Ridderbos’ Doctrine of Election, or Why I Don’t Understand WTS Grads

I find it strange that Herman Ridderbos is pretty much given universal approbation from confessional Reformed folks — at least, those who have graduated from Westminster Philly. Yet, these same folks delight in snide remarks about Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance on the doctrine of election (e.g., the guys who do the Christ the Center program). I find it strange because Ridderbos’ own doctrine of election is almost identical to Barth’s and, especially, Torrance’s. Ridderbos’ chapter on election in his book on Paul (p. 341 ff, click link to read) could have been written by Torrance with no significant alterations, and it even echoes (almost verbatim) Torrance’s introduction to the Reformed catechisms in The School of Faith. Also, the entire thrust of Ridderbos’ argument against “definite, individual election” is animated by his anti-scholastic, anti-metaphysical, neo-orthodox-friendly “redemptive-historical” emphases.

So, what’s the deal? Ridderbos is given a pass, while Barth and Torrance are the poster boys for wayward anti-confessionalism.



  1. Actually I have not met anyone at WTS who agrees with Ridderbos’ discussion of election. It is his Achille’s heel.

    • I would never suppose that anyone at WTS would agree with his discussion of election. I’d be very surprised if they did. My point, rather, is that this is forgiven, so to speak, because of the other perceived merits of his approach. In other words, he isn’t blacklisted like Barth and Torrance.

  2. It is also a logical fallacy to line Ridderbos up with Barth on account of one point of similarity. That would be equivalent to saying that the Reformed and the Roman Catholic are really the same since they both believe in the Deity of Christ. I also reject Ridderbos’ explanation of Romans 11, so I at least two guys from Christ the Center don’t believe everything they read in Ridderbos.

    • There is more than one point of similarity. The anti-scholastic moves and rhetoric, in favor of a Christological recapitulation, is the zeitgeist of neo-orthodoxy.

      And, once again, I never supposed that you guys actually agree with Ridderbos on election.

  3. Make that three. In fact, my contention in of the papers I’ve written on Barth is that Gaffin’s work in Resurrection and Redemption is fundamentally a correction – as well as an advancement – of Ridderbos. Kevin is correct, much of what Ridderbos says can easily be appropriated by Barthians – and Torranceans in particular – because of his emphasis upon the object, redemptive-historical nature of soteriology – virtually to the exclusion of the subjective application in the ordo salutis. Gaffin connects the obj. and subj. aspects making union with Christ the “bridge” which draws together historia and ordo categories.

    • Yes, very good. I read an essay recently by Gaffin to this effect, but I’ll have to check-out more. As it stands in my mind, Ridderbos is profoundly in league with the “theologians of the Word” (Forsyth, Brunner, Barth, etc.) — a better appellation than “neo-orthodox,” but both are useful.

      I would like to say that I highly appreciate the work you, Nick, and Jeff do with the Reformed Forum, even if I come from a more Barth-friendly side. I have often been stimulated by the discussions. God bless.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the challenge and words of encouragement!

    To be sure, there are some aspects of Ridderbos which would find sympathy among Barthians. However, and this is all important, what is missing in Ridderbos which is essential for a Barthian (non?)metaphysic is actualism. If McCormack is correct (and I believe he is), and actualism stands at the heart of Barth’s methodology, then Ridderbos and Barth (and the Barthians) stand in fundamental discontinuity with each other. This is very clear when it comes to Ridderbos’ exposition of Paul’s Christology which allows for an ontological self-contained logos asarkos. A thing with which Barth and his followers will have nothing to do.

    • I think you’re right. The actualism can be overstressed by Barth interpreters, but it is something which most other Reformed theologians believed was too extreme, too precarious, and unable to sustain an ecclesial dogmatics (i.e., too individualist). This is precisely where I am the most apprehensive with Barth, but it is also what makes him so exciting and well worth engaging on a serious level.

  5. By the way, Kevin, that “wilberforce” post was me, not sure how my post got tagged with that name!

    Anyway, interesting observations. I actually see the implications of Barth’s actualism heading in the opposite direction from individualism. It is corporate and hyper-objectivistic through and through. It actually, on my counting, leaves no place for the individual. Which is why, in part, I believe those of the NPP and FV seem to sympathize with much of Barth’s soteriology.

    I agree that Barth is exciting and worth engaging. You read him, and when you understand him your breath is taken away by his brilliance. However, at the same time, when I read what he says and then I read what the text of Scripture says, I can’t reconcile the two. Where he does do exegesis its pretty poor (I believe James Barr has shown the spurious nature of Barthian exegesis from both Barth and Torrance). If you want existential philosophy clothed in theological garb – read Barth. If you want theology which is truly grounded in Scripture, read Bavinck. For my money, he is both stimulating and faithful to the bible understood redemptive-historically and biblical-theologically.


    • Thanks for the thoughts. On his corporate soteriology, I largely agree with you. But, I was thinking of the way his actualism drives a complete relativizing of dogmatic claims, which makes it hard to argue for a confessional ecclesial authority. The elusiveness of his doctrine of election is one case in point, or his doctrine of scripture (pretty much without a canon), and much else. In many respects, I think Barth was working with a radical free-church perspective, which makes his doctrine of baptism (=credobaptist) not surprising.

      As for exegesis, I think Barth was working in his own world with his own semantic field, which accounts for some of his more strange exegetical claims. On the upside, he makes you grapple with scripture harder than you ever have before. I experienced this recently, in the Barth Blog Conference, where I wrote a criticism of his reading of Romans chapter 1. I think Brunner was right, but if we allow Barth to define his own terms, then Barth is right.

  6. Have you read Baxter Kruger? He’s a former student of J.B. Torrance there at Aberdeen. His books are short reads but full of of T.F.’s theology. He has a blog link on his website, Perichoresis.org.
    Check him out I think you’ll like. BTW, I just found your blog it looks like a lot of fun, with good info for the we armchair theologians. Blessings, Ben

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