Has the Forensic Eclipsed Christ?

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,[84] and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.[85]

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.


  1. How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
  2. Resources On Union With Christ
  3. Machen: Justification Sola Fide Is The Central Doctrine Of The Christian Faith
  4. Perkins: Justification Is The Greatest Question In The World
  5. Turretin Talking Like Luther On Justification
  6. Muller: Utterly Unwarranted To Conclude Against Ordo Salutis

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Scott, but aren’t there at least some differences between Augsburg and Westminster (e.g on imputation of faith) even if Calvin signed the concord? And what about sanctification? Didn’t Calvin see sancification and justification as both rooted in union, whereas Luther made sanctification follow from imputation? They are undoubtedly in the same ball park in sharing in belief in an extrinsic, alien, righteousness, imputed, via a spirit-wrought faith, but there are some differences between them at points. Sometimes it sounds like you trying to tell me that rugby (played by masculine heterosexual Australians) and NFL (played by Americans) are the same thing. Although essentially similar, there are points of difference between Calvin and Luther, those differences are usually immaterial footnotish type stuff, but sometimes it puts them on slightly different trajectories.

    • Hi Michael,

      Have you read Charles Partee’s recent book “The Theology of John Calvin?” His whole thesis and approach is oriented around the so called NCP (New Calvin Perspective), which places the Unio mystica at the center for how we should read and understand Calvin’s theology. I just wanted to recommend it to you if you haven’t in fact read it yet.

  2. Mike,

    According to some recent scholarship Luther is the theologian of union with Christ par excellence! So much so that that union leads to theosis. If that’s so, then where’s the beef?

    Of course, it isn’t so, not as far as I can tell. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Calvin learned his doctrine of union with Christ from Luther. I don’t think they are vastly different.

    On imputation of faith, the key is the definition of faith. The B of C is pretty clear that it’s not faith per se but faith as instrument that apprehends Christ’s righteousness. The language should not be read, anachronistically, in light of the Arminian controversy.

    Calvin did sign the Augsburg and, by most accounts, it was the Invariata.

    On Calvin and the duplex gratia see Venema. You might also take a look at my book on Olevianus where I take up this theme at length.

    • Hello Scott,

      I’ve been reading your blog a bit over the last few weeks, thanks!

      Question: what do you think about the so called NCP? I believe it was Wenger who rhetorically coined that moniker. I’m also curious, in light of that, how you see Calvin’s view, as continuous or discontinuous with the post-Reformed orthodox views and articulations (taking Dordt and the Westminsters as the touchstones here)?



      • Hi Bobby

        See the volume Protestant Scholasticism:Essays in Reassessment above on the left.

        That vol. Is intended to address that complex of questions.

        Tom was my student and the essay came from his MA thesis.

        He raised some important questions. The reaction from the old guard, Calvin v the Calvinists school is not unexpected. The Barthians controlled the story of Calvin and Calvinism for a long time.

        • Thanks, I’ll have to check out Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment. How does it compare to Richard Muller’s Christ And The Decree (which I’ve read), and his thesis therein? Are the premises in the book you mention consonant with those so well articulated by Muller?

          Also, I know of your work on Olevianus (but have not yet read); what do you think of Bierma’s work (which I have read) on Olevianus — cf. German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus?

          It’s hard for me to accept Muller’s thesis, not because there aren’t obvious points of contact between Calvin and the Calvinists; instead, because there are also points of departure (like the forensic/unio mystica) between some of the Westiminsters and Calvin.

          • I realize you’re post is seeking to demonstrate the univocity between the forensic and unio — and I don’t deny the forensic, nor do I want to mitigate it — it seems, to me though, that Federalism has framed things so that the forensic becomes THE frame, through which the unio takes shape. Wouldn’t Calvin, given his Doctrine of God (Scotist) flip-flop this?

          • You should also read Post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (4 vols), After Calvin, and Unaccommodated Calvin. There are many other authors who’ve written in the same vein (Dever, Venema, Farthing, Selderhuis, Trueman, Godfrey). My tutor, John Platt, who did very good work on the Remonstrant movement after Arminius, told me first thing when I began my doctoral work: “Read Muller.” That was in 1993.

