Fesko's Beyond Calvin (7): An Addendum on Transforming Texts

As an addendum to my last post, in which I pointed to Fesko's transformation of Calvin's text, I point now to a similar phenomenon in an earlier publication but in a very similar context. I do so in order to accent the programmatic nature of this way of handling texts, and to illustrate the real problem of a justification-centrism which can see almost nothing but aspects of justification in biblical texts which speak positively of obedience, works, perseverance, and eternal life. While in this example Fesko doesn't change the actual text of the author, his reading of it is controlled by the same justification-centrism concern that shapes his reading of Calvin. In this earlier instance, found in his book on justification, Fesko transforms the argument not of an older Reformed theologian but of a respected contemporary writer, G. K. Beale, but it is the same hermeneutical issue with the same theological result.

The biblical text in question this time is Rev. 19:8. The passage, starting with v. 6, reads as follows (ESV): "Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out: Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure - for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints."

Note that the text states explicitly that the "fine linen" is "the righteous deeds of the saints." In his book, Justification, Fesko still finds imputation in this, and he cites Beale in support. First, Fesko's explanation:

"We must realize that the righteous deeds of the saints originate with God, not with the believer. Moreover, that the deeds are given to the saints is evident in both Isaiah 61:10 and Revelation 19:8. When we correlate these data with Revelation 20:11-15 and the book of life of the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 20:12; 13:8), what emerges is that it is the obedience, or righteousness, of Christ that is imputed that is the ground of judgment for the believer. We see the same wedding-garment imagery connected with the work of Christ in Paul [Eph. 5:25-27 quoted here-MG]. The bride of Christ, then, is clothed in righteousness which by imputation is the righteous deeds of the saints" (327, emphases mine).

At the end of the quotation from Eph. 5, Fesko footnotes "Beale, Revelation, 942," and it seems likely that Beale is his support for connecting Isaiah to Revelation 19 as well, though this is not indicated. Now we turn, then, to Beale's commentary on Revelation, to which Fesko appeals in support. Beale's discussion of the "wedding clothes" covers pp. 934-44. Here are some of Beale's remarks:

"If Mounce's line of thought is on the right track, then it would be better to view vv 7-8 as indicating that a transformed life of good works (though certainly not perfection) is not only 'the proper response' to justification but a necessary external response or 'badge' required before entrance to the wedding of the Lamb is granted. Theologically, this would mean that justification is the causal necessary condition for entrance into the eternal kingdom, but good works are a noncausal necessary condition. In this regard, cf. also Rom. 2:6-8; 2 Cor. 11:2" (935).

"Without exception receiving white clothes elsewhere in the Apocalypse precisely conveys the idea of purity resulting from a test of persevering faith (see on 3:5-6). Therefore, the white clothes here should be equated not with the 'righteous deeds' of perseverance, as in the view described above, but with the reward or result of such deeds. In this light the final clause of v 8 could be interpretatively paraphrased as 'the fine linen is the reward for (or result of) the righteous deeds of the saints.' Another viable translation would be 'the linen is the deeds putting right [acquitting, vindicating] the saints' (taking 'of the saints' as objective genitive rather than subjective genitive ['righteous deeds performed by the saints']). Yet another viable rendering would be 'just judgments on behalf of the saints.'

"The white robes, then, might represent two inextricably related realities: (1) human faithfulness and good works (as a necessary evidence of right standing with God) and (2) vindication or acquittal accomplished by God's judgments against the enemy on behalf of his people... The context and usage of dikaoma support a meaning of 'vindication' or 'acquittal' resulting from divine judgments on behalf of the saints... Nevertheless, that Rev. 19:8b also envisions 'righteous acts by the saints' must not be lost sight of" (937-8, emphases are Beale's)."

Then, in his conclusion to the section, Beale summarizes his findings which are, in short, that the phrase in question "connotes both righteous acts performed by saints and their vindicated condition resulting from their faithful acts or, more likely, from God's righteous acts of judgment against their oppressors" (941, emphasis Beale's). He continues to say that "the dual notion of righteous acts by saints and God's righteous acts for saints is suggested by at least seven observations," (emphases Beale's) which he then lists. The seventh of these is apparently the place Fesko intends to cite in support of his imputation-reading of the passage. Fesko's statement again, immediately after citing Eph. 5 and footnoting Beale: "The bride of Christ, then, is clothed in righteousness which by imputation is the righteous deeds of the saints" (327, emphasis mine).

And now, again, Beale's words:

"Likewise, Eph. 5:25 affirms that it is Christ who sanctifies and cleanses his bride, the church, so that she will be 'holy and blameless' at the end of time..."(942, emphases Beale's).

However, whereas Fesko appeals to Beale in favor of imputation, Beale's exposition does not go in that direction. Instead, Beale's next remarks are:

"Consequently, the saints are clothed with pure linen as a symbol of God's righteous vindication of them because, though they were persecuted, they were righteous on earth. The full meaning of the pure garments is that God's righteous vindication involves judging the enemy, which shows that the saints' faith and works have been right all along. The dual sense of 'pure linen' in 19:8 suits admirably the rhetorical purpose of the entire Apocalypse, which includes exhortations to believers to stop soiling their garments (3:4-5) and not to be 'found naked' (3:18; 16:15). This underscores the aspect of human accountability, which is highlighted by 19:7b: 'his bride has prepared herself.' ... From the human side, the good works focus on the saints' witness to their faith in Christ, which is supported by the focus on witness in v 10 and by the direct linkage in 3:4-5 of white clothing with the notion of witness (cf. likewise 3:14 with 3:18)" (942, emphasis Beale's).

Beal's "dual" notion (of righteous acts by saints and God's righteous acts for saints) is completely absent from Fesko's one-sided and distorted reading, as is the clear idea in Beale that, while a gift of God in Christ, the good works are still the believers', and not by imputation. But the reader is led to think that Beale's highly regarded work on Revelation supports Fesko's conclusion, despite not only what Revelation says but also what Beale wrote. Thus, again we see a selective and misuse of sources in order to argue for a justification-centrism that might circumvent a place in Scripture in which good works are not merely the fruit or consequence of justification and are not merely expressions of gratitude. In this case, considerable effort is spent, not only in the use of Beale but in this section of Fesko's book as a whole, to make Rev. 19:8, "the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints," say something more like "the fine linen is the righteous deeds of Christ imputed to the saints."