Saturday, October 31, 2009

Christian Theology: Words about words about words?

How doth it appear that there is a God? The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.

- The Larger Catechism, Question 1.

I think you will agree, then, that no form of natural theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there. None of the great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, and none of the great modern philosophers, like Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Kierkegaard and others, have ever spoken of the God who is there.

- Cornelius Van Til to Francis Schaeffer, March 1969

Here’s an important question that you don’t often find discussed even in conservative and confessional Reformed circles. Namely, how can we be confident and assured that the discipline of theology, and the religion that lies behind it, has a subject-matter? How may we be confident that there is a God and Lord that our words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ refer to? This question is never discussed, or very rarely. To use Van Til’s language, how do we know that the God who is there, is there? It is assumed that the words do have success in referring beyond themselves. This is not the question of what is true in theology, but a more basic question, How can we be sure that there is truth or falsity in theology? There are allied questions to this which are often discussed, the question of personal assurance, and the cognitive status of Scripture, for example. But not this question.

A number of factors may jointly contribute to the production of this deafening silence. I suggest three, which I place (lest you wonder) in no particular order.

Anyone who has any experience of the theological discussion that prevails in academic departments of religion and theology will be familiar with the phenomenon of theological autonomy, the sociological phenomenon, I mean. The business of theology is conducted exclusively between theologians with rules that exclude or forbid raising questions of truth and falsity. It is a game, as its practitioners will often concede. Basil Mitchell has an amusing essay ‘How to Play Theological Ping-Pong’. It is this fact that develops in the minds of non-theologians the further thought that theology is ‘not a subject’, and which is slowly but surely contributing to the demise of university departments of theology. Why should tax-payers money be spent on word games? Academia has been at the centre of the flourishing of ‘trinitarian studies’ in the last few decades? Whose model of the trinity works? Eastern or Western? One that tends to tritheism or the opposite which tends to modalism? Is the trinity a model for human community, even for politics? All of these are good questions. But they are only good questions if there is first a satisfactory answer to the question, Have we reason to think that there is a God who is triune?

Secondly, since the Second World War, an influential strand of conservative theology has been in thrall to ‘presuppositionalism’, the view that only by positing or presupposing the existence of God, or the Scriptures and their account of God, is it possible to uphold the rationality of Christian belief and to show the weakness of all positions which do not make that presupposition. Maybe that is so. But in Reformed theology ‘presuppositionalism’ is a striking novelty. Historically speaking, Reformed theology has been somewhat relaxed on the question of offering the arguments of natural theology to prove the existence of God. But presuppositionalism as an apologetic outlook is a complete novelty in the history of Reformed theology. It is strange, then, that the need to hold this outlook has come to be, for some, a test of orthodoxy, even in circles which uphold the Westminster Confession which perhaps is silent on the question but if anything appears to deny it. The project of natural theology is relegated to the theological museum, and (somewhat paradoxically) presuppositionalism shares its rejection of natural theology with Karl Barth. Extremes meet.

But in the zeitgeist that now prevails, such presuppositionalism simply becomes another form of insulation, another word game, this time a Bible word game, one practiced in the Bible-believing community. Paradoxically, presuppositionalism fits snugly into the relativistic post-modern mindset in which sociology triumphs over theology. More formally, it relies on a coherence theory of truth, not surprisingly given the Roycian background of its most notorious practitioner, Cornelius Van Til.

Suppose that those who propound presuppositionalism had paid less attention to the requirement of rationality, and more attention to the questions of the reality of Christian theology as a discipline, questions of the reality and objectivity of the faith. My guess is that the guarantees afforded by what is presupposed would look a lot less copper-bottomed than they appeared to those who were interested exclusively in rationality.

Those seeking an answer to the question; do words such as ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ actually succeed in referring to anything? will find no relief from the more recent proposals of the Vanhoozers and the Frankes. For they more or less meekly follow the academic temper of the times, being almost exclusively concerned with the in-house language of the church. In Vanhoozer’s case this shows itself in linguistic terms, the langue of speech acts and language games and theodrama, the fine tuning of the language of faith. You will look in vain for any discussion of natural theology or natural religion. In Franke’s case the terms of the debate-are sociological, the local church and its language, first-order language, with the theologians’ job being to fine turn that language giving considerable attention in doing so to the ‘context’ in which church and theologians are each situated. Christians talk to each other, confessing their faith, participating in the drama. But is there really a drama? Is anyone out there? Is there a God who occupies reality beyond the limits of the Christian village, beyond the moat and the drawbridge, and all similar enclosures?

All these outlooks are certainly different, but they have in common what I shall call ‘theological autonomy’, the idea that (for whatever reason) theology is a distinct discipline which does not depend upon any others. That is, supposedly, its strength. It has insulated itself from intellectual attack. But may theology not be the Emperor who has no clothes rather than the Queen of the sciences?

Thankfully, there are straws in the wind that suggest that things are slowly but surely moving away from such theological autonomy, even among those with a historic confessional stance. Two publications have recently come my way which indicate this. David Vandrunen, who teaches at Westminster Seminary West, Escondido, California, has recently published Bioethics and the Christian (Crossway, 2009). Writing of the ‘common task’ of bioethics, he pleasds for recognition of the relation between Christian and secular ethics in terms of what Christian ethics has in common with the world, and of how God is revealed in his law in nature as well as in Scripture. This is in fact the latest of a series of more technical publications by Vandrunen on natural law in Reformed theology. He is also the author of A Biblical Case for Natural Law, (Grand Rapids, Mich. Acton Institute.)

