A friend pointed me to an interesting video (the link is now dead) by a WSC alumnus, Lane Tipton. The video is meant to be a discussion of Calvin and his doctrine of justification. I was quite pleased to hear him say, “All of the benefits of redemption, whether we’re thinking in terms of justification, adoption, or sanctification, are mediated to believers by virtue of a Spirit-wrought faith that places them into union with the crucified and resurrected Son of God.” Amen! This is exactly what Calvin says and I think it is good systematics (but these are two separate questions). Just after that Lane goes on to quote appropriately from Institutes 3.1.1 on the importance on union with Christ. Just after that, however, he makes an interesting claim that bears further investigation.
In the contemporary setting today, as it was in Calvin’s day, there is a tendency to emphasize the forensic dimension of the Gospel as being perhaps the entire gospel, such that justification begins to eclipse the very person of Christ himself. Calvin would have nothing of that . . ..
Having sat for video interviews (I did one recently in Geneva on little sleep, I hope it ends up on the cutting room floor) I know that it can be difficult to say what one really thinks with a camera in one’s face. Nevertheless, in light of the essay in the Gaffin festschrift, I take it that these comments reflect his actual views.
Of course, since Lane doesn’t say expressly whom he has in mind one can only speculate as to who is over-emphasizing the forensic dimension of the gospel.
This is an interesting claim both as a matter of history and systematics. In the 16th-century, the Protestant churches and theology were emerging from 1000 years of emphasis on justification through Spirit-wrought sanctity and cooperation with grace. Against that background and against the Roman rejection of the doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ received through faith resting and receiving alone (see Session six of the Council of Trent) the the confessional Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed) naturally had to articulate their doctrine unequivocally and repeatedly. In such a setting, where the Protestant gospel was still coming to cities for the first time throughout the sixteenth century, it’s hard to know what an over-emphasis of the forensic aspect would be. Certainly the Protestants did not see themselves as over-emphasizing the forensic. Calvin faced repeated challenges to the forensic doctrine and thus had to re-assert and re-argue it continuously.
The history of doctrine even within the sixteenth century suggests that, if anything, the Protestants may have been lax at times. There were a number of episodes even before Calvin’s death where the forensic aspect of justification came into question. One thinks of the Regensburg negotiations in 1541 or the implicit challenge to justification in the Leipzig Interim (1548), the Majorist controversy in the 1550s and perhaps most importantly, for Calvin, the Osiander controversy (c.1548-1552). I think it’s correct to say that no other section in the Institutes underwent more expansion than the section against Osiander’s doctrine of justification on the basis of the indwelling Christ (think of a sort of hyper-union view). In that section Calvin was very explicit about the importance of maintaining what he regarded as the biblical doctrine of forensic (legal) justification, i.e. God’s free, unconditional declaration that one is righteous on the basis of the imputation (not infusion) of Christ’s obedience and that is received through faith resting in and receiving Christ alone as the ground of righteousness.
If Lane is implying in the video the sort of thing he said in his chapter in the Gaffin Festschrift, that the Lutheran doctrine of justification was/is “fatally compromised” then that must be challenged on historical grounds because it assumes a separation between the Lutheran and Reformed views that didn’t exist in the 16th century. I don’t know of a single piece of unequivocal, unambiguous evidence to support the notion that Calvin viewed his doctrine of justification as fundamentally different from Luther’s or Melanchthon’s or even that of the so-called gnesio-(“genuine”) Lutherans. As I’ve noted in this space Calvin self-identified as a Lutheran. He signed the Augsburg Confession (for this point it doesn’t matter whether it was the variata or invariata since Art 4 didn’t change). Calvin repeatedly described his theology as “evangelical” which was the common denomination of the confessional Protestants. He never criticized Luther on justification. He never criticized Melanchthon on justification. He attacked Osiander precisely because the latter threatened the doctrine of justification by sounding like an evangelical while advocating an enticing view that essentially led back to Rome—justification on the basis of the intrinsic rather than the extrinsic. The only places where I’ve found Calvin explicitly or implicitly criticizing Luther were on Luther’s “vehemence” regarding his doctrines of Christ (what can be said the deity can be said of the humanity) and the Lord’s Supper (i.e. that Christ is locally, bodily in, with, and under the elements). Calvin was also critical of “Lutheran ceremonies” in worship. He was plainly conscious that he differed with Luther and the Lutherans on worship. One finds, to my knowledge, no such acknowledgement regarding Luther’s or the confessional Lutheran doctrine of justification.
