Fesko’s Beyond Calvin (3): The State of the Question, pt 2


When Fesko turns from Gaffin to summarize my work and the work of Evans, Fesko notes my effort to compare Calvin’s views with Luther, Melanchthon, and Osiander (21). Fesko also provides a summary of what he regards as the conclusions of my study. I’ll take each point in turn.

1. “First,” says Fesko, “Garcia rejects the troubled Centraldogma theory but nonetheless argues that union with Christ is singularly determinative for Calvin’s soteriology.”

I reply: Yes, and I thank Dr. Fesko for acknowledging that I do, in fact, reject the Centraldogma theory, although what he goes on to say later in the book suggests he doesn't really believe that I do reject it. And yes, I do argue that union with Christ is “singularly  determinative” (those are actually my words, though Fesko doesn't use quotation marks here) for his soteriology – in other words, not his theology as a whole but his theology of salvation particularly. And when I suggest that this is the case, I go to great pains to explain what it does and does not mean.

2. “Second,” Fesko continues, “he believes that significant differences lie between the Lutheran and Reformed camps on justification and union with Christ because Lutherans are more willing to equate justification with salvation, whereas Calvin sees salvation as union with Christ, which is the broader all-encompassing reality, one that embraces both the forensic and renovative dimensions of redemption."

I reply: Yes, that is correct. While I might want to word it a little differently, to point out how and why would amount to quibbling and I think we all can agree we need less of that, not more.

3. “Third,” he continues, “Garcia argues that Lutheranism views justification as the source of sanctification and good works. For example, in his analysis of Melanchthon’s views, he writes: ‘Ultimately, this necessity is based upon a model which regards imputation or justification as the source of sanctification, understood in terms of cause and effect.’ Garcia also contends: ‘By attributing a generative quality to justification (justification produces sanctification), such a schema compromises the strictly forensic, purely declarative notion of justification that is the lifeblood of Melanchthon’s (and the classical Lutheran) gospel.’”

I reply: Yes, I argue that justification as the source of sanctification and good works (which, by the way, are not synonyms) is more characteristic of the Lutheran than the Reformed tradition, that this is evidenced in the texts of the period in which these traditions were forming, and that the theological and historical contexts for this difference are complex but important to understand.

With respect to Melanchthon, yes, I do describe his views that way, but this is simply because Melanchthon himself does (explicitly in his Romans expositions, with which I’m interacting - and extensively quoting - at this point in my book) and I assume it's good form to believe him rather than to argue with him about what he really thinks.

And yes, I continue to believe that ascribing a generative quality or core to justification such that it causes or produces sanctification unintentionally compromises, theologically, the strictly forensic nature of the justification pronouncement.

But do note that, in the quote Fesko uses, I am assuming that a strictly forensic notion of justification is a common or shared conviction among Lutherans and Reformed, that it is precious to Melanchthon and the classical Lutheran gospel just as it is with Calvin and other Reformed theologians. Yes, I am saying the Reformed and Lutherans agree on this and on very many other things in the doctrine of justification, as I argue repeatedly in my work. In fact, what I argue in my book depends on recognizing this basic commonality in definition and concern. (Keep this in your back pocket for now.)

4. Fesko continues, “Fourth, hence the common equation of the statements, ‘Justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls,’ commonly attributed to Luther, with Calvin’s famous, ‘Justification is the hinge upon which all religion turns,’ is incorrect. Luther and Calvin are saying very different things, according to Garcia.”

I reply: yes, the simple equation of the sayings is incorrect or infelicitous precisely because of its unhelpful oversimplicity. But since Fesko states that I claim "Luther and Calvin are saying very different things," let me quote what I actually said for comparison with Fesko's reading. I wrote:

"Despite important continuities, then, Calvin's 'main hinge on which religion turns' (Inst. [1539] 3.11.1) is not identical with the Lutheran 'doctrine of the standing or falling church,' neither in nature (justification as the de facto sum-total of salvation) nor in function (justification as theological center or hermeneutical rule)" (Life in Christ, 260-61, emphases added). We note:

a. Fesko refers to Garcia on "Luther and Calvin" but Garcia distinguishes Calvin from a Lutheran idea, not Luther. Let me say this for the first of many times: in the English language, as well as in history and theology, "Luther" is not a simple synonym for "Lutheran/Lutheranism." When I say "Luther" I mean Luther. When I say "Lutheran" I mean figures who identify (or are accurately identified by others) with the distinctives of the Lutheran tradition, are in some way characteristic or representative of that tradition, or to the Lutheran symbols themselves, depending on the context.

b. Fesko refers to Garcia's view that Luther and Calvin mean "very different things" but in the quote Fesko uses Garcia points explicitly  to "important continuities" in the very idea itself, and says that they are not identical to one another, followed by two ways (nature and function)  in which they are said not to be identical.

