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Archive for the ‘Historical Theology’ Category

Why are we scared of Scholasticism? It seems few things are more difficult today than getting ostensibly Reformed people (seminarians in view) to read the Reformed Scholastics. And yet nothing could probably be more important.

Let us ask: Is it important that we as Reformed Christians know our tradition? Is it important that potential ministers (more specifically) understand and really grasp classical Protestant Orthodoxy as it is found in the historic, ecclesiastic, and dogmatic expressions of the Reformed Scholastics from the 16th and 17th centuries? These are the sources (founts) from which we have received the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Can we abandon our wells? Can we ignore church history? Can we scorn our mother who bore us? Or must we listen patiently (often painstakingly, and painfully!) to her instructions (Prov. 1:8)? The Reformed understood theology not merely as knowledge (scientia) but even more as wisdom (sapientia). The question before us is whether we will discipline ourselves to learn wisdom (Prov. 1).

Can we remain ignorant of classical Protestant Orthodoxy and still maintain Protestantism? I’m becoming more convinced the answer is, No.

Paul Tillich observed this when he commented:

Orthodoxy is great and more serious than what is called fundamentalism in America. Fundamentalism is the product of a reaction in the nineteenth century, and is a primitivized form of classical Orthodoxy. Classical Orthodoxy had a great theology. We could also call it Protestant scholasticism, with all the refinements and methods which the word “scholastic” includes. Thus, when I speak of Orthodoxy, I refer to the way in which the Reformation established itself as an ecclesiastical form of life and thought after the dynamic movement of the Reformation came to an end. It is the systematization and consolidation of the ideas of the Reformation… Hence, we should deal with this period in a much more serious way than is usually done in America. In Germany, and generally in European theological faculties—France, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.—every student of theology was supposed to learn by heart the doctrines of at least one classical theologian of the post-Reformation period of Orthodoxy, be it Lutheran or Calvinist, and in Latin at that. Even if we should forget about the Latin today, we should know these doctrines, because they form the classical system of Protestant thought. It is an unheard-of state of things when Protestant churches of today do not even know the classical expression of their own foundations in the dogmatics of Orthodoxy… All theology of today is dependent in some way on the classical systems of Orthodoxy. – “A History of Christian Thought” (pp. 276-77), cited in Michael Horton, “Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama,” (pp. 2-3). 

We cannot afford to remain ignorant of Reformed Scholasticism and hope for Protestantism to stay alive. That is, unless we plan on planting our theological feet firmly and confidently in mid-air… Clearly, an impossible and irrational supposition.

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Have you ever considered how the idea of reformation is actually a very popular part of everyday life? Think about it. On the news, in the papers, and at school, we’re alway hearing about reforming this or reforming that.  Whether it’s education reform, tax reform, tort reform, healthcare reform, you name it. Reformation is a big deal. And it was the same way during the Protestant Reformation as well.

Toward the end of the middle ages, there was huge a push toward what can best be described as ‘moral reform.’ The fact is, people in those days (not so different from our own) were in the habit of misbehaving. And so Renaissance humanist leaders like Erasmus (d. 1536) led the cause for shaping people up. It was broadly understood that people’s main problem was that they were immoral and thus needed to be taught better manners. And although many of these humanist leaders were themselves part of the Catholic church, they didn’t want to focus on doctrine so much. Their great concern was to make sure people lived better, more upstanding, lives in society.

Cutting a sharply contrary line in the sand, the Protestant Reformation offered a radically different message.  The Reformers recognized that no matter how big man’s problems might be, no matter how messed up his social ills, no matter how bad his manners, indeed no matter how much social reformation may indeed have to be done, the greatest, most primary and acute problem for man in all the world is his sin before God.

This was as classic case of ‘cutting to the chase.’ Yes, man is a mess! But any and all attempts at fixing him are like putting a bandaid on a mortal wound. Before man can make any progress before God and with his neighbor, he must first deal with his guilt. His sin is a big deal — no, it is the big deal. And this was the storm center of the Protestant Reformation, the eye of the hurricane that would rock history. And it was forensic in character. Man needed righteousness before God his maker, and all he had was guilt.

Standing himself, with this question, too, before the face of God, the Calvinist was so impressed with the holiness of God that the consciousness of guilt immediately lacerated his soul, and the terrible nature of sin pressed on his heart as with an intolerable weight….

To the de profundis (Latin “out of the depths” from Ps. 130) with which, thirty centuries ago, the soul of David cried unto God, the troubled soul of every child of God in the sixteenth century still sounded a response with undiminished power. The conception of the corruption of sin as the source of all human misery was nowhere more profound than in Calvin’s environment. – Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, p. 55.

Guilt before man is bad enough. But guilt before God leaves no way of progress anywhere else. It is the cause of every evil and sinful thing. It is even the cause of our relative guilt before other men.  For, if we remember in the beginning (Gen. 3), after incurring guilt before God, Adam and Eve also felt shame between themselves.  Forensic, judicial, legal, guilt, therefore, is at the root of all other sin and the cause of every subsequent relational and social evil. If we have guilt before God, we cannot love our neighbor. And most importantly, if we have guilt before God, we cannot love and worship our Maker, who is to be forever praised. Amen!

