Gerald P. Malkus
The Spiritual Life, by Campegius Vitringa Sr., translated and edited by Charles K. Telfer. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2018, xli + 226 pages, $20.00, paper.
Charles Telfer of Westminster Seminary California introduces to the reader, in a very reader-friendly translation, one of the many volumes written by Campegius Vitringa (1659–1722). Vitringa, who was born and labored in Friesland, in the North of the Netherlands, became grounded in the original biblical languages as a young student, and this work reflects the very valuable combination of biblical exposition, solid doctrine, and the practical application of a pastor’s heart. This volume comes to us from an obvious desire of a humble servant of Christ to build up the disciples of Jesus and to strengthen the church. An introductory essay, “The Life and Work of Compegius Vitringa Sr. (1659–1722)” (xxiii–xli), provides a very helpful and interesting summary of Vitringa’s life and labors. Telfer provides an extensive bibliography. The Foreword by Richard Muller gives an excellent defense of Reformed Orthodoxy and summary of the value of Vitringa’s work.
The Spiritual Life begins with four general chapters outlining the nature of the spiritual life, its origin, its causes, and how it is produced in the believer. I must acknowledge that having grown up in a thoroughly Presbyterian home, being early grounded in the vocabulary of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, I found it a bit difficult, though in the end helpful, to read some different categories in Vitringa. Chapter 4, “The Way Spiritual Life is Produced in Man,” employs the notions of generation and regeneration. It took me a couple of readings to understand. (I will admit that was more my problem than his categories.)
In the second section, his outline of the three parts of the spiritual life uses the summary of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:24: self-denial, cross-bearing, and following Jesus. I found his accurate exposition of the virtue of self-denial to be both convicting and heavy: “renouncing all the vices of the corrupt nature of every sort . . . renounce anything delightful to the flesh” (44). I understand the validity of the teaching, but I found too little of the comfort of grace in these sections.
Section three, “The Challenges of the Spiritual Life,” frequently employs the metaphor of the stages of ordinary human life from infancy to adulthood, and from adulthood to maturity. Obviously limited in exact parallel, nevertheless he does show how it is that God carries his people through the difficult stages of life into full spiritual life.
Especially helpful was a discussion of eight general occasions for sin and vice to come into the life of the believer. He then quickly makes the transition to those wonderful gifts that God has granted to the believer to “progress in the race, to confirm and promote his spiritual standing, and to bring his sanctification to completion in the fear of God” (113).
Using our language a bit more freely, he identifies seven “means of promoting sanctification” (113), including prayer and the Word of God, but adding singing, worship, fellowship, self-examination, and the chastening hand of God. I found the sections on singing and worship especially helpful and perhaps worthy of an independent publication to hand out to our congregations as a concise expression of a better attitude toward these benefits.
In the final section, “The Goals of the Spiritual Life,” I became a bit confused, because the first chapter of the section (ch. 16, “Spiritual Death”) is a vivid description of the estate of sin and misery. I don’t think that is one of my “goals” as a disciple. Nevertheless, the succeeding chapter outlines six concise characteristics of the Christian life.
The Spiritual Life ends with chapter 18, “Eternal Life.” If it is anything like what Vitringa describes, the culmination of our life in Christ is going to be very nice. I only wish that the author would include more of what we refer to as the already, but not yet of what we now possess in Christ.
Altogether I found this treatise on the spiritual life to be clear, challenging, and helpful in terms of giving an outline for study or discussion of the Christian life.
Gerald P. Malkus is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, recently retired as pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Syracuse, New York, and presently living in Mount Sidney, Virginia. Ordained Servant Online, April 2019.