Whether or not Luther came up with the saying is beside the point since I do not here claim that Luther said it or invented it. As I argue in the book, when one refers to justification as the “standing or falling” article one cannot simply assume Calvin means the exact same thing by his “hinge upon which all religion turns,” especially in light of the evidence I have sought to provide in the book that precedes this concluding observation.

I offer one example of why we cannot simplistically blend the two slogans together, despite our inordinate affection for slogans these days. “Religion” and the “religious life” do not necessarily mean in the early modern era what they mean in our own. It does not necessarily mean, for instance, religious thought or theology as a system. Calvin is not here saying that justification is the hinge of the Christian Faith as such. As I will show in a forthcoming post, religio in Calvin's usage is frequently (including in this particular context) roughly equivalent to what we mean by “spirituality” or the “Christian life” as a spiritual and liturgical experience. "Religion" is still used this way today. Calvin certainly believes, as I do, that “religion” in this sense depends, in no uncertain terms, on the peace of conscience we enjoy in connection with justification. But this experiential connection, which I would not wish to minimize and still less deny, is not the same as a theological connection, as though justification causes sanctification theologically (which is, again, what I regard as more characteristic of the Lutheran tradition in its formative stage of development).

In other words, this is to affirm at least one idea Fesko is unsure I hold, viz., that for Calvin there is a sense in which we can say justification is prior to and even "causes" sanctification, and yet I affirm this only when we have sanctification in view as a progressive or ongoing (not definitive) reality, or as the religious life taken rather comprehensively. This, after all, would be the ordinary way of speaking of sanctification in Calvin's day, and it would be anachronistic to insist Calvin should be clearer if he recognizes any "definitive" aspect to sanctification which would not be "caused" by sanctification. Analysis of his writings can alone indicate whether or not he recognizes that the sanctification reality is more than progressive, that it includes as well a "definitive" dimension, to use our vocabulary.

To return to the main point, however, "religion,” in these early modern terms and more importantly in Calvin's usage, “hinges” upon justification. Otherwise our pursuit of the religious life cannot but fall over the cliff of self-righteousness and exacerbate our troubled consciences.

5. Fesko continues:

“Fifth, and lastly, Garcia believes that Calvin’s views became normative for the Reformed tradition as a whole: ‘Calvin is not exhaustive of Reformed theology, not even in its sixteenth-century expression. Other important Reformed thinkers from the period must be read and studied with great care.’ Nevertheless,” says Fesko, “Garcia insists: ‘Still, as his place in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed thought certainly suggests, Calvin did function as the principal theologian and systematizer of the tradition in its infancy, often providing the necessary sophistication in theological form and structure.’ So while Calvin is not the prescriptive theologian of the Reformed tradition, he is nevertheless one who is chiefly responsible for the shape and substance of its theology. The intended message is that Calvin’s understanding of the duplex gratia and union with Christ is somewhat normative for the tradition.”

I reply: Yes, I do link “Calvin’s views” directly with what is true of the Reformed tradition generally, though not quite as simplistically as Fesko suggests, as though it were a simple matter of  Calvin-cause-and-Reformed-effect. Importantly, by way of elaboration of what I in fact argue in the book, "Calvin's views" on union with Christ and the duplex gratia are elaborated and expounded in a more sophisticated manner in his writings than in others of his day and later days (thus my interaction in the book with the views of Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi, as well as my note regarding Obadiah Sedgwick later), but other early Reformed theologians held the same basic ideas in common with him (again, as I note in my book), and they too are part of what became the customary Reformed way of speaking and thinking on these matters. I am grateful that Fesko notes my comment that Calvin is “not exhaustive of Reformed theology, not even in its sixteenth-century expression,” but later sections of this book sober me (again) as to how seriously he has taken what I say here.

6. This requires a further observation. Yes, I do regard Calvin as uniquely important in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed thought, but– as I hope to demonstrate one day in an article on the subject – it is a curiosity of recent literature that this is questioned so frequently. The present book is a particularly energetic and vivid example. It would appear that the only way some writers believe we will pay attention to Vermigli, Musculus, Zanchi, et al. is if we have minimized Calvin’s role first, which is at least a peculiar approach. It is an example of over-reaction to the undeniable and truly unfortunate neglect these other important theologians and figures have suffered over the years as well as to mythological distortions of Calvin's person and theology. But it is an overreaction all the same.

