North-West University Professor J. M. Vorster’s The Gift of Life: Towards an ethic of human personhood (2021) represents a crowning of his career as a Reformed pastor, theologian, and ethicist in the South African context.
I review this volume as a fellow office-bearer within the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA) with a view to her spiritual health and as a cautionary tale for those denominations with which she enjoys fraternal bonds.
My review does not follow the customary form of outlining the contents of the book before engaging in critique. Instead, I focus on claims made by Vorster that are problematic from a biblical, confessional, and church-order perspective.
This review is a sobering reminder of what can happen to a confessional Reformed communion that opens the door to identity politics. When freedom in Christ takes a disembodied political turn, gender and sexual distinctions are of little value in the family and the church.
Vorster has led the charge in the RCSA in arguing for and implementing female ordination to special office. In The Gift of Life, he gives theological legitimization to this charge, and also entertains the acceptance of monogamous same-sex relationships: both under the auspices of freedom and equality in Christ per the likes of Galatians 3:28.
I introduce this review with comments on the title of Vorster’s book. All Christians can agree that life is a gift from God, both temporally and eternally. However, the notion of “human flourishing” to describe the Christian pilgrimage is contestable. Terms synonymous with or approximating the word “flourishing” in The Gift of Life include “fulfilling” (3, 27, 32), “dignified” (71ff), “thriving” (182) and “blessed” (200). To be sure, there is a sense in which the Christian and the non-Christian alike can enjoy intermittent degrees of justice, success and even flourishing as they share in a common humanity under the terms of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 8–9; cf. Rom. 13). The book of Proverbs clearly bears this out (cf. Prov. 11:28; 14:11).
Yet, the goal of Christian “flourishing” is hardly a way to describe the plight of humanity East of Eden, especially outside of ancient theocratic Israel. Beyond the cursed nature of life due to sin, the book of Ecclesiastics teaches that common earthly existence is continually destabilized by vanity and emptiness. More profoundly, the Christian life that Jesus describes as “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount is not one to which a rational individual would aspire: a life of suffering, humiliation, and cross-bearing (cf. Matt. 5–7; 16:24–28). Were Vorster writing a book about Proverbs or the common good, then his title could be more fitting. But he has written one that construes all of life as subsumed by Christ’s one redemptive kingdom through special grace.
The tension introduced by the title to Vorster’s volume extends to the many aspects of its contents. Importantly, he claims to be arguing from a self-consciously Reformed position (5ff, 45). Yet, a cursory reading of the volume reveals that among his main supportive interlocuters are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a progressive Lutheran, and the neo-orthodox Karl Barth and his followers, like Jürgen Moltmann. When Vorster does interact with the orthodox confessional Reformed, engagement is thin and mostly critical.
These observations cannot but raise several initial concerns with Vorster’s vision for “human flourishing” that utilizes a hermeneutic of “congruent theology.” Where do the author’s sympathies lie? Are they with the historic confessional Reformed tradition of the RCSA and her conservative sister churches, or with the theological progressivism of mainline Reformed churches in South Africa and abroad?
Rev. Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.