Vos on the Ordo Salutis (Qs 5-6)

chain-690088_640We must carefully distinguish among the acts of God and their ‘mutual connection’ when considering what the Bible teaches about the way of salvation.

In Q. 5 Vos notes briefly that Gisbertus Voetius (Dutch theologian, 1589-1676) is one example of an earlier Reformed classification of divine acts in a threefold manner:

  1. Reconciliation, justification and adoption are divine acts that alter our status before God.
  2. External calling and other ‘moral acts’ are those that are directed towards ‘the will of man with moral suasion’ but do not ‘transform inwardly’.
  3. Regeneration and glorification are divine acts that actually change us within.

Vos registers his approval of Voetius’ classification by commenting that ‘the main features are drawn quite correctly here’.


With Q. 6 Vos moves on to ask ‘What distinctions must we make with a view to arriving at a clear overview of these different acts in their mutual connection?’ His answer is to point to four key distinctions:

  1. Judicial acts vs. Re-creating acts.
    The former bring about a change of our relationship and status before God (e.g. justification). The latter actually produce a change inwardly in our condition (e.g. sanctification).
  2. Acts Under/In vs. For.
    God acts in such a way to apply salvation by means of acts that relate differently to the ‘consciousness of the sinner’. Acts such as regeneration are not consciously known by the sinner whereas acts such as justification are communicated to ‘the sinner’s consciousness of acquittal and merits of Christ’.
  3. Removing vs. Establishing acts.
    Sin must be removed. Righteousness must be enabled. Repentance relates to the former; regeneration to the latter. Vos insists that ‘these two – removing the old and establishing the new – accompany each other at every point’ in God’s gracious work in the sinner.
  4. Breakthrough vs. Further impact.
    God’s grace break in dramatically for the sinner. This relates most nearly to regeneration. And God’s grace continues to impact, renew and ‘develop’ the sinner who is saved by grace. This relates most closely to sanctification and the ongoing character of mortification and vivification.

Next up: How do these four different ‘groups’ of acts interrelate and how might they offer us important diagnostic questions for considering each step of the ordo salutis?


Machen on the Minister and His Greek Testament

J.G.MachenAlthough many students arrive at theological college eager to learn the biblical languages, some students (and some sending churches) have lingering questions over the value of learning Greek and Hebrew for pastoral ministry. Most of these questions are not new.

J. Gresham Machen was one of several who found himself addressing what he called the “widening breach between the minister and his Greek New Testament” as modernism and pragmatism began to impact seminaries and theological training a century ago. This was Machen’s diagnosis:

The modern minister objects to his Greek New Testament or is indifferent to it, first, because he is becoming less interested in his Greek, and second, because he is becoming less interested in his New Testament.

As to the first objection, that ministers and seminarians are less interested in Greek, Machen saw the disinterest in Greek as a symptom of a deeper malady afflicting modern education. He discerned a general cultural rejection of the humanities and classics that was mirrored by many in the churches. This, he traced ultimately to a pragmatic conception of education and anthropology.

As for the second objection, Machen did not mean to imply that ministers were completely neglecting the Bible, nor even that they were often spending too much time on ‘other duties than preaching’ (though he did think this was true). The problem went deeper as Machen proceeded to explain:

[T]he minister has ceased to be a specialist. The change appears, for example, in the attitude of theological students, even of a devout and reverent type. One outstanding difficulty in theological education today is that the students persist in regarding themselves not as specialists, but as laymen. Critical questions about the Bible they regard as the property of men who are training themselves for the theological professorships or the like, while the ordinary minister, in their judgment, may content himself with the most superficial layman’s acquaintance with the problems involved. The minister is no longer a specialist in the Bible, but has become merely a sort of general manager of the affairs of a congregation.

In Machen’s time, this, too, was a function of pragmatism and an impoverished view of what ordained Gospel ministry looked like. The results of such an approach to theological training were obvious to Machen.