Since Richard Muller is frequently cited in support of the humbling of Calvin in terms of influence (and I am persuaded the references to Muller do not always understand him), consider the following from Muller:

“A small, largely neglected, but far from negligible aspect of the relationship between the Reformed theology of the mid-sixteenth century and the Reformed orthodoxy of the seventeenth century is the understanding of Calvin’s thought as it was received by later Reformed theologians. The numerous editions, translations, and synopses of the Institutes printed during the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries testify to its continuing use and importance to later Reformed theology” (The Unaccommodated Calvin, p. 62; see the entire chapter).

More can be said on Calvin editions and so forth but I will leave this to another time.

Consider, too, that of the theologians mentioned by name on the floor at the Westminster Assembly, Calvin is easily in the top three. In the "Register of Citations" in the recently published Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, the only figures who approximate Calvin in mentions on the floor (25x) are Augustine and Beza. (While it is an influence and role different in form from Calvin's, Beza's considerable stature is another example of tragic understatement in modern historiography, but we can be thankful this is being redressed by quality scholarship.) Other important figures such as Vermigli, Musculus, and Zanchi are mentioned only a few times each.

Since I am the one who compiled that Register, and since part of my work as an editor on the Minutes and Papers required that I read what the Divines read and were using in their deliberations, I can assure you, too, that while the mere statistics of the citations on the floor can often be misleading, they are not misleading when it comes to Calvin's exceptional role in their theological thinking. At the very least, the abundance of references to Calvin indicates that, in a context of theological controversy, late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theologians thought it highly advantageous for their cause to name or use Calvin. Even if one does not wish to grant the theological influence, one must still grant the unique rhetorical and sociological weight Calvin had among Reformation and Orthodox Reformed writers. Listen to enough Reformed sermons and read enough popular Reformed Christian literature and you can see this is still the case.

7. More on this matter will have to await a later section in Fesko’s book, but these observations set up the same concerns one must have with what Fesko goes on to say later under the heading “Calvin as the norm” (pp. 24-6). Here, indicating that “[there] are a number of seemingly problematic conclusions that have been drawn” from what he regards as a paradigm shift in Calvin studies (24), Fesko points to the notion of Calvin as a/the normative theologian of the Reformed tradition as symptomatic of the Gaffinian trend. He objects specifically to Gaffin’s estimation of Calvin’s teaching on justification as “the matured expression” of the first generation of the Reformation era and as “arguably… unsurpassed,” an estimation which seems fairly innocuous and even circumspect (note Gaffin's apparently overlooked inclusion of "arguably"), but it is at least hardly original. Fesko regards this high view of Calvin’s contribution and influence regarding justification as “mythology” of which “all of the aforementioned” writers are guilty (25).

8. Fesko goes on to note differences between the way Luther is viewed and used in the Lutheran tradition and the way Calvin is viewed and used in the Reformed tradition. The contrast is mostly accurate – John Calvin is not the singular fountainhead of the Reformed tradition, nor is he necessarily the most important theologian of the Reformation era on any given topic – but I am not aware of any writers in the purported “Gaffin-school” who have suggested otherwise. When Fesko refers to Muller’s article called “Demoting Calvin” in support of the claim that Calvin was not the one-stop-shop for the Reformed tradition, I have no difficulty with this. But, again, this does not warrant a reactionary stance.

9. Next, Fesko tackles “the absence of primary sources.” He states: “Another problematic element of the arguments presented above is that the bulk of the claims of difference between the Reformed and Lutheran understandings of justification and union are built upon a thin veneer of primary sources, though Garcia’s study is an exception, as he investigates both Luther and Melanchthon” (26-7). While I sincerely appreciate the positive note in this sentence, Fesko does not cite any examples of this neglect of primary sources in the writings of the “Gaffin-school” or in Barth. But this is only the introduction so we should not expect this yet; citations of evidence will await treatment in his essays. What he says (following Muller again, I judge) about the dangers in using Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics should be heeded by unsuspecting students.

10. From primary sources Fesko turns next to “Whig historiography,” a loaded descriptor sure to create more walls with his detractors. He claims that “much of the above-surveyed scholarship represents” a “Whig” interpretation of history (again this seems to depend on Muller), at least to some degree. This means historians are evaluating the past in light of the present, a claim that I will suggest in the course of this series of posts is wholly ironic for Fesko to make.