And this, we see, is where the Protestant Reformation entered upon the scene proclaiming (with Paul and all those other faithful witnesses who had gone before) a righteousness that is from faith onto faith (cf. Rom. 1:17). A righteousness that is entirely a gift of God (Rom 5:16-18) by grace alone (Eph. 2:8), to be received through faith alone (Rom. 4:6), in Christ alone.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (Rom. 3:21-22).

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How important, really, are Christian creeds?  How important, for that matter, is church history? J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett observe in their book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashoned Way (see earlier post here),

It is not uncommon… to see on a church signboard a slogan something like this: “No book but the Bible; no creed but Christ; no law but love.” This captures the mindset of many in free church movements (p. 123).

These statements sound pithy (and pious), but in the end, in fact, they are actually quite self-contradicting. As the authors note: “such a pithy slogans are themselves creedal confessions and are part of significant traditions that have been handed down and embraced by others” (p. 123). So, “No Creed but Christ” is itself a creed.

All throughout history the church has always understood and taught the faith through creedal and confessional formula. Even in the epistles, Paul emphasizes doctrine and the traditions handed down by the apostles to be taught in local churches.  So the Christian faith is a faith to be believed. There’s just no getting around it. And anybody who wants to be a Christian without wanting to believe anything actually doesn’t want to be a Christian. They want to have their cake and eat it to.

“Well,” someone might object, “Won’t that make Christians overly ‘heady’ and focussed on intellectual questions? Won’t that keep them from ever getting around to ‘doing’ christianity? We got to get practical somewhere along the line right?”

Absolutely! Although, Christianity always will be lived out in loving action and obedience, it must first be believed. In other words, there’s no getting to second base while skipping first. And believe it or not, the christian church throughout history has approached that question too! (You knew I was going to go there!)

Three Facets of the Faith

Packer and Parrett describe how the church has historically related the various aspects of faith and life (belief and action). They point out a three-fold distinction they call the “Facets of the Faith.” Roughly categorized, these three facets of the faith corispond to the biblical distincitives of faith, hope, and love (p. 88).

During the Reformation, this three-fold division was taken up in various catechisms. For example, the Heidleberg Catechism articulates the faith through expositing the Apostles Creed (faith), the Lord’s Prayer (hope) and the Ten Commandments (love). Other important sections of instruction historically for the church has been the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper)(p. 121).

Other representations were found in the Latin expression, lex orandi, lex credeni, lex vivendi (as we pray, so we believe, so we do). Throughout church history, this threefold distinction has proved a common thread, structuring and defining the “facets of the faith” (p. 123-124). Not that this was a hard and fast distinction, but rather a helpful tool in ordering Christian instruction.

Now, why should we want to learn from the past? Why would it be a good idea to at least have some understanding of how the Church has taught her disciples in centuries gone by? Or do we (along with the rest of the word) merely assume that the latest is greatest, new is improved, and we can get along quite well without history (“thank you very much!”)?  After all, “history is bunk,” according to Henry Ford.

It is encouraging and helpful to read Packer and Parrett stress the great “wisdom” to be found in “historical precedent.” They write:

This argument may seem the least compelling to many evangelical believers today. We are, after all, “Bible people,” always demanding in the end, “Where stands it written?” Such concern for biblical fidelity is absolutely essential and praiseworthy. But a flippant dismissal of our own Christian history is not praiseworthy in any respect. It is rather a willful refusal to adopt a biblical sprit. The fact is that we are not the first Christians to wonder about how to make disciples for Jesus. Wisdom and humility demand that we consider what our brothers and sister through the ages have done by way of catechizing and discipling, and test the merit of these efforts by consideration of biblical data. We are most unwise to try to continually reinvent the cetechetical wheel or to assume that we are more likely that our forebears to be faithful to Scripture.

Our antipathy toward philosophies and practices that emerged throughout church history (particularly with regard to pre-Reformation history) also betrays either a willful ignorance or profound naivete about the proper role of the historic church in shaping who we are as Bible people today. Whether we are speaking of the canon of Scripture, what constitutes biblical orthodoxy, what a Judeo-Christain ethic looks like, or why we worship in the ways that we do, there is almost no aspect of what we prize as biblical Christianity that has not been deeply affected by the centuries of church history that have preceded us. Indeed it may well be argued that purposeful inattention to the history of the church makes us far more likely to become unbiblical in some significant way (122).

Powerful and probing words. [The banner above is for the Heidelberg Catechism. For more information visit here.]

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Whenever one begins ‘reading up’ on a certain doctrine or a challenging issue, countless hours can go into endless reading.  If the case is particularly thorny, one can often end up even more confused (and frustrated) than ever before. It seems fair to say that the doctrine of baptism is probably one of thorniest issues in recent church history.

