Fesko’s Beyond Calvin (5): Metaphysics and Justification, pt 2 (Causation)

In this post I will focus attention on what the author identifies as the objective of his essay. Throughout the book Fesko tries to make clear what he hopes to achieve in his essays, and arguably the greatest service a discerning reader can render to him is to evaluate his success over against his stated goals. Let's begin our attempt to do so with a reminder of the last two sentences of the first paragraph, which read:

"Garcia argues that, for Calvin, the duplex gratia of justification and sanctification is grounded in the more fundamental category of union with Christ and therefore justification cannot be accorded any sort of priority over sanctification. By contrast, he concludes that Lutheran theologians do not ground justification and sanctification in union, but rather instead place the two in a causal relationship: justification causes sanctification, or sanctification is the effect of justification" (34).

In my last post I evaluated the claim that I have argued Calvin denies "any sort of priority" of justification to sanctification. I have found it wanting, not only in light of what I think but in light of what I have said (and not said) in publication. The second of the two sentences quoted above transitions the reader to the burden of the essay as a whole.

Well, not exactly.

The "any sort of" remark to the side, in those two sentences the author does accurately summarize what I have concluded in my book, although I would express the matter with slightly more nuance: to the extent categorical language can be useful, Lutheran theologians typically do not ground justification and sanctification in union with Christ but instead root sanctification in justification as effect to cause, given their understanding of justification as theologically central. Moreover, my book seeks to demonstrate there are sensible exegetical and polemical-theological reasons for why the Lutheran tradition started on this trajectory and continued on it, more or less, through the period of confessionalization. Importantly, in my argument at least, this approach among the early Lutherans is a concrete and practical phenomenon on display in how "conditional" passages in the Scriptures are handled, rather than an abstract idea functioning only at the level of bare formulation. Also, in contrast to Calvin and other early Reformed theologians, as well as the Reformed symbols, the Lutheran tradition has not regarded justification and sanctification as derivative aspects of union with Christ. And once again there are sensible exegetical and polemical-theological reasons for why the Reformed tradition started on its trajectory and continued on it, more or less, through the period of confessionalization. In other words, while I am focused on Calvin and the theologians of his day rather than the traditions as a whole, as Fesko properly notes here I have argued a particular conclusion regarding the kind of causation-model that, in the sixteenth century, became characteristically Lutheran.

So when we read the author's next sentence (which opens the second paragraph), in which the author refers to the difficulty of "investigating the viability of such a claim" (my emphasis) within the scope of his essay, and when we read in the same paragraph that he will "focus upon the narrow question of the doctrine of justification and metaphysics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology with particular attention to its relationship to sanctification and union with Christ" (35), the reader expects that the "claim" is what we just read: my argument for a certain kind of causation model for justification and sanctification in relation to union in the work of Calvin and his Lutheran counterparts. Further, in light of the author's appropriate and helpful warning against readings of the Reformation that naively perceive it as a "recovery of the gospel" which "preclude[s] any talk of metaphysics" (35), we also expect that we are in for a treat of a study of the fascinating and highly important question of developments in metaphysics and notions of causation in the early modern period.

Surprisingly, however, this is not the claim Fesko attacks in his essay. Our expectation of an informed and scholarly analysis of Reformation and post-Reformation metaphysics also will not be met. Instead, the burden of this essay is, as he says in the first sentence of a later paragraph titled "Thesis," to "demonstrate that causal language was common among Reformed theologians of the Reformation (1517-65) and Early Orthodox (1565-1630/40) periods. Cause and effect language is not the exclusive mark of Lutheran theology" (emphases mine). He goes on to say he will also demonstrate that Reformed explanations of justification and sanctification which use causal language "can" be found and explain "why such language occurs." Again, to be clear, he writes: "In order to prove the thesis of this chapter, that causal language appears in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology and is not a phenomenon exclusive to Lutheranism..." (36, emphasis mine), the author will survey Calvin's use of causal language and then survey other Reformed works before offering an explanation of why "metaphysics" was used in the explanation of doctrine and why it eventually vanished.

This is something we must pause over, but as a momentary aside, the author's summary of Calvin in the subsequent two paragraphs (37-8), and specifically what he does to Calvin's words is, in my reading, the most noteworthy and representative passage in the book. It is also the point where the situation before us, in terms of both theology and scholarship, transitions from being merely curious or pedantic or frustrating or troublesome to something rather more grave and solemn. We will look at this passage in our next post. In this post, we note only the causation "claim" and offer the following reflections on the author's project:

1. The author demonstrates unequivocally that this issue of documenting the presence of causal language in Reformed and Lutheran theologians is in fact the burden of his essay, and that he regards this as a corrective of my "claim." The problem, however, is - simply put - I have never suggested that causal language is the unique property of the Lutheran tradition and theologians, or that Reformed theologians don't use the language of causality, or that Calvin does not use causal language, or any such thing. I am the only target in the essay so far, but I have never said the things that will be controverted in this vigorously argued essay, not in the book under review or anywhere else. Ever. Note the following statements from the author in which he identifies his target:

"At this point Calvin's use of metaphysics presents counter-evidence to Garcia's claim that causal language is the exclusive property of the Lutheran tradition" (38, emphasis mine).

Except that I have never claimed this, nor does the author here footnote any place in my publications where I have.