For that matter, I don’t know where the Reformed orthodox clearly distinguished their view of justification from that of the Lutherans. I do see them speaking of “our Lutherans” and “the evangelical doctrine” and citing Luther approvingly. I do see that, in response to the Book of Concord (1580) the Reformed published a Harmony of the Reformed Confessions, which included the Augsburg Confession! If they were setting themselves squarely against the alleged over-emphasis on the forensic by the Lutherans, including the Augsburg Confession surely sent a confusing message. Most folk would see the inclusion of the Augsburg as a signal that the Reformed were minimizing the differences between their doctrine and that of the Lutherans.
I’ve argued that Caspar Olevianus identified with Luther’s doctrine of justification without hesitation. He analyzed the entire book of Romans in terms of law and gospel. I’ve highlighted here the “pan-Protestant” nature of the Reformed doctrine of justification. See also “The Reception of Paul in Heidelberg” in A Companion to Paul in the Reformation and “The Old Perspective on Paul” in the Confessional Presbyterian 4 (2009). Whle I’m at it, you can also see some work on Luther’s doctrine of justification here.
Relative to systematic theology or the contemporary scene one also wonders where Lane finds evidence of an over-emphasis on the forensic aspect of the gospel? Is it in the New Perspective on Paul, which has more or less dominated Pauline studies for thirty years? No, I don’t think so. Is it in the Shepherdite theology (beginning c 1974) and its step-child, the self-described “Federal Vision”? No, not there either. Is it in the “biblical theology” movements (among the Barthians or among the orthodox)? No, not there. Is it in the Finnish approach to Luther (where Luther is made into a theologian of theosis!)? No. Is it found in the repeated essays in Calvin studies claiming that Calvin was a theologian of divinization through union with Christ? No. Is it in the Radical Orthodoxy movement? No. Is it in broad evangelicalism? No. Is it in Evangelicals and Catholics Together? No.
As my old professor John Frame used to say, emphasis is a tricky thing. Deciding what is or isn’t too much emphasis is quite subjective. Just having come through, however, yet another paroxysm over the doctrine of justification it is arguable that it’s been right to focus on the forensic aspect of justification. Apparently most of the NAPARC denominations/federations agree with this assessment. Since the early part of the 2000s the PCA, the RCUS, the OPC, the URCs, and the RPCNA have all either had study committees or received reports or adopted statements re-affirming the classic, confessional forensic doctrine of justification. This is because it was the forensic doctrine that has been under assault for a considerable period of time and with no little effect on the churches.
Arguably, looking at the academic literature in recent years, it’s easier to find writers advocating the notion that Calvin didn’t teach a forensic doctrine of justification! E.g., Craig B. Carpenter argues that Calvin’s reply to session six of Trent turned to union with Christ rather than to imputation. Carl Mosser does not deny that Calvin taught a forensic doctrine of justification but claims that, because of ignorance of Patristic theology and the undue influence of von Harnack, scholars have overlooked Calvin’s doctrine of theosis through union with Christ. Following on, Julie Canlis writes that Calvin’s reaction to Osiander has blinded interpreters to his own interest in deification through union with Christ. See Craig B. Carpenter, “A Question of Union with Christ: Calvin and Trent on Justification,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 363-386; Carl Mosser, “The Greatest Possible Blessing: Calvin and Deification,” Scottish Journal of Theology 55 (2002): 36-57; Julie Canlis, “Calvin, Osiander and Participation in God,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6 (2004): 169-184 and if memory serves there was another essay arguing a similar case just recently. I doubt there has been a steady drumbeat on Calvin and the forensic doctrine of justification even though there have been some responses.
The premise of Lane’s concern is that over-emphasis on the forensic aspect of justification eclipses the person of Christ. This seems pious. Who could dispute that the person of Christ is more central to Christian theology than the doctrine of justification but let me challenge this apparently pious premise. How does Christ come to us? He comes to us by mediation of the Word and specifically the mediation of the preached gospel (Rom 10; Heidelberg Catechism Q. 65, WSC 88). In other words, how do we come into union with Christ? Lane himself answered this question quite well in the video: by grace alone, through faith alone. As Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 30) says:
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
The question is not the centrality of Christ—about that there can be no question; solus Christus!—but how we come into possession of Christ. Faith looks to Christ. The power, efficacy, and object of faith is Christ. The object of faith is not the doctrine of justification but it is through the preaching and hearing of the gospel (1 Cor 1; Rom 10) that the Spirit operates and through that faith brings us into union with Christ and into possession of his benefits. Amen. This is the power of that little word in WSC 30: “thereby.” The gospel message is a message of Christ for us (Christus pro nobis). We should agree with Lane when, in the video he cites 1 Cor 1:30 and Paul’s proclamation that Christ has become “for us” wisdom and righteousness. There Paul strikes the perfect balance between the forensic (for us) and the dynamic (in us).