First, ministers cannot be ‘specialists’ without a knowledge of the New Testament in Greek and will constantly be at the mercy of other experts or authorities. In this vein, Machen argued that “the student who is without at least a smattering of Greek is obliged to use for the most part works that are written, figuratively speaking, in words of one syllable.”

Second, ministers without the languages are, in many matters of theological importance “at the mercy of the judgment of others.” They are, Machen claimed, not equipped to “deal with all the problems at first hand” by grappling with the original text.

Third, ministers without Greek are ill-equipped to get to grips with critical questions of genre and structure of NT books in a way that enhances preaching and ministry by enabling them to understand and apply the text carefully. Machen contended that such ministers may ascertain the ‘content’ of the Scriptures but will struggle with the question of ‘form’ and, by implication, of function and purpose.

Machen argued in the strongest terms against this low view of the biblical languages in the theological curriculum.

[The Bible] is not merely one of the sources of the preacher’s inspiration, but the very sum and substance of what he has to say. But if so, then whatever else the preacher need not know, he must know the Bible; he must know it at first hand, and be able to interpret and defend it … The work cannot be turned over to a few professors whose work is of interest only to themselves, but must be undertaken energetically by spiritually minded men throughout the church. But obviously, this work can be undertaken to best advantage by those who have an important prerequisite for the study in a knowledge of the original languages upon which a large part of the discussion is based.

So what did Machen propose if we grant that the minister desperately needs to know and be able to use his Greek New Testament? He began by noting that the Koine Greek of the New Testament is not overly difficult, even for those who do not have a broad background in languages or the humanities. He quipped that “a very fair knowledge of it may be acquired by any minister of average intelligence.” Machen also made two practical suggestions:

  1. Always read the Greek NT aloud.
  2. Read the Greek NT every day without exception, “Sabbaths included.”

Machen concluded with a hearty exhortation:

Ten minutes a day is of vastly more value than seventy minutes once a week. If the student keeps a “morning watch,” the Greek Testament ought to be given a place in it; at any rate, the Greek Testament should be read devotionally. The Greek Testament is a sacred book, and should be treated as such. If it is treated so, the reading of it will soon become a source of joy and power.

A century later, those of us who teach Greek at Oak Hill College are still giving ourselves and our students the same advice.

Theological Education in Community



Ryan Glomsrud recently offered a historically-informed and attractive vision for theological education: living and learning in community.

Communal life of all sorts, academic, social, and residential, existed at these institutions both formally and informally. Formally, one thinks of the familiar routine of school-life: lectures, seminars, colloquies, chapels, conferences and activities that take up much of the day. But informal life together was almost as formative and important as the formal, existing alongside of and in support of the academic experience. At the time of the Reformation, countless students, aspiring Protestant pastors, and Reformed scholars exchanged personal letters, travelled extensively, and lived together in shared spaces, cultivating piety and the life of the mind. This served to enhance and supplement what was learned in the classroom and gleaned from books in myriad ways.

Dogs in the post-Reformation Leiden library; table-talk with Luther and Bucer; oranges, cigars, and tennis with Machen … the post on the Westminster Seminary California site is well worth reading.

Those of us who teach and learn together at Oak Hill College will resonate with much in Glomsrud’s piece. In an age when so many other modes of training are on offer, what a blessing full-time, residential training offers at seminaries and theological colleges like this! At Oak Hill many of us literally live together onsite. Faculty and students are neighbours. Discussions in lectures spill over into coffee chats in the Academic Centre or are continued over lunch in the dining room. Our study of the Scriptures, of their implications and applications and of the Triune God who reveals himself and redeems sinners issues in doxology in chapel and prayer triplets. Fellowship groups gather in faculty homes weekly for discussion, prayer and fun. Students (and sometimes even faculty!) are out on the football pitch or the ultimate frisbee field together each week. Student spouses meet regularly for prayer, Bible study and encouragement.

