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Progressive Reformed Perspective: Herman Ridderbos

Ridderbos, like G. C. Berkouwer, has openly re-evaluated certain aspects of the historic Reformed tradition. It is quite clear that he is keenly sensitive to the redemptive-historical orientation of Paul. In general, his treatment of the "New obedience" is very satisfying. "The imperative [to duty] rests on the indicative [of redemption] and," he adds, "this order is not reversible."190 This statement meshes well with the teaching of John 13:34, where the imperative for his follower's love rests on the reality of Christ's love on the cross.

Romans 12:1-2

In Paul's writings, says Ridderbos, a "theoretic [God-centered] viewpoint predominates." This is evident, for example, in Rom. 12:1-2 where "appeal to the redeeming activity of God in Christ takes precedence" and is "the point of departure" for Paul's practical instruction to the church.191 "The theocentric point of view . . . constitutes the great point of departure of the Pauline paraenesis [ethic]."192 The demand upon us which arises out of Christ's redemption is "totalitarian," meaning that no area of life is left untouched by it, and that it comprehends all of our actions.193

Ridderbos believes that it is in the death and resurrection of Christ "that the individual commandments and precepts appear again and again to have their root and deepest motive."194

The Law as the Rule of Life

Ridderbos characterizes Paul's ethic as "theocentric and totalitarian." "The question," he observes, "now arises as to whether and in what way the norm of the new life thus described is to be determined."195 He specifically asks whether the law continues to function "as the standard for the new life."196 His conclusion is that "one will therefore not be able to maintain that love or the Spirit or even Christ as the norm and the rule of conduct of the new life, at least if this would mean a substitution for the law."197 Thus, he sees the law as a "source for knowledge of the will of God."198 He believes that "the validity of the law in its historical form has not remained the same,"199 recognizing that the law as having covenant force no longer obtains, while the law as Scripture is still useful to instruct the Christian in righteousness.200

"With Christ's advent, Ridderbos observes, "the law, also as far as its content is concerned, has been brought under a new norm of judgment and that failure to appreciate this new situation is a denial of Christ (Gal. 5:2)."201 Thus, he adds, "Christ also represents the new standard of judgment as to what 'has had its day' in the law and what has abiding validity (Col. 2:17)."202 It is from this perspective that Ridderbos says of the Sabbath commandment,

The fact that Paul speaks in this manner concerning the Sabbath [Col. 2:17] proves that for him the fourth commandment of the Decalogue no longer had any abiding significance. In addition, as appears probable, the observance of the first day of the week was not viewed as the New Testament's prolongation of the Old Testament Sabbath.203

This is a significant departure from traditional Reformed perspectives. It is an insightful recognition that "in Christ" even the Sabbath as a mere shadow must find its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. "There can be no doubt whatever," he goes on to say,

that the category of the law has not been abrogated with Christ's advent, but rather has been maintained and interpreted in its radical sense ("fulfilled," Matt. 5:17); on the other hand, that the church no longer has to do with the law in any other way than in Christ and thus is ennomos Christou.204

Ridderbos' study of Paul has led him to conclude that Christ has brought a "new canon," which is "above all redemptive-historical in nature."205

The canon given with the new creation (Gal. 6:16) appears to represent the category of the law (1 Cor. 7:19) as well as those of love (Gal. 5:6) and of the Spirit (Phil. 3:3) . . . It can appear on the one hand that the law once given is no longer all important. The content of the will of God is also determined from Christ as the Inaugurator of the new creation. Therefore to serve God by the Spirit means not only a new possibility of performing the law, but also a new view of the law, that of faith in the fulfilling work of Christ.206

Thus, for Ridderbos, the Pauline ethic is seen to parallel the order found in Jesus' words in John 13:34. He writes,

The content of the new obedience in the epistles of Paul too, finds its most central and fundamental expression in love. In the first place this love derives its central significance from the fact that it is the reflection of the love of God in Jesus Christ. The love of God revealed in Christ's self surrender and working itself out by the Holy Spirit in the love of the church is the real secret and the clearest expression of its holiness . . . The application of the commandment to love consequently has in Paul the clear effect of stirring up the strong awareness in the church of mutual responsibility . . . The liberty in Christ must show itself especially in this, that believers are to be servants one of another through love (Gal. 5:13) . . . The particularizing of this love constitutes a large part of the content of the Pauline paraenesis.207

While his view of the role of the law in Christian ethics sometimes reflects his Reformed heritage, it is clear that Ridderbos finds a primary source in the person and work of Christ. Duty flows out of the believer's union with Christ. To discover the "will of God," therefore, we must turn to the new revelation that came by Jesus Christ. The loving and redemptive act accomplished by Christ is the starting point of the comprehensive and life-changing demands expected of all who "live" by Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15).


190. Ridderbos, p. 254.

191. Ridderbos, p. 259.

192. Ridderbos, p. 260.

193. Ridderbos, p. 265.

194. Ridderbos, p. 275.

195. Ridderbos, p. 278.

196. Ridderbos, p. 278.

197. Ridderbos, pp 281-282.

198. Ridderbos, p. 282.

199. Ridderbos, p. 283.

200. Ridderbos, p. 284.

201. Ridderbos, p. 284.

202. Ridderbos, p. 285.

203. Quoted by Bandstra, p. 92, note 79.

204. Ridderbos, p. 285.

205. Ridderbos, p. 286.

206. Ridderbos, p. 286.

207. Ridderbos, pp. 293, 294, 297.

This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 51-53.