The other publication is an essay ‘Natural Theology and the Westminster Confession of Faith’, by John. V. Fesko and Guy M. Richard, which may be found in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, III ed. Ligon Duncan, (Mentor, 2009. I have borrowed part of the letter of Van Til’s from this article.) This is an informative review of the place of natural theology and natural religion in some of the Reformers and some prominent Puritans, culminating in a study of the outlook of representative Westminster divines and of the Confession itself.

How are we to form the conviction that we may successfully refer to God, the God who is there? My general answer to this question, the age-old answer, is that grace builds on nature, it does not destroy it. I hope to follow this up in a number of Analyses that are to follow.

The Logic of Imputation

Behold him there! The risen Lamb, my perfect, sinless Righteousness, The great unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace.

- Charitie Lees Bancroft

Imputation is a central feature of accounts of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The word ‘imputes’ is generally held to be equivalent to Paul’s words translated ‘counts’, in Romans 4.6, ‘count’ 4.8, and ‘counted’ 4. 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11 (These words are more often than not translated as ‘credits’ and ‘credited’ by the NIV, and I shall return to that fact later.) In Reformed thought justification occurs through the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and sometimes these two distinct blessings are combined together. (Imputation is also applied to the relation between the Fall of Adam and his connection with the race, but I shall not be concerned with this in what follows.)

Standard statements

The following are some of the ways that Reformed theologians have standardly understood the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

(a) ‘Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them’. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. XI.I)

(b) ‘Therefore when we say that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us for justification, and that we are just before God through imputed righteousness and not through any righteousness inherent in us, we mean nothing else than that the obedience of Christ rendered in our name to God the Father is so given to us by God that it is reckoned to be truly ours and that it is the sole and only righteousness on account of and by the merit of which we are absolved from the guilt of our sins and obtain a right to life; and that there is in us no righteousness or good works by which we can deserve such good benefits which can bear the severe examination of the divine court’. (F. Turretin, Institutes, II. 648)

(c) ‘The imputation of Christ’s righteousness, moreover, is totally misconstrued by Bellarmine and his associates. They picture it as a fiction that is opposed to reality. Imputed righteousness, according to them, is a righteousness that exists only in the imagination, whereas infused righteousness, according to them, is the only real and true righteousness. That picture, however, is completely mistaken. Justification is as real as sanctification, and imputation is not less real than infusion. The only difference is this: in justification righteousness is granted to us in a juridical sense while in sanctification it becomes ours in an ethical sense. Both are very real and very necessary’. (H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. IV.213)

In the context of the Reformation there has been great concern to protect the idea that the righteousness which justifies is not transfused or translated. We see this in the quotations: the righteousness which justifies, is not inherent, it is not infused. Whatever is transfused or translated in connection with the business of being justified by faith alone (whatever that may be) is never the ground of justification. The ground of justification is what is imputed. But such imputed righteousness is not fictional, it is real.

Any doctrine which proposes that justification is on the basis of what is transfused to the believer, as in Roman Catholic accounts of justification in terms of the acquiring of subjective righteousness (or later Baxterianism’s justification through evangelical righteousness, the keeping of a new law, and the like), are wholeheartedly repudiated. So Reformed theologians readily write and speak of justification by an alien or external righteousness.

My aim here is to offer some elucidation of this Reformed position by examining the logic of the idea imputing external righteousness. The word ‘logic’ need not frighten anyone. I am not attempting to argue for the truth of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness ‘by logic’, only to spell out some of its features by attempting to show what the idea of the imputation of righteousness, or reckoning or counting someone righteous, implies and does not imply.

Internal and external changes

Suppose that a person has a child, becomes a mother or a father. As a consequence someone else becomes a grandparent, a grandfather or grandmother. What sort of a change is that of becoming a grandmother? It’s a different sort of change than that which occurs when, giving birth, the wife becomes a mother; or, learning of the birth, the grandfather reaches into his pocket and buys the newborn baby a gift.

Or suppose a person comes to weigh less than his friend simply by virtue of the fact that his friend has put on weight, while his own weight has not changed. That’s a different sort of change than coming to weigh less by dieting. Without doing anything, the person has changed. We can say that the person is reckoned to be lighter in weight by virtue of something purely ‘external’ to him, to the fact that his friend has become inherently heavier. By the action of another, by a woman giving birth, and by nothing else, her father has been changed, he has become a grandfather. By the action of another, by his friend putting on weight, and by nothing else, a person has been changed, he has come to weigh less than his friend. Here we have a good guide what is an inherent change – becoming a mother, putting on weight, are good examples - and what is an ‘external’ change - becoming lighter than the friend, becoming a grandparent. Something we might say is that the ‘external’ change is ‘purely relational’. It is in virtue of someone’s relation to another person, and no other fact, that he may be said to have changed, to have become lighter, to have become a grandparent. But in the case of ‘inherent’ change – such as becoming pregnant and giving birth, putting on weight - something other than a relation.

We can, if we are careful enough, distinguish between changes in A that result solely from factors external to A , and those that are due to internal changes to A. One person really changes, and as a consequence someone else changes, but not in the same sense. for I am going to argue, as you have guessed, that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is best thought of as an ‘external’ change in the one to whom the righteousness is imputed.