Although Oak Hill is not the church – indeed we exist to serve the church – the relational, intellectual and formational web woven by this kind of full-time residential theological study is dense, beautiful and powerful. In close partnership with sending and placement churches, such an experience for three or four years focuses and amplifies the effectiveness of Gospel ministry training in wonderful and lasting ways.

And what might this kind of training experience mean for the future of the churches and their ministers? Scott Manetsch has written of the kind of nascent yet rigorous theological education in Calvin’s Geneva that generated the sort of biblically and theologically robust ministers who were able to sustain and grow the initial work of the Reformation on the continent over time:

The fact that many members of the Company of Pastors shared the same educational background is important for several reasons. At the most basic level, the Academy’s intensive program in theology and exegesis helped prepare Geneva’s ministers for their vocation of interpreting and preaching the Word of God. In addition, the students who received their theological training at the Academy were exposed to a single system of doctrine and a common religious culture. If the lecture hall introduced them to reformed theology, the pattern of religious life in the city shaped their understanding of public worship, moral discipline, and ministerial comportment … This common program of theological education and religious enculturation – as well as Beza’s formidable leadership – goes far in explaining the confessional solidarity and cohesiveness displayed by the company of pastors during the half-century after Calvin’s death. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford, 2013).

What a privilege to live in such a learning community – one that embraces and is embraced by the churches but which concentrates theological resources in a way that no single church can. And what a privilege to learn in such a formative community where the goal is to be and become church ministers and workers who are always growing together in their proclamation of the Word of God and their worship of the God who has given us his Word.

Vos on the Ordo Salutis (Qs 3-4)

chain-690088_640There is a range of views among Reformed theologians on the ‘steps’ belonging to the ordo. It is therefore helpful to discern important points on which they differ, and why. Among these there are three critical concepts that need careful definition.

In Q3, Vos notes there is ‘a great variety’ of views on the ‘steps’ belonging to the ordo. In particular, theologians differ on:

•The steps involved.
•The sequence of the steps involved.
•Definitions of key terms.

In Q4, Vos highlights three critical biblical concepts in the ordo that every Reformed theologian ought to consider carefully and on which he or she ought to come to an articulated view. These three are regeneration, calling, and repentance. Of course there are other important and related concepts Scripture gives us to think with as we consider salvation. But defining and relating these three, Vos says, is of particular importance.

Defining Regeneration
The first important point is ‘the varying and unclear definition of the concept of regeneration’. Vos notes especially a triad of considerations:

1. Is ‘regeneration’ synonymous with ‘conversion’?
Yes – Canons of Dort Chs. 3-4, Articles 11-12; John Owen?; many 17th cent. theologians.
No – Turretin, who wants a more careful distinction and ‘makes mention of a double conversio‘: one ‘habitual and passive’ – this is regeneration properly so-called; an implanted habitus; – the other ‘active and effective’ – this is conversion, in which the regenerate person exhibits faith and repentance; ‘the exercising in faith and repentance of the already implanted habitus‘.

2. Regeneration and internal calling
Most Reformed theologians consider regeneration and conversion ‘under the concept of internal calling‘. Vos notes that terms are differently applied here as well – for some (e.g. Wollebius) internal calling is synonymous with ‘new creation’ or ‘regeneration’. For others (e.g. Leiden Synopsis) calling more or less stands for regeneration. They order the steps as (1) calling, (2) faith, (3) conversion. Calling (and thus regeneration) is also equated by some with union.

3. Regeneration and sanctification
Still others see regeneration ‘as almost completely synonymous with’ sanctification. Calvin (Institutes 3.3.9) seems to suggest this in part. This view takes the term ‘in a very wide sense’ and views the ‘entire process by which the old nature of man is transformed into a new nature resembling the image of God’.

Thus, it is evident that we must take care to define terms related to regeneration precisely and to bear in mind the semantic ranges and contexts of these important theological terms in the history of theology.

