Fesko's Beyond Calvin (2): The State of the Question, pt 1

You will quickly discover why I could not put this material into a traditional journal review. With my apologies for its length, I suggest you print this out, settle into a comfy chair, and read these notes in one hand while holding a glass of red in the other. (I recommend a quality Malbec.) And so we begin...

The first chapter following the preface sets up the "state of the question." Given the wide range of studies that follow in the book, the author must do something like this in order to shape his readers’ expectations. He is certainly successful in this. What follows is a series of observations and occasionally responses to this introductory material.

1. The opening paragraph of the book characterizes recent interest in Luther and union with Christ, particularly by the Helsinki school, as an example of historians returning to old texts in the ill-conceived hope they might uncover some hitherto unnoticed feature of the theologian's thought (13). Fesko suggests that what has happened with Luther in that context has happened to Calvin as well, though in a more "subdued" manner. This is a rather ambitious parallel to draw, but it is unexplored. From here, Fesko hammers at the dead horse of the old Centraldogma theory by which scholars of an earlier generation reduced Calvin to a single dogmatic idea, an idea which allegedly controlled the whole of his theology. The old Centraldogma was predestination; Fesko suggests recent interest in union with Christ smacks of the same. Again we have an ambitious parallel, and one that is more material to the book's concerns, but the reader will not benefit from a careful comparative investigation of the nature and structure of those older arguments regarding predestination and more recent ones regarding union with Christ. It seems the claim is more rhetorical in design, added in order to appeal to those who "know" the old theory to be wrong-headed, perhaps even bizarrely so, and thus sets up those readers to expect the same with this new trend. Whether or not it is in fact a fair comparison is beside the rhetorical point. ("So, answer my question, when did you stop beating your wife?")

I pause here to note something else of interest to those who read in this area. Recently in the published literature, it seems something curious is starting to take place. One might wonder why it is tacitly assumed by Fesko, as by others, that Calvin does not have a "central dogma," and more specifically, why it is that the very possibility of a theologian self-consciously organizing his theology around a particular controlling concept is impossible. Scholars of an earlier generation opposed the theory on carefully-argued grounds. More recently, however, the argument occasionally sounds more like "x thought Calvin organized his theology around a single idea" and so we know they were wrong." Now, careful analysis of his writings demonstrates that critics of the old approach are correct in arguing that Calvin does no such thing in his theology. They were certainly wrong, I agree, but I'm interested in noting the issue of scholarship here. In recent literature, while we must now expect anything written on Calvin to include mention of the Centraldogma dead horse, one rarely encounters reasons why it is not, and even more rarely could not, be the case. (And my own discussion of the theory in 2008 doesn't penetrate very far into the reasons either, and I am only now noticing the phenomenon as such.) Fesko does not exactly argue along those simple lines, neither does he provide the reasons, however; having set up the idea that a "central dogma" is a dead-end, he refers to Richard Muller's work as the place the evidence can be found. Fair enough, but the rhetorical strategy (or at least effect) should not be missed.

2. Fesko then proceeds to cover Barth, Charles Partee, and Julie Canlis as examples of the error which sees union with Christ as the key to Calvin's theology. In discussing Barth, Fesko notes the several times Barth argues that Calvin did not fully develop the union idea or perceive the full scope of its wide-ranging significance. Again, since Barth is among those with whom Fesko is displeased in this book, one has to wonder if Fesko is assuming that claims that Calvin did not fully develop an idea are somehow from the start out of bounds. In any case, Fesko rightly points out Partee's many careless statements that over-reach on the importance of Calvin's doctrine of union, including his simplistic and negative take on Calvin's relationship to the tradition of Reformed Orthodoxy, but the chapters to come will indicate that Fesko's reasons for his discomfort with Partee are not quite so simple.

The brief notes on Barth and Partee are fairly straightforward. With the author's angle on Canlis, more of his purpose in writing comes into view. Referring to Canlis' statement that "Calvin's focus on salvation extra nos has primarily come to mark the Protestant tradition, rather than his equally warm and vibrant theology of participation," and by noting that Canlis (not in connection with this statement but in another place in her article, curiously located in Fesko's prose) footnotes Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Fesko transitions to a section called "The Gaffin-school on Calvin and union."