            My work builds on Bierma’s.

            • I’ve read Unaccommodated Calvin, and I’ll get to the (4 vols) after I finish Church Dogmatics ;-).

              I had a prof in sem. (who I also TA’d for), he did his PhD (King’s London U) on Sibbes, he is critical of Dever based, partially upon some of Janice Knight’s critique of Perry Miller’s thesis. I’ve read Knight and find her persuasive (i.e. her distinction between The Spiritual Brethren exemplar Sibbes et al; and The Intellectual Fathers exemplar Perkins et al.). I realize Muller is the standard in post-Reformed studies, I just don’t find him as persuasive as some of you guys do (like you said “History asks what was, not what should have been,” Calvin = Calvinists [or development]).

              Good, I thought Bierma’s work was solid.

              One more question, I’m working on a project involving these very issues, part of which involves sketching Calvin and his theology — since you don’t like Partee (I do, and I’m seriously curious about what 30yrs of Calvin research you think he overlooks), who should I read on Calvin (I’ve just finished Gordon’s bio on Calvin, excellent) besides Muller and Steinmetz, who I’ve read (also besides Parker and Niesel, I plan on reading Wendel). Anyone else I should be reading on Calvin?

              Thanks, Scott!

              • Bobby,

                Partee sets up Calvin as the be all and end all of Reformed theology. The Reformed orthodox didn’t do so. Second, the Calvin v Calvinists agenda is completely discredited. In my view it’s a waste of time to even discuss it. It’s dead and buried. Almost invariably those who advocate the C v the Cs do so in order to promulgate not history but some theological or ecclesiastical agenda.

                When I speak of 30 years of scholarship I meant to suggest that Partee and that lot haven’t substantially engaged the whole post-Oberman school, whether Steinmetz (see his essay in PSER where he effectively recants of his earlier work in Reformers in the Wings) that have taken sources in the study of Reformed orthodoxy much more seriously than the older school tended to do. In my course on Reformed orthodoxy I read several standard accounts of Theodore Beza and then I send them off to read Beza for themselves and they come back amazed how the discontinuity, not between Calvin and Beza but between the Beza of the text they just read with their own eyes and the typical “scholarly” accounts of Beza in the secondary lit. Apart from the Oberman-inspired work of Steinemtz, who begat Muller, and the rest (Jill Raitt, Irena Backus, G R Evans — not saying that they all fit neatly into this taxonomy) who are using essentially some sort of developmental (not to say Hegelian) method most lit on Reformed orthodoxy is, to borrow Henry Ford’s term, “bunk.”

                One might criticize Dever here and there, but it’s pretty solid work. It thoroughly trashed the stupid, misguided, and misbegotten Kendall thesis (and implicitly Clifford’s even sillier attempt to build on that house of sand). Ask Paul Schaefer at Grove City about his research into the Spiritual Brotherhood. He found Dever pretty compelling. I’m hoping that Paul’s work gets published. You can see a bit of it in PSER.

                Muller’s work (and the work of the whole Oberman school) can’t be relegated to the ghetto of Reformed scholasticism. It has implications for the study of the Reformation.

                • Thank you, Scott.

                  I don’t get the same sense of Partee, of course you have more context than I do. So far, I’m about 2/3rds done, I see him engaging Calvin’s theology, not setting him up as the “end all” per se. I don’t have a problem discussing C v C’s, I do believe Kendall was certainly off, in many ways — but I’ll have to do a little more primary reading myself.

                  You said: . . . Almost invariably those who advocate the C v the Cs do so in order to promulgate not history but some theological or ecclesiastical agenda. I understand the point of this generalization, but as I’ve noticed Muller certainly is not theologically or ecclesiastically ‘free’.

                  Thanks for pointing me to Schaefer, I wish my former profs PhD diss on Sibbes was published as well — he pretty much, in my view “trashes” the Dever reading on Sibbes.

                  I completely agree with you on Muller’s work (as well as Oberman, who I really like, btw); ironically, though, the way I see it, the inverse has happened (depending on whose circle), Partee, and more importantly to me, “Scottish Theology,” and the ‘Barthians’ have been thrown under the bus — i.e. because they simply were reading through ‘theological lenses’. I realize we have two variant, but related, disciplines here (history and theology), and that there are different agendas thus associated. I certainly am leaning towards the theology side of things here; but, I don’t think we should mis-read the history either, of course not. I don’t share the belief that folks, like Muller, are “just doing history,” but that all of interpretation is done through particular lenses — I’m more concerned with the “lenses.”