My effort here is to merely introduce readers to John Calvin (1509-1564) and his teaching on baptism. It would seem a misfortune if Protestants today attempt to learn about this doctrine all the while overlooking the work of theologians and teachers in our church’s history like Calvin.

Personally, I have found Calvin to be incomparably helpful in expounding biblical truth and clarifying difficult doctrines. Furthermore, his ability to engage polemical issues, take opponents objections in their full force, and then turn them around and dispatch them in a definitive manner, makes his writing seem unparalleled in some respects.

The following is a compilation of  Calvin quotations from his Institutes of the Christian Religion on the doctrine of baptism.  It begins with his explanation of the sacraments in general, moves to the doctrine of baptism itself, and finally ends with a defense of infant baptism. Without further introduction, here is Calvin:

The Sacraments

We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel. It is very important that some definite doctrine concerning them be taught, that we many learn from it both the purpose for which they were instituted and their present use.

It is clear from the outset that the sacraments (and thus baptism) are about the gospel, and are as such to be an “aid to our faith.” For this reason, the sacraments were very important to Calvin, and their right use of tremendous importance.

First we must consider what a sacrament is. It seems to me that a simple and proper definition would be to say that it is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promise of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men. Here is another briefer definition: one may call it a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him. (4.14.1)

So we see that there are two things here: First (and primarily), the sacrament is a sign and seal of God’s gracious promise of good will toward us in the Gospel. And secondarily, it is an attestation of our own commitment to God.

Word and Sign

Now, from the definition that I have set forth we understand that a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it. By this means God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness. Yet properly speaking, it is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures wo always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. (4.14.3)

So, the sacraments come as a confirmation of the word of promise, further sealing it upon our consciences, and strengthening our otherwise always weak and trembling faith.  Once again, the sacraments are gospel, and are intended to help us in our neediness. God has purposed to condescend to our weakness in this way, and instituted this rite – even these sacramental signs. Because of this, we realize that God has considered us weak enough that he would not leave us with only his word, but would further confirm it by visible and tangible signs. That’s how weak we really are.

Naturally, then, we may expect our human pride to despise any notion of our dependency upon God’s provision. We might also expect our mortal enemy to defuse as much confusion and disruption into this ordinance as possible. If this is to be our lifeline, it stands to reason that the flesh oppose it and the enemy seek to over throw it.  And this can be seen in Church history:

What, therefore, was practiced under papal tyranny involved a monstrous profanation of the mysteries [sacraments]. For they thought it enough if the priest mumbled the formula of consecration while the people looked on bewildered and without comprehension. Indeed, they deliberately saw to it that, from this, nothing of the doctrine should penetrate to the people; for they spoke everything in Latin among unlearned men. Afterward, superstition came to the point that they believed consecration duly performed only in a hoarse whisper which few could hear.

Consequently, (and contrary to the Roman practice), “the sacrament requires preaching to beget faith.”

Indeed, it was known even from the beginning of the world that whenever God gave a sign to the holy patriarchs it was inseparably linked to doctrine, without which our senses would have been stunned in looking at the bare sign. Accordingly, when we hear the sacramental word mentioned, let us understand the promise, proclaimed in a clear voice by the minster, to lead the people by the hand wherever the sign tends and directs us. (4.14.4)

Thus, although we know and believe that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10.17), and as Luther said, the ears are the organ of the Christian, we still see that God has condescended to give us just these view visible signs. He hasn’t given us very many images, but these are two of them: Baptism, and The Supper.

And as Calvin never seemed to tire from citing the Church fathers (particularly Augustine) to help ground his teaching within the tradition of the church, he does so here:

Augustine calls a sacrament “a visible word” for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sign, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images. (4.14.6)

Received by Faith

Here Calvin moves onto discussing objections regarding those who partake of the sacramental signs and yet are impious and still under God’s wrath.

They are not reasoning closely enough when they argue that the sacraments are not testimonies of God’s grace because they are also offered to the wicked, who, however, do not find God more favorable but rather incur a heavier condemnation.  For by the same argument, because the gospel is heard but rejected by many, and because Christ was seen and recognized by many but very few of them accepted him, neither gospel nor Christ would be a testimony of God’s grace.

A similar thing can be seen in official documents. For most of the people ridicule and scorn that authentic seal, although they know that it was put forth by the prince to attest his will. Some treat it with indifference as not applying to them; others even curse it. Thus it can apply equally to both…

It is therefore certain that the Lord offers us mercy and the pledge of his grace both in his Sacred Word and in his sacraments. But it is understood only by those who take Word and sacraments with sure faith, just as Christ is offered and held forth by the Father to all unto salvation, yet not all acknowledge and receive him. In one place, Augustine, meaning to convey this, said that the efficacy of the Word is brought to light in the sacrament, not because it is spoken, but because it is believed. (4.14.7)

Thus, the sacraments actually hold forth the grace of God in Christ before the hearts of men. This is the free offer of the gospel, proclaimed in the Word, and attested and confirmed in the sacrament. This offer comes to us by God, well-intentioned and sincere.