The WCF strikes the right balance. It begins with the forensic in chapter 11:
Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
Yet it continues in the next article:
…yet [faith] is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love
Faith the rests in and receives Christ is accompanied by sanctification. As I noted in the Olevianus book, for Calvin and the Reformed (as for Luther) we are justified in order that we might be sanctified. Paul Althaus (The Theology of Martin Luther) is probably correct to say that the Heidelberg Catechism is not as unique as I once thought (and have said in class). Studies in the background of the HC show that there Lutheran catechisms teaching guilt, grace, and gratitude (in union with Christ, not out of sheer duty as some have suggested) before the HC.
The Epitome of the Formula of Concord affirms unequivocally that, “good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith, if it is not a dead, but a living faith, as fruits of a good tree.” This was also the explicit doctrine of Belgic Confession Art. 24, which used the very same logic, language, and metaphor. The Epitome continues: “We believe, teach, and confess also that all men, but those especially who are born again and renewed by the Holy Ghost, are bound to do good works.” Confessional Lutheranism also says that good works are logically and morally necessary: “In this sense the words necessary, shall, and must are employed correctly and in a Christian manner also with respect to the regenerate, and in no way are contrary to the form of sound words and speech.”
Accordingly, we also believe, teach, and confess that when it is said: The regenerate do good works from a free spirit, this is not to be understood as though it is at the option of the regenerate man to do or to forbear doing good when he wishes, and that he can nevertheless retain faith if he intentionally perseveres in sins.
The Epitome unequivocally teaches the abiding validity of the moral law of God for the believer:
We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3.
The Epitome links this doctrine of sanctification flowing from the gospel and from justification to union with Christ:
We believe, teach, and confess also that not works maintain faith and salvation in us, but the Spirit of God alone, through faith, of whose presence and indwelling good works are evidences.
I don’t see any great tension here between the confessional Lutheran and confessional Reformed doctrines on these points. This is substantially what Calvin meant when he said that the third use of the law is the “principle use.” He wasn’t saying that the pedagogical use (HC 2) isn’t the pedagogical use, but that we are justified in order that we might glorify our justifier with lives being brought into conformity with Christ’s by grace alone, in union with Christ. For more on this see the “The Benefits of Christ” in The Faith Once Delivered. There I try to show that the early Luther(an) theme of double justification becomes, in Calvin and in Reformed theology, the doctrine of the double grace or double benefit of Christ. See also Cornel Venema’s brilliant work on Calvin on this topic, Accepted and Renewed in Christ.
We should also bear in mind Richard Muller’s caveat “A note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology” (WTJ 68 (2006): 253-260). I think we all felt the sting of that piece. We’ve been speaking of “Christocentrism” for so long it’s hard to know how else to speak. Nevertheless, Richard’s point is a valuable one. The verbiage “Christocentric” is a powerful rhetorical claim but, as he illustrated in that brief piece (and as he’s been illustrating for years) it is a problematic claim. In that light I doubt that Calvin would understand Lane’s attempt to juxtapose a “Christocentric” theology with an emphasis on the forensic aspect of justification. Does such a juxtaposition run the risk of making the forensic doctrine of sort of second blessing for the illuminati? It is not obvious that the Reformed churches in Europe or the British Isles thought so. They were not shy about the forensic in HC 21, 60 or WCF ch. 11. Nor did they shy away from the second benefit of Christ: sanctification. These are twin benefits but we should agree with Dick Gaffin’s recent sentiments (in an interview on Christ the Center) where he said that, when we’re considering progressive sanctification as the second benefit of Christ, then the forensic doctrine of justification must have priority. That’s not an over-emphasis on the forensic aspect of the gospel.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- Resources On Union With Christ
- Machen: Justification Sola Fide Is The Central Doctrine Of The Christian Faith
- Perkins: Justification Is The Greatest Question In The World
- Turretin Talking Like Luther On Justification
- Muller: Utterly Unwarranted To Conclude Against Ordo Salutis