                  Anyway, thank you, Scott!

                  • Bobby,

                    If you going to do history, do history but don’t do theology (i.e. argue with dead people) and call it history. This is what many of the Barthians have done for decades. They’ve made hash of the past by not distinguishing between disciplines. Theological arguments have to be made with reference to the past but must be grounded in Scripture, confession, and theology.

                    • Scott,

                      Totally agreed. But, I think this is a double-edged sword, don’t you?

                      Don’t you think that reconstructing history is analogous to biblical translation. There is certainly something ‘objective’ there (“it is written”), but along the ‘way’ there are interpretive decisions to be made . . . which speaks to a cross-disciplining of sorts.

                      “Theological arguments have to be made with reference to the past but must be grounded in Scripture, confession, and theology.”

                      I think both “sides” work towards this end; it’s the a priori commitments and disparate metaphysical construals that I think are more central than “just doing history,” per se. This, in my mind, comes through loud and clear in the kind of “history” Muller engages (who thinks Thomist/Ramist metaphysic/methodology is a good thing).

                    • I still believe in a certain kind of objectivity. There is a historical truth (note the lower case) to be told. My goal is to tell the truth as best I can. My job is not to try to convince anyone, as a matter of history, whether a view was right or wrong. That’s theology, not history. History should be a rich, multilayered, contextual story. Theologians and philosophers who dabble in history usually eliminate those layers and tell a misleading story. What really happened in the past and why doesn’t really interest them.

                      Muller has written theology, but he is a historian. Read his book on Arminius and see if you catch him doing theology instead of history.

                      In your comments, I think I detect a somewhat cavalier and even hostile attitude toward Muller’s work. I may have my criticisms but I think you’re swimming the wrong way if you dismiss Muller as you seem to do, especially if you haven’t carefully and thoroughly engaged his work (30 years of research in primary sources) before you do. What I see in some evangelicals, revisions, Barthians and others is a pro forma nodding of the cap and then they go on to write as if Oberman was not or as if Steinmetz was not or Muller was not.

                      In the words of my children: Whatever.

                    • You’re discerning, Scott. I’m not cavalier with Muller, hostile is probably more on target, I realize Muller cannot be simply dismissed, but I also see the opposite extreme in you, you said: “. . . Second, the Calvin v Calvinists agenda is completely discredited.”. I’m not really all that concerned with arguing for the Calvin v Calvinists point, per se; but here I see an entrenchment in your attitude, I presume that you believe this “agenda” is completly discredited because of Muller’s thesis . . . even with your criticisms entact. What amazes me is how the picture Muller paints (i.e. “Christ and Decree”, in lieu of the 4 vols since I haven’t read yet) of post-Reformed orthodoxy looks very much so like his “own orthodoxy” and confessional commitments.

                      And you say that there is this pro forma nodding of the cap on, apparently, my side of the Reformation wall; yet this same nodding takes place on your side, your attitude toward Partee’s work is case in point. You simply dismiss it because you’ve discerned that he isn’t on “your side,” and thus move on as if he “was not.” At least this is the impression I got from your undeveloped response.

                      I think the bigger thing here is our disparate metaphyical commitments, which impinge on our interpretive approaches. That’s fine.

                      You say:

                      In the words of my children: Whatever.

                      And my solemn response is: Typical.

                      Thanks, Scott.

                    • Bobby,

                      I have no idea what metaphysics has to do with history. Your continued appeal to varying metaphysics held by interpreters of Calvin suggests that you’re not really interested in history but in theology. If so, I hope you’ll leave the interpretation of the past to those who are committed to getting it right, not in “being right” (in their own views and using the past to justify them).

                      What Muller did in his dissertation (Christ and the Decree — how would it be responsible to read one volume from decades ago and then to ignore the rest of the research since? On what planet?) was to show that much that has been said about the Central Dogma theory is without support in the primary sources, but since that time his research has matured and developed.