"Part of the problem with Garcia's claims is that he examines a narrow cross-section of theologians, largely Calvin, Luther, and Melanchthon and then makes sweeping conclusions about two entire theological traditions without presenting more evidence. To this end, when we expand our study to explore other Reformed witnesses, it will become evident that causal language was present in the Reformed tradition during the sixteenth and seventeenth century" (39).

Leaving aside for today the erroneous assertions of the first sentence, the ostensibly grand demonstration anticipated by the second sentence is wholly beside the point. I'm not aware of anyone, including myself, who denies that "causal language was present in the Reformed tradition during the sixteenth and seventeenth century." Honestly, even after what I have seen people willing to dare to say in publication, who would deny such a thing? At the very least, none of the sources Fesko has cited in the essay so far, which are almost exclusively references to my work, so much as suggest anything remotely like this. For the reader, it is more than a little deflating to realize so early on in an essay that great energy is being spent attacking a phantom.

2. I will deal with other examples of this in the essay as we make our way through it in posts to come. There is a second difficulty with the author's project in this essay to note, however. It is one thing to make a mistake when speculating what a writer might say or think, but for his part Fesko has to assert himself in the face of an abundance of evidence to the contrary. This is not the first or last time he is willing to jump this hurdle, but it is important to recognize it when it is happening. Note what we find in the book to which Fesko refers as evidence of his claims:

a. In ch. 2 of Life in Christ, p. 79, I note Bucer's use of a causality scheme for justification.

b. In ch. 3, I again note Bucer's use of causality (2x on p. 102).

c. More significantly for ch. 3, I refer in positive terms to Calvin's use of the language of causation no less than 39 times on pp. 111-147. In fact, I titled a section of this chapter "Aristotle's Causes in Calvin's Model" (pp. 117-19) because I discuss exactly what that title suggests, viz., Calvin's use of Aristotelian causation. Furthermore, the most important part of the chapter is called "Causation, Good Works, and Spirit-Replication" (pp. 145-6). Finally, I quote Calvin extensively in places where he uses causation language (e.g., p. 147).

d. In ch. 4, I refer to Calvin on causation a further six times, and I mention it eight more times in the conclusion of the book where I again quote Calvin on causation and provide a summary of what I have argued regarding his distinctive use of the causation scheme (see pp. 262-3).

e. That concluding summary reflects the burden of my discussion of Calvin on Romans in ch. 3, which is in fact to analyze what kind of causation model Calvin is working with. My investigation is prompted by Calvin's own words, such as these (but not restricted to these):

These do not prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes. But how does this come about? Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works. What goes before in the order of dispensation he calls the cause of what comes after. In this way he sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them; but because he justifies those whom he has chosen in order at last to glorify them, he makes the prior grace, which is a step to what follows, as it were the cause. But whenever the true cause is to be assigned, he does not enjoin us to take refuge in works but keeps us solely to the contemplation of his mercy.[1]

Despite all this, we recall what Fesko said in his essay: "At this point Calvin's use of metaphysics presents counter-evidence to Garcia's claim that causal language is the exclusive property of the Lutheran tradition."

I do argue in Life in Christ that Calvin's use of causation is different from the use found among his Lutheran counterparts, but it is patently clear that this is a difference in the kind of causation, not a denial that Calvin used it, or a claim that only Lutherans used it, etc. Passages like this one in Calvin are part of the reason I have explored his use of causation language.

f. The only thing I can come up with is that the author has rather badly misread his sources. He has somehow concluded I do not believe that Calvin uses causation language, and that other Reformed theologians do not use it either, and then he decided to write an essay to contradict it. But I have not suggested either notion. Nor do I ever suggest, in this book or elsewhere, that there are no Reformed theologians who speak of justification as the cause of sanctification, so that it is necessary to document simply that there are Reformed theologians who have so spoken as though it contradicts my claims. This is, again, the burden of Fesko's essay: to show that Reformed theologians use the language of causality and that some Reformed theologians speak of justification as the cause of sanctification. Very well, but this is uncontested. (More on the Calvin material will await the next post.)

3. On a final note for today, for those who are interested in early modern and especially theological uses of Aristotle's causes, I would like to recommend a close reading of the texts of the period in light of some recent analyses of the question that are quite helpful. I think particularly of Walter Ott's vigorous study, Causation and Laws of Nature in Early Modern Philosophy (OUP, 2009) and, for the period in view, the fine work of Willem J. van Asselt: Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise, edited with Eef Dekker (Baker Academic, 2001) and Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, written with T. T. J. Pleizier, P. L. Rouwendal, and M. Wisse (RHB, 2011). I believe you will find them quite useful.

In our next post, I will ask us to observe the author's transformation of a crucial text in Calvin's Institutes.

[1] Calvin, Inst. (1539) 3.14.21; OS 4.238-9 (LCC 20.787): “Istis nihil obstat quominus opera Dominus, tanquam causas inferiores amplectatur; sed unde id? nempe quos sua misericordia, aeternae vitae haereditati destinavit, eos ordinaria sua dispensatione per bona opera inducit in eius possessionem. Quod in ordine dispensationis praecedit, posterioris causam nominat. Hac ratione ab operibus interdum vitam aeternam deducit; non quod illis referenda sit accepta: sed quia quos elegit, iustificat ut demum glorificet, priorem gratiam, quae gradus est ad sequentem, causam quodammodo facit. At quoties assignanda est vera causa, non ad opera iubet confugere, sed in sola misericordiae cogitatione nos retinet.”