Monday, May 31, 2010
Last week I received in the mail the Spring 2010 (Vol. 72.1) issue of The Westminster Theological Journal. Considered by many to be the premier journal of the conservative, American, Reformed “subculture”, the essays published in this journal are from some of the best Reformed minds of our day. Of the ten essays presented in his issue of the WTJ, I thought seven of them were quite good; but one of those seven particularly impressed me: William B. Evans, “DÈJÁ VU ALL OVER AGAIN? THE CONTEMPORARY REFORMED SOTERIOLOGICAL CONTROVERSY IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE”*. I will be providing some selections from this essay, followed with a few of my own reflections—from Evan’s pen we read:
Those familiar with the conservative Reformed subculture in the United States have likely noticed considerable recent debate on matters soteriological (i.e. issues having to do with the doctrine of salvation). Issues long thought settled have emerged with new vigor, new questions have emerged, and long-forgotten or even suppressed aspects of the Reformed tradition have been brought to light. For example, the doctrine of justification by faith, thought by many to be the material principle of the Reformation and a hallmark of Reformed Christianity, is now under intense discussion in a variety of circles. (Page 135)
Reformed soteriology, particularly in America, has been anything but monolithic. (Page 135 - bold emphasis mine)
…let us begin with Calvin, who set a formal agenda for most subsequent Reformed thinking by highlighting the Pauline theme of union with Christ. Here we recall his famous statement at the beginning of Institutes 3.1.1 that the benefits of salvation remain unavailable to us as long as “Christ remains outside of us.” Note also Calvin’s insistence that it is through union and participation with the “substance” of Christ’s incarnate humanity that both the power of his deity and the forensic benefits of salvation (e.g. justification) are conveyed to the Christian. But Calvin’s view of union with Christ and soteriology in general involved a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories which was never fully developed and explained. Categories such as “substance” and “participation” are ontological, while “imputation” and synthetic justification are forensic, and the Reformer never fully explained how the forensic dimension is related to Christ’s person such that to receive the former. (Page 135, 136)
Evans’ then goes on to relate subsequent developments “made by some of Calvin’s successors who began to explore the notion of Christ’s resurrection as a forensic act”, and then that “this promising approach was soon overwhelmed by the rise of federal theology [not to be confused with Federal Vision] with its notions of extrinsic federal or legal solidarity". (Page 136)
Evans continues with:
Accompanying this was the imposition of an ordo salutis famework on the elements of soteriology, such that the forensic benefits of salvation (justification and adoption) logically and temporally preceded the transformatory benefits (sanctification and glorification). The effect of these moves was to safeguard the forensic from works righteousness, but at the expense of making the forensic rather abstract. (Page 136)
This impulse was most fully developed in the American context by the Old Princeton theologians Charles and A. A. Hodge. (Page 136)
But this federal theology paradigm provoked reactions in other directions. The New England Calvinist trajectory from the Edwardseans to Nathaniel William Taylor was convinced that federal theology was implicitly antinomian…they jettisoned all notions of imputation (both in hamartiology and soteriology) and merit, and they spoke only of a “moral union” of shared sentiment between Christ and the individual believer. Here the primary concern was genuine transformation of life, and antinomianism was seen as the great threat. (Page 137)
Another reaction is evident in the so-called Mercersburg Theology of John W. Nevin. Responding both to the forensic abstraction of federal theology and the individualistic legalism of New England Calvinism, Nevin sought to go back to Calvin by emphasizing the believer’s union with Christ, which issues in both justification and sanctification, and the way that this union with Christ is inaugurated and strengthened by the objective means of grace in the corporate life of the church. (Page 137)
Later federal theology privileged justification, New England Calvinism stressed sanctification, and Mercersburg prioritized union with Christ. As we shall see, similar things are going on today. (Page 138)
Evans moves on to three modern (20th and 21st century) developments/trajectories: the first he terms, “The Biblical Theological Trajectory”; the second, “The Revisionist Wing”; and the third, “The Repristinationist Wing”.
Evans points out that the beginnings of the “The Biblical Theological Trajectory” are to be found in the works of Geerhardus Vos and his student John Murray. The ‘torch’ has been carried on by one of Murray’s students, Richard B. Gaffin, and “a variety of Gaffin’s students—Lane Tipton, Mark Garcia, Philip Ryken, the present author and others”.