                      No one expects that everyone will agree with every conclusion that one draws. Richard has drawn some inferences that I have not yet seen in but I always learn from him and am his (literary) student.

                      As to confessions and confessionalism, well, if you compare Calvin’s catechisms and confessions to those of the Reformed churches (e.g. the Belgic. the Heidelberg, the Scots) from the period and shortly after, you won’t see much substantial difference. Did 80 years and an rather different social situation make a difference between the way the faith came to ecclesiastical expression in Geneva and at Westminster? Sure. Is there substantial difference? No, I don’t think so. I just did extensive research on Calvin’s principle of worship, not exactly sure what I would find and it was interesting to compare his theory of worship, which he articulated repeatedly in the 40s and 50s with that which came to expression in the English/Scots Reformed. There was little difference in theory. Difference in application? Sure. Were there differences between Bucer and Calvin in theory and practice? Yes. There was diversity in Reformed theology and practice but one thing I noticed in the lit is the way that mainliners consistently read Calvin as if he were a modern, mainline (i.e. PCUSA) advocate of liturgical renewal. Why? Because they’re not doing history very well but also because they live in a conceptual and practical world that makes it virtually impossible for them to imagine what Calvin actually believed and attempted to practice.

                      In that sense, those who still believe the substance of what Calvin confessed have an advantage. However misplaced we may be in modernity, we are able to read him more sympathetically and understand what he’s try to say and thus to represent him more accurately. The danger, of course, is always of reading one’s views back into Calvin and theological “conservatives” are prone to that too, but those who still confess the same faith, using the same documents and who mean the same things by them that Calvin did, at least aren’t separated from him in the same way that those who embrace modernity are.

                    • Scott,

                      What I’m interested in is identifying the power that presuppositions have upon interpretation, that’s simple (and “metaphysics” a Doctrine of God is part of that presuppositional package). I don’t think interpretation is as “objective” as you do.

                      You said:

                      . . . Christ and the Decree — how would it be responsible to read one volume from decades ago and then to ignore the rest of the research since? On what planet?

                      Good, he’s substantially changed his general thesis from his diss, then, great! Who said I was ignoring it, I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

                      As far as the Confessions. I’m not interested in the mainliners, not one of them — of course I suppose you lump anyone who appreciates Barth/Torrance as mainline — the idea that the only difference there is is between “application,” and not concept is certainly the Muller argument. The reason I don’t buy that is because there is a substantial difference between folks at Westminster at folks like Hugh Binning or Jonathan Fraser of Brea or McLeod Campbell in Scotland — these Scots followed a ‘one will’ view of God, while the Westminsters followed a ‘two will’ . . . how is that a matter of application only? Did Calvin follow ‘one or two wills’?

                      All I can say to your last paragraph is, circular. It is caricature to assume that “your” position is “conservative,” and all others are “liberal;” this binary has nice rhetorical force, but not much more.

                    • Muller hasn’t substantially changed his thesis. I’m not saying that. You need to read him. I can’t summarize 6 vols of work (at least) in some combox remarks.

                      If you’re doing the Torrance thing, you’re wasting my time. J B Torrance was the worst historical theologian writing in the English language in the 20th century. What a disaster.

                    • I know, and I appreciate that on Muller, I’ll just have to read him at some point (his vols that is).

                      No, not JB so much, TF and his ‘Scottish Theology’. Have you read his book? “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell.” I’ve already had a Calvin scholar (and follower of Muller) from the Sorbonne tare TFT to shreads, and yet he never read TFT’s book (the one I just mentioned) — well he thought he tore TFT to shreads. I’ve actually never read JB yet, but I did hear from a prof at Yale Divinity (also a follower of Muller) about JB as well — he shares your sentiment. But I’m referring to his bro.

                    • For the most part I find TFT incomprehensible. I’m not a theologian (though I’ve played on in the past). I’m a historian and my reading and research is really focused on history.

                      As to objectivity, I agree that sometimes Richard’s language on that can seem a little unguarded, but if there is not an objective truth about that past that can be approached and approximated imperfectly in stories and accounts about the past then we’re all wasting our time and it’s just power politics (e.g. as the radical Marxists say) and we’re just about imposing our will on people.

