Fesko’s Beyond Calvin (6): Metaphysics and Justification, pt 3 (Changing Calvin)

With all the talk of the (predictable) return of antinomianism (on which, don't miss the helpful study by Mark Jones, Antinomianism), even to Reformed circles, I expect today's post will be of particular interest. One might even title this entry as "One Reason Why Calvin Wouldn't Be Invited to Your Local Reformed Conference on Salvation - And Why He Should Be the Plenary Speaker." In any case, this is an especially complex but urgently important phenomenon for a range of reasons I won't go into presently, but I mention it because today's post provides an example of a problem we discover more generally in recent literature: (1) discomfort with the language and theology of Scripture regarding the connection between obedience and eternal life translates into (2) discomfort with Reformed historical figures who don't share said discomfort, which in turn translates into (3) highly selective appeals to those figures and even the distortion of their writings.

I gasped the first few times I read the the passage we are looking at today. I gasped because I saw immediately what the author had done to the the words of Calvin, realized immediately why he had done so, knew what he would have had to ignore to get there, and feared what further damage this would do to the way Calvin is read by others.

Fesko's quote from Calvin appears exactly as follows (38):

"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 [justification], which is a step to that which 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."

The most important feature of this quotation is not so much what Calvin says but what Fesko says in the name of Calvin: note that the word "justification" is in brackets. This is because Fesko has added it to Calvin's quote, believing that Calvin is here speaking of justification as "the prior grace which is a step to that which follows." Immediately after this passage, Fesko says the following:

"Calvin is willing to assign good works the role of an inferior cause of salvation, but properly understood and within the context of his explanation it is ultimately a consequence of God's decision to save the sinner. But what is important to note is that Calvin calls justification a cause of good works... Calvin's use of metaphysical distinctions here not only shows how the various aspects of redemption relate to one another, but is the way he gives justification priority over sanctification. 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."

Some observations:

1. Regarding Fesko's last sentence, I trust that the material covered in our last post is more than sufficient to set aside the author's unfounded assertions that I claim causal language is the "exclusive property of the Lutheran tradition."

2. The first sentence in Fesko's statement is accurate. But because "good works as inferior cause of salvation" evidently sounds in his ears at least potentially problematic, his conjunction is "but" rather than "and," and he goes on say what he thinks is really "important to note" about what Calvin says. But this is where things go south quickly: he claims Calvin here "calls justification a cause of good works."

What makes this section of the book problematic, even uniquely and solemnly problematic, is that the author has not only misunderstood but also transformed Calvin. Misidentifying the antecedent in Calvin's statement, he inserts "justification" in order to have Calvin say what he wants him to say. Doing so would of course ostensibly support the validity of the author's thesis here and throughout the book, namely, that justification is the cause of sanctification theologically. But he has taken this step despite a host of red flags both in Calvin's text as well as in the book (Life in Christ) that he is allegedly refuting.

In support, please note the following:

a. When we remove the author's editorial change (his addition of "justification") to Calvin's quote and then read it again the way Calvin actually wrote it, it is clear that the "prior grace" of which Calvin is speaking is not justification but good works, which is the topic of the section and the question he is addressing. Reading the quote from the beginning makes this transparent: With an eye to the language of Rom. 2:6-7 (see later below) Calvin is affirming that good works are inferior (secondary) causes of eternal life, and the rhetorical question he is seeking to answer concerns how that can be so.

His answer, in outline form, is that (a) God has destined that he will bring his children to possess eternal life by way of a certain order or pattern; (b) this pattern is found in the story of Christ himself (cf. Rom. 8:17): humiliation to exaltation, suffering to glory, obedience to eternal life; (c) this pattern, grounded as it is in the story of Christ himself, anchors our hope and expectation that eternal life will be the "end" of our course of obedience, not as a matter of meritorious causation but because God has determined to bring us to glory by way of that Christ-path; (d) for which reason "steps" in that path, including the good works in view in Romans, are "causes" of what follows inasmuch as this is how God has shaped our life in Christ; (e) the Spirit is the Agent of this work of "replicating" in us what is true of Christ; and (f) this pattern in the life of the Church is the content and form of our union with Christ by that Spirit. This is what union with Christ looks like at the level of Christian experience. The "prior grace" Calvin has in view is the reality of good works, and this is a "step" to what follows, ultimately eternal life. It's because Calvin is more than aware of distortions of this relationship along the lines of meritorious causation - and yet refuses to give up the language of real causation simply because it is distorted - that he uses the language of "as it were:" "he makes the prior grace, which is a step to that which follows, as it were the cause."

3. Calvin's statement is from the period ending with 1539/1540. This is when the first revision of his Institutes was published. But this particular statement must be read alongside the first edition of his commentary on Romans, which he was working on at the same time. Putting his 1539/1540 commentary on Romans 2:6-7 alongside this 1539 addition to his Institutes shows he has the same subject matter in mind:

1540 Romans

1539 Institutes

This sentence, however, is not as difficult as it is generally assumed. By punishing the wickedness of the reprobate with just vengeance, the Lord will repay them what they deserve; and again because He sanctifies those whom He has previously resolved to glorify, He will also crown their good works, but not on account of any merit. This cannot, however, be proved from the present verse, which, while it declares what reward good works are to have, does not state their value, [added 1556:] or the price that is due to them. [added 1551:] It is foolish to assume that a thing has merit because it is rewarded.