And yet while some held too low a view of the sacraments (Zwinglian memorialists), others had too high a view (Lutherans, and namely Rome).

On the contrary, we must be reminded that, as these men weaken the force of the sacraments and completely overthrow their use, so, on the opposite side, there are those who attach to the sacraments some sort of secret powers with which one nowhere reads that God has endowed them. By this error the simple and unskilled are dangerously deceived, while they are both taught to seek God’s gifts where they cannot be found, and are gradually drawn away from God to embrace mere vanity rather than his truth. The schools of the Sophists have taught with remarkable agreement that the sacraments of the new law (those now used in the Christian church) justify and confer grace, provided we do not set up a barrier of mortal sin. How deadly and pestilential this notion is cannot be expressed–and the more so because for many centuries it has been a current claim in a good part of the world, to the great loss of the church. Of a certainty it is diabolical. For in promising a righteousness apart from faith, it hurls souls headlong to destruction. Secondly, because it draws the cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it binds men’s pitiable minds (of themselves more than enough inclined to earth) in this superstition, so that they repose in the appearance of a physical thing rather than in God himself.

But what is a sacrament received apart from faith but the most certain ruin of the church? For nothing ought to be expected from it apart from the promise but the promise no less threatens wrath to unbelievers than offers grace to believers. Hence, any man is deceived who thinks anythings more is conferred upon him thorough the sacraments than what is offered by God’s Word and received by him in truth faith.

From this something else follows: assurance of salvation does not depend upon participation in the sacrament, as if justification consisted in it. For we know that justification is lodged in Christ alone, and that it is communicated to us no less by the preaching of the gospel than by the seal of the sacrament, and without the latter can stand unimpaired. (4.14.14)

Thus, the sacraments (just like the word) brings the gospel to us, but is only effectual by faith. It must be mixed with faith. Apart from faith in Christ (the object of our faith) the sacraments (just like the word) only brings judgement to us. And poor souls are deluded who believe they can receive anything from God apart from faith in Christ. Separated from faith in Christ, the sacraments only condemn unbelievers.

The Sign Must be Distinguished from the Thing Signified

Hence that distinction (if it be duly understood), often noted by the same Augustine, between a sacrament and the matter of the sacrament. […]

He speaks of their separation when he writes, “in the elect alone the sacraments effect what they represent.” Again, when he writes thus of the Jews: “Although the sacraments were common to all, grace was not common–which is the power of the sacraments. So also the laver of regeneration is now common to all; but grace itself, by which the members of Christ are regenerated with their Head, is not common to all.” (4.14.15)

… by not lifting our minds beyond the visible sign, to transfer to it the credit for those benefits which are conferred upon us by Christ alone. And they are conferred through the Holy Spirit, who makes us partakers in Christ; conferred, indeed, with the help of outward signs, if they allure us to Christ; but when they are twisted in another direction, their whole worth is shamefully destroyed. (4.14.16)

Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith. As with wine or oil or some other liquid, no matter how much you pour out, it will flow away and disappear unless the mouth of the vessel to receive it is open; moreover, the vessel will be splashed over on the outside, but will still remain void and empty. (4.14.17)

The Similarity between the Sacraments in the New Testament and the Old Testament

When these things are individually pointed explained, they will become much clearer.

For the Jews, circumcision was the symbol by which they were admonished that whatever comes forth from man’s seed, that is, the whole nature of mankind, is corrupt and needs pruning. Moreover, circumcision was a token and reminder to confirm them in the promise given to Abraham of the blessed seed in which all nations of the earth were to be blessed, from whom they were also to await their own blessing. […]

Accordingly, circumcision was the same thing to them as in Paul’s teaching it was to Abraham, namely, a sign of the righteousness of faith; that is, a seal by which they are more certainly assured that their faith, with which they awaited that seed, is accounted to them as righteousness by God. But elsewhere at a more appropriate occasion we shall pursue a fuller comparison of circumcision and baptism.

Baptisms and purification disclose to them their own uncleanness, foulness, and pollution, with which they were defiled in their own nature; but these rites promised another cleansing by which all their filth would be removed and washed away. And this cleansing was Christ. Washed by his blood, we bring his purity before God’s sight to cover all our defilements. (4.14.21)

So we see that just as the Israelites were to look beyond the sign of circumcision to the things signified (even Christ who was to be cut off for them) so too our sacraments today are the same.  Theirs looked forward in anticipation to the baptism of Christ in his death, and ours look back at it already accomplished.

As for our sacraments, the more fully Christ has been revealed to men, the more clearly do the sacraments present him to us from the time when he was truly revealed by the Father as he had been promised. For baptism attest to us that we have been cleansed and washed; the Eucharistic Supper, that we have been redeemed. In water, washing is represented; in blood, satisfaction. These two are found in Christ “… who” as John says, “came in water and blood” [1 John 5:6]; that is, to wash and to redeem. The Spirit of God is also witness of this. Indeed, “there are three witnesses in one: the water, the blood, and the Spirit” [5:8].

