The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, by Herman Ridderbos (translated by John Vriend). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. Pp. xiii-721. $42.00. (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. Robert D. Decker.]
Herman Ridderbos, now retired, taught New Testament for many years at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in Kampen (GKN). Throughout his long career he wrote many books, among which are the excellent Commentary on Matthew in the Korte Verklaring Der Heilige Schrift series and Paul: An Outline of His Theology.
As the book’s title indicates, Ridderbos purposed to write a theological commentary on the Fourth Gospel. His purpose was to make clear from the exposition of this Gospel what its message is. What particular truth does John contribute to the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Does Ridderbos succeed in this? We think so, but with some reservations.
Because he aimed to focus on the message, and because he wanted to write for as wide an audience as possible, the author does not offer a treatment of all the “preliminary questions that have been raised with regard to the origin of the Fourth Gospel, such as
*whether it was originally a single composition,
*the issue of the independence (or otherwise) of the sources and the way they were handled by the Evangelist,
*this Gospel’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels,
*whether we have the material in the Gospel in the original form and order (which is doubted by many scholars),
*the ‘phases’ in the history of the Gospel’s origination, and the like. Opinions,” says Ridderbos, “on all these questions are widely divergent and come to us in a body of literature almost impossible to survey, consisting as it does in a vast multitude of separate studies and monograph” (pp. xiii-xiv).
The question, maintains Ridderbos, on which the Gospel focuses is, “Who is Jesus?” “The Evangelist,” writes Ridderbos, “views the real miracle of the coming and work of Jesus, the Christ, as the incarnation of the Word or, as he states in a no less pivotal pronouncement, as the descent of the Son of man (3:14)” (p. 13). “Hence,” the author continues, “to have ‘beheld’ the revelation of that glory in the flesh and to witness to him who thus dwelled among us forms the foundation and content of the Fourth Gospel” (p. 13). “Accordingly, this glory is nowhere depicted more visibly and audibly than in John, as is evident particularly from the emphasis placed there on the irrefutability and reality of Jesus’ miracles (9:18-34; 11:38-42; 20:27; also 2:9; 4:15ff.)” (pp. 13-14).
The language used by the author in the introduction does not sound as if Ridderbos believes the doctrine of plenary, verbal, infallible inspiration, even though he concludes the introduction with this statement: “The point at issue is always what Jesus said and did in his self-disclosure on earth, but it is transmitted in its lasting validity with the independence of an apostle who was authorized to speak by Jesus and endowed with the promise of the Spirit” (p. 16). The reader will have to decide this question for himself.
There is much to be said for this work. It is scholarly. The author interacts with the scholars and commentators in extensive notes on nearly every page. He obviously knows “what’s out there” on the Gospel of John. The book is enhanced by detailed, extensive name, subject, and Scripture text indices.
At the same time, there are very serious weaknesses in this work. The author denies the doctrine of predestination. Commenting on John 10:25-26 he writes, “here again … commentators often refer to ‘Johannine predestinationism.’ Undoubtedly the reference here is to the deepest grounds of faith and unbelief. ‘My sheep,’ after all, are those whom ‘the Father has given me’ (cf. vs. 29; 6:37ff., etc.). The text speaks of a predetermined situation, but it is rooted not in a divine decree but in ‘belonging to’ and living out of a spiritual field of dynamics other than that in which Jesus’ sheep are…. It is not the case, however, and here lies the permanent meaning of this confrontation, that the situation is closed from God’s side, as if Jesus has been sent by the Father merely to note that fact and to proclaim it as immutable” (p. 369). That the author denies predestination is evident as well from his comments on chapter 12:39-40, “Unbelief is not thereby blamed on God in a predestinarian sense, but is rather described as a punishment from God: he abandons unbelieving people to themselves, thus confirming them in their evil, blinding their eyes and hardening their hearts, as a result of which whatever God gives them to see and hear can no longer lead to salvation, that is, to repentance and healing” (pp. 444, 445).
This reviewer cannot determine from Ridderbos’ comments on chapter 20 whether he believes that Jesus arose from the dead.
Finally, in conclusion, my colleague, the Rev. Herman Hanko, who taught New Testament at the Protestant Reformed Seminary for over thirty years and who has read much of Ridderbos’ writings and who has written an extensive review of Ridderbos’ book, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, commented to me recently, “Herman Ridderbos has changed. The contemporary Ridderbos is not the Ridderbos of Korte Verklaring.” Korte Verklaring Der Heilige Schrift is a series of commentaries on all the books of the Bible written by Dutch professors and ministers in the 1930s. H.R. Ridderbos contributed a two-volume commentary on Matthew in this fine series.
A Sign of Faithfulness: Covenant & Baptism, by H. Westerink. Neerlandia, AB, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1997. 128 pages. Can. $9.95/US$8.90 (paper). [Reviewed by the editor.]
This translation of an earlier Dutch work by a teacher in the Christian schools says some good things about covenant and baptism, especially infant baptism. It vigorously contends for the unity of the covenant in the Old and New Testaments, as for the related inclusion of children in the covenant in the present dispensation. The author points out that in saving the children of believers God remembers “His own creation ordinances. In them He had given seed, family, generations, and nations their place” (p. 103).
But it comes out clearly that the covenant-conception promoted here holds that the covenant is with all the physical children alike, reprobate as well as elect. God promises salvation to all alike, evidently with the same attitude of love to all. In view of the perishing of some, this doctrine of the covenant is destructive of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, as well as of the power and veracity of the covenant promise.
In connection with his affirmation of a promise to all the children, the author insists that the promise “requires” faith. Never does he acknowledge that the promise also, and first of all, includes the benefit of faith, and then gives it. That is, to whomever God makes the covenant promise He promises to give faith, and then He keeps His promise.
The spate of books urging the peculiar covenant doctrine set forth here must raise the question with Reformed Christians, “Where in this covenant-conception is the sovereignty of God in salvation that is clearly and sharply confessed by the Canons of Dordt?” Or does not the gospel of salvation confessed in the Canons apply to the children of believers?