Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Justification: Understanding the Reformed Doctrine - Part 1

J.V Fesko's book on justification promises to be a more rigorous treatment of the topic than recent offerings. "Recent monographs on the doctrine have largely focused upon the ordo salutis. While this is a necessary connection to explain, as much of the debate surrounding justification concerns the relationship of the doctrine to good works, at the same time a more thorough treatment of the doctrine is needed."(p2)

Some questions that need further exploring include, "How does justification relate to protology, that is, man as he was originally created, and Christology, the work of Christ? Related to the question of the first and last Adams is the greater question of the structure of redemptive history. Few make an effort to place justification in the historia salutis or relate it to biblical theology." (p3) Furthermore, in the light of recent controversies in Reformed circles fueled by ecumenism, the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision, Fesko believes a Reformed re-articulation of the classical doctrine is timely.

In his opening chapter, the author looks to "survey the history of the development of justification , summarizing the characteristics that dominate each period's expression of the doctrine and identifying key issues that must be addressed in the exegetical and theological exposition." (p7)

Something that struck this reader as he traced Fesko's history of the doctrine from the Patristic Era to the period leading up to the Reformation, was the confusion of categories that marked the expressions of this doctrine. In the Patristic Era, one can find some embryonic references to justification as a forensic term in the writings of Chrysostom and imputation in the writings of Justin Martyr (both page 8). There were also many voices affirming sola fide (faith alone). For instance, Fesko quotes Origen:

A man is justified by faith. The works of the law can make no contribution to this. Where there is no faith which might justify the believer, even if there are works of the law these are not based on the foundation of faith. Even if they are good in themselves, they cannot justify the one who does them, because faith is lacking, and faith is the mark of those who are justified by God. (p9)

Nevertheless, not all the church fathers were as consistent (e.g. Tertullian) in affirming faith alone. Some saw faith and works as "co-instrumental in ones salvation" (p10). Fesko quotes Scott Clark:

This is not an indictment of the fathers. To criticize the fathers for failing to use Luther (or Calvin's) language is rather like criticizing Aquinas for not using Einstein's physics. (p11)

It took the Augustine-Pelagius debate to bring greater clarity to the church's understanding of justification. Yet even Augustine didn't have it quite right. Fesko quotes Calvin:

Augustine's view...we must not entirely accept. For even though he admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness and transfers it to God's grace, he still subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit. (p23)

A likely reason for Augustine's confusion is rooted in his realism. "Augustine understood original sin and its transmission in realistic categories, in that sin is transmitted through natural descent. Conversely, the grace of God is infused into the sinner to counteract the effects of original sin." (p13, 14) In contradistinction, the Reformers would understand justification and original sin in purely forensic categories, i.e. we are legally counted sinners in Adam, and legally counted righteous in Christ.

Fesko goes on to survey the counter-Reformation, the Post-Reformation and contemporary understandings of justification. I'm am neither a historian nor the son of a historian, but it was pretty impressive and informative.

It was startling to read of the amount of fights, even Reformed in-fights, over this doctrine (I didn't mind though - Glaswegians like a fight). Fesko contends that throughout history, the church's understanding of the doctrine of justification has swung between two poles: antinomianism (lawlessness and licentiousness) and neonomianism (legalism and moralism). Even in the Scottish Kirk the Marrow Controversy (1718-1723) highlighted that even the established Reformed Church didn't understand the law/gospel hermeneutic essential to the preservation of the gospel. Church leaders, who should have known better, accused the book The Marrow of Modern Divinity of advocating antinomianism (the apostle Paul was accused of the same, as will everyone who rightly articulates the doctrine).

Fesko highlights even Jonathan Edwards' confusion over the doctrine, giving greater weight to the claim that Edwards wasn't Reformed! Even Edwards confused sanctification and justification. You've got to read this book.

Anyway, a point of application for us is that there is nothing new under the sun. There is always some sexy exegete coming along with a 'fresh' perspective on things, that in the end confuses the church and destroys the hope-giving comfort that a right understanding of justification supplies. The devil has been desperate to destroy knowledge of this doctrine like the dragon trying to consume the man-child in Revelation. Ever since Galatia the evil one's been at it. We must be jealous for the gospel and willing to contend for justification, even if it makes us look mean. Why is Guy Waters so mean to N.T Wright? Why is Scott Clark so mean to Doug Wilson? Why is Don Carson so mean to Jimmy Dunn? You could ask, why was the apostle Paul so mean to the apostle Peter?


Sam said...

I just finished reading Fesko's little 30-page primer "What is Justification by Faith Alone?", one of the many "Basics of the Reformed Faith" Series released by P&R Publishing: excellent material on this most crucial of subjects. I'll have to save this larger tome for the summer, but I'm looking forward to part 2 of your review/analysis.

Nick Mackison said...

Fesko is a new name to me, but I'm already pretty impressed by him.

I'm also pretty impressed by P&R publishing. Their titles are superb as well as the quality of the print and pages.

Brenden said...

Wait, so you finished the whole book already? Yeah, I'm thinking the primer would be good. Or maybe somebody can tell me how to learn to read faster?