Fesko’s Beyond Calvin (11), Metaphysics and Justification, pt. 7 (Other Reformed Witnesses)

After Zanchi, Fesko turns to brief remarks on Trelcatius (d. 1607), Bucanus (d. 1603), Alsted (d. 1638), the Leiden Synopsis, Ames (d. 1633), Wollebius (d. 1629), Junius (d. 1602), and Polyander (d. 1646). (Before going any further, do read these authors if you ever have the opportunity. It's part of a sound and substantial education in Reformed theology.) My remarks this time are brief, but I submit them in order to draw attention to a rather crucial qualification in the essay that, again, may go a long way in aiding the cause of greater harmony among those who disagree. But first, a few notes on this section (pp. 44-6):

1. Following up on the survey of Zanchi, Fesko quotes Trelcatius on imputed righteousness working inherent righteousness in some sense.

a. The quote reads, "The nearest cause indeed of a righteous work, is inherent righteousness; but the chief and principal cause is the Spirit of Christ imputing his righteousness to us and by the power of that imputed righteousness, working this inherent righteousness in us." After the quote, Fesko states, "From this statement it seems clear that Trelcatius is saying that the imputed righteousness is the source (or power) of the inherent righteousness in redemption" (44).

Perhaps, but "clear" it is not. Fesko quotes from the 1610 English translation, but the Latin is at least convoluted: "Iusti operis Causa proxima quidem est iustitia inhaerens praecipua vero, ac primaria, Spiritus Christi, iustitiam Christi nobis imputantis, et ui imputatae illius iustitiae, hanc inhaerentem, in nobis operantis." The punctuation may need revision, and the Latin is somewhat ambiguous when it comes to who or what the "power" is that "works." Especially if we remove the commas around "hanc inhaerentem," the idea could be either the power of the him whose righteousness it is (Christ), or the power of the righteousness of him itself (the imputed righteousness of justification). Though the latter is more likely, the idea still seems to be that the Spirit is causing whatever power Trelcatius locates in the imputed righteousness. Or something like that.

b. Of course, the translation on which Fesko depends is certainly a possible and valid way of rendering it. Let us assume it is the better rendering. But again the most this demonstrates is that Trelcatius held this view. With regard to Trelcatius, it is interesting that Fesko notes that Trelcatius's text is "taken from his compendium of Calvin's Institutes, which shows how Calvin was received and understood" (44, n. 41). Yes, but this would seem to point in the opposite direction of his earlier insistence regarding Calvin and the need to revise perceptions of his relative importance: granted his work was important in its day, but how many compendia of Trelcatius were published after his death? Or of Zanchi? Or Alsted?

2. A central question we should ask as we read is, How should we understand the significance of the lines Fesko quotes in this section?

a. Firstly, Fesko lists a range of writers, but none of these authors is given any close attention; lines are pulled from their writings that seem to suggest something like the author's thesis, but there is little to no context given to the reader. These extracted sentences - and Fesko provides only one sentence or less for each of these, with the exception of Junius who also quotes a line from Augustine - should not be confused with careful analyses of each writer and their ministerial and polemical contexts. They should stand as quotes, yes, but they cannot stand as something more substantial as more than that.

b. Secondly, we have to remember the curious nature of the essay as a whole: specifically, there is no need to wrestle with these quotes in a way that suggests the author's phantom interlocutors actually exist. Again, I am not aware of anyone in Fesko's purview who has suggested that causal language is not used among Reformed theologians of the Reformation or post-Reformation eras, that no Reformed theologians speak of justification as causing sanctification, or that Calvin is the sole measuring stick of Reformed theology. And we certainly must not be afraid of disagreeing theologically with a Reformed author, which is a question quite distinct from the historical one. Indeed, not having that kind of vested stake in what they say (and not having to pretend they all said the same thing) frees us up to read them on their own terms. At the same time, the citations Fesko offers do not include any explanations - by the writers or by Fesko - of how the language of "effect" or "consequence" or "fruit" are being used or understood, particularly in light of the options for this vocabulary which we recently outlined.

c. Thirdly, and related to our previous point, Fesko understandably leads us to read these quotes as steps on the way to confirming his thesis.  Halfway through the section, he says: "Quite clearly, causal language is part and parcel of Reformed explanations of union with Christ and explanations of the relationship between justification and sanctification" (45). The final sentence in this section confirms this is the goal: "Given the presented evidence, it is sufficient to say that one cannot draw a line of division between Lutheran and Reformed theologians of the Reformation and Early Orthodox periods on the use of causal language with regard to justification, sanctification, and union with Christ" (46). But our principal problem with this essay is that the thesis is already an anomaly. It's a thesis which, as we've said several times now, bears no relationship whatsoever to what is argued in any of the literature Fesko notes. Thus the goal is, from the start, not so much unattainable as irrelevant.

3. More importantly, though, and more positively, I would strongly recommend more serious attention to the qualifying note Fesko sounds immediately after saying the words quoted above, viz., "Quite clearly, causal language is part and parcel of Reformed explanations of union with Christ and explanations of the relationship between justification and sanctification." His very next words are: "This is not to say that every rank and file Reformed theologian of the two periods explained things in this manner," (45, emphasis mine) and then his quotes from Wollebius, Junius, and Polyander demonstrate this to be true. Each of these writers, says Fesko, "argues that the indirect effects of faith are justification, sanctification, assurance of salvation, and Christian freedom" (45, emphasis original).

a. Yes, indeed, there was historical variety in expression, and if we could acknowledge this not only as a historical reality but as a guide to acceptable modes of expression, this would be a significant advance.

b. Note that I say "acknowledge as a historical reality," which is not to suggest they are therefore all equally sound theologically. They are not, and the standard for determining which modes of argument and expression are more sound than others is the teaching of Scripture, not what Calvin or anyone else said. We must be willing to evaluate all of these modes of expression theologically without doing so by denying their historical variety. But this also reminds us that the most a volume of strictly historical studies like these can accomplish is answer, or attempt to answer, a historical question (what was said and why), not a biblical and theological question, even as the historical study is of course a necessary part of the process of reaching those conclusions.

c. Also, the theological distinction between "faith" and "justification" implicit in Fesko's qualifying statement is a very welcome one since these two terms are so frequently and erroneously treated as synonyms, especially in contemporary readings of historical texts in the context of justification controversies.

d. However, we cannot affirm the importance of this concession without noticing that it appears to take away with one hand what the author has been trying throughout the essay to push forward with the other, namely, the author's "part and parcel" argument.

4. Finally, and less importantly, in an unfortunate misstep Fesko footnotes pages in Richard Muller's very important series, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, but he cites the earlier version of volume 1, not the more standard, revised, and expanded edition included in the set released by Baker in 2003. Not having a copy of the older, 1987 text, this makes it difficult to trace Fesko's use of Muller.

Our next post follows Fesko's transition into a discussion of why "Aristotelian metaphysics" was so prominent in early Reformed theology. This will be the most natural point for us to raise questions about the author's reference to "metaphysics" and his assumptions regarding what "cause" means in this period.