The statement that God will render to every man according to his works is explained with little difficulty. For the expression indicates an order of sequence rather than the cause. But, beyond any doubt, it is by these stages of his mercy that the Lord completes our salvation when he calls those chosen to himself; those called he justifies; those justified he glorifies. That is to say, he receives his own into life by his mercy alone. Yet, since he leads them into possession of it through the pursuit (studium) of good works in order to fulfill his own work in them according to the order that he has laid down, it is no wonder if they are said to be crowned according to their own works, by which they are doubtless prepared to receive the crown of immortality.

4. Clearly Calvin has the question of good works as cause in view, not justification as cause. Consider now what obstacles the author had to jump over in order to misrepresent Calvin in this case.

a. Not only the opening and closing sentences of the Calvin quote he uses, but even the opening words of the author's own paragraph ("Calvin is willing to assign good works the role of an inferior cause of salvation") should have signaled to him that he is mistaken. All three sentences make clear Calvin is referring to good works in his reference to a "prior grace" that is a cause of what follows, not justification, since he is explaining how eternal life follows good works sequentially as effect to (secondary) cause. But Fesko is so eager to explain the notion away that he misconstrues Calvin's argument.

b. The editor's heading for this section in Calvin's Institutes, in the edition Fesko is citing, is titled, "Sense in which good works are sometimes spoken of as a reason for divine benefits" (LCC XX: 787, emphasis mine). This is not Calvin's section heading, but the fact that it's there should have at least alerted the author to good works, not justification, as the antecedent in Calvin's argument. To this we can add the fact that all the preceding sections in this part of the Institutes are also headed by the topic of works and their value, making it clear that's the topic and problem under consideration.

c. This section of the Institutes is a final, summative statement on the real, soteric value of good works for the Christian, as the next page (788) makes clear. It also transitions the reader into Calvin's rejection of the notion of human merit (Inst. 3.15).

d. The book the author claims to be critiquing along these lines, Life in Christ, should have alerted him to the true subject matter in Calvin's statement. Life in Christ includes an extensive analysis of this passage in Calvin's Institutes, as well as the Romans commentary passage, and all of this in the context not of justification as the cause of sanctification but of the challenge of this kind of "conditional language" (if obedience, then eternal life) as it was navigated not only by Calvin but by Melanchthon and others. Even though the author is disagreeing with this analysis, the whole analysis works with a contextual reading of what Calvin is speaking of. It seems safe to conclude once again either that he did not read the book he is criticizing or that he has at least failed to read it with care.

e. It is noteworthy that the author chooses "justification" as the term he will insert into Calvin's statement. It reflects the justification-centrism that characterizes the book as a whole. It reminds us, moreover, of the author's warnings against "Whig historiography" in his introduction.

f. The most regrettable feature of this misuse of Calvin is not only the way the author has led the reader down the wrong path, but the way it keeps the reader from considering the truly important and fascinating question of how the early Reformed theologians worked carefully with the text of Scripture - using Aristotelian causation as a tool but transforming it to conform to biblical teaching - in order to affirm clearly certain ideas that had been abused by their opponents. In other words, they did not go the route of saying that it is no longer safe to use biblical language because that language could be distorted. Instead, they insisted that the language of Scripture belongs to the Church.

Calvin's eschatological transformation of the Aristotelian causation model is key in this, and finds interesting parallels in the work of Vermigli (see his commentary) and, rather remarkably, John Owen, who wrote:

"Now, the connection and coherence of things being manifold, as of cause and effect, of way and means and the end, this between mortification and life is not of cause and effect properly and strictly, - for 'eternal life is the gift of God through Jesus Christ,' Rom. vi.23, - but of means and end. God hath appointed this means for the attaining that end, which he has freely promised. Means, though necessary, have a fair subordination to an end of free promise. A gift, and procuring cause in him to whom it is given, are inconsistent. The intendment, then, of this proposition as conditional is, that there is a certain infallible connection and coherence between true moritification and eternal life: if you use this means, you shall obtain that end; if you do mortify, you shall live. And herein lies the main motive unto and enforcement of the duty prescribed" (Works, v. 6, p. 6).

In light of all this, the construction of law-and-gospel which sees sanctification as the reflex of justification, which teaches that gratitude is the only rationale for the good works of sanctification, and which filters conditional language out of view as law-not-gospel cannot survive a close reading of the texts of the tradition like these. To be sure, that construct is hardly absent from Reformed writers, but it is manifestly not anything like the unanimous and insistent witness of Reformed writers. Reformed theologians like Calvin, Vermigli, Owen, and others, including the Westminster Standards, do not hesitate to recognize the positive relationship of good works and eternal life. We often see good works described as the real existential fruit of justification but not always or necessarily as the theological fruit of justification (remember "faith" is not a synonym for "justification"), and we discover good works commended not only along the lines of gratitude but also, like Calvin, as the "way" to eternal life:

"These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life" (WCF 16.2, emphases added).

"Q. 32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant? A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation" (WLC 32, emphasis added).

For more material on this and related questions, see the fine study by David C. Fink, "Divided by Faith: The Protestant Doctrine of Justification and the Confessionalization of Biblical Exegesis," Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2010. Of course, I also have to suggest that you consider reading chapter 3 of Life in Christ. Much of what I have said here depends on that lengthy examination of how conditional language was both the specific challenge faced by Reformation-minded theologians, and how Calvin did in fact adopt a distinct (and, in my view, generally compelling) approach to it.