A Summary of Vos's Redemptive-Historical Method

Hey, Joanna!

You're welcome for the info.

> Still trying to puzzle my way through exactly what redemptive historicism is

Joel Doerfel told a group of us a long while back that the term "Redemptive-Historical" refers to the hermeneutical method, and "Biblical Theology" refers to the theological data or system which is derived from scripture using that method. That's a helpful distinction.

I think the two central emphases in Geerhardus Vos's R-H method and biblical theology are:

1) The progress of God's redemptive activity. Here is where you see the characteristic emphases of 19th Century German Historicism, which is a method of interpreting history, promoted centrally by Leopold Von Ranke, and evident in the philosophies of history of Compte, Hegel, and Marx. The German liberal theologians used this method generally; Vos corrected their method of interpreting the history of God's redeeming activity and of His revelatory message especially by bringing their historical method more closely into line with traditional Reformed theology (5 points of Calvinism, solas, reformed doctrine of scripture, revelation, theology, anthropology, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc.) In doing so, Vos thereby gave reformed theology a historical methodology it had previously lacked, and enabled reformed theology to meet more adequately the criticisms presented by the liberals. But at the same time, he did not use the more faithfully biblical method of critiquing and reconstructing unbelieving systems of thought which was developed by Cornelius Van Til, and as a result Vos did not remove all the traces of German Historicism from his method, and so I think that further refinements of Vos's system of Biblical Theology can be made by reformed thinkers who are deeply sympathetic to both Vos and Van Til; that is what I've tried to do.

2) The two-age or two-realm eschatology. The sharp antithesis between, and yet progress from the former to the latter, of this age and the age to come (which is primarily the OT eschatology, in Vos's view), and the "earthly" realm and the "heavenly" realm (which is primarily the NT, Pauline eschatology, in Vos's view), is what drives the progress of God's redemptive activity, for Vos. History progresses from the earlier to the later (forward), and from the earthly to the heavenly (upward). But in the end, we retrospectively discover that it was the end (heaven) which guided the whole process; everything prior to the consummation is of no lasting value. This creation will be burned. Even, of no ultimate interpretive value, because we are to "set our minds on things above, not on earthly things;" our interpretation should start by assuming the things of heaven, and context of heaven, and evaluate all else in light of heaven. Among other things, this is an attempt to place GOD and His revelation first in our thinking, which is precisely what Van Til does as well. But the attempt fails,

1) insofar as it replaces God with "heaven," which is, like it or not, actually part of this creation.

2) Insofar as it directs us to focus only on the (chronological) end of God's revelation and activity (words and deeds), the end of history, as if that is the only place God and true knowledge may be found. This sounds too much like the epistemological utopia toward which Hegel directed our thoughts: the final synthesis of all prior thought, developed out of what came before yet simultaneously antithetical to it. Over against this focus on the end, I think it is equally biblical to focus on the beginning, to find a foundation for our knowledge. The beginning is the foundation, the end is the goal, of God's revelation, and our knowledge. He "declares the end from the beginning." (Isaiah 46:10) If you look in the context, at the cross-references in a reference bible, then trace out the related contexts in Isaiah (cf. 40:21; 41:4, 26), you can see that God really does have the beginning of creation and revelation in mind when He says He declares the end from the "beginning." R-H folks take this thread in scripture to argue that even Gen. 1 is eschatological; it has a forward look toward the consummation, directing our gaze to the consummation. But I would like to see them emphasize more often that at the same time, it is Gen. 1 which directs their gaze! In other words, yes, Gen. 1 is teaching the importance of eschatology, but it is not telling us to ignore its own teaching; Gen. 1 is presenting the foundation for our thinking. Especially, it teaches that "In the beginning, GOD...." Before all considerations of creation, our concern must be directed to God. He existed before creation was revealed, and is the foundation behind creation. All things are from Him, through Him, and unto Him, so that to Him be the glory forever. (Rom. 11:36) In other words, it seems to me that the beginning of both creation and revelation is on a par with the middle, and with the end as well, because God is equally involved in, and equally revealing Himself through, each of them. When R-H folks say that "eschatology precedes soteriology," I always want to ask, "in what way?" I agree if they mean the covenant of works precedes the covenant of grace, in history, and provides a foundation for the covenant of grace. But if they mean that eschatology is more systematically prolegomenary to systematic theology or to theology as a whole than are the traditional loci of reformed systematic theology, I find that troubling. In regard to the way the history of God's revelation and redemption (words and deeds) works, that is, in regard to chronological order ( = concern of history and BT), and causal and/or logical order (more the concern of systematic theology), I would prefer to say that "protology precedes eschatology." As Bavinck and Berkhof show, I think, the debate between infra- and supra-lapsarianism demonstrates that it is unwise to say that we can know the order between God's decree of election and His decree of creation. Which comes first, redemptive HISTORY (creation) or REDEMPTIVE history (election)? It's better to say that neither comes first; both are equally basic to Christian doctrine. Likewise, I believe, with all the loci of systematic theology; each is equally basic, equally essential. There does remain an order between them; the order I mentioned above (starting with "theology, anthropology...") is an important logical one, but it is difficult to say that any one locus is more prolegomenary than the other; they are equally prolegomenary. But I guess this point is one I find difficult to understand, and you will probably have just as much trouble.