We also find here a dissatisfaction with certain concepts and schemas that have been taken for granted more recently by the federal theology tradition together with the sense that they have obscured rather than illuminated certain key scriptural themes. (Page 139 - bold emphasis mine)
Particular attention has been focused on the ordo salutis construction that has informed much conservative Reformed soteriology since the early seventeenth century. Gaffin and others have argued that the ordo salutis, with its logical schematizing of the various elements of salvation, obscures the unity of salvation in Jesus Christ and the centrality of the believer’s union with Christ. (Pages 139, 140 - bold emphasis mine)
Another characteristic of this trajectory is a strong emphasis on the theme of the believer’s union with Christ. Two aspects of this view of union with Christ stand out. First there is the priority of union. John Murray wrote:
Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ…
Thus union with Christ is understood as an umbrella category that is foundational to all aspects of salvation. Philip G. Ryken writes, “Union with Christ is not simply one step in salvation; it is the whole stairway on which every step is taken.” Particular attention here is focused on the relationship between union and justification, with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness viewed as in some sense consequent to spiritual union with Christ. Thus Ryken adds, “Union with Christ is logically prior to justification…” (Page 140 - bold emphasis mine)
According to this trajectory, Scripture teaches both forensic and synthetic justification, and it indicates that one’s eternal destiny hinges in some sense on the ongoing life of faith and obedience. (Page 141 - bold emphasis mine)
Evans then moves on to the “The Revisionist Wing” trajectory. He begins with Norman Shepherd, “who taught systematic theology at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, from 1963 to 1981, and then follows with “the so-called Federal Vision (FV) movement”. Evans writes:
Here we see a revisionist impulse entailing a significant recasting of the tradition. The motives evident here are several. There are deep concerns about “cheap grace,” that is, antinomian preaching of salvation apart from real transformation of life. Thus the necessity of obedience and the close connection of faith and obedience are stressed. There is also a deep ecclesial impulse here. The American revivalist tradition with its subjectivity and concern for isolated conversion experiences at the expense of the ongoing life of faith and obedience is viewed with deep suspicion, and so we see a turn toward the objective in religion, toward the churchly and sacramental. (Pages 141, 142)
Norman Shepherd must be regarded as a seminal figure here, for his thought has set an agenda for much of this group…He contends that the key scriptural covenants—the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the New—are conditional in that they entail both “promise and obligation.” The covenant promises are freely given, but the blessings of the covenant cannot be enjoyed apart from faith and obedience…Here we also see a rejection of the Law/Gospel distinction (which Shepherd views as “Lutheran”) in favor of a mono-covenental framework which attempts to integrate rather than separate obligation and promise.
Second, there is an expansive view of faith as including works of evangelical obedience. Shepherd never tires of declaring that the faith that saves is living, active, and obedient: “Faith produces repentance, and repentance is evident in the lifestyle of the believer. Thus, the obligation of the new covenant include not only faith and repentance, but also obedience.” Shepherd adds that this “is not the obedience of merit, but the obedience of faith. Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith.”
Third, there is a rejection of what Shepherd calls a “works/merit principle” in favor of a “faith/grace principle”, and a repudiation of the notion of merit. Merit matter of just deserts. (Page 142)
Fourth, there is a focus upon the objectivity of covenant administration over against the subjectivity of personal experience. Problems of assurance result, he contends, when we look within for evidence of God’s grace. Regeneration is difficult to quantify, and even more difficult to fathom is the mystery of God’s eternal election. And so Shepherd directs believers away from subjective personal experience to baptism. (Page 143)
Evans then quotes the following from Shepherd’s, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism:
But instead of looking at covenant from the perspective of regeneration, we ought to look at regeneration from the perspective of covenant. When that happens, baptism, the sign and seal of the covenant, marks the point of conversion. Baptism is the moment when we see the transition from death to life and a person is saved. (Page 143 – p. 94 in The Call of Grace - bold emphasis mine)
Finally, there is a corresponding de-emphasis on election and divine sovereignty. In it foregrounding of the “five points of Calvinism,” Shepherd argues that the Reformed tradition has attempted, as it were, to play God, to approach soteriology from the standpoint of infinite deity rather than finite humanity. (Page 143 - bold emphasis mine)
Evans follows the Shepherd section with a look at the “Federal Vision (FV) movement” which “may be treated more briefly, since it is in a large measure a fleshing out of Shepherd’s earlier work.”