                      No, we can know truth about the past but I understand that people (with backgrounds) who live in a given time and place, who are finite, have to interpret (which involve subjective judgments) the past. No question about that but I drive in busy So Cal daily and I see distracted drivers stopping at red lights. Somehow it all works, despite the problems of subjectivity. The top light, even for the color blind still means stop. We all see it roughly the same way — it’s close enough — so that we can all function in the same world.

                    • Scott,

                      I really do agree with you on “objective truth,” I just think that interpretation is certainly a part of the process of getting at that truth which can have some interesting consequences. As far as Marx, I think TFT and Barth overcome that kind of nonsensical dualism by grounding epistemology in the ontology of God’s life in Christ (i.e. the unity in the hypostatic union/and homoosious).

                      Anyway, having said all that I’ve said, I wanted to let you know I still respect Muller and you; I can certainly learn from you guys, and I think Muller is the authority when it comes to outlining post-Reformed stuff, so I will continue to look to him — even if at points he is a foil more than a friend :-).

                      I’m a huge fan of TFT, I know he is hard to follow, but I really appreciate his “theological” work (his constructive thought). I think his version of Barth is much more “conservative,” and in the end more Gospel-faithful.

                      I’m originally from So Cal (Long Beach), and at one point had a delivery job in the LA/OC area; I can appreciate your point on driving there ;-).

                      One more point, I just wanted to say thank you for the engagement, Scott; many in the sphere are not as courteous in responding back to commenters, esp. ones who might disagree. I think you have good blog etiquette 🙂 . I’ll continue to lurk here, and maybe comment now and then, thanks for your feedback . . . it helps!

                      In Christ,


  3. You list my work as an example of “writers advocating the notion that Calvin didn’t teach a forensic doctrine of justification!” This is very curious. I have never advocated anything along those lines. I have argued only that all the elements of the patristic doctrine of deification are found in Calvin’s theology and that he himself refers to the goal of redemption as a kind of “deificare.” One might contest the former; the latter is indisputable. More to the point here, there is nothing about the patristic doctrine of deification that is incompatible with a forensic doctrine of justification.

    It is only the later Byzantine development of that doctrine, theosis, that is problematic with respect to justification. The basic patristic doctrine of deification and theosis should not be conflated. Unfortunately, most theologians today do conflate those doctrines, and they do so for the same reason that they miss the presence of deification in Calvin’s theology–they are unfamiliar with the relevant patristic literature. I was not myself clear enough about this distinction when I wrote my essay on Calvin and in a few places used theosis and deification interchangeably, something I have corrected in subsequent work.

    In the article you mention I do not go through the patristic literature to make my case. Perhaps I will revisit the topic in that manner. In the mean time, I have given an exposition of the patristic doctrine relevant to my claim in:
    “The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalm 82, Jewish Antecedents and the Origin of Christian Deification,” Journal of Theological Studies 56/1 (2005): 30-74. This essay should be read before my argument about Calvin is dismissed.


    • Carl,

      I think I understand why you might read my comments thus but I said “easier to find writers advocating the notion that Calvin didn’t teach a forensic doctrine of justification! ” and gave an example followed by a full stop. Then I summarized your essay. I will make it clearer that your essay isn’t a denial. I took it as part of a growing body of lit seeking to marginalize or relativize the forensic in Calvin. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. I’d like to make some comments about what you said:

    Quote: “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.”

    Nick: I realize that “Christ’s Obedience” consists of two ‘components’, the ‘passive’ and the ‘active’. Now, the real question is whether or not this is in fact imputed to the account of the believer, especially the ‘active obedience’. I have looked into this issue, and I honestly don’t see any strong Biblical evidence for it*, the only basis for it is an indirect argument (i.e. that Adam needed a ‘positive righteousness’, and thus we do too). To add to this, some of the most powerful texts in regards to justification are (astonishingly) silent on the ‘active’ component, placing all emphasis on the ‘passive’ only. Romans 3:24-26 and 2 Cor 5:21 are some of the big ones I’m thinking of. This issue is simply too serious and too glaring for my mind not to focus on, and I believe this specific issue (‘active obedience’) needs to be a serious factor in discussions on justification. The plain fact is, if the ‘active obedience’ concept is not Biblical, then Sola Fide cannot work; and if it is Biblical, then Sola Fide is the only logical option.

