"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Harmonizing Vos on Forensic and Mystical Language

"Whereas the Lutheran tends to view faith one-sidedly - only in its connection with justification - for the Reformed Christian it is saving faith in all the magnitude of the word. According to the Lutheran, the Holy Spirit first generates faith in the sinner who temporarily remains outside of union with Christ; then justification follows faith and only then, in turn, does the mystical union with the Mediator take place. Everything depends on this justification, which is losable, so that the believer only gets to see a little of the glory of grace and lives for the day, so to speak. The covenantal outlook is the reverse. One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but lays hold of Christ as Prophet Priest and King as his rich full Messiah."

-Geerhardus Vos. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation. pg 256

"In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical."

- Geerhardus Vos. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation. pg 384

The Mystical and Forensic in Paul and Vos

Within the same volume of Vos' writings, we find these two quotations. Vos affirms both that the mystical is subordinate to the forensic AND that mystical union precedes forensic justification in the believer. Is Vos contradicting himself? Did Vos change his mind? Or can Vos hold both these positions simultaneously?

First, Vos declares that in the ordo salutis, the mystical union is prior to, and even the source of, the benefits of redemption including forensic justification. Justification is found “in Christ,” and is part of the spiritual blessings given to the believer in union with Christ (Eph 1:3). Although they come simultaneously, there is a logical priority to union with Christ before justification in Reformed soteriology, which avoids the “legal fiction” charge leveled against Lutheranism by Roman Catholics. This also seems to best conform to the language of Scripture about the benefits of redemption being rooted in union with Christ.

So how does the second quote on subordination of the mystical to the forensic not contradict this? Because the second quote is dealing with how the Gospel is accomplished and communicated. Vos is addressing the proclamation in totality of Christ's Gospel to the Church. In declaring the gospel, Vos says that the mystical is subordinate to the forensic and the mystical depends upon the forensic. This is certainly true in that if the forensic is the accomplishment of salvation by Christ in regards to the Law. Christ obeys the law in life, and takes the penalty of the law in death. This is an accomplishment in history rather than in the believer and so is often called the historia salutis. The mystical, on the other hand, is the application of the accomplishment of salvation in the Spirit uniting the believer to Christ (enumerated in the ordo salutis). Therefore, Christ must accomplish salvation in history before it may be applied to us. The application by Spirit in uniting us to Christ depends upon the accomplishment of Christ fulfilling the law. The ordo salutis depends on the historia salutis. The mystical depends upon the forensic.

There is, however, another context where we would bring the mystical aspect to the surface as of utmost importance. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 brings the mystical union to the forefront when addressing the context of the use of prostitutes by members of the church. Paul applies union to rebuke his audience that their conduct was inconsistent with the mystical salvation that belongs to believers: i.e. the body of Christ cannot be united to a prostitute. Yet, Vos' broader point (about the subordination of the mystical to the forensic) still remains true. Even this mystical aspect depends upon the accomplishment of the forensic/legal demand that Christ fulfills for His church. Paul begins 1 Corinthians with the defense of his preaching of the accomplishment of salvation by Christ's crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). Paul must first establish the priority of the historical accomplishment of Christ (historia salutis) before the implications and benefits that come from union with Christ (ordo salutis).

In this way, Vos is not contradicting himself and we ought not fight between two different Voses. Rather, we ought to acknowledge that in the application of salvation to the believer, mystical union establishes justification. However, the basis of this mystical union applied to us is Christ's accomplishment forensically of salvation outside of us and is logically prior to us or the application of salvation to us. If we discuss the relation of the historia salutis and ordo salutis, then the forensic precedes and is necessary before any talk of the mystical can occur. But if we discuss specifically the ordo salutis by itself, then the mystical precedes, because it applies, the forensic.


Y Cymro said...


I need to read your latest effort when I have more time. But from what I've read I like it.


Matt Holst

Andrew said...

Hey - I know I haven't commented in a while so I'm probably a bit rusty - but does this mean that Justification really is by the grace (Favor Dei/Protestant Grace) of Election and manifested by faith in Reformed theology?

If so it's an interesting claim, a much stronger argument than the Lutheran faith-righteousness type of emphasis.

But I have a feeling I got this totally wrong.

Jared Nelson said...

Andrew - maybe? I'm not quite sure about your language. But for the Reformed regeneration granted to the elect precedes faith and so faith would be a result of that grace. Is that what you are getting at?

Andrew said...

Ya that's what I was getting at.