Having righteousness imputed

As a result of what Christ has done, those to whom his righteousness is imputed change. But how Christ has changed, by procuring righteousness through his life and death, is very different from how the person to whom that righteousness is imputed changes. Something is true of him that was not true of him before. But the change, the new truth, is not brought about by a change within him, but by the establishing of a new external relationship for him, and by that alone.

Of course, there is one important difference between the examples of becoming a grandparent, and becoming less heavy than, on the one hand, and becoming righteous, in the case of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. There is a third party. There are two parties, Christ and the one who receives the imputation of his righteousness, but there is a third party, the one who imputes, or reckons, or counts that righteousness to another. That’s very important for the full statement of the doctrine, but it does not affect the point that those to whom the righteousness of Christ is imputed change in rather the way that the way in which a person becomes a grandparent or a person comes to be less heavy than his friend becoming more heavy.

They don’t thereby undergo any ‘internal’ change, but enter into a new relation of a purely external kind. This new relation has immeasurable consequences, and is accompanied by other sorts of change which are most certainly ‘internal’ and acquired, the changes that are associated with the acquiring of Christian graces, and the putting off of the old man, Christian sanctification, the work of the Spirit. Justification is distinct from but inseparably connected with the internal changes that sanctify. But this fact, vitally important though it is, does not alter the fact that in justification the only thing that changes about the one who is justified is that person’s external relation to God, the imputer.

Imputing and infusing

Sometimes it is said that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is ‘fictional’ and by that is meant that it is ‘made up’. But it is no more made up than the friend’s becoming less heavy is fictional. Is he heavier or not? In relation to his friend, he is heavier. A person who is pronounced innocent on grounds that ensure his innocence (in the case of ‘reckoned’ innocence, grounds provided by another) is not ’fictionally’ innocent, though it is certain a fiction to suppose that someone has an inherent quality that he in fact fails to have. Some accounts of imputation make it seem less arbitrary by interposing the thought that the one whom Christ thus benefits is ‘in union with’ Christ. What the Head has done is reckoned to the members. (Just as, becoming a grandfather is due to what has happened to the grandfather’s daughter, and to no other).

In becoming a grandfather, or coming to weigh less (in the examples given earlier) what comes to be true does so purely in virtue of a real change in one of the parties to an already existing relation. That is all, that’s the full explanation. Nothing moves, nothing transfers from one friend to another. The father of the mother is not infused with grandfatherliness, nor the friend that comes to weigh less infused with weight loss. Nothing is infused, and nothing becomes inherent than was not inherent before. So it is with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

In imputation is Christ’s righteousness credited?

That’s why the terms ‘imputation’ or ‘reckon’ or ‘count’ as used in the doctrine of justification, are vitally different from ‘impartation’ or ‘infusion’, or even (unless used with great care) from ‘transfer’ or ‘credit’. If something is imparted to A, then what is imparted to A becomes A’s; what is infused into A is fused with A. But what is imputed or reckoned or counted does not – in the same sense – become a part of A. A is benefited or blessed by having the righteousness of Christ reckoned, but not because he thereby receives the righteousness of Christ internally.

I suggest that the NIV’s use of ‘credits’ (Rom. 4. 4,6 – but ‘count’ in 4.8) is potentially misleading at this point. For crediting (at least in the financial sense) is not merely or purely external. If I pay your cheque to me into the bank my bank account is credited with the amount and I become better off, financially speaking. That’s not the sort of reckoning that imputation is. The pulpit illustration of imputation drawn from Philemon, ‘if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account’ is not apt. Our sin is not charged to Christ’s account. He does not become really guilty, as Paul would have become really poorer had to had to pay up. We must therefore be careful not to let accountancy trump theology at this point. Christ’s righteousness is not credited to our account. Never. It is reckoned to be ours, something quite different. Imputation is not a relation between God and a person’s account, but between God and a person. What is imputed remains external; hence the aptness of thinking of Christ’s imputed righteousness as a covering, and clothing. ‘Blessed are they whose sins are covered’. Do I change when I put a hat on? Only in the sense that I have a different relation with the hat than before. It was on the peg, now it is on the head. Am I inherently changed by being hatted? Not a bit.

I develop an illustration I have used before when discussing Bishop Tom Wright’s views. If I am given insurance cover against accidents, do I change? Do I possess something called accident-cover, a sort of weird substance that only insurance brokers have the power to discern? Obviously not. What then do I have when I have that cover? I possess certain possibilities that I do not have without it. The possibility of claiming for the expenses incurred should I have an accident. What do I have when I am covered with Christ’s righteousness? I have the warrant to go before the judgment of God and to claim Christ’s righteousness as mine. And in view of my need, that warrant will most certainly be exercised. The believer will be accepted in the Beloved.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dynamic Equivalence: Another Penn'orth

Some who read the last Taking A Line, on ‘Dynamic Equivalence’, raised a number of points, and kindly left links on my piece. I’m grateful to them. I thought that I would have a go at commenting on these, or at least on some of them, if only to try to clarify some of the things that I was asserting.

