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Calvinists Justifying Themselves

Mark Garcia, author of a mammoth volume on Calvin’s view of union with Christ, has finally started to respond to J.V. Fesko’s several year long interaction with his work. These posts will be worth following.

Much of Fesko’s criticism exists in seminal form in a review article he wrote of Garcia’s book (and one other) in Ordained Servant. Having argued that Garcia’s view of Calvin represents the influence of Richard B. Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Dr. Gaffin was asked to respond to Fesko’s article. Dr. Gaffin’s response is worthy of a careful reading, since it is one of the few places where he very carefully interacts with criticisms of his his own historiographical and theological work.

Still, as Garcia points out in the recent blog posts, it is not a little odd that he himself was not asked to respond directly to Fesko. In any case, Fesko has gone on to recently write a book on union with Christ and its relationship to justification  in the Reformed tradition, which is not a little concerned with controverting what he identifies as the “Gaffin school” interpretation of Calvin and Reformed theology on the matter.

As one views this controversy from the “cheap seats” (as they say), it would appear that Garcia and Fesko represent something of a dispute between a group of theologians and historians with ties to Westminster Seminary in California (Fesko, Horton, etc) and a similar group associated with Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Gaffin, Garcia, etc).

It is important to point out, however, Garcia’s adamant protestation that there is no such thing as a Gaffin (and consequently, Westminster Philly) “school” of Calvin interpretation. What is ironic from my perspective is that one might, however, make a case for a unique Westminster Escondido “school” of Calvin interpretation (and indeed, an interpretation that extends to Reformed theology generally on these issues). Fesko’s oft repeated statement that justification is the “legal ground” of union with Christ is, for instance, somewhat odd language in the Reformed community, but this emphasis is stated in exactly the same language by Horton in his recent treatment of the topic.

No matter who has the better Calvin argument, it seems to me that there are grounds for a theological tertium quid here. For Garcia’s Calvin and Gaffin, union with Christ is logically prior to justification, which is the legal aspect of that union. For Fesko’s Calvin and Horton, justification as a divine speech-act is the legal basis for our union with Christ and is thus logically prior to our existential union with Christ. In my judgment, both sides could perhaps be satisfied if we distinguished between justification as God’s pronouncement and our “being justified” or the “state of justification” which is the effect of that pronouncement. The divine speech-act, “Let there be” results in the “and there was” of our union with Christ in which our state of righteousness is so. One advantage of this view, in my judgment, is that it helps us to relate justification with divine calling. The effective call might simply be understood as the divine justifying speech act which results in the “and it was so” of our justification in Christ (Rom. 8:29-30). It is God who justifies (v. 33) and we who are justified. From this perspective, however, Horton unnecessarily reduces the initial speech-act of our salvific encounter with Christ to justification. Given that there is a definitive aspect to both sanctification and certainly to adoption, one might argue that the initial speech-act must also be seen as one action in several aspects (filial, legal, etc). This is consonant with Gaffin’s response to Fesko (linked above). The legal basis for God’s call and promise is Jesus for me who becomes united to me through faith (the “and there was” of God’s pronouncement). And so, rather than the speech-act of justification being the “legal basis” of our existential union with Christ, it seems to me that it is better to say that the redemptive-historical work/justification of Christ (1 Tim. 3:16) is the legal basis for the justifying speech-act! Our personal justification, adoption, and definitive sanctification are simultaneous effects and aspects of God’s single gospel locution, made effective by the applying work of the Holy Spirit. But from this perspective, as well, Gaffin could perhaps use to emphasize the aspects of justification, adoption and sanctification which exist in God’s speech-acts logically prior to the existential union with Christ in our personal history.

Whether this is satisfactory or not, this conversation is an important one. And perhaps the surfacing of these tensions is a good thing. We need to witness frank and open dialogue about these matters with a view to unity in theological formulation and ultimately pastoral application.

By Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.

2 replies on “Calvinists Justifying Themselves”

The Bible uses forensic categories to refer to more than merely legal acquittal from sin’s guilt and imputation resulting in a state of acceptance by God (i.e., the Reformers’ doctrine of justification). It also uses forensic language to describe acts of deliverance and liberation from enemies who oppress and enslave. If, as Gaffin shows in his work, Jesus’ resurrection is a forensic act by which the Father liberates his Son from the effects of sin’s enslaving power (death) and declares his Son to be righteous, then the category of “forensic” is broader than the Reformation doctrine of justification. We could distinguish broader and narrow senses of the term “justification” to reflect these varied meaning and salvific realities and thus bring all of salvation under the category of the forensic. Let justification-1 be the broad sense of God’s liberating act of resurrection (with its legal, filial, and vivifying aspects), which Peter Leithart describes as God’s “deliverdict.” Let justification-2 refer to the narrow sense of God’s forgiveness of sins and imputation of a righteousness status resulting in a state of acceptance with God. With this distinction, one could say that justification-1 is God’s speech-act that unites us to the resurrected Christ, which results simultaneously in the distinct but inextricably coordinated blessings of justification-2, adoption and definitive sanctification, and which results over time in the outworking of progressive sanctification. In this perspective, both sides of the dispute are correct in a certain sense. The Westminster California folks are correct that our personal union with Christ is the consequence of a forensic act, but they err in limiting the category of “forensic” only to the imputation of a righteous status. The Westminster Philly folks are correct that justification-2 and definitive sanctification are both simultaneous consequences of union with Christ. Their account would benefit by acknowledging that God’s effectual call that results in our union with Christ is itself a forensic act.

Mike, I’m in basic agreement with this. I would only add that I think this broader understanding is not really foreign to the Reformed tradition, especially to Luther (who we claim). As well, the Bible does certainly use “forensic” language when talking about deliverance from enemies, but one might nevertheless say that the “forensic” is an aspect of it. That is to say, a public and judicial statement is being made in the form of an act, but that act cannot be reduced to said statement. As such, I think we can typically isolate the forensic aspect in the abstract, even if there is a seamlessness between it and many other features of God’s redemptive activities in Scripture. And it is really only instances of theological error which might require us to zero in on the technical distinctions. On these issues, I am very much a fan of Mark Seifrid’s reading of justification in Paul and of righteousness language in the Bible.

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