Fesko’s Beyond Calvin (12), Metaphysics and Justification, pt. 8 (Aristotelian Metaphysics)

On p. 46 of this essay, Fesko arrives at his main thesis which, as I have noted repeatedly, has the unfortunate distinction of demonstrating the equivalent of "there is a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean." I submit that Fesko's thesis that both Reformed and Lutheran theologians employed the language of causation is without counter in any extant literature, and certainly bears no relationship to what is argued in the studies he purportedly evaluates here.

But there is a further, and arguably more critical issue which arises in a reading of the essay: by "metaphysics," Fesko seems to have in view little more than "philosophy" or "Aristotle's causes" or some such general notion, not "metaphysics" in the classical and specific sense. This phenomenon prompts the question whether or not the author knows what metaphysics is in academic discourse and, if so, why he decided to speak of the "use of metaphysics" so insistently when all he means is "use of philosophical language and arguments" and often something as rudimentary as "use of causal language." It is important to see how this works out, so I ask you to bear with me.

At the outset of his discussion entitled "Why was Aristotelian metaphysics so important?" Fesko summarizes certain facts for the reader. He notes, for instance, that the early modern era was saturated with Aristotelianisms of various kinds, that the Reformers "never eradicated all use of philosophy in their theology" (46), and that the difference in the use of philosophy between the Reformation and post-Reformation theologians is a difference in degree, not in substance. In all of this, which should be uncontroversial for most readers (though I wish it were uncontroversial for all, and so I'm thankful for Fesko's reminders here), Fesko appropriately footnotes the helpful discussions of the question by Bagchi and Muller. He goes on to note that Aristotelianism underwent modification in the medieval and Reformation eras because "it was the common way for theologians to explain the world around them" (47).

However, his next statement indicates (again) where he believes this survey of the basics leads us. He states,

"Hence, the metaphysical explanation of justification and its relationship to sanctification as well as union with Christ is an effort to relate the various and sundry parts as a whole. This is something that Garcia does not seem to grasp. Garcia writes: 'Within Calvin's soteriological model, to make sanctification follow justification as an effect is to concede the theological possibility that one may be truly justified but not yet sanctified, with the result that the legal fiction charge, to which Calvin was always sensitive, would be validated.' Yet such a conclusion misses the point of employing metaphysics and causality to explain the relationship between justification and sanctification and reflects an Enlightenment view of causality where observed causes and effects might not be linked, or even torn asunder."

Where to begin? But I will try.

1. Fesko notes the obvious, namely, that "metaphysical" explanations - by which he still seems to mean simply explanations that use causal language - of justification in relation to sanctification and union with Christ are efforts to relate "the various and sundry parts as a whole." This, Fesko claims, is something I do "not seem to grasp." Interesting. I wonder where Fesko gets the idea I do not grasp that causal language was used by Calvin and others in his day to relate these various theological realities, particularly since my book, which Fesko has in view throughout, is devoted specifically to that relationship and, as noted in previous posts, there is quite a lot in the book - and in positive form - about the place of causation language in those relationships. But to wonder this is to assume that Fesko has read the book with attentive care, and I regret that this is not an assumption any reasonably objective reader of the texts in question is able to grant on the basis of the evidence. And in saying so I purposely understate the fact. This only leaves other options for explaining why Fesko would suggest such a thing, but these are options that move us beyond the objective texts and evidence into the nebulous and dangerous regions of motives and intentions.

2. Fesko takes particular umbrage with my claim regarding the theological possibility created by models which make sanctification the effect of a prior justification. The problem here is that, if one was to go to the place in Life in Christ where Fesko is quoting (see p. 264), it is quite clear that this is not my personal assessment but my characterization of what Calvin is arguing. Granted that there continues to be a pandemic assumption that anything a Reformed theologian says about Calvin's views is taken, ipso facto, as a statement of the theologian's own views, let me point out what should be obvious: Garcia doesn't believe Calvin is Scripture and that Calvin is always right, and on any and every point in this book and elsewhere, "Calvin says x" is not the same as "Garcia says x." (Which also means, relevantly, that if I wish to argue a theological point of my own, I will not do so exclusively or even primarily by expounding Calvin but by expounding Scripture in conversation with the tradition. The only exceptions occur in those studies when Calvin or some other theologian has articulated a matter in a way that helps us make better sense of Scripture, as I've done twice on the question of imputation in relation to union with Christ.) And in this passage, quoted by Fesko, Garcia is providing a description of a theological orientation with which Calvin appears to be working (Fesko's quote begins, correctly, with the words, "Within Calvin's soteriological model..."). So one must deal with this characterization at the level of its fidelity to Calvin's writings and arguments, but Fesko has treated it my theological proposal instead.

3. Fesko's claim that my alleged blindness to the Reformation and post-Reformation use of "metaphysics" "reflects an Enlightenment view of causality where observed causes and effects might not be linked, or even torn asunder," is ironic. In fact, beyond what I actually argue in my work, Fesko, like other recent advocates of this view, is working here with a range of assumptions regarding "metaphysics" and causality that are later than the Reformation era. Only with the rise of Cartesianism in the sciences, and the attendant move toward mechanistic and biological uses of the vocabulary, did causation language begin more deliberately to entail views on how things originate or are produced. As Walter Ott among others has demonstrated, prior to Cartesian developments in metaphysics, causation language had been employed largely to provide descriptors of logical, rather than generative or mechanical, relationships: x causes y in the sense that y is entailed as a logical necessity given x. This is in keeping with what I suggested in an earlier post regarding an appropriate way in which we can say that one grace causes another in the duplex gratia: given one truly present redemptive grace in a person, the other(s) are logically (theologically) necessary, inasmuch as there is only one Christ in whom all graces are enjoyed in union with him, and thus there is no one grace without the other(s). In Life in Christ, and at length, I try to demonstrate how Calvin's theological reactions to the Roman Catholic and Tridentine charge of licentiousness (which they claimed the Reformation doctrine of justification created space for) reflects - rhetorically as well as substantively - just this model of logical relationships.

To be sure, on pp. 48-9, Fesko provides an overview of the changes introduced by Descartes, but he oversimplifies those changes by reducing them to the question of epistemological confidence in how things appear to our senses. More significantly, he seems to miss completely the implications of the Cartesian changes for his assumptions regarding what is meant by "cause" in the writings of Calvin and others. While he emphasizes that it was simply a way to insist justification and sanctification are inseparable but distinguishable (48), he equivocates repeatedly on what "cause" therefore means when it comes to how those graces are related to each other.

Put differently and more pointedly, the mere use of causation language has not been in dispute, but the function of that language in the broader exegetical, theological, and polemical contexts is a more complicated matter. Fesko's tacit confidence, in reading texts, that the historical uses of causation language reflect our own modern use of "cause" in the form of a generative or mechanical relationship is an easy mistake, certainly, but it is also a further example of the Whig historiography of which we were warned by the author early in this book. And this, to use Fesko's language, is something Fesko does not seem to grasp.