First, I do not think that changing the nomenclature from ‘dynamic equivalence’ to ‘functional equivalence’ or some other kind, like ’receptive equivalence’ or ‘effective equivalence’ will help us very much. For functional equivalence, though perhaps less precise than ‘dynamic equivalence’, also has its home in physical and social situations. An artificial heart may be functionally equivalent to a real heart, a President functionally equivalent to a King; in some circumstances, a knife is functionally equivalent to a screwdriver, and so on. Each does the job of opening the can of paint equally well. But what is the test of functional equivalence in the apprehension of words and sentences? Sameness of behaviour? Perhaps sameness of verbal response to the same question? These won’t work, I think. If A responds to sentence S by doing some action, and B refers to sentence T, a different sentence, by doing the same action, by going to the same place, say, how do we know that they are doing the same thing for the same reason? So – dynamic equivalence? No. Functional equivalence? No as well. Cognitive equivalence? Hmm, more like it. Two sentences have the same meaning if they have the same truth conditions.

The following point was raised: that I don’t define cognitive equivalence. But I did provide a definition, or at least a fairly clear characterisation, as follows: two expressions are cognitively equivalent if they are true together and false together. (I know that there are philosophical issues lurking here, but for present purposes I believe that they can be safely ignored.) ‘Meaning’ is of course as slippery as an eel. But in the endeavour to translate a document which offers us the revealed truth of God, providing translations that preserve truth-conditions must be the first aim. The ongoing study of each language will help this, of course, even the identification of what may seem at first sight to be merely accidental accompaniments to the use of a word. So, emphasising cognitive equivalence is no excuse for philistinism.

Perhaps I should have added that cognitive equivalence embraces anything with cognitive content. Commands and questions, which strictly speaking do not have a truth value, have cognitive value, obviously. Is ‘Pass the salt’ cognitively equivalent to ‘Close the window’? Obviously not. Is ‘Is it raining?’ cognitively equivalent to ‘Is it snowing?’ Obviously not. Is ‘Close the window’ cognitively equivalent to ‘Fermez la fenĂȘtre’? Yes it is, in that the thought expressed by the one is the same thought as that expressed by the other. They have the same propositional content, they express the same thought.

In this connection I do not think it is helpful to talk of emotional meaning as opposed to intellectual meaning. No doubt certain expressions are intended to produce particular emotional responses, but only by believing the sentence. Effects produced by alliteration, say, or repetition, or by an onset of indigestion as we read the text, will usually be non-cognitive. Though if we were sure that the repetition was for emphasis then it would be plausible to suppose that ‘Boil the water, boil the water’ was cognitively equivalent to ‘It is important to boil the water’ or to 'Boil the water' uttered in a partiuclar tone of voice or to 'You must boil the water'. Other than such cases of linguistic convention, the emotional, literary, personal and other accidental associations that a word or sentence may have are not part of its cognitive meaning, however valued they may be by those who utter the word or the sentence. Nevertheless, as I've already said, the language to be translated ought to be studied hard in order to decide whether or not some of its associations may be intrinsic to the expression in the way that linguistic conventions of a language may be, and so be part of its meaning, or not.

It is not a question of assuming that cognitive equivalence is possible. For as I explained, if cognitive equivalence is never achievable, then we cannot have, in the words of the synoptic gospels, a faithful account of the words of Jesus in the Aramaic, and all theological reflection and preaching and communicating the account of things found in the Bible would necessarily be a distortion of the original. And if the primary function of special revelation is to disclose the plight of man and the power of God, by telling us the truth about each, then we are only in possession of a distorted version of the truth. (There may be enough of the original conveyed in the Greek still to do the trick, of course. But that's not quite the point. Remember the man who was converted at the theatre by reading the words 'To the Pit'.) The further we move from cognitive equivalence in our translating, the further away we move from a satisfactory translation of the original.

It was also said that I did not define a paraphrase. What is a paraphrase? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says ‘An expression in other words of the sense of any passage or text: a free rendering or amplification of a passage’ . Two definitions for the price of one, there, it seems to me. According to the first, any good translation is a paraphrase. But a paraphrase is also ‘free’, containing ‘amplification’. It’s this second, the free, amplified sense, that needs watching . The exact line between literalness and paraphrase may be hard to draw, but there are clear examples of paraphrastic translations of the Bible, or parts of it: Good News for Modern Man, The Message, Letters to Young Churches, and so on. Some of them are very good. But a paraphrase is not a translation, that's all.

Any efforts that render a biblical text into colloquial and readily understandable prose by a free rendition, amplifying the sense of the original, is going to be more than a translation, even though such a thing may be a part of a very good sermon. The use of words in addition to those in the original is not necessarily to provide a paraphrase if it preserves the cognitive meaning of the original. That’s the test. To repeat, we shall not decide whether or not translations are accurate by word counts, but by endeavouring to answer the question: when the original language sentence T can be true, would the translated sentence L also be true? If it were false, would the translated sentence also be false? (The sentence ‘Fermez la fenĂȘtre. s’il vous plait’ has more words in it than its cognitive equivalent ‘Close the window, please’, just as ‘John loves Janet’ has fewer words than the cognitive equivalent ‘Janet is loved by John’. What usually makes something a paraphrase, and not an expression of the meaning of the original, is the use of additional words drawn from colloquial, everyday speech, with the aim of achieving immediate comprehension; the downside is that there is a good chance that such immediate comprehension is usually a comprehension of ideas and expressions not present in the original.

