PAUL: AN OUTLINE OF HIS THEOLOGY, by Herman Ridderbos; translated by John Richard de Witt; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975; $12.95, 587 pp.
This massive work by Professor Ridderbos, professor of New Testament for many years in the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in Kampen, first appeared in the Dutch language under the title, Paulus. Already in the Dutch edition it created a considerable stir both in the Netherlands and in America. It will, no doubt, attract much more attention now that it has been translated into English. There is no doubt about it that it is an important work. Already several Reformed theologians in this country have paid homage to some of the views advanced by Professor Ridderbos, and we may expect that the book will continue to have an impact upon theology in this country arid abroad. Whether the influence of this book is good or bad is quite another question.
There are many interesting and excellent features about the book, and anyone interested in recent developments in theology will have to read it. The commendable aspects of the book are easily enumerated. It treats in some detail higher critical hermeneutics and has some important information to offer in this field. It is a thorough treatment of all the main themes in the writings of the apostle Paul and summarizes what Paul’s epistles have to say concerning many of the important articles of the Reformed faith. In some respects certain doctrines, emphasized in Paul’s writings, are extensively treated and developed, and the book is a valuable aid in getting these doctrines clearly before one’s mind. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the book, and also the most valuable, is the detailed exegesis of many passages in Paul’s epistles. Oftentimes this exegesis contributes valuable insights in the meaning of the text. The book is a scholarly exegetical discussion, and shows Professor Ridderbos’ profound exegetical skills. A detailed textual reference in the back of the book will aid the student of Scripture in finding those passages of Scripture which Ridderbos takes the time to explain.
E.g., I found the discussion on the following subjects of special interest: the discussion of Romans 5:12ff. which treats of the imputation of Adam’s sin; the discussion of the forensic aspect of justification; the discussion of the relation of the church to the magistrates; and the discussion of the expression “body of Christ” as used by Paul, etc.
All these things and many more make the book instructive and fascinating. The rather steep price of the book is worth the investment.
Nevertheless, the book has serious faults. There are, of course; a number of places where one would disagree with Ridderbos’ exegesis and with his interpretation of Paul’s writings. This is bound to happen. No one can write a book with which every one would agree in all its details. We are not interested in these things; nor do they subtract from the significance of the book. But there are several very important faults in the book which are worth our closer attention. Two of these faults are wrong interpretations of Paul’s writings at key points; one is what I consider to be a serious mistake in methodology. The first two have to do with Paul’s doctrine of the old and new man and Paul’s doctrine of eternal election. The third has to do with the whole approach to Scripture which is implied in “a theology of Paul.” To each of these we turn our attention.
Dr. Anthony Hoekema, in his book “The Christian Looks At Himself,” takes the position that the Christian makes a serious mistake if he thinks of himself as a wretched sinner. He must, asserts Hoekema, have a more positive opinion of himself. Hoekema correctly points out that this question involves an interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 where Paul concludes a discussion of his own spiritual experience with the words: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Hoekema tells us that this passage must be interpreted as a description of Paul prior to his regeneration. It is obvious that Hoekema can maintain his thesis that a Christian must have a positive self-image only by interpreting Romans 7 in this way. In several articles in the Reformed Journal which formed the basis for Hoekema’s book, he tells us that he gained this insight into Romans 7 from Ridderbos’ book which we are now reviewing. Ridderbos writes:
Finally, as regards the much discussed difference of opinion—which to the present day has not been brought to a solution that is in some degree generally accepted—as to whether the discord delineated in
ff. is to be understood as pertaining to the remaining struggle against sin in the Christian life or whether Paul here intends to represent the importance of the ego outside Christ and the power of his Spirit, we have elsewhere chosen with conviction for the latter view on the ground of a detailed analysis of the context and the text of
and wish to maintain that with undiminished force. (p. 126, italics is ours.)
It lies outside of the scope of this review to examine in detail the arguments which Ridderbos advances in support of his position. I have done this at some length in several articles in the Theological Journal, and the material need not be reproduced here. (Cf.Theological Journal, Vol. V, 1; VI, 1; VII, 1). There are, however, a couple of remarks concerning this that ought to be made. In the first place, it is interesting that Jacobus Arminius was first suspicioned of heresy by his colleague Plancius in the congregation of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam when he took the same position as Ridderbos on this passage of Romans 7. The views of Arminius and his followers were later condemned by the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19. Interestingly, neither Ridderbos nor Hoekema makes any reference to this historical fact. Theological integrity within the sphere of the Reformed faith would seem to require that they would do this.