3. Simply put, and now I must call the proverbial spade a spade, Fesko’s proposal of a “Gaffin-school” is the most conspicuously unhelpful feature of this introduction, and the most likely feature of the book to damage still further what remains of the intramural discussion over union with Christ, etc., in confessional Reformed circles. The reasons for this assessment are many. The section title, and the whole idea of a "Gaffin school" behind the section title, is - even for purely academic purposes - provocative and unhelpful. Fesko adopts the language of a "school" of Calvin interpretation without explaining what he means by a "school" and in full view of Gaffin's objections to their being such a thing. No matter who it is, Gaffin or Barth or Arius or Abelard, objections like this should give us pause. For the purposes of scholarship, to be meaningful as an academic convention, one would have to demonstrate (with documentation) that (1) Gaffin has proposed truly new ideas or has proposed a distinctive interpretation and/or use of those ideas in critical protest to a/the prevailing paradigm or tradition; (2) that "students" of the purported school have employed those distinctives in their own work; and (3) that there is a verifiable interpretive relationship of dependence regarding the central issue (interpretation of Calvin) in the direction from Gaffin to the "students" of the "school," which for Fesko include at least Craig Carpenter, Lane Tipton, Mark A. Garcia, and William B. Evans. Granted that this is a fairly unscientific list of desiderata for the existence of a "school," I surmise that one could properly identify, say, the Finnish School of Luther research using similar criteria. I suggest one cannot identify a Gaffin-school using this criteria, however.

If we take the term in its technical and academic sense, the author has not demonstrated that there is such a school. The late sociologist and historian of science, Olga Amsterdamska, argued that “school of thought” originated in nineteenth-century German linguistic debates (“Institutions and Schools of Thought: The Neogrammarians,” AJS 91:2 (1985): 332-58). According to Amsterdamska, a “school of thought” opposes the status quo, introduces innovations, and challenges the existing authority structure of a discipline. And those who form a new school stress their independence and distinctiveness. Now, that kind of sociological take on “school of thought” may or may not be correct, and more importantly it may not be what Fesko has in mind by proposing one. But the point here is that he has proposed a rather controversial notion and he has not indicated what he means by the term. But we are only beginning to reflect on this move; there is more to say.

4. There is, after all, also the important matter of Fesko’s appeal to Evans on this point. On p. 17, no. 21, Fesko’s note reads as follows:

“Gaffin has demurred over the idea that there is an interpretive school attributable to his reading of Calvin (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., ‘A Response to John Fesko’s Review,’ Ordained Servant 18 [2009]: 106-07. However, others such as William Evans, one of Gaffin’s students, credits him with such a role (William B. Evans, ‘Déjà vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,’ WTJ 72 [2010]: 138-41).”

Observe the following regarding Fesko’s note:

a. Fesko recognizes that his identification of a “Gaffin school” of Calvin interpretation may sound original, so he points to "others" who have suggested the same but only names William B. Evans. So we follow up the lead provided in Fesko’s footnote and see what it is that Evans says. But in the first example of very many in the book, what we find in this text is not what Fesko claims is there. In the article page numbers that Fesko cites, Evans provides a description (Evans says it is descriptive, not an analysis) of what he calls “The Biblical-Theological Trajectory-Vos, Murray, Gaffin, et al.” According to Evans, this “trajectory” includes the following features: a biblical-theological approach to soteriology, a “deep respect for the confessional tradition of Reformed theology” but not a “repristination of the past,” and a “dissatisfaction with certain concepts and schemas that have been taken for granted more recently by the federal theology tradition together with a sense that they have obscured rather than illuminated certain key scriptural themes” (138-9).

b. Reading Evans’ article we also note:

(i) Evans explicitly identifies a beginning of this trajectory not with Gaffin but with Geerhardus Vos at Princeton Seminary, and then Evans proceeds not from Vos to Gaffin but first to John Murray and then to Gaffin;

(ii) Evans identifies Gaffin as the one who, “more than any other, has preserved and developed the legacy of Vos,” but then goes on to add other names to the list, including Sinclair Ferguson and then some of Gaffin’s students: Lane Tipton, Mark A. Garcia, Philip Ryken, Evans himself, “and others.”