What about words that, in the original, look unintelligible? Shall we not try to find a form of words that renders them intelligible? Of course. But by sticking as closely to the original as possible. May there not be passages in the original that are ambiguous? Yes. So we must find some device, such as producing the less preferred translation as a footnote, or providing a marginal note, for conveying and preserving that ambiguity. Are some things not hard to be understood? Yes, and so their translations ought to be hard to understand as well, and for the very same reasons.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


October sees the fourth and final post on Tom Wright's new book on justification, and (as is appropriate) the draft of a short section on Calvin's treatment of justification which is to appear in the forthcoming book, Calvin at the Centre (OUP, November). Some of this material on Tom Wright's book will reappear in a rather different form in a paper 'Tom Wright and John Calvin on the Imputation of Righteousness', to be published ere long in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

Next month I might have a go at posting some more on imputation, an issue that arises from the Wright book, and of course a central feature of the Reformed understanding of reconciliation and redemption.

Readers who have not already had their fill of Calvin, and Helm on Calvin, might care to look at the Guardian's website, where I have been invited to post a series of eight short pieces on Calvin, one a week, beginning 28th September.

In Taking a Line, to be posted around the middle of October, I intend to have another glance at dynamic equivalence.


David F. Wright has this to say, in general, about why it is easy for the children of the Reformation both to read and yet to misread Augustine.

He cites Scripture at great length, and especially the Pauline Epistles, which establish for him salvation received by grace alone - the initiative is entirely God’s, who elects whom he wills, through faith apart from works performed in advance of reception, and faith itself the gift of God. That is to say, his anti-Pelagian writings in particular are replete with Pauline-inspired discussions of this kind, which do not call upon him to clarify repeatedly that justifico basically means "to make righteous", or to show his readers how he understands the gift of justification - of being jusitificati - in relation to this normal meaning. [1]

I believe that it is in such general terms as these that Calvin rather guardedly appropriates Augustine on justification. Augustine sees clearly that justification (however exactly understood) is by grace alone. This is repeatedly expressed in the Anti-Pelagian writings which were such a rich resource for the Reformers in establishing their views of the 'servitude' of the human will and the freeness and power of divine grace.

Accurate as this may be as a view of Augustine's position, Calvin does not quite see him this way, for there is not much evidence that he identifies Augustine as even toying with the idea of justification by faith in a declarative sense, even though, as we have seen, Augustine may have done so, perhaps committing himself to that view (without realizing it) in what he writes. After all, a person might not be as aware as others are of the logical implications of views that he holds.

We can reconstruct Calvin's view of Augustine on justification by considering two lines of evidence. First by noting a striking fact, that throughout his discussion of justification Calvin cites Augustine voluntarily (that is, he is not forced into a citation through the pressure of controversy) and almost wholly with approval. The second line of evidence is the reasons that he provides where he thinks that Augustine is defective.

Here are some of the places where Calvin records his approval of Augustine.

And lest you suppose that there is anything novel in what I say, Augustine has also taught us so to act [viz. To pay no regard to our works for justification]. "Christ”, says he, "will reign forever among his servants. This God has promised, God has spoken; if this is not enough, God has sworn. Therefore, as the promise stands firm, not in respect of our merits, but in respect of his mercy, no one ought to tremble in announcing that of which he cannot doubt”.[2]

Besides, if it is true, as John says, that there is no life without the Son of God (I John. 5.12), those who have no part in Christ, whoever they be, whatever they do or devise, are hastening on, during their whole career, to destruction and the judgment of eternal death. For this reason, Augustine says, ‘Our religion distinguishes the righteous from the wicked, by the law, not of works, but of faith, without which works which seem good are converted into sins’. [3]

The same thing is briefly but elegantly expressed by Augustine when he says, ‘I do not say to the Lord, Despise not the works of my hands; I have sought the Lord with my hands, and have not been deceived. But I commend not the works of my hands, for I fear that when thou examinest them thou wilt find more faults than merits. This only I say, this ask, this desire, Despise not the works of thy hands. See in me thy work, not mine. If thou sees mine, thou condemnest; if thou sees thine own, thou crownest . Whatever good works I have are of thee’. [4]

It is in this fairly regular way that Augustine (and to a lesser extent Bernard) are cited to in order to emphasise sola gratia. Sometimes the citations are for a positive purpose, sometimes negatively. Positively, that salvation is due only to the merits of Christ, and negatively, our own supposed 'merits' count for nothing as regards forgiveness and righteousness, no ground of boasting, because only the merits of Christ count, and God working his graces in us.

With this line of evidence Calvin sometimes contrasts Peter Lombard (whom he calls the 'Pythagoras' of the later Sophists) who, though he had Augustine 'so often in his mouth' failed in his blindness to see that Augustine ascribed to man not the least particle of praise because of good works; and also he contrasts him with the Schoolmen who teach that works have their value from divine 'accepting grace'.[5] And he is scathing about the 'schools of the Sorbonne'[6] to which he gives separate attention in his Antidote to the Articles Agreed Upon by the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris. [7]

Despite this widespread positive use of Augustine, there are two issues on which Calvin faults him. The first has to do with his use of the term 'merit'. Calvin includes Augustine in a general condemnation of the introduction of the word into discussions of human charactr and action. Nonetheless, Calvin says, Augustine used it circumspectly.