In the second place, it is really impossible to maintain the view that Paul is speaking in Romans 7 of himself before his regeneration unless one does become an Arminian in this key point of his theology. Paul writes: “For the good that I would I do not.” If this is true of the unregenerated Paul, then it follows that Paul could will the good before he was regenerated. This is exactly Arminianism. And into this Arminianism Ridderbos falls. On p. 128 he writes:
In our judgment too little account is taken in this way of what we have already observed above concerning the differentiated and shaded picture that the apostle gives of the bondage of sin and its corrupting operation in man.
does not fall outside that, but brings it out in still fuller relief. The idea of and zeal for the good have not been quenched in the same way in all men, Jew and gentile, under the law and without the law. It is in harmony neither with the teaching of Jesus nor with that of Paul to deny zeal for the law or desire for the good to every man outside Christ, or to consider such impossible in him. (Italics ours)
By taking this position Ridderbos clearly agrees with the theology of Arminianism, and, to the extent that he does this, he puts himself outside of the camp of Reformed theology.
The second. point that needs emphasis is Ridderbos’ treatment of the doctrine of predestination.
There are one or two remarks about this which we ought to make before a more specific examination is made of Ridderbos’ views. In the first place, it seems incredible that in a book written on the “theology of Paul” by a “Reformed” theologian, there are only about 15 pages at the most out of 560 dealing with what anyone knows to be the central doctrine of Paul’s writings. This is more than passing strange. Even the relatively unimportant doctrine of the relation of the Christian to the magistrate receives almost 7 pages. In the second place, the discussion, especially when Ridderbos sets forth what he believes concerning predestination, is vague. It is not easy to know from what he writes exactly what his view is. This is strange when one is treating a doctrine which is so much the heart and core of the Reformed faith.
To turn more specifically to this question, one thing is clear: Ridderbos rejects the doctrine of eternal and sovereign predestination. His view is quite similar to that of Berkouwer. In fact, I have heard that Berkouwer was surprised and pleased to discover that Ridderbos did agree so closely with him on this matter because, as Berkouwer claims, both arrived at their views independently. However this may be, neither one of these two theologians, leaders in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, want this doctrine. Ridderbos first of all denies that Romans 9teaches election and reprobation. He writes:
(In this passage) a “natural” birth does take place, but God once more intervenes by designating, not the elder, Esau, but the younger, Jacob, contrary to all custom and expectation, as the continuation of the holy line of the people of God.
In a footnote to this passage, Ridderbos adds:
That this is the point in question and not “election and reprobation” as the denotation of the eternal destiny of both is clearly apparent from the words of the divine statement: “the elder shall serve the younger.” In vs. 13, too, Jacob and Esau are spoken of as two peoples, in harmony with
It is clear from this that Ridderbos denies not only that Romans 9 speaks of sovereign predestination, but that he also interprets this as many before him have done, as referring to God’s choice of the nation of Israel as a special nation with a special destiny. This, of course, not only implies a denial of reprobation, but implies an acceptance of the basic Arminian position on predestination. A few additional quotes will serve to bring this out.
God is free to have mercy on whom he will; on the other hand he is free to pass by others with this mercy and even to harden them in their sin. Paul is not guided here by an abstract concept of divine freedom, but by the freedom of God’s grace as this has revealed itself in the history of Israel. The apostle observes a clear divine intention in it. . . .God is free to maintain the validity, not of human effort or strength, but of his grace only. He is also free, therefore, to make the resistance of others, in this case of Pharaoh, subservient to the sovereignty of his grace and the glory of his name revealed therein by hardening them in this resistance.
Although somewhat unclear, this is not so bad yet. But then he shows that he does not want to refer all this to an eternal decree when he writes:
If the potter is free to give the objects he makes of clay the destiny that seems best to him in the conduct of his work as a potter, would God then not be free, in order to show the power of his work and the riches of his glory on those whom he has destined to that end, not as yet to give up immediately to judgment those to whom his wrath goes forth (because of their sin) and who are therefore ripe for destruction, but first to demonstrate to them the power of his grace on his people?