As “milder forms” of this errant methodology, he includes Gaffin, Tipton, and Evans by name. His essential objection in each case is that the author has "imposed" his own context ("twentieth-century theological categories" [27]) upon the sources and identified ideas or arguments in historical texts and figures as in some way relevant to today’s situation, an objection which should be remembered whenever Fesko decides to use any historical figure in support of a contemporary theological argument. The author is strongly allergic to arguments that Calvin or some other historical theologian has said something that has been lost, underplayed, or eclipsed in later periods, and that it is worthy of recovery. Once again, the merits of the particular claims need to be measured against the evidence in the texts, but I am more concerned that Fesko is convinced that entertaining the very possibility is out of bounds and has no place in theological thinking. Perhaps Cyprian, Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Beza, the Westminster divines, Warfield, Hodge, or Murray only repeated what came before them, and perhaps they have nothing to say to us theologically since they are dead and labored in contexts different from ours, so that to use them for such a purpose is invalid. Perhaps, too, there is nothing in the notion that the church fathers or medievals might have said something about justification or the canon and authority of Scripture that was lost or misused after their day and is worth recovering, and that the Reformers and Reformed Orthodox were therefore wrong to use them in their polemics against Trent or Bellarmine and Stapleton. I cannot imagine this is what Fesko intends, especially since his book allegedly seeks to recover an older model for the present that he is persuaded has been misunderstood and misused, but this is where his historiographical objections drive us. It is one thing to argue for context-sensitive historiographical responsibility, but it is another thing to argue that merely the perceived relevance of older figures for contemporary questions smacks of anachronism.

11. Moving on to “the argument of the present essay,” we read the author outline the goals for his book. He will show, first, “that Calvin’s formulations on union with Christ and justification are in no way normative for the tradition. Calvin is one star in a much bigger galaxy. There is no one theological figure that serves as the lodestar as in the Lutheran tradition.” And so Fesko intends to survey a wider field of figures and texts than Calvin alone. This first goal is, in my view, an example of a tendency toward overstatement that we find throughout the book: “in no way normative,” “a much bigger galaxy.” Our review of the studies to follow will assess his arguments for these claims.

12. Secondly, Fesko “will demonstrate that there is no one doctrine of union with Christ and no one ordo salutis. There are a number of different permutations and combinations that one can find in the tradition.” I have no problem with this, and would argue the same myself. But I find this confident assertion ironic as well. Does this mean, then, that Fesko might acknowledge that there is, in the texts of the tradition, something approximating what Vos or Murray or Gaffin or Tipton or Evans or Carpenter have found in Calvin and others? That this way of understanding union with Christ and the benefits might have some, even if not exclusive or exhaustive, place in the Reformed tradition?

13. Thirdly, Fesko “will show that… to talk of union with Christ is to speak of the forest, and to talk of the ordo salutis is to speak of the trees.” What Fesko means is that he will treat union and the ordo salutis as “one and the same” (29).

14. Fourth, Fesko

“will validate the following claim: union with Christ has the double-benefit of justification and sanctification. But the hallmark of an early modern Reformed doctrine of union with Christ is according theological priority to justification over sanctification, or priority of the forensic over the renovative. Another way to say this is that justification is the legal basis of the believer’s redemption.”

This is indeed a claim asserted repeatedly throughout the book, but in connection with his third point it also draws attention to an example of category confusion: to identify union with Christ and the ordo salutis as “one and the same” is already potentially problematic since this posits one gift (union) as identifiable with all the other gifts (the ordo salutis, of which union is a part). In a case of something like genre confusion, it also confuses a gift (union) with a structural question pertaining to theological relationships (the ordo salutis). And, while the meaning of these words will await his exposition later, to go on and say that “justification is the legal basis of the believer’s redemption” sounds potentially like a confusion of historia salutis (the historical accomplishment of redemption) with ordo salutis (the application of the already-accomplished redemption) in the way that some today confuse the death of Christ on the cross with justification and his resurrection with sanctification. Fesko's statement, after all, makes one benefit of redemption (justification) the foundation for the believer's redemption itself. It suggests, at this early point, a cluster of possible category confusions that will have to be kept in view as the rest of the book is read.

After more intimations of what the author's concerns are in the published literature (I will postpone consideration of them till later in the book), the remainder of the introductory chapter outlines the subject matter of the essays that follow. I will let the outlines stand so we can move more expeditiously to the essays themselves.

At this point we have reviewed only the introduction, a survey-discussion that - with the notable exception of the problematic proposal of a "Gaffin-school of Calvin interpretation" - is largely descriptive rather than analytical. Nevertheless it has assumed the terrain of Calvin and Reformed studies looks a certain way, an assumption that I suggest informed readers simply will not grant, and this disturbs the foundation of the book from the outset. We have not yet had many opportunities to evaluate the author's use of evidence or reading of both primary and secondary sources. This will change in our turn to the first chapter of the book, "Metaphysics and Justification," a chapter which I regard as the most problematic in the book as a whole. We will need to proceed through it in subsequent posts at a rate of almost one paragraph at a time.