Union with Christ, the Reformed tradition, and Research: Reading Fesko (1)

I have been asked repeatedly in recent years if I intend to write in response to the publications by John Fesko, the Academic Dean of Westminster Seminary California in Escondido and a professor of theology there. One reason I have been asked if I intend to do so is rather straightforward: Fesko has written a lot on the topic of union with Christ and justification in the Reformed tradition, a topic of some recent confusion and controversy. Another reason is that these are topics on which I, too, have written, and Fesko is sharply critical of my work. Yet another reason is that some readers familiar with the texts and arguments at issue and who have tried to make their way through Fesko's books have come away bewildered at what he says. Others less familiar with the texts and arguments have concluded, based on Fesko's writings, that I must hold to some rather curious, laughable, and easily refuted notions regarding Calvin, the Reformed tradition, justification, and so forth. To date I have not published any interactions with Fesko's publications, but the reasons for not doing so are complex. Having been asked yet again about Fesko's books recently, I suppose I've been pushed past the line of uncertainty into saying at least something about them. But why the delay? As I said, it's complicated.

The most important reason for hesitation is that, despite the fact that this is published work "out there" and thus "fair game," this is more importantly the work of a brother in Christ and in the Reformed tradition no less. Dr. Fesko is not someone I am eager to critique. He and I have a great deal more in common theologically than we do not, and I have no doubt he would agree. Indeed, much of the vitality of scholarly interactions and debates within church and seminary contexts is due to how very much can be assumed at the doorway of an issue: the extent of shared territory frees us up to explore finer nuances and ideas with detail and care that would not be possible otherwise. And this is a debate over those finer nuances, at least mostly.

Another reason for hesitation has to do with the task itself. I have read, I think, everything Fesko has published on these matters. I read the journal articles and then I read them again in slightly revised form in his book, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012). Before reading these, I had read his book on Justification several times through. My problems began with my first read through his book on justification. Each time I picked up these publications I added to an open document on my computer in which I recorded my notes on the author's statements, the structure of his arguments, his use of sources, etc. But this was terribly taxing. As it seemed there was a problem of some significance on just about every page of every article and in both books, and often many on a page, my notes on each publication were swelling to a size larger than the publications themselves. Plus, this isn't the kind of book I am particularly interested in publishing, but a book it would have had to be had I continued on that course.

In addition, his publications appeared with rapid frequency, so I would hardly finish working through the issues in one article before the next appeared. Before long, however, I had a more significant challenge if I were going to review Fesko's work: I didn't know where it could begin, and I didn't know where it could end. Further, given how often my work is referred to, I did not want to respond in an unduly defensive manner; instead I wanted to do all I could to deal with the author's arguments on their own terms whether he was dealing with my own work, the work of others, or purported to explain historical texts. How successful I am in this is, of course, not for me to judge, but I admit this has been a great challenge. To illustrate, and as evidence that I write here with some levity and not only solemnity, my file of notes on my computer includes a hefty amount of material under the heading, "Unicorns, Centaurs, Fesko's Garcia, and Other Mythological Creatures."

Ultimately, Fesko's works on union with Christ and justification are representative examples, in my view, of what I find myself referring to more and more frequently as "vigor without rigor." There is a lot of earnestness, confidence, and even urgency - a lot of vigor. But not a lot of rigor. Why I judge that to be the case will become more evident in the series of posts to follow. As such, Fesko's body of work, including not only his books but - perhaps especially - their warm reception in some quarters, became more compelling to me as an index of the generally troublesome state of scholarship in confessional Reformed circles (yes, with certain great exceptions) and useful primarily as a sample through which to lead prospective research students. I offer this series of notes on Beyond Calvin somewhat in response, then, to Fesko's arguments, but also in the hope that our work generally will improve.

If it still seems useful after I've finished working through this book (and, no, I cannot work through every page of it), I may turn to his book on justification to do the same or I may turn with a similar goal to other recent sample publications. I hope, in the end, to revise these observations into a form suitable for publication elsewhere.

One more thing should be mentioned at this point. Given that the author is quite energetic in criticizing my work, it would be appropriate to point to one part of the background to my notes. My book, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin's Theology, was published by Paternoster in 2008. Fesko reviewed my book with another in a review article published in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's journal for church officers, Ordained Servant, in March, 2009. Dr. Richard Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary (in Philadelphia, not to be confused with the Westminster Seminary located in California where Dr. Fesko teaches) was asked to respond to this review article and his analysis was published later in the same issue. If you're not sure you read this correctly, I understand why. It is indeed the case that the editor asked Dr. Gaffin to respond to Fesko's review, even though Dr. Gaffin is not the author of the book Fesko reviewed. I was not asked to write a response.

However, it is among the curiosities of Fesko's interaction with my work that he has read it through the lens of Dr. Gaffin's own work, rather visibly and simplistically assuming one is the other. In fact, it would appear that since I dedicated my book on Calvin in part to Dr. Gaffin, that Fesko read as far as the dedicatory and decided he knew what the book said. Thus Gaffin's responding to Fesko's review of my book is not quite as remarkable as it likely should be. It is, of course, a blessing to be confused with Dr. Gaffin, and I'm not one to object too heartily to undeserved praise, but at the level of material critique and interaction, Fesko's work is a reminder that it is always good practice, not to mention pretty good courtesy, to deal with the book and the author on their own terms. I'm confident he would agree on the ideal.