The purport of Paul’s argument ii not to show that all that God hoes in history has been fore-ordained from eternity and therefore, so far as his mercy as well as his hardening is concerned, has an irresistible and inevitable issue. Rather, it is his intention to point out in the omnipotence of God’s activity the real intention of his purpose. (p. 345, italics ours)
. . . It is evident that one may not identify the omnipotence and sovereignty of God’s grace thus upheld on the one hand and of his reprobation and hardening on the other with irrevocable “eternal” decrees, in which God would once and forever have predestined the salvation or ruin of man. (p. 345)
In commenting on Ephesians 1:4, he writes:
Here again it is a matter, as always with election, not simply of a decree of God that only later comes to realization, but of the actual appropriation of the church to himself before the foundation of the world. (P. 347)
What prompts Paul to hark back again and again to the divine purpose is not an abstract predestinarianism or reference back to God’s decrees as the final cause in the chain of events, but the designation of sovereign, divine grace as the sole motive of his work of redemption in history. (p. 350)
When—as, for example, in the so-called catena aurea (golden chain, HH) of
ff. —Paul joins God’s purpose, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification in one indissoluble bond, this is not an abstract pronouncement concerning the immutability of the number of those predestined to salvation, but a pastoral encouragement for the persecuted and embattled church, based on the fixed and unassailable character of the divine work of redemption. This fixed character does not rest on the fact that the church belongs to a certain “number,” but that it belongs to Christ, from before the foundation of the world. (p. 350)
From these quotes it is obvious: 1) That Ridderbos maintains that Romans 9 speaks neither of sovereign election nor of sovereign predestination, but of a choice of a nation for a definite historical purpose; 2) that Ridderbos denies sovereign reprobation, and will speak of reprobation, if at all, only as conditional. This is Arminian theology. 3) That even election does not refer to an immutable decree of God which fixes eternally the number of the elect and who they are, but only emphasizes that salvation is by grace. How Ridderbos harmonizes salvation by grace with an Arminian conception of predestination is not explained in the book. 4) That even Romans 8:29ff. is not dealing with predestination as such, but is only “pastoral encouragement.” How there can be any, “pastoral encouragement” for the people of God if ‘their salvation is not rooted in the certainty of God’s eternal and unchangeable decree, is a question which Ridderbos does not face.
By this flagrant denial of sovereign predestination Ridderbos has broken with the Reformed heritage of the truth, and without really coming with anything new, has reverted back to the old error of Arminius.
Finally, we must say something in this review concerning Ridderbos’ methodology.
It is becoming increasingly popular today in the field of theology to abandon the time-honored method of “Systematic Theology” or Dogmatics which “systematizes” the truth of all Scripture, and to develop the truth of a particular part of the Word of God. George Eldon Ladd’s “The Theology of the New Testament” is an example of this; so also is the book of Ridderbos. The question is whether it is proper and in keeping with Scripture itself to speak of a “theology” of only a part of Scripture. It is my contention that it is not.
This must be clearly understood. In a certain limited sense it is not wrong to discuss in a book what e.g., the New Testament teaches in distinction from the Old. Nor, I suppose, would it be wrong in itself to discuss in a book some of the chief doctrines which the epistles of Paul treat. But one must be very careful when one does this, for the dangers are very great. And it is quite a different matter to develop a “theology” of the New Testament, and a “theology” of Paul.
There is an underlying assumption here which is wrong. The underlying assumption is that Scripture isnot an organic whole. Or, to state the matter positively, the underlying assumption is that Scripture can be chopped up into segments, each of which can be discussed independently from the rest of the Word of God. This assumption is wrong.
We ought to develop this a bit more.
The truth concerning the organic unity of Scripture, in brief; is this. Scripture taken as a whole is one book, though it contains many different parts. The principle of this organic unity of Scripture is the truth that Scripture is the infallible record of the revelation of God in Christ. Even as all the revelation of God is in Christ, so also is Christ Himself the one principle of the whole of Scripture. All Scripture speaks only and everywhere of Christ.
It is true that Scripture is the record of a revelation that is progressive. Principally and seminally all the revelation of God in Christ was given already in those first words spoken to our fallen parents through God’s Word to the serpent: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed . . .” Genesis 3:15. All revelation from that point on was the progressive development of that fundamental and principle truth until all revelation was fulfilled in Christ Himself Who came into our flesh, suffered and died for the sins of His people, and rose again and ascended into heaven from whence He shall come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. Because Scripture is progressive, the Scriptures record that revelation in a progressive way. But this does not alter the fact that the one principle of unity in the whole of Scripture is Jesus Christ, the fulness of the revelation of God.