I admit it was used by ancient ecclesiastical writers, and I wish they had not by the abuse of one term furnished posterity with matter of heresy, although in some passages they themselves show that they had no wish to injure the truth. For Augustine says ‘Let human merits, which perished by Adam, here be silent, and let the grace of God reign by Jesus Christ’…. You see how he denies man the power of acting aright, and thus lays merit prostrate. [8]

The important point For Calvin here is obvious. Although Augustine and Bernard use the term ‘merit’ they do not reckon that the person who enjoys grace has himself merited it. The worth of the act is not due to an action of the person who performs it, but solely to divine grace.

Secondly, and more centrally, Calvin notes that for Augustine justificare connotes subjective renewal. Reviewing the way in which the biblical idea of justification had degenerated in the church, Calvin says, in the first instance about Lombard,

You see here that the chief office of divine grace in our justification he considers to be its directing us to good works by the agency of the Holy Spirit. He intended, no doubt, to follow the opinion of Augustine, but he follows it at a distance, and even wanders far from a true imitation of him, both obscuring what was clearly stated by Augustine, and making what in him was less pure more corrupt. The Schools have always gone from worse to worse, until at length, in their downward path, they have degenerated into a kind of Pelagianism. Even the sentiment of Augustine, or at least his mode of expressing it, cannot be entirely approved of. For although he is admirable in stripping man of all merit of righteousness, and transferring the whole praise of it to God, he classes the grace by which we are regenerated to newness of life under the head of sanctification. Scripture, when it treats of justification by faith, leads us in a very different direction. Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God, and the perfection of Christ.[9]

That is, in Calvin’s view Augustine subsumes ‘grace’, that is, the grace of justification, under sanctification, subjective renewal. This is his account of Augustine’s doctrine of grace using Reformation conceptuality. Not that it is a meritorious consequence of renewal, for renewal is also the fruit of grace, but in Calvin’s view Augustine holds that a person is justified as he is being renewed, and inbeing renewed. Apart from anything else, Calvin wishes to make space for the Pauline assertion that God justifies the ungodly. On Augustine’s view of justification, God justifies the ungodly, but Calvin believes that he means something different (from the Reformers) by ‘justification’.

It is not unknown to me, that Augustine gives a different explanation; for he thinks that the righteousness of God is the grace of regeneration; and this grace he allows to be free, because God renews us, when unworthy, by his Spirit; and from this he excludes the works of the law, that is, those works, by which men of themselves endeavour, without renovation, to render God indebted to them.... But that the Apostle includes all works without exception, even those which the Lord produces in his own people, is evident from the context. [10]

He makes a similar point, though without mentioning Augustine, as follows

There is no controversy between us and the sounder Schoolmen as to the beginning of justification. They admit that the sinner, freely delivered from condemnation, obtains justification, and that by forgiveness of sins; but under the term justification they comprehend the renovation by which the Spirit forms us anew to the obedience of the Law; and in describing the righteousness of the regenerate man, maintain that being once reconciled to God by means of Christ, he is afterward deemed righteous by his good works, and is accepted in consideration of them.[11]

There is ambivalence here, a certain awkwardness. On the one hand, we must not entirely approve of Augustine's thinking, ‘or at least his mode of expressing it’. This suggests a mere verbal disagreement. On the other hand, the Bible's way of thinking is 'leads us in a very different direction'. What is it in Augustine’s way of expressing what he thinks that we may not approve of? It is not merely that Augustine uses the term ‘merit’, because that term can be given a good sense, even though (in Calvin’s eyes) it came in the medieval church to have a very bad sense. Augustine can hardly be blamed for that. Rather it is that he muffles the vital point that justification and sanctification are not only inseparable but also distinct. For in the Augustinian way of thinking, while there is agreement that justification involves freedom from condemnation through forgiveness and the provision of righteousness, and that faith is active in it, subjective renewal is included in it. It is this merging of the two that, in Calvin's view, eventually led to appealing to good works as meritorious, and to the idea of supererogation on which the scandalous medieval abuses relied. Justification and sanctification are inseparable and distinct.

[1] Wright 59-60

[2] Inst. III.13.4. The quotation is from Augustine’s narration on Psalm 88, tract. 50.

[3] Inst. III.14.4. The Augustine quotation is from Against Two letters of the Pelagians, 3.5

[4] Inst. III.14.20. The quotation is from Augustine on Psalm 137. See also Inst. III.11.22, III.14.3, III.18.5, III.18.7.

[5] Inst. III.15.7 See also Calvin's further reference to 'accepting grace', Inst. III.14.12.

[6] Inst. III.15.7, III.18.9.

[7] Selected Works of John Calvin, Vol. I.

[8] Inst. III.15.2. The Augustine quotation is from The Predestination of the Saints. In the same section Calvin also makes a similar reference to Bernard.

[9] Inst. III.11.15-6.

[10] Comm. Rom. 3.22

[11] Inst. III.14.11

Wright and the Reformation

In the last post I attempted to show that while Wright thinks of justification using the concepts of substitution and imputation, one reason why he cannot commit himself to the Reformed doctrine of justification as the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is that he grossly misunderstands it. He ridicules the view, but in fact he ridicules a caricature of the view. He thinks that the Reformed view is that in imputation Christ’s righteousness literally becomes mine, my moral condition, that I have Christ’s moral righteousness (in this sense) as mine. I offered a good bit of textual evidence to show that this is indeed Wright’s view. He may be making things up, but I want it to be clear that I am not.

