Gaffin’s most recent book is a searching exploration of how to apply New Testament eschatology to the unfolding sweep of redemptive history, particularly regarding how the ascended Christ has ushered in the end of the ages by pouring out his Spirit on his church.
Dr. Richard Gaffin, professor emeritus of biblical and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), is famous for his emphasis on redemptive history and the historia salutis, or the factors concerning Christ’s once-for-all accomplishment of redemption. Claiming the legacy of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos, he has focused his scholarly efforts on the major redemptive-historical shifts that occurred in Christ’s first coming, also highlighting the eschatological flavor of New Testament, particularly Pauline, theology. Gaffin’s students have often lauded his course on Acts and Paul as his fundamental contribution to the field. His most recent book, In the Fullness of Time, preserves those lectures in published form, produced from transcriptions of his recorded lectures and edited by Gaffin himself.
This book is essentially a work on eschatology, arguing that the inbreaking of the last day in Christ’s advent is a primarily encompassing feature of New Testament theology, and tracing out its implications. It has two parts, the first exploring the theology of the book of Acts, and the second examining the Pauline corpus. Under each topical chapter, Gaffin performs careful and detailed exegesis on several passages related to the point he is considering, each focusing in some way or other on the already-not yet of New Testament teaching.
Part one on the theology of the book of Acts predominantly focuses on Pentecost’s theological significance. Gaffin argues, rooting his claims not only in the events of Acts 2 but also in a holistic consideration of Luke’s treatment of the Holy Spirit and God’s kingdom in both installments of his account to Theophilus, that Pentecost belongs to the historia salutis as a facet of the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption and a turning point in redemptive history itself. His target, of course, is Pentecostalism, which has often posed Pentecost—at least in the categories with which Gaffin is grappling, even if not their own—as part of the ordo salutis. That Pentecostal position entails that every individual believer should experience the same sort of phenomenon as occurred in Acts 2 because they see that tied to how salvation is applied to the believer. Gaffin, on the other hand, makes a strident case that the Holy Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost is not a normative experience as part of the ordo salutis but was a pivotal moment in redemptive history wherein Christ sent the Helper whom he promised to send, so that the church would be equipped for her kingdom-expanding mission of gospel ministry.
Gaffin’s exegesis is thoroughly persuasive on this point, demonstrating Pentecost’s age-shifting significance as the extension of Christ’s kingdom into this world by the power of the Spirit to be carried forward in the church’s means of grace ministry. As a convinced cessationist, I am glad for this thorough pushback against destructive understandings of the Christian’s experience of the Spirit. The presentation, however, does leave some questions unanswered. Gaffin convincingly outlines what Pentecost’s implications are not, yet never outlines what its implications are with much specificity. The dawning of the age of the Spirit is of course an exhilarating idea, prompting thanks for the Spirit’s presence with the church in our endeavors. This material’s value could be richly supplemented, however, by focusing also on what it means to live in the age of the Spirit and how the Christian experience of the Spirit should be understood. That is not to say this experience need be described all that experientially, but is to say that sometimes extended refutation (and even positive exposition that is nonetheless rightly but primarily aimed to circumvent error) can leave us with only half of what we need. What does the Spirit do in the church during this period of redemptive history?
Another question arises from Gaffin’s helpful case that Pentecost belongs to the historia salutis: namely, related to the difference, if any, that comes in relation to the ordo salutis compared to believers who lived prior to the Incarnation and Pentecost. This question is a necessary point to consider because the recent increase of Baptist reflection on the covenants and the unity of redemptive history has focused on the Spirit’s indwelling as the difference between Old and New Testament soteriology. In this respect, and to some degree in relation to the emphatic concern to preclude Pentecostal conclusions, this book could have used some slight updating as it seems to focus on matters that may be somewhat out of date in most recent discourse. That certainly does not diminish its value for what it does contribute, but leaves some important matters unclarified. It would have been a significant help to see Gaffin think Pentecost’s redemptive-historical shift all the way down to its specific applications for more precise systematic theological questions. This point in no way suggests that Gaffin’s answers to these questions would be deficient, just that it would have been most helpful to get to read those answers.1
Part two, which concerns the theology of the Pauline letters, likewise emphasizes Paul’s contributions to understanding the shifts in redemptive history that accompany Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. This section too, then, focuses on eschatology—namely, the inbreaking of the last days through Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. The survey of the history of interpretation for Paul’s letters is particularly helpful regarding the higher critical period, showing Gaffin’s familiarity with a host of literature, available only in the European languages when he would have been originally preparing this course, with which modern readers of Paul must in some way or other reckon. After framing the investigation of Paul’s letters in terms of the history of interpretation and the overall eschatological structure of his thought, the bulk of part two focuses on the significance of Christ’s resurrection for redemptive history and for the Christian life. The chapters here probe deeply into how Christ’s resurrection should reorient the way we think about eschatology, redemptive history, and salvation.
I am aware that readers of the Heidelblog will be especially interested in this book’s treatment of the doctrine of justification. Gaffin has made controversial claims about justification in his earlier published writings, particularly concerning an application of our already-not yet eschatology to justification itself, leaving some aspects of it to be completed in the future. Although valuing his emphasis on eschatology and his thoroughgoing amillennialism, I have disagreed with Gaffin on this point, especially his interpretation of Romans 2. Two points must be noted here: 1) This post is a review of a particular book, not an engagement with everything Gaffin has ever written, and 2) nonetheless I believe that there was a demonstrable shift in Gaffin’s thought on the ordo salutis in his 2016 essay “The Work of Christ Applied.”2
The second point may be worth elaborating. Whereas Gaffin had formerly criticized the notion of fixed relationships between Christ’s benefits within a truly ordered ordo salutis, this essay contains more resolute statements concerning a logical order. For example, he contended that the blessings of the ordo salutis “are not received as an arbitrary or chaotic mix but in a set pattern with fixed connections among them,” which prevents “misrepresenting individual aspects or acts and so distorting the work of Christ applied as a whole.”3 In another instance, Gaffin also affirmed the priority of the legal aspects of salvation:
While these two [forensic and renovative] aspects are inseparable, the judicial aspect has an essential and decisive priority. Because his [Christ’s] obedience unto death is the requisite judicial ground for his resurrection, his becoming the life-giving Spirit presupposes his being justified in the Spirit, not the reverse.4
It is possible that this suggested shift in Gaffin’s thought on the ordo salutis occurred while he edited the English translation of Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics, an invaluable contribution. Vos took positions that remarkably resemble Gaffin’s most recent arguments. For instance: “The subjective application of the salvation obtained by Christ does not occur at once or arbitrarily.” Rather, “there are a multiplicity of relationships and conditions to which all the operations of grace have a certain connection.”5 This point has bearing on how we must review In the Fullness of Time.