In the water and the blood we have testimony of cleansing and redemption. But the Spirit, the primary witness, makes us certain of such testimony. This lofty mystery has been admirably shown us in the cross of Christ, when water and blood flowed from his sacred side [John 19:34]. For this reason, Augustine has called it the wellspring of our sacraments. (4.14.22)

And now Calvin gets into the heart of the issue: Just what is the similarity between the Old and New Covenant? Where do we draw the line between continuity and discontinuity?

One thing becomes clear: with Abraham and all his children after him, although the sign of the promise differed for them (circumcision / baptism, passover feast / Lord’s Table), the thing signified always remained the same — namely the person of Christ and his work as part of the Covenant of Grace.

But we must utterly reject that Scholastic dogma (to touch on it also in passing) which notes such a great difference between the sacraments of the old and new law, as if the former only foreshadowed God’s grace, but the later give it as a present reality. Indeed, the apostle speaks just as clearly concerning the former as the latter when he teaches that the fathers ate the same spiritual food as we, and explains that food as Christ [1 Cor. 10:3]. Who dared treat as an empty sign that which revealed the true communion of Christ to the Jews? […]

Now, that the comparison should be appropriate, it was needful for him to show that there is no inequality between us and them in those boons in which he forbade us to boast falsely. He therefore first makes them equal to us in sacraments. And he leaves us no shred of privilege which could make souls hope to go unpunished. Nor is it lawful for us to attribute more to our baptism than he elsewhere attributes to circumcision when he calls it the seal of the righteousness of faith [Rom. 4:21]. Therefore, whatever is shown us today in the sacraments, the Jews of old received in their own–that is, Christ with his spiritual riches. They felt the same power in their sacraments as do we in ours; these were seals of divine good will toward them, looking to eternal salvation. If our opponents had been skilled interpreters of The Letter to the Hebrews, they would not have been thus deceived. (4.14.23)

Here we see Calvin touching on issues that haven’t seemed to go away in our day either. The question boeing: How much, then, is our baptism likened unto their circumcision?

But by way of objection they will quote what they read concerning “circumcision of the letter” in Paul [Rom. 2:29], that it has no place with God, confers nothing, and is empty. For such statements seem to press it down far beneath our baptism. Not at all! The very same thing could justly be said of baptism. But this is even said, and first by Paul himself, when he is showing that God cares nothing about the outward washing with which we are initiated into religion, unless the heart also be inwardly cleansed and persevere in purity to the end. Then it is said by Peter when he bears witness that the truth of baptism rests not in outward washing but in the testimony of a clear conscience [1 Pet. 3:21].

But in another place (they will say) Paul also seems completely to despise the circumcision made with hands when he compares it with Christ’s circumcision [Col. 2:11-12]. I reply: in this passage its dignity is not in any way reduced. There Paul is disputing against those who require it as necessary although it has already been abolished. He therefore admonishes believers to forsake the old shadows and stand fast in the truth. These teachers (he says) urge you to have your bodies circumcised. Yet you have been spiritually circumcised both in soul and body. You therefore have a revelation of the reality, which is far better than the shadow. But someone could have objected, on the other hand, that men ought not to despise the figure because they had the thing itself, inasmuch as among the patriarchs too there was that putting off of the old man, of which Paul is there speaking; yet outward circumcision was not superfluous for them. Paul forestalls this objection when he immediately adds that the Colossians had been buried with Christ through baptism [Col. 2:12]. By this he means that baptism is today for Christians what circumcision was for the ancients, and that therefore circumcision cannot be enjoined upon Christians without injustice to baptism. (4.14.24)

This then represents the clear continuity of substance between the old and new sacraments, not withstanding their differences in form. Although the signs differs, the thing signified is the same: Christ and all his benefits to be apprehended and embraced by faith alone.

This concludes part 1 on Calvin’s discussion on the sacraments in general. The next continues with Calvin’s discussion on the doctrine of baptism itself.

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Calvin once wrote that “everything that is announced concerning Christ seems very paradoxical to human judgment” and that “the flesh, hearing of justification by faith, should often strike, as it were, against so many stumbling-stones.”[1] Calvin scholars have doubtless attempted to peer down this apparent ‘paradox’ in the esteemed theologian by way of some ‘dialectical’ fashion and failed.[2] And yet it is the assumption of this paper that the precise relationship between justification and sanctification likely poses one of the chief ‘stumbling-stones’ for many.[3]

Integral to John Calvin’s soteriology was his concept of the “double grace” gifted to all believers through their “partaking” in Christ. This double grace consisted both of justification and sanctification.[4] What is abundantly clear in Calvin’s scheme is that these gifts are inseparable one from another. There is no breaking their “indissoluble” bond.[5] Yet what is equally clear is that these graces must be amply distinguished.[6] The question then arises: distinguished how?