It follows from the evidence provided in the book that according to the Bishop the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, Piper’s view (if you like), because it is an imputation of moral righteousness, must be the imparting of a new character, and because it is Christ’s righteousness, an immaculate, perfect moral character.

But Piper makes it abundantly clear why he uses the phrase ‘moral righteousness’.

Now why have I brought in moral righteousness? Doesn’t that muddy the water? Isn’t justification the bestowing of a status of ‘righteousness’ not the declaration that one is morally righteous? I bring it in for two reasons. One reason is that in the context of Romans, the charge that has brought us into court is ‘None is righteous, no, not one’. (Rom.3.10) Which means: ‘No one does good , no even one’ (Rom.3.12) This is a statement about our moral condition.

The other reason is that God is omniscient, and so his findings always accord with reality. The status bestowed will always accord with whether the charge sticks. When the charge itself is ‘You have no moral righteousness before God’ (cf. Rom. 3:10-18), the finding of an omniscient judge in our favor must be: ‘You do indeed have a moral righteousness before God and therefore a status of acquittal in this court’. (The Future of Justification, 77)

But for some reason Wright cannot see it this way.

He cannot see that the righteousness in question is an alien righteousness which, when imputed, changes the person’s moral status., and that the righteousness required for justification is always alien. But it never ceases to be alien. And he cannot see that understood in this way the view is Pauline, in his understanding of Paul. (‘The thing that is created is not a moral character, nor an infusion of virtue, but a status’ (180)). It is the language of the law court; on that he and Piper are agreed. What is more, those who are imputed with Christ’s righteousness never leave the law-court! The verdict of the Lord , pronounced through the interposition of the Mediator, is eternally efficacious, its sound for ever rings in their ears! Like Paul, they seek to gain Christ, to be found in him, not having their own righteousness which comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Phil. 3 8,9.) But for some reason, whenever the term ‘moral’ occurs Wright regards this as denoting the subjective possession of a state, a virtue, not an imputed moral status. Otherwise why is it a ‘category mistake’?

So if the Reformers, to a man, rejected the Roman infusion view of righteousness, and to a man upheld the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ, what was it that they were upholding but a change of status, the moral status that the vindicated Suffering Servant possesses?

For Wright it appears that, thinking of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ in the most generous terms, there have been three concepts of imputation, and consequently n three concepts of justification.

1. The view of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ which comes in two versions:
(a) The full-bloodied ‘infusion’ Roman Catholic view, (making righteous by impartation) (and
(b) The Reformation view if justification through the righteousness of Christ (receiving Christ’s own righteous character by imputation).
Both 1(a) and 1(b) are ‘legalistic’.
2. The Pauline view, recently discovered by himself and the other adherents to the ‘new perspective’ outlook, that righteousness is a ‘law court’ term according to which (because of Christ) a person is declared to be in the right, to be acquitted, to have a new status, and so to be vindicated. This is not ‘legalistic’. (I place inverted commas around the word as Wright does , though I’ve no idea what their significance is.)

But as far as the history of the concept of justification is concerned, this is a complete and utter dog’s breakfast. I believe that it is impossible, for Wright or for anyone else, to state 1(b) in a way that distinguishes it both from 1(a) and from 2.

I used to think that everyone knew that a part of the Reformation break with medieval Augustinianism was a decisive distinction between imputing and imparting, between justification and sanctification, between the change of status of a person and that person’s change of character. By faith only, a person has Christ’s righteousness reckoned to him. That is Reformation (and Pauline) justification. By faith in the promises of God, the justified believer is set on the path of inward renewal. That is sanctification. But for some reason, Wright completely misses this. The nearest he comes to it is in this passage, some of which was quoted in an earlier post:

The idea that what sinners need is for someone else’s ‘righteousness’ to be credited to their account simply muddles up the categories, importing with huge irony into the equation the idea that the same tradition worked so hard to eliminate, namely the suggestion that, after all, ‘righteousness’ here means ‘moral virtue’, ‘the merit acquired from lawkeeping’, or something like that. We don’t have any of that, said the Reformers, so we have to have some one else’s credited to us, and ‘justification’ can’t mean ‘being made righteous’, as though God first pumps a little bit of moral virtue into use and then generously regards the part as standing for the whole. (187)

This is the closest Wright gets to stating the Reformed view. (See also the reference to ‘extraneous righteousness’. (141))

Further, as we noted in the last Analysis, Wright believes that this view leads us back into the world of ‘legalism’; it does not sufficiently extricate us from mediaeval Augustinianism. With or without the inverted commas, the term ‘legalism’ is unclear in this connection. But in any case this won’t stand up as a criticism that Wright can sustain, because his own view of negative imputation, consisting of the pardon of sin on the basis of the work of the true Israelite, being ‘acquitted’, ‘forgiven’, ‘cleared’, (187) is already in that ‘legal’ world. If ‘legalism’ is a criticism of positive justification by the imputation of alien righteousness , then it is already a criticism of the negative imputation, justification by the non-imputation of sin, that Wright espouses. After all, the Bishop can hardly press for justification being a law-court term and then deny that it has anything to do with legality and illegality.