    * The ‘strongest’ Biblical evidence I’ve seen offered is Romans 5:19 (mentioning ‘obedience’). However, this falls short to me for the plain reason that ‘obedience’ need not mean ‘active’, and in fact that must be read into it here – due to the fact this concept is nowhere taught elsewhere in Romans (while ‘passive’ clearly is, esp Rom 3:24 & 5:6-10). On top of that, the two other times ‘obedience’ is mentioned in reference to Christ, clearly only the ‘passive’ sort is in view: Phil 2:8; Heb 5:7f.

    • Nick,

      There’s an entire chapter on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. See above left for the link. Read the chapter before you say more here. The Reformed churches and theologians, in the main, are quite convinced that there is strong biblical evidence.

      Rom 5 for starters. Christ “one act of righteousness” is imputed to us. Christ “performed.” He “did.” He obeyed for for us. We trust, rest, we rely on him and on his obedience for us.

      The denial of Jesus’ active obedience rests on the rationalist and moralist a priori notions that Jesus had to qualify himself to be our Savior and that if we teach the IAO it will somehow encourage immorality among Christians. The Apostle Paul answered this objection in Romans 6.

      This is not a place for the promulgation of moralism of any sort.

      • Dr Clark,

        Thank you for that book suggestion, I am actually looking for books just like that (and at reasonable prices like that!). As you suggest, I do want to read the active obedience chapter before I comment further. However, I’m concerned that you say “Rom 5 for starters,” as if that’s your primary proof-text, because I don’t see anything clearly indicating ‘Christ kept the Law in your place’. You highlight the concepts of ‘one act of righteousness’, ‘performed’, and ‘did’…and you say, “We trust, rest, we rely on him and on his obedience for us”…but certainly these descriptions apply to ‘passive obedience’ as well. And because that is so, I find it hard to even suggest Rom 5 (approaching the text with as few presuppositions as possible) is speaking of ‘active’ in the first place.

        I am not choosing to not believing in IAO for reasons of philosophy or antinomianism (encouraging sin) – both are wrongheaded – but simply because I don’t see it as part of the ‘justification equations’ laid out in key texts like Rom 3:24-26.

      • I also think Philippians 3 is a pretty clear passage on the matter, though I’d follow the instructions to read the chapter in CJPM as well.

        • Could you be more specific about what verses of Phil 3? I believe the key verses of Phil 3 are verses 10-11, but that’s about how Christ’s ‘passive obedience’ transforms our soul in justification, while the law cannot (and never could) save (3:6b).

  5. Sorry for posting a second time in a row, I hope it’s not a problem, but there was a bit more I wanted to comment on.

    1) The article mentioned the classic descriptions of faith as the ‘instrumental’ cause, acting as a sort of ’empty hand’ (no intrinsic value) that ‘lays hold of Christ’s righteousness’. In reading Romans 10:9-10 I noticed something interesting:

    “9because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

    There are two components here to becoming saved, (1) believing in your heart God’s Revelation and (2) confessing it. Not one or the other (also note John 12:42). The obvious difficulty here is that with two components, a notion of ‘sola fide’ doesn’t fit. Further, with the ‘confess’ component, it makes the ‘faith acting as an empty hand’ imagery a bit of a stretch, because it leaves ‘confess’ hanging there almost unnecessary. A more ‘plain’ reading, to me, suggests ‘believing in your heart’ and ‘confessing publicly’ are intrinsically pleasing acts in God’s sight (while still being gifts of His grace). This means that a phrase like ‘faith counted as righteousness’ means God sees that faith as a righteous act, and is pleased to bless the individual. This, I believe, is how Romans 4 (esp v23f) is to be understood. This approach harmonizes Rom 4 & 10, where as the ’empty hand’ approach leaves Romans 10 a bit mangled.