Furthermore, the organic unity of Scripture means that the whole truth of God always comes to expression in every single passage of Scripture. No individual text can be interpreted without taking into account the whole of the Bible. The whole Word of God comes to its own unique focus in every text. And the central truth is again, Christ, the revelation of. God as the God of our salvation. One does serious injustice to a text when one interprets a given text only as it stands by itself. One does serious injustice to a text when one interprets a text only in the light of its immediate context. Even, one does serious injustice to a text when one interprets a text in the light of only part of Scripture. In Hermeneutics class in Seminary we stress the fact that every text must be interpreted in the light of its context, in the light of the book in which it was written, in the light of the Testament in which it appears, but also in the light of the whole of Scripture. This follows from Scripture’s organic unity.
An approach to Scripture which speaks of a theology of the New Testament, or a theology of the apostle Paul denies this by its very methodology. And because this is denied, serious errors follow—errors which are also evident in this book by Ridderbos.
What are these errors?
In the first place, there is an implicit denial of the truth of inspiration. How can this be? Consider the fact that there is, according to Ridderbos, a “theology of Paul.” This means that there is also a theology of Peter, a theology of James, a theology of Matthew, a theology of Isaiah, etc. But is this true? Where, in all this, is there room left for the most important of all?—a theology of the Holy Spirit? Is not the Scripture God’s infallible record of His own revelation? Is not the Scripture therefore God’s “theology”?—a theology which He reveals of Himself?
It is very striking that there is, in this entire book, not one single reference which I found which emphasizes that God is speaking in Paul’s writings. We have repeatedly what Paul teaches, but there is never any reference to what God teaches. The doctrine of inspiration and the fact that Scripture is God’s Word to us is, so far as I could determine, not so much as mentioned.
You may perhaps argue that this is all implied, that it is, after all, a truth assumed. But this is not the case. There are several references in the book which clearly indicate that Ridderbos does not accept the doctrine of infallible inspiration as this has been traditionally accepted by the Church. I cannot go into detail on this, but a few instances will suffice. On p. 489 Ridderbos speaks of the fact that Paul had a mistaken notion concerning the nearness of Christ’s coming: “. . . Romans 13:1ff. . . . points to the fact that the apostle did not expect Christ’s coming to be in the distant future.” Paul’s erroneous conception of Christ’s coming, therefore, has crept into the Scripture. On p. 521 Ridderbos, asserts that we cannot identify the man of sin spoken of in Thessalonians because of the genre of apocalyptic writings which Paul uses here. On p. 533 Ridderbos writes: “In the manner of apocalypses it places these within the framework of the world picture of that day.”
The point is that if one emphasizes to the exclusion of the authorship of the Holy Spirit that these letters arePaul’s letters from which can be discovered Paul’stheology, then one will also find that, because Paul was mistaken on certain points, there are errors in Scripture. In other words, the only way to defend the truth of inspiration as Scripture is to emphasize that God through the Holy Spirit of Christ is the Author of Scripture. A “theology of Paul” rests upon an assumption which denies this.
In the second place, there is very little in the whole book about our Reformed Confessions. Ridderbos might object and say: I was not writing about the Confessions; I was writing about Paul’s epistles. And that, of course, is obvious. But it remains a fact that no Reformed man can write theology and not pay attention to the Confessions. This approach is un-Reformed. A Reformed man comes to Scripture with the confessions. He does this, not because he gives to the Confessions an authority higher than Scripture, but because the Confessions are the fruit of the work of the Spirit of truth Who led the Church in the past to the knowledge of the truth of Scripture.
But Ridderbos’ approach, by definition, precludes the possibility of using the Confessions. How can he use the Confessions? The Confessions, profoundly aware of the organic unity of Scripture, carefully develop each doctrine of the Christian faith as that doctrine is taught in the whole of Scripture. If Ridderbos wants to write a theology of a part of Scripture, it is obvious that he can make no use of the Confessions. But the Confessions are right; Ridderbos is wrong. Scripture may not, be chopped up into small parts—each with its own theology.
In the third place, this approach must necessarily lead to an incomplete development of Scriptural truth. When one reads Ridderbos, one continuously gets the feeling that there is only a partial treatment of key Scriptural doctrines. There is an incompleteness and there are always important questions unanswered. Ridderbos is talking about Paul’s theology all the time, not the theology of the Holy Spirit. And Paul’s theology is a partial and incomplete theology. Ridderbos’ fear of going beyond anything which Paul says leads to this incomplete treatment. of the truth. One keeps wondering if perhaps Paul’s theology does not conflict with the theology of Peter or James in certain important areas.
And so we must conclude by saying that. Ridderbos’ methodology is basically a denial of the true character of Scripture. Therefore, this book, while in many ways fascinating reading, does not stand in the tradition of, nor does it contain Reformed theology. It is, especially in the points discussed above, an