Summing Up

Earlier in this series of posts on Wright’s book I claimed that by its publication the ground between himself and those who, like John Piper, uphold the classic Reformed view had been narrowed. Here is the present position, as I see it.

There is common ground on the following three or four points: that Paul’s teaching on justification is God-centred, and that its axis is the Abrahamic covenant; that ‘justify’ ad ‘justification’ is law-court language, declaring a person to have the status of having been vindicated; that Christ is our substitute, and that in the act of substitution God fails to impute our own sins to us, pardoning them instead. Wright thinks of imputation in negative terms, the not-imputing of sin, rather than in positive terms, the imputation of righteousness. We shall return to this difference in a moment.

But then there are the differences, but (as I have said) narrowable differences. They are narrowable because they all involve only points of logic. These are (as I would put it):

1. Wright has an imperfect appreciation of God’s righteous character. This goes back to what Piper says about the meaning of ‘righteousness’, but it also embodies a logical point, that God’s righteousness must be a feature or property or attribute of who he is, rather that (solely) a feature of what he does. He is righteous, and so acts righteously.
2. Wright’s argument that the doctrine of imputation of righteousness as usually understood is ‘legalistic’ fails to convince. If the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness is ‘legalistic’, then so is his own view that imputation is negative, that it covers the non-imputation of the sins and trespasses of the believer. This also is a point of logic, that is, a question of the consistency or otherwise of Wright’s views. (This point might be pressed: How does the faithfulness of the faithful Israelite, Jesus Christ, become ours, negating our sins and trespasses, except through ‘positive’ imputation?)
3. There is misunderstanding (or at least a great deal of unclarity) on Wright’s part regarding the ‘category mistake’ of thinking of the imputation of righteousness as the imputation of moral character. To my knowledge no Reformed theologian has claimed what Wright appears to believe that at least some of them think. To suppose that such imputation ‘imparts’ a righteous character is to be guilty not so much of a category mistake as a straight logical incoherence. This is a final logical point.

On the Reformed view, Christ’s imputed righteousness is ‘alien’, external, the righteousness of another, and even when imputed, it will always remain alien. God justifies the ungodly as ungodly. The widely-used illustration, that Christ’s righteousness is credited to my account, is misleading. (If I’m credited, mustn’t Christ be debited?) To repeat, in the imputation of righteousness, nothing moves. Imputation is not an electronic moral transfer. Righteousness is not transmitted, transfused, or relocated in any way. (Any more than
if I receive free insurance cover I receive a transfusion of some mysterious substance called ‘insurance’.) The believer’s imputed righteousness remains inalienably Christ’s perfect righteousness. What is true is that by an act of the unspeakable mercy of God the believer is shielded by, or seen through, or covered by, the righteousness of another.

It this always-remaining-alien righteousness that is reckoned to the believer, and it is inseparably linked with the distinct blessing of subjective renewal, sanctification. Justification and sanctification - distinct and yet inseparable, as Calvin routinely says. So the Reformed view of imputation is that justification is a wholly extrinsic change, a change of status, that is, a change of relation, by itself no inward change, but carrying with it the sure prospect of such a change. Hence the language of Reformed popular piety: we are ‘clothed with’ Christ’s righteousness, it is ‘put on’, we are ‘sheltered’ by it. ‘Clothed with his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne’. Does Bishop Wright not know this?

So we have this bizarre outcome. While holding to a law-court view of justification Wright has at the same time failed to recognize that the Reformed view of Christ’s alien righteousness is also a law-court view. Because of this his historical analysis, such as it is, is flawed, and his exegetical tour de force of Paul’s view of justification is largely beside the point, for the Reformed outlook expresses its main claims: the law-court point, the central position of the Abrahamic covenant, and the counting of the believer as righteous for Christ’s sake.

This is where Wright’s competitiveness, his insistence of always having the last word, and his failure to provide a clear theological framework, or even to write clearly, saying what he means and what he does not mean by certain terms such as ‘moral righteousness’, and ‘legalistic’ and ‘impart’ and ‘infuse’, prove to be so frustrating. Had he been clearer and more focussed he could have said this:

‘Piper (and the entire Reformed tradition) and I agree on the meaning of reckon, count as, impute, the place of Abraham and Israel in the covenant, and the way that, according to Paul, to be a believer is to be a ‘real’ Jew, to be circumcised in the heart, to be Abraham’s seed. We agree that a person is justified now, and also at the Last Judgment, though we might differ over how these are related. We also agree on some other vital questions - on Christ as our substitute, and the removal of the guilt of through imputation, and why what is imputed justifies. I don’t like the idea of justification having a foundation, though I agree that it has a basis. But I utterly concur with the Reformed tradition that what is imputed cannot be moral righteousness, because one person’s moral state cannot literally become someone else’s. To suppose that it could be is a category mistake. We certainly differ over the content of such imputation, for whereas I think it involves only not reckoning sin, John Piper thinks that it also includes the reckoning of righteousness. We also differ, perhaps, over what counts as ‘legalistic’. It would certainly be good to think further about the remaining matters we differ on.’

And John Piper would agree!

As I have been stressing, all these matters of difference rest on points of logic. Little turns on the nuances of Pauline exegesis, but much turns on its good and necessary consequences. Were Wright to follow through the logic of his position then, I believe, it would approach even more closely to the classical Reformed view than it has already.