Mark Garcia has argued that,

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.[7]

In this reading of Calvin, it would seem justification is not only temporally simultaneous with sanctification but logically coterminous as well. However, this is not the only interpretation. Taking a somewhat different view is Cornelis P. Venema who argues,

When Calvin treats the subject of the benefits of our reception of God’s grace in Christ, he clearly grants a kind of priority to justification as the “first” aspect of the “twofold grace of God.” The pre-eminence of this benefit is affirmed in various passages in his writings, which speak of justification as the principal aspect of the “twofold grace of God.”[8]

Similarly, J. Todd Billings observes: “For Calvin […] there is still a sense in which sanctification as a life of gratitude is profoundly dependent upon the forensic declaration of justification in a way that shows a non-temporal ‘ordering’ between the two.”[9]

Following the latter interpretation, this paper will make the case that in Calvin’s theology there was a particular logical priority of justification in reference to sanctification. For Calvin, justification is a foundational doctrine which sets the stage and serves as the groundwork for the rest of the Christian life. Sanctification, by contrast is an ongoing, continual, and progressive work which ever accompanies but never precedes justification. And in this relationship there remains a certain logical priority to justification throughout.

In order to make this argument, however, two key terms in Calvin’s theology must first be clearly defined: justification and sanctification.  Second, having established the grammar, one will then be able to trace the logical priority of justification conceptually as it emerges from Calvin’s writing in three ways: pastorally, exegetically, and homiletically. Finally, this paper will engage some of the possible objections to this view.

CALVIN PROLEGOMENA

The term justification, for Calvin, meant “simply…the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[10] Likewise, “to be justified in God’s sight,” for Calvin, one “is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and… accepted on account of his righteousness.” It is altogether crucial that one recognizes the forensic and judicial nature of these categories for Calvin in their context before the judgement of God. To further help define the concept, it is often helpful to delineate what something is not. Commenting on the parable of the publican (Luke 18), Calvin wrote:

For it was not said that the publican was justified, because he suddenly acquired some new quality, but that he obtained grace, because his guilt was blotted out, and his sins were washed away. Hence it follows thatrighteousness consists in the forgiveness of sins.[11]

Again, notice the accent on guilt, sin, forgiveness, and righteousness: these are all legal categories for Calvin and of the essence of his doctrine of Justification.

The term sanctification, on the other hand, for Calvin, meant “that we who are otherwise unholy by nature, are by his Spirit renewed unto holiness, that we may serve God…being renewed to innocence and purity of life.”[12] So we see that for Calvin, while justification was very much a judicial and legal category, sanctification on the other hand is very much a transforming and renewing category. In Calvin’s mind, “justification must be very different from reformation into newness of life.”[13] Indeed it would seem the very thing justification is not is the very thing sanctification is.  With these crucial definitions established, one will now be able to identify their logical relationship in Calvin’s writing.

ARGUMENT: Pastoral Priority

For Calvin, the doctrine of justification held a certain priority over sanctification pastorally. In his own words, the “matter of justification by faith” was “the principle article of the Christian Religion” (French translation)[14] or “the main hinge on which religion turns.” And this was said by a man who’s calling was to watch over the souls of his parishioners and encourage them towards good works. And it was in this context that Calvin believed, “…unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.”[15]

One also sees this pastoral priority of justification in Calvin’s concern for the believer’s assurance:

No portion of righteousness sets our consciences at peace until it has been determined that we are pleasing to God, because we are entirely righteous before him. From this it follows that the doctrine of justification is perverted and utterly overthrown when doubt is thrust into men’s minds, when the assurance of salvation is shaken and the free and fearless calling upon God suffers hindrance-nay, when peace and tranquillity with spiritual joy are not established…. For faith totters if it pays attention to works, since no one, even of the most holy, will find there anything on which to rely.[16]

And again:

Paul consistently denies that peace or quiet joy are retained in consciences unless we are convinced that we are “justified by faith”. At the same time he declares the source of this assurance: it is when “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”. It is as if he had said that our souls cannon be quieted unless we are surely persuaded that we are pleasing to God.[17]

And for Calvin, this pleasingness to God only comes about by way of the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer in justification. It was this peace of conscience and assurance which served an establishing role. And yet this solid foundation would continue to be the basis for Christian works as well:

[W]hen it is a question of the founding and establishing of their own salvation, [the Saints,] without regard for works turn their eyes solely to God’s goodness. Not only do they betake themselves to it before all things as to the beginning of blessedness but they repose in it as in the fulfillment of this. A conscience so founded, erected, and established is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us. Inasmuch, therefore, as this reliance upon works has no place unless you first cast the whole confidence of your mind upon God’s mercy, it ought not to seem contrary to that upon which it depends.[18]

Clearly then, it is the mercy of God (namely the forgiveness of sins and acceptance as righteous through justification) that serves not only as the “founding and establishing of….salvation,” but also as the “beginning” and “fulfillment” of “blessedness.” Thus, for Calvin, the logical priority of justification over sanctification established a sure foundation, pastorally, for the believers piety, assurance, and good works.