(iii) As part of a taxonomy of his own, Evans titles this “trajectory” not as Gaffin’s own but as “the Biblical-Theological Trajectory-Vos, Murray, Gaffin, et al.” and, in fact, never once “credits [Gaffin] with such a role,” to use Fesko’s words, i.e., as having founded or as leading a “school” of Calvin interpretation.

We also note that (iv) whereas Fesko sees a Gaffin “school” of interpretation of Calvin, the trajectory that Evans is identifying isn’t about interpreting Calvin at all but instead accents the biblical-theological method in relation to the ordo salutis and the priority of union with Christ as “foundational to all aspects of salvation” (140). There is nothing about a distinctive read of Calvin in Evans’ description of this “trajectory” for which Gaffin is the main, but hardly the only, leader.

Also, (v) Fesko notes that “Gaffin has demurred over the idea that there is an interpretive school attributable to his reading of Calvin.” If one is determined to persist in identifying such a school despite the objections of Gaffin himself, the reader has the right to expect strong evidence of such a school. I have noted that the author’s reference to Evans fails to meet a reasonable standard of evidence for the claim, but note that this failure obtains even if one were only seeking to demonstrate that someone else thinks there is such a school. Evans does not say there is a Gaffin-school and does not use the language of a school of thought for Gaffin.

Finally, (vi) Evans does not even have Calvin interpretation per se in view beyond noting that a few of the publications produced by this group include analyses of Calvin (and of other figures up to the Westminster divines and beyond such as John Owen and Thomas Boston).

c. Other than Evans, Fesko notes only “others such as” Evans, but they are not named or cited, so the reader has no one other than Evans to read in support of Fesko’s claim that others have seen a "Gaffin-school" of Calvin interpretation.

5. Returning to Fesko on Gaffin, on p. 18 Fesko writes,

“[Gaffin] claims that for Calvin, there is no priority between justification and sanctification because both are simultaneously received through union with Christ. Gaffin expounds the superiority of Calvin’s view with respect to the sixteenth century Roman Catholic view when he writes concerning the common charge of antinomianism:”

and then quotes Gaffin’s words,

“Calvin destroys Rome’s charge by showing that faith, in its Protestant understanding, entails a disposition to holiness without particular reference to justification, a concern for godliness that is not to be understood only as a consequence of justification. Calvin proceeds as he does, and is free to do so, because for him the relative ‘ordo’ or priority of justification and sanctification is indifferent theologically. Rather, what has controlling soteriological importance is the priority to both (spiritual, ‘existential, faith-) union with Christ” (italics Gaffin’s).

And then Fesko writes, “Gaffin’s argument boils down to this: union with Christ is the source from which flow two distinct but un-prioritized benefits: justification and sanctification.”

But note:

a. Without assuming the idea itself is wrong, we must note that Gaffin has not spoken flatly of union with Christ and two “un-prioritized benefits.” In the quotation Fesko provides, Gaffin says Calvin responded to Rome by linking faith to sanctification without also including, in this context, a “particular reference to justification” which is not the same as saying there is no reference to justification to be considered or acknowledged.

b. Even without accounting for the clarifications Gaffin has already provided elsewhere for this statement, his words here, as quoted, clearly do not claim that there is no relationship between justification and sanctification. Gaffin says that, for Calvin, which order one adopts for discussing justification and sanctification is indifferent theologically. He does not say that either benefit of union is indifferent in general or in relation to the other. As far as Calvin is concerned, it does not risk anything theologically to discuss sanctification before discussing justification, which of course he does in his Institutes as a matter of pedagogy prompted by his desire to overturn the Roman charge of licentiousness.