I might just say that if the Pauline eschatology directs us anew to "set our minds on things above," so did Gen. 1:1, originally. I hesitate to say that the OT and NT eschatologies are so different from one another. Liberal theology certainly denied that the OT and NT had the same eschatology; Vos tries to resolve the dialectical tensions set up by liberal scholars*, partly by denying them and replacing them with orthodox doctrine (yayyyy!), but also by allowing some dialectical tensions to remain. Those who follow Van Til closely enough will recognize that to allow a dialectical tension to remain in our theology spells the death of our theology, and allows it to be a rebellion against God (in whom there is no such dialectical tension). Those who don't follow Van Til close enough on that point will not feel uncomfortable using the term "dialectical" to describe the relationships between one part of our theology and another, and some of my professors and friends here use the term that way. Thankfully, Gaffin does not; he knows the difference. He is more of a follower of Bavinck than are some other Vosians; Bavinck emphasizes the indispensably foundational function of the beginning of history and revelation. Gaffin also understands Van Til extremely well, and desires to avoid dialecticism in his theology at every point. So there's part of an answer. ; )

(*Note: Sorry I can't take time to enumerate them here; it's impossible to remember or track down all of them. They follow lines like this: OT-horizontal eschatology, NT-vertical eschatology; Jesus-horizontal/vertical, Paul-vertical. Earth-heaven; nature-grace; law-grace; etc.)

3) Insofar as Vos's earthly-heavenly distinction is influenced unbiblically at points by the Kantian Nature-Freedom or Phenomenal-Noumenal distinction. Earth takes on the character of scientific, objective, causal order, heaven takes on the character of religious, non-objectifiable freedom from that earthly order. I don't mean Vos was a follower of Kant. He wasn't. Rather, he was using the theological and biblical-studies terminology of his time, which had developed in the context of German liberalism. German liberalism followed Kant intentionally, and unintentionally could not escape his influence (still today, hardly anyone really is free from his influence, though it is much more on the unintentional side today.) Vos was primarily, and thoroughly, a reformed, and scriptural, theologian. But his terminology bears the marks of his context, and that Kantian coloring and shaping lingering in his many two-fold (heavenly-earthly) distinctions has its influence on his theological system as a whole.

The influence of Kant allows Vos's description of the relation between the beginning and the end, and heaven and earth, to have a dialectical character. What I mean by the term "dialectic" is: a structure in which two poles simultaneously mutually presuppose and mutually exclude one another, where the one pole is relatively "universal" in character, and the other pole is relatively "particular" in character. You can find some detailed work on this at http://www.alwaysreformed.com/publicdocs/papers. The beginning and the end, heaven and earth, presuppose each other for Vos. We only know heaven in terms of the earth, and earth in terms of heaven. But at the same time, they exclude one another. This earth is passing away; this age is passing away. The wisdom of God is antithetical to the wisdom of man. I'm sorry to leave things like this, without much more explanation at this point, but the link I gave you above tries to give an orthodox way to reconceive of dialectical constructs, so as to be more faithful to scripture. The trick, you might say, is in distinguishing the biblical CONFLICT between good and evil from the biblical harmonious RELATION between universality and particularity. Unbelievers want to say the harmonious relation is the good-evil conflict, and to say that scripture teaches this, even that this dialectical construct is at the heart of who God is. Vos is wonderfully biblical throughout! But at points he makes this mistake, I believe, of allowing dialecticism into his theology, when he identifies the earlier and earthly as bad, without distinguishing between the originally good creation and the subsequently fallen creation. Creation is now BOTH originally good and (subsequently) fallen; it is BOTH good and bad. The goodness of creation is not merely by virtue of redemption (the future, the end), but also by virtue of creation (the past, the beginning.) Again, God, and even Christ, is both the Alpha and the Omega, arche and telos, protos and eschatos. He has been from the beginning, and He has declared it, from the beginning. Creation's goodness is from Him, and we should honor Him for it.

> It was really helpful...I thought he was fair in his criticism.

He is; he sounds to me like a middle ground between those at Greenville who don't know Vos and current BT circles very well at all, and the Vosians themselves. He is not just critiquing BT; he is introducing Greenville and their constituency to BT. I think.

> Do you lean more towards the redemptive-historic side after studying with Gaffin (you've had classes with him, right?)?

I find Gaffin more deeply and carefully biblical, and more theologically well-rounded, than others I've heard in BT circles. I don't really want to be picking sides; I feel there is only one "side" in the debate really; the BT circle(/s) is trying to define itself over against everyone else (theonomy, traditional reformed dogmatics, neo-Calvinism, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, etc.) Or I suppose there are many sides. I think the movement is giving the reformed community an excellent way to delve deeply into the message of scripture, and that we MUST be biblical-theological or redemptive-historical in our hermeneutics. But I am opposed to treating Vos as a perfect paradigm through which to read scripture; I think such a method fails, and will be recognized as such more and more as time goes on. The language and worldview of German liberalism is fading from the minds of theologians and the broader culture; Kant as well is losing steam as postmodern critiques more and more emphasize the internal problems of modernity, as an exercise in self-criticism. Vos directed us to be faithful to scripture; we should continue that line in him, and not the trappings of his liberal theological context.

> Are you liking The Hobbit so far?

Yeah! I'll tell you when it's done.

Take care!

In Christ,

Tim