation is also disclosed and sharpened in Scripture, Vorster insists that the Bible should not be treated as a scientific manual (40, 199, 133). In other words, special revelation has limits as to what it can prescribe for the specifics of civil life. For example, Scripture does not teach a form of civil government (138).

However, Vorster’s use of natural law is eclectic in that it lacks the interlocking framework of God’s two kingdoms, which has featured in the historic reformational traditions. While he affirms John Calvin’s notion that church and state are two separate “kingdoms,” and that the state must recognize God’s natural laws (138–139), there is little engagement, let alone support, of a historic Lutheran and Reformed two kingdoms paradigm (cf. 108, 137–142).3 Problems with allowing natural law to “float” unhinged from God’s dual mediatorial reign in Christ becomes more apparent as The Gift of Life attempts to chart a kind of moral order that Christians should support.

In a number of places, Vorster rightly warns of the moral revisionism introduced by a postmodern West over a half-century ago. Among other things, this means that “truth has become relative and old forms of truth have lost their credence” (135; cf. 17). In turn, a postmodern ethic has challenged traditional norms, especially those of gender, sexuality, and marriage (108).

Considering Vorster’s endorsement of the natural law tradition, it is not surprising to find his enthusiasm for the human rights agenda embedded in political liberalism. He sees it as the best way to preserve and enhance human dignity, equality, and freedom of (religious) expression (99, 145). Yet, his ethic for human flourishing is at the same time wary of the excesses of capitalism that have often attended the Western experiment in constitutional democracy.

A prominent theme throughout The Gift of Life is justice for the oppressed and marginalized. Vorster sees this justice, however, as extending beyond equality of opportunity irrespective of race, gender, and sexuality afforded by the best of constitutional democracy. This justice also includes aspects of a Marxist-socialist quest for wealth redistribution and a postmodern search for egalitarianism. As to the former, Christians can apparently benefit from the insights of (Marxist-dependent) liberation theology for its concept of freedom for the marginalized and oppressed in the socio-political domain (96). Concerning the latter, the postmodern turn has supposedly helped remind everyone that truth claims are neither acontextual nor morally neutral (120). Furthermore, Vorster argues that—like the individual moral agent in broader society—the Pastor must shepherd his flock in a “solidary-critical” way by giving sermons that are a “plausible option to consider in the supermarket of passing ideas presented to the postmodern person” (135).

©Rev. Dr. Simon Jooste. All Rights Reserved.

Part 2.

Part 3.


1. For an overview of the history of religion and politics in the South African context, see Jooste 2021.

2. For more thorough engagement of Vorster in the context of the women in office debate within the Reformed Churches in South Africa, see Jooste 2022.

3. See VanDrunen, 2010.


Jooste, S. N., 2022, Embodiment and Power: The Essential Nature of Office in the Identity

Politics Debate, Calvin Jubilee Bookfunds, Potchefstroom/ Amazon Kindle.

Jooste, S. N., 2021, “From Orange to Pink: A History of Politics and Religion in South Africa’s Cape Town”, Modern Reformation Magazine, Nov-Dec 21;

Machen, J. G., 1923, Christianity and Liberalism, Macmillan, New York.

Thiselton, A., 1997, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, Zondervan, Grand Rapids.

VanDrunen, D., 2010, Natural Law and Two Kingdoms: The Development of Reformed Social Thought, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Vorster, J. M., 2021, The Gift of Life: Toward an ethic of flourishing personhood, Aosis, Cape Town. Online access:


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