Defining Calling
The second, related, point is the lack of clarity in defining the concept of calling.

Here Vos has in mind distinctions between internal and external calling, where the former emphasises the ‘immediacy of action’ and thus comes very close to regeneration.

Defining Repentance
The third important concept which is ‘not always clearly distinguished’ is repentance.

When we speak of repentance, do we mean ‘instantaneous actions at a critical moment’? Or do we mean ‘long processes that accompany the whole of life’?

Next up: What kinds of distinctions have been made among the steps of God’s saving acts in the ordo which might prove helpful to us?


Vos on the Ordo Salutis (Qs 1-2)

chain-690088_640There is a biblically-revealed, logical order to the work of salvation, one that highlights the glory of God’s work in Christ …

Geerhardus Vos is known for being a biblical theologian – in fact many would say Vos was the ‘father of Reformed biblical theology’. Yet this biblical theologian was also – already – a systematic theologian even before his best known writings on biblical theology emerged.

Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics has recently appeared in English translation for the first time thanks to Prof. Richard Gaffin, his team and Lexham Press. These volumes are basically gathered lecture ‘notes’ and follow a catechetical-style, question and answer format. Each of the five volumes is well worth reading carefully. In this and subsequent posts, I want to extract, highlight and reflect upon sections from Volume Four: Soteriology.

Q1. What is understood under the ordo salutis, the “order of salvation”?

The series of acts and steps in which the salvation obtained by Christ is subjectively appropriated by the elect …

In the answer to Q2, Vos notes that the classical biblical text for the ordo salutis, namely Romans 8:28-30, ‘gives us an ordered sequence’ by which to understand God’s work to glorify himself by saving sinners in Christ. It’s worth recalling what that key text teaches:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 20 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

In the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans 8 these penultimate verses serve the purpose, among other things, of grounding and explaining God’s loving goodness towards believers and the Spirit’s intercessory work, particularly in the face of weakness, persecution and suffering. But in so doing, vv. 28-30 also open a revealed window for us into the wisdom of how God has so ordered the logic of salvation in a way that both blesses the believer and glorifies himself.

In Q2, Vos goes on to comment that this ‘subjective application of salvation obtained by Christ’ is organised in the way these verses reveal:

[It] does not occur at once or arbitrarily … There are a multiplicity of relationships and conditions to which all the operations of grace have a certain connection.

Without this order, Vos argues (with Romans 8 in mind),

[t]he fullness of God’s works of grace and the rich variety of His acts of salvation would not be prized and appreciated.

That is to say, as we come to see that there is an order to salvation and begin to grasp its aspects and interconnections more clearly from Scripture, we we will find ourselves more and more humbled by God’s gracious work for us and, by implication, our faith will be strengthened.

Vos adds that this insight from Romans 8 not only opens up a rich and deep theological vein to trace out more clearly in and on the basis of Scripture; it further teaches us to persevere in patience and to recall that God’s glory is his chief end (and ours), even in salvation:

Consequently, the Scripture gives us an ordered sequence (e.g., Rom 8:28-30). At the same time, this order shows us that even in what is most subjective the purpose of God may not be limited to the satisfaction of the creature’s longing for blessedness. If this were so, then the order that is slow and in many respects tests the patience of the children of God would be lost. But here, too, God works first of all to glorify Himself according to the principles of an eternal order and an immanent propriety.

Next up: but do Reformed theologians agree on the inner logic and connections of this ordo?

Do we need Academic Caesars or Servant-Leaders?


Steve Fuller, professor  of social epistemology at Warwick, writes today in the Times Higher Education that we need Roman-style dictators to lead our academic institutions in the current cultural moment and political climate:

This probably sounds vaguely threatening and, to a certain extent, it is meant to be. In the first instance, a Caesar of university leadership must be a proven academic who can command the respect of other academics (just as the Roman dictator had to command the respect of the other magistrates). But academic Caesars must also be consummate politicians. They must know the strengths and, especially, the weaknesses of their colleagues, so that they can divide and rule, impose their will and get some radical things done.