6. Fesko goes on to note Gaffin’s criticism of the characteristic Lutheran procedure of arguing for sanctification as a fruit or consequence of justification. Please notice my language: the characteristic Lutheran procedure, not the universal Lutheran procedure in contrast to the universal Reformed procedure. Gaffin’s own words, quoted by Fesko, read: “Unless I need to be corrected, this is more the case in the Lutheran tradition, where, in the ordo salutis, union is regularly sequenced following justification, as a fruit of consequence in justification” (18-19). Allow me to quote Gaffin’s words once more but this time accenting the all-important qualifiers that are already in there: “Unless I need to be corrected, this is more the case [not “always the case”] in the Lutheran tradition, where, in the ordo salutis, union is regularly [not “always”] sequenced following justification, as a fruit of consequence in justification.” I note this feature of Gaffin’s actual words at this early juncture because the issue of misreading and over-reading what has been said by Gaffin, myself, and others regarding the relationship between the Reformed tradition and the Lutheran tradition is a regular and conspicuous misstep in the volume as a whole, as review of the essays to follow will note.

7. Fesko also emphasizes Gaffin’s view that justification is prior to sanctification only when the latter is conceived as a process, not as a definitive act, and that this understanding has precedent not only in John Murray but also was anticipated to some degree in Calvin. Fesko is only introducing the main lines of interpretation that he will engage later, so he does not yet evaluate this idea.

8. He concludes this section with the words, “Gaffin’s conclusions have been carried forth by others for both historical theological and dogmatic ends,” and then introduces Carpenter and Tipton followed by myself and then Evans. The opening words of this next section read, “In many respects the law of unintended consequences has arisen with regard to Gaffin’s earlier reading of Calvin, as he has produced a school of historians and theologians who have come to similar conclusions” (19).

“Unintended consequences” – this sounds like a bad thing, then. “Gaffin’s earlier reading of Calvin.” Hm. “Produced a school of historians and theologians.” Hm again. “Who have come to similar conclusions.” Presumably they’ve come to those conclusions because of Gaffin, then, and not because of their own work on Calvin. But first things first.

a. Let’s pause over Fesko’s appeal to “Gaffin’s earlier reading of Calvin” which has allegedly “produced a school of historians and theologians.” To note only the chronological element for now: of the publications by Gaffin that Fesko has noted, only Resurrection and Redemption precedes the publications by Carpenter, Tipton, and Garcia, and this book is a study of Paul, not of Calvin. And in this book on Paul, following the leads of the index reveals that most of Gaffin references to Calvin are instances of disagreement with Calvin’s exegesis of this or that question, not appeals to Calvin as a forerunner of his own programmatic proposals. (And yet again, I must invoke Seinfeld: Not that there is anything wrong with that. But because the author is leading us to assume that something would be wrong with that, we continue...) And in his concluding chapter, where Gaffin explores the implications of his Pauline study for the traditional Reformed conception of the ordo salutis (which Fesko is quite concerned about), Calvin is not cited or referred to a single time. No, not once, neither in support of Gaffin’s view nor in contrast to it.

But what about the “school of historians and theologians” Gaffin’s work on Calvin is said to have “produced?” My own Ph.D. work on Calvin, on which Fesko will focus a lot of attention later in this book, was completed in 2003 (and assessed in 2004, and then published in 2008) before the earliest of Gaffin’s only articles and essays on Calvin and union with Christ (published in 2003, 2006, and 2009). (And I did not see his 2003 article prior to its publication.)

b. Carpenter’s 2002 article (“A Question of Union with Christ? Calvin and Trent on Justification,” WTJ 64/2 [2002]: 363-86) mentions Gaffin only three times, and then only as a study of Paul, not of Calvin (Carpenter, “A Question of Union?,” p. 378 n. 47; 382 n. 53 refers to Gaffin’s work on the ordo salutis; 386 n. 61 includes Gaffin with Stephen Taylor and Timothy Trumper in the author’s acknowledgements).