In addition to Shepherd, we must also note the importance of the theonomic or Christian Reconstructionist movement, which seems to have provided a sizeable social network and base for the FV movement. (Pages 143, 144)
With regard to baptism, the trend here has been toward exceedingly high conception of baptismal efficacy. The parameters of the covenant community are defined by baptism, which both admits a person to the church and conveys saving grace (regeneration and union with Christ). (Page 144 - bold emphasis mine)
With regard to the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis is, once again, on sacramental objectivity. Because baptized children are understood to have already received initial saving grace, the practice of paedocommunion is often encouraged in FV circles. (Page 144)
Because the enjoyment of the benefits of the covenant is conditional on perseverance in faith and obedience and because of a robust doctrine of baptismal grace, considerable attention has been paid to the dynamics of perseverance and apostasy. For example, Rich Lusk has argued at length that the warnings against apostasy in the NT are real rather than hypothetical, and that it is possible for those who are genuinely united with Christ in baptism to fall from grace…Lusk posits a separate grace of perseverance given only to the elect.” [Note: Lusk’s understanding of apostasy and the grace of perseverance here is identical to that of Augustine and Aquinas.] (Pages 144, 145)
Finally, the doctrine of justification undergoes considerable development in FV hands. Two areas stand out. First, the notion of imputation appears to be in process of eclipse. There is little talk of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, probably because such a notion of vestigial in the absence of the concept of merit. Likewise, soteriological imputation is challenge in that some of the FV figures, along with Shepherd, deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ to the believer. Second, Leithart has also argued that justification is more than merely forensic, and that it has a transformatory dimension. (Page 145 - bold emphasis mine)
Evans’ next section describes “The Repristinationist Wing”; he begins with:
Such revisionism has sparked a strong reaction from those who wish to defend classical Reformed orthodoxy. Much of this effort has emerged from faculty members at Westminster Seminary in California…The overriding motive here is clear and laudable—safeguarding the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith. (Page 145)
Finally, the historical method evident in this wing needs to be noted. As the continuity of later federal orthodoxy with the earlier Reformed tradition is asserted, a certain “flattening” of the tradition ensues. The notion of historical development seems to play no substantive role here. (Page 147 - bold emphasis mine)
In the last section, “Observations”, Evans gives us a summation of his thoughts. The following are some of those “observations”:
The contours of the nineteenth-century American Reformed debates are to a significant extent repeated. (Page 147)
Churches have been torn by these debates, and extensive denominational reports have been written. (Page 147)
…this controversy raises important question about the historiography of the Reformed tradition. Issues of continuity and discontinuity, of fidelity and infidelity to the tradition are persistently raised. Another way to phrase this is to raise the question of what is the “normative center” of the tradition for conservative Reformed people. (Page 148)
Second, this controversy poses important questions as to how conservative Reformed systematic theology ought to be done…Are Reformed churches defined primarily, as some today seem to argue, by adherence to confessional documents? If so, is the role of Scripture, practically speaking, simply to provide prooftexts for the confessional tradition? (Page 148 - bold emphasis mine)
…these debates are also occurring at the same time that the conservative Reformed theological tradition is no longer central to the intellectual life of American Evangelicalism, and as the conservative Reformed churches associated with the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) make up only about half a million people. (Page 150)
The prospect of further splintering of this group does not bode will for it. The battle lines are already drawn and the positions are hardening. One participant in these discussions has spoken of a “Reformed civil war.” (Page 150 - bold emphasis mine)
We have arrived at the end of Evans incredible essay—incredible for its clarity, content, and frankness. Evans gives the ‘outsider’ a look into the reality of one of the most vocal branches of the American conservative Christian scene, and that look raises numerous concerns for any thoughtful reader.
To Evans’ “observations”, I would like to add a few of my own. First, the trajectories mentioned by Evans that are moving beyond “classical Reformed orthodoxy” (i.e. the federal theology which developed shortly after Calvin), exhibit a return to a theology that is more Biblically and historically based. Second, those who are aggressively attempting to defend “classical Reformed orthodoxy” are in essence giving a certain priority to tradition over Scripture. And finally, the prominent leaders of these separate Reformed trajectories have at least one thing in common with each other, and with their ultimate Master (i.e. John Calvin)—arrogance. I have little doubt that this arrogant/overconfident attitude has been the primary contributing factor to new this “Reformed civil war”.
Grace and peace,
*Evans most likely had Michael Horton’s article, Déjà Vu All Over Again , in mind when he came up with the title for his essay.