    Another issue you mentioned is that of good works being ‘sure to happen’. This teaching, to me, is a bit dangerous and subjective (and I don’t believe has a Biblical basis, note 2 Pt 1:9). Are Christians still able to sin?…and do Christians still sin? If yes, then good works were surely not guaranteed. And, further, how many good works must be done (and how often) to ‘convince’ oneself and/or others that a professing Christian is indeed ‘truly saved’? I am unaware of a Biblical answer, and a subjective one can only lead to problems (eg in the issue of Assurance).

    • Nick,

      Reformed Christians read Scripture with Scripture and not insolation from the rest of Scripture. Rom 11 makes clear that works are one thing and grace is another. Your reading of these verses contradicts the Apostle’s teaching and thus the rule of Scripture. It also contradicts Paul’s teaching in Rom 3-4 and Gal 2-4. Analogia Scripturae, analogia fidei.

      • Thank you for your response. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure where exactly you believe I went wrong. All I see is that I’m wrong, but no reasons for why are given. Are you saying the division of ‘believe’ and ‘confess’ in Romans 10:9f means ‘confessing’ is a work? If so, that sounds like a dubious argument to me.

        • No, I mean that your whole hermeneutic is backwards. Your argument has nothing to do with the text in context nor does it adequately relate the text to the broader Pauline context.

  6. It might be noted that the Nicene Creed, by using the expression “remission of sins” has a very forensic understanding of justification. By contrast, when the ecumenical ICEL rendering of the Nicene Creed (commonly used in many main-line churches) changes that expression to “forgiveness of sins”, it is not merely mistranslating. It is taking a deliberate departure from the forensic understanding and opens up possibilities for understanding justification as the RESULT of asking for forgiveness rather than the result of plan of salvation that centers upon the Cross. The doctrine of forensic justification thus goes back not just to Calvin and the Reformers, but back to Nicaea and the early Church.

    • Hudson, what evidence do you have that shows your reading of the Nicene Creed to be anything other than anachronistic? Having been thoroughly disappointed by Oden’s work, The Justification Reader, I’d be very interested in seeing some proof that the Nicene Fathers held to some form of forensic justification. I’ve been searching for some time now, without success.

      • Maybe I have a different definition of ‘forensic’. My definition is: evidence for an event that is accomplished, complete, and laid out for examination. By that measure, the original form of the Nicene Creed is particular to say that the plan of salvation (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) was “begotten before all worlds”. The modern (ecumenical) Nicene Creed unfortunately perverts that language into “eternally begotten”, an expression that does not lend itself to forensic investigation because eternity is not complete.

        Consider also the full expression in the Nicene Creed: “Baptism for the remission of sins” Baptism is laid out as the first evidence, maybe even the primary evidence of justification. The sacrament itself is forensic evidence of God’s plan to remit sins upon the Cross. You can’t get much more forensic than that, unless of course you pervert the Nicene Creed into saying “Baptism for the forgiveness of sins” which is the expression in the ecumenical Nicene Creed.

        • A strong distinction between remission and forgiveness makes not only the NIV but also the NASB to be fairly defective translations. There is considerable overlap in meaning it seems, and I’m not seeing how your distinction actually makes a difference.

          But what I’m really looking for is something that is related to the creed that demonstrates a forensic understanding by the Nicene Fathers. Your approach is tautological, because the creed in Greek uses the same wording as the New Testament, which as I just noted is translated as “forgiveness” by major, respected translations of the Bible. In order to demonstrate that the Fathers intended a forensic meaning, you’re going to have to work with something besides just the creed itself.

  7. Scott, I thought that was a curious thought regarding historians. It would seem to suggest that if conservative Calvinists are at an advantage over less conservative Calvinists in understanding Calvin, then Catholics, by virtue of their religious beliefs, have an advantage over Calvinists in understanding Bellarmine. And of course, the argument could be expanded to apply to any special interest groups.


    • No, I don’t think the categories of liberal and conservative correlate to better and worse Calvin scholarship. I didn’t mean to give that impression but I am struck by the way that mainliners seem unable to get to grips with Calvin on worship. I think ecclesiastical setting does change plausibility structures.

      I think “confessional” v “non-confessional” are better categories of analysis in this regard but there are lots of god Calvin scholars out there who probably have no sympathy whatever for his views.

  8. Oops, sorry. My post above was meant to follow Scott’s post of Oct 16 8:12am. Not sure how it got where it is.

Comments are closed.