Yes, it sounds threatening. It also sounds utterly pragmatic. And it sounds like a place most of us wouldn’t like to teach.

Some of Fuller’s goals (financial stability, enfranchising alumni) are very attractive, even in my own, relatively small theological training institution. But surely there are wiser, more principled – and more theologically reflective – ways to proceed.

Fuller’s points about knowledge for the ‘public good’ and even the ‘vulgarisation of knowledge’ are surely worth considering, especially when we’re talking about Christian theology and Gospel ministry. But I’m sceptical of the values driving his strategic vision for increasing access to knowledge and re-imagining university level education in this country. Moreover, there are cautions here for theological college and church ‘leaders’ – I’d suggest Caesar is not the first-century ‘king’ we want to emulate.

Dignity versus liquidity



Zygmunt Bauman, reflecting on Boris Akunin’s concept of ‘aristonomy’, prefers to speak of human dignity. Bauman suggests five characteristic conditions or aspects of an ‘aretonomic’ or ‘fair and decent’ personality (Bauman and Obirek, On the World and Ourselves, 21-3):

  1. Foremost for Bauman is a kind of telicity:

[F]irst and probably the main characteristic, a kind of meta-characteristic – an axis around which all of the remaining elements of personality revolve, having been set and kept in motion by it – is, as I believe, the sense of a task to be accomplished; a task over and above the mundane concern for survival; a task capable of constituting an individual as an indispensable, unique and irreplaceable link in the order of things. Without complete dedication to it, and without continuously earnest effort, the task is impossible to accomplish.

2. Next comes dependability or

what Thorstein Veblen a century ago called ‘the instinct of workmanship’, which is in turn a condition of what Tadeusz Kotarbinski … associated in his 1955 ‘Tract of Good Work’ with the trait of reliability (or dependability). A dependable person is one who can be relied upon to pursue a given task to the best of his/her ability, to make good a promise made to him/herself and to others; a trustworthy person, a person who is known to do all in his/her power not to disappoint the trust vested in him/her by others.

3. Third, for Bauman, is honour (or integrity?):

This is a particularly complex quality, defying any attempt at a comprehensive inventory of its contents – but foremost among it traits are respecting the promises made, consistency in one’s actions and conduct, and acceptance of inalienable responsibility for their consequences for oneself and others … Hypocrisy and duplicity are antonymns of honour. An honourable person walks the road s/he advises others to take … honour requires admitting errors committed and sincere effort to correct mistakes … ‘Amicus ego’, the ancient teachers of virtue would say, ‘sed magis amica veritas’ [I am a friend, but truth is a greater friend].

4. Responsibility is Bauman’s fourth characteristic of dignity:

My personal responsibility for joint/shared welfare needs to stay always one step ahead of others’ responsibility for my own – with an incessant awareness that this is how things are and how they ought to be.

5. Finally, Bauman focuses on empathy (which he carefully distinguishes from tolerance):

[E]mpathy with other humans: a difficult art, one of the most difficult dignity demands – but there can be no dignity without the constant effort to master it … all encounters offer aretonomes occasions to advance their recognition of, and respect for, the subjectivity – alterity, otherness – of the other. Let’s beware, however, of confusing empathy with blanket tolerance, or with papering over or smothering differences for the sake of peace, or with indifference … We speak here of empathy defined by the principle of sapere aude, etiam curare aude … (‘Dare to know, also dare to care’).

Bauman’s thoughts are worth considering from the vantage point of the biblical doctrines of common grace and anthropology, particularly with relation to the central category of the image of God and in connection with current debates over access to the ‘good life’ and what constitutes ‘human flourishing’. His emphases are notably on duties rather than rights.