The Oddities of Reformed Distinctions

Yesterday, R. Scott Clark (prof at Westminster West) posted the following quote from John Girardeau on justification:

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“In discharging this instrumental office faith is entirely alone. It is followed, and in accordance with the provisions of the covenant of grace it is inevitably followed, by the other graces of the Spirit, and by good, that is, holy works; but they do not co-operate with it in the act by which Christ and his righteousness are received in order to justification. They are not concurring causes, but the certain results of justification.” (emphasis added- rsc)

Girardeau puts the choice squarely before us. Either good works and Spirit-wrought sanctity are the results of justification or a concurring cause.

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Maybe I’m just a dunce, but isn’t this a little odd? After all, the Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone requires that the “totally depraved” elect man become regenerate by the Holy Spirit in order to come to faith. Justification is our righteous standing before God by the work wrought by Christ alone, but the subjective appropriation of this righteous standing requires an assent of faith. Once again, this act of faith, according to Reformed doctrine, is consequent upon (or concurring with) the Holy Spirit’s enlightening of the mind, i.e., revealing our depravity and guilt along with our forgiveness in Christ. “I was blind, but now I see,” as the hymn goes. So, vis-à-vis Professor Clark’s understanding, how exactly does a person come to faith without a work of the Holy Spirit that can rightly be called a moral regeneration? How is faith not concurrent with a renewed heart? Clark says that “good works and Spirit-wrought sanctity are the results of justification.” Yet, we surely must be sanctified to some degree in order to come to faith — right? [Hint: Yes.]

And this is what I find truly bizarre in Clark et al.‘s accounts of justification. Our repentance and hatred of sin requires a moral regeneration. Faith apart from this is dead. It is not faith at all, but some sort of rarified intellectual assent. But, we are then told that all of this actually only follows justification by faith. ??!! So, once again, either I’m missing something, or these sort of Reformed distinctions are meaningless. For now, I’m going with the latter, which further supports my theory that much of confessional Reformed thought is non-human (or “abstract and unreal,” as Newman said of Locke’s construal of assent), i.e., has no real meaning (given human semantics as an ontic device).

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13 comments

  1. It depends upon how you are defining the term regeneration. In Dortian speak, regeneration preceedes faith, you are given a new heart so that you are able to have true faith. This faith then proceedes to be worked out, i.e. sanctification. Some Reformed theologicans, e.g. Calvin, did not make this distinction so absolute and so argued that regeneration preceeded faith but is a life long process.

    There is no real dichotomy, both would argue that faith proceeds from a renewed heart.

  2. I will say this, and it is very non-confessional. It was one of the postgrads, actually, not my thought. He probably doesn’t want to be quoted by name. Anyhow, he said that most of the post-reformation arguments are boring and internal by comparison to the things mediaeval Christians discussed. I hadn’t articulated that thought, and if I ever had, I might have just thought it was because I naturally don’t find intra-Protestant debates especially enthralling. But because of the way he articulated it, I realized that one reason why I have never studied the 16-18th century Church is that they are arguing about, as it were, ‘technical’ stuff, not universal human-interest stuff. It’s theology for theologians. For theology nerds, as it were.

  3. Hey there,

    This may help. Girardeau held that the elect were justified on the cross. Justification at the time of belief, is simply the justification in the ‘court’ of the human conscience. Hence Girardeau can move justification before effectual calling etc. He lays out this odd doctrine here: The federal theology : its import and its regulative influence.

    One of my profs wrote the intro to the book. I slammed the book in my paper on it, hence my prof was not too pleased with me. 🙂

    Hope that helps,
    David

  4. David,

    I don’t understand how you can move justification “at the time of belief” (i.e., subjective appropriation) before effectual calling without running afoul of everything the Reformed confessions were securing.

    Richard (and David),

    Perhaps the right distinction is between objective justification (which happened 2000 years ago and, moreover, in the eternal decrees) and subjective justification (the act of faith). If Clark et al. want to emphasize that the objective justification is accomplished for us apart from any regeneration or charity on our part, then that’s fine because we’re not talking about the subjective appropriation. But, when Clark wants to talk of subjective justification — the act of faith — apart from any sanctifying of the Holy Spirit, then he is going against Reformed thought, and, at best, is working with some debased Lutheran rationalist view of the assent of faith.

    Francesca,

    I can see that; though some of the medieval metaphysical distinctions can be a bit tedious. The only way to make the Protestant scholastic debates interesting is to continually see the contingencies — that one small error on any given point means that the system collapses. That’s why “…and therefore you have Pelagianism [or Arianism, or Docetism]” is all over the place in Protestant dogmatics. Then, you have to see that this is really bad for the Church, which is then bad for society. And there you have your human-interest!

  5. Folks,

    Ya’ll would have just *loved* the class my wife suffered through at Fuller Seminary. She took “Modern Theological Thought” under Richard Muller (many years ago now). Dr. Muller spent 8 of the 10 weeks (quarter system) on “Post Reformation Scholastic Orthodoxy”. There was nothing else in the past 400 years even worth mentioning in his mind! At week 8 there was a student revolt, and I believe the Dean forced Dr. Muller to at least spend the last 2 weeks of his class on other topics. Absolutely mind boggling, if you ask me.

  6. Mike,

    Sounds dreadful. I guess Dr. Muller doesn’t think that the whole Schleiermachian turn Existential turn Barthian turn Poststructuralist shifts were all that important. It is pretty amazing how vastly different an education you receive depending on which seminary you attend.

  7. Hey Kevin,

    About the time of the “second reformation” from the 1620s-1680s” or so, there were some strands within the Reformed to push back justification into eternity. It was partly based on the reading of Rev 13:8. At this time there was a big move to make the decretal realm the main focus of theological investigation. It gets very complex.

    Witsius posited a three-fold justification, eternal, on the cross, and at the time of faith. Gill, a hypercalvinist, and building on Witsius, posited eternal, and then the acknowledgment of justification in the conscience.

    Sometimes this is called virtual justification versus actual justification. Our justification in eternity is our virtual justification, in time we have our actual justification.

    We know now that Erasmus’ reading Rev 13:8 is unlikely.

    Girardeau picked up on all this. I think for this reason. All of Girardeau’s works are organized along the lines of a dilemma question. It is either A or B. Not A, therefore B. The problem is he sets up false-dilemma questions. Hence for Girardeau, in the work I cited, says God cannot love the unjustified, etc etc. Therefore justification has to precede love. That was part of my critique of this work.

    This sort of pre-faith justification position has always been the minority position. Turretin rightly crunches it in his Institutes. John Murray removed from it any credibilty.

    However, there are lots of Calvinists who