Notice, moreover, that Fesko errs on this point: on p. 20 n. 32, Fesko refers to Carpenter and says:

“Carpenter indicates that Gaffin’s reading of Calvin has informed his own reading and cites Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption (127-43) for support (“Calvin and Trent on Justification,” 378 n. 47). Gaffin, on the other hand, later cites Carpenter in support of his reading of Calvin (“Biblical Theology,” 177 n. 26).”

But we must always read the sources being cited. In fact, Carpenter, in the place Fesko cites, does not “indicate that Gaffin’s reading of Calvin has informed his own reading” but points instead to Gaffin’s work on Paul. Carpenter’s note in question reads, in toto:

“Although Calvin does not use the term, the character of this vital, Spiritual union between the believer and the exalted Christ is decidedly eschatological. On this as regards Pauline theology more specifically, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), esp. 127-43; the wording of this last sentence is dependent on Gaffin’s on p. 132” (italics mine).

It could not be clearer that Carpenter is citing Gaffin as a reader of Paul, not Gaffin as a reader of Calvin.

What Fesko notes in passing regarding Gaffin's appeal to Carpenter prompts a not insignificant question, too. Based on Gaffin’s citation of Carpenter for Calvin on union with Christ and Trent, noted by Fesko, why doesn’t Fesko propose a Carpenter school of which Gaffin is a member?

c. Turning to Tipton’s essay, he certainly both develops Gaffin’s work on Paul and includes discussion of Calvin’s soteriology, but again, other than one footnote in which Tipton cites Gaffin’s reading of Calvin on the question of “priority” and “theological” indifference (Tipton, “Justification and Union with Christ,” 41 n. 35), there is little material evidence in the essay of Tipton’s dependence on Gaffin on Calvin.

d. Finally, reading Evans’ book one looks in vain for even one mention of Gaffin in his entire chapter on Calvin.

None of this bodes well for Fesko’s claim that Gaffin’s work on Calvin spiraled into being a distinct school of thought on Calvin interpretation that is recognizable in publications by Carpenter, Tipton, Garcia, Evans, et al. Scholarly argument requires more than association. To be sure, each of these writers learned a great deal from Gaffin and would agree together on some of these ideas in contention, but I submit that many more would as well, including Calvin scholars who have no institutional or personal overlap whatsoever with Richard Gaffin, Jr. My own review of the literature indicates that Calvin scholars have long known the things now in dispute.

No, it seems far more likely that something Evans says in the “acknowledgments” section of his book is much closer to fact. He writes, “Interest in the theme of Union with Christ and its role in Reformed theology was stimulated for this writer over twenty years ago now by two professors at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia – Sinclair B. Ferguson and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.” (Evans, Imputation and Impartation, p. xiii). (We note, incidentally, that Gaffin is not the only one listed.)

“Stimulated:” that is undoubtedly the case, and we can say more than stimulated – many have undoubtedly been instructed and inspired by Gaffin’s appreciation for Calvin to return to Calvin’s writings themselves with a fresh interest in the way the Reformer expounded upon union with Christ and the duplex gratia. To be sure, Gaffin's reading of Calvin and the readings of others in the list must be evaluated against the standard of the texts and the evidence. But “stimulating” or “inspiring” and founding a distinct “school” of Calvin interpretation are quite different things, and the evidence just doesn’t support the latter.

As a last remark on this point, one should recognize the (presumably unintentional) effects of the choice to propose an entity like the “Gaffin-school.” As the author has explained it, the alleged school consists of a cluster of former students and/or colleagues of Gaffin’s who have reached conclusions similar to or identical with Gaffin on a range of disputed points concerning Calvin. Moreover, these school members are dependent upon Gaffin for those conclusions. What this means, then, is that despite the fact that the texts and the chronology do not support such a notion, and despite the fact that Gaffin himself has objected to the idea of the thing, the extensive criticisms in this book against the various writers associated with the “school” are ultimately criticisms of Gaffin himself. It is the unfortunate reality inherent to this ill-conceived proposal, and it is unfair both to Gaffin and to the other writers who have labored in the texts for themselves and documented their research.

The notes on the introduction will be continued in the next post.