Exegetical Priority

Calvin also saw the priority of justification arising directly out of Scripture.  Calvin’s Commentary on Romans is particularly instructive in this regard. Richard Muller has pointed out that “Melanchthon (and subsequently, Luther as well) had argued the centrality of Romans to the understanding of the biblical message.”[19] And similarly, Billings observes, “Romans was used by Calvin as an exegetical key to the rest of Scripture, as well as a doctrinal key for the Institutes.”[20] Now this was Calvin’s first published commentary (March 1540, Strasbourg).[21]  And yet it is worth noting that although in succeeding years and revisions, “[t]he changes made were far-reaching… there was no change at all in Calvin’s general understanding of the Epistle between 1536 and 1556.”[22]

This historical context, nonetheless, helps one appreciate the impact Paul’s “argument” in Romans had on Calvin’s theology:

[A]nd thus he enters on the main subject of the whole Epistle–justification by faith….The subject then of these chapters may be stated thus,– that man’s only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith.[23]

Thus, Calvin, in an overview statement, attributes the “main subject” of the epistle to the Romans to “justification by faith.” And this theme is picked up again in his commentary on 5:18 where Calvin stated,

Justification of life is to be taken, in my judgment, for remission, which restores life to us, as though he called it life-giving. For whence comes the hope of salvation, except that God is propitious to us; and we must be just, in order to be accepted. Then life proceeds from justification.[24]

Given the importance of the book of Romans in all of his theology, these statements carry tremendous weight and offer essential insight into the priority of justification for Calvin’s soteriology.

This idea, however, also appears in Calvin’s exegesis of Acts 13:38-39. Here, Calvin describes at length both the nature in which Paul must have presented the Gospel message as well as the way in which Luke recorded it. Several lengthy quotations will help tease out the significance of Calvin’s reasoning.

After that he hath declared the mean whereby salvation is purchased through Christ, he doth now intreat of his office and power. And this is the principal point, to know what good things we have by the coming of Christ, and what we are to hope for at his hands. And although Luke setteth down in a word that Paul preached of the benefits of Christ, yet there is no cause why any man should doubt but that so great matters were handled weightily, and only according as their dignity did require.[25]

Here, Calvin made clear the context is regarding the benefits of Christ. We may assume Calvin had in mind both justification and sanctification. And yet as Calvin would go on to explain, “Forgiveness of sins is set first, whereby God doth reconcile us unto himself.”[26] That the forgiveness of sins are correlated to Calvin’s doctrine of justification has already been showed. Calvin was explicit, however:

Certainly, it cannot be denied (but wickedly) that justification annexed to remission of sins is, as it were, the means and way to obtain the same. […] Therefore he is justified by Christ, who is freely loosed from the guilt and judgement of eternal death to which he was subject. This is the righteousness of faith, whilst that God counteth us just, by not imputing our sins.[27]

Here Calvin explicitly connected the doctrine of justification to what was “set first” — namely, the forgiveness of sins.  And this is all within the context of that “principal point, to know what good things we have by the coming of Christ.” The question then arises: where is sanctification in this discussion? Calvin didn’t leave one to speculate on this either: his comment on the next verse (39) decisively ties up this loose end:

Paul showeth how men obtain the righteousness of Christ: to wit, when they receive it by faith… Wherefore, Paul’s opinion is plain, that we are justified by faith alone…. There be also other benefits of Christ which we reap by faith; for when he regenerateth us by his Spirit, he restoreth in us the image of God; and after that the old man is crucified he fashioneth us unto newness of life. But it was enough for Luke to express this one thing, how men return into favour with God, from whome they be estranged by sin, because we may easily pass thence unto the residue [emphasis added].[28]

Here, the priority of justification becomes quite explicit. It was enough that the Luke should inscripturate the doctrine of justification when describing the preaching of Paul and not feel any equivalent weight requiring a description of the doctrine of regeneration. Both this and the Romans examples offer telling insight into how Calvin read the priority of justification arising exegetically from the Scriptures.

Homiletical Priority

Similarly, Calvin saw the priority of justification as a homiletical principal as well. Commenting on John 20:23, which speaks of the forgiveness of sins, Calvin said that, “Here, unquestionably, our Lord has embraced, in a few words, the sum of the Gospel; for we must not separate this power of forgiving sins from the office of teaching…”[29] Calvin then would describe the principal object of preaching the gospel in forensic categories:

The principal design of preaching the Gospel is, that men may be reconciled to God, and this is accomplished by the unconditional pardon of sins: as Paul also informs us, when he calls the Gospel, on this account, the ministry of reconciliation, (2 Cor. v. 18) Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favour by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace. This is the source of the other blessings which God bestows, such as, that God enlightens and regenerates us by his Spirit, that he forms us anew to his image, that he arms us with unshaken firmness against the world and Satan. Thus the whole doctrine of godliness, and the spiritual building of the Church, rests on this foundation, that God having acquitted us from all sins, adopts us to be his children by free grace.[30]

Here, Calvin was describing the “principal design of preaching the Gospel” and, once again, using forensic and judicial terms to do so. Distinguishing the forgiveness of sins from all other blessings (including regeneration), Calvin described the former as the “source” of the latter. From this passage it appears once again that the concept of justification emerges with a logical priority, this time in Calvin’s homiletical understanding.

OBJECTIONS

As has been alluded to, there is disagreement amongst scholars on Calvin’s doctrine of the “double grace.”[31] Not surprisingly, then, there are some who would object to this paper’s thesis. One counter-argument may point to the fact that Calvin placed sanctification before justification in Book Three of his Institutes thereby effacing any logical priority to justification. Similarly, one may point to Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ as reason to remove any necessary logical relationship between justification and sanctification. Richard Gaffin argues something like this in his work on Calvin’s double grace. And although he recognizes that “[t]his way of proceeding is apparently counterintuitive, even contrary some might think, to Reformation instincts,” he sees it as instructive nonetheless:

Prior to discussing justification as a topic and in any length, largely bypassing justification and saying little about the role of faith in justification, he [Calvin] concerns himself extensively with sanctification and faith in its sanctified expressions. Calvin demolishes Rome’s charge by showing that faith, as the sole instrument in receiving justification, in its Protestant understanding, entails a disposition to holiness without explicit reference to its role in being justified.[32]

However, this view is not without difficulty. As Thomas Wenger aptly points out, there is a difference between an ordo docendiand an ordo salutis in Calvin’s theology:

[I]f Calvin was following Melanchthon’s description of Paul’s organization of Romans, then it is improper to assume that his ordo docendi is tantamount to an ordo salutis, because his intent was not to describe such a thing at all… The entire Institutes follows the Pauline order and thus must be interpreted in that light. So to claim….that Calvin used union with Christ as his organizing soteriological principle based on their assumed ordo salutis […] not only lacks internal evidence but is also completely out of accord with the historical context of the Institutes’development.[33]

If this is true, efforts to logically de-sequence justification to sanctification in Calvin’s soteriology, ether because of their order in the institutes, or due to his doctrine of union with Christ, would equally be ill-founded.

CONCLUSION

In refuting the “schools of the Sorbonne” (who he dubbed the “mothers of all errors”), Calvin criticized them for having “taken away from us justification by faith, which is the sum of all piety.”[34] As has been observed, for Calvin the concept of justification as a legal/forensic category serves as a foundational and establishing doctrine in his theology of the Christian life. Pastorally, exegetically, and homiletically, this theme clearly emerges from his writings. As Michael Horton has pointed out, there is a sense in which “Calvin makes justification that which brings everything else, including regeneration (again, the whole process of inward renewal), in its wake.”[35] All this evidence merely demonstrates the degree to which in Calvin’s theology there was a particular logical priority of justification in reference to sanctification. Or, as Calvin himself put it: “life proceeds from justification.”

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1John Calvin, Commentaries on The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. and ed. John Owen, Romans 6:1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 218.

2 Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ: the Twofold Grace of God and the Interpretation of Calvin’s Theology,(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), pp. 16-21.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.11.1.

5 Calvin, Commentary on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. William Pringle, on 1 Cor. 1:30 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 1:93-4.

6 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.11.

7 Mark Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology, (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2008), 264.

8 Venema, Accepted and Renewed, 97.

9 J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology: On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 no. 4 (October 2009): 446.

10 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.2.

11 Calvin, Commentary on A Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, on Luke 18:14 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 2:206.

12 Calvin, Commentary Corinthians, on 1 Cor. 1:30, 1:93-4.

13 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.11.

14 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 318.

15 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.1.

16 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.11.

17 Calvin, Institutes, 3.13.5.

18 Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.18.

19 Richard Muller, The Unacomodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 127.

20 Billings, “Calvin’s Soteriology,” 429.

21 Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin Expanded Edition: An Introductory Guide, trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 75.

22 T. H. L. Parker, Commentarius in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos (COR II/13: Geneva: Droz, 1999), xvi, cited in Mark Garcia,Life in Christ, 91.

23 Calvin, Commentaries on Romans, xxix-xxx.

24 Calvin, Commentary on Romans, on Rom. 5:18, 212.

25 Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Henry Beveridge, trans. Christopher Fetherstone,  Acts. 13:38, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 1:540-1.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 1:542-3.

28 Ibid., on Acts 13:39, 1:544-5.

29 Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle, John 20:23, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 2:270.

30 Ibid., 2:271.

31 Venema, Accepted and Renewed, 13. 32 Richard Gaffin, “Calvin’s Soteriology: The Structure of the Application of Redemption in Book Three of the Institutes” Ordained Servant, (November 2009), http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=174 (accessed March 12, 2010).

33 Thomas L. Wenger, “The New Perspective on Calvin: Responding to Recent Calvin Interpretations,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (June 2007): 320.

34 Calvin, Institutes, 3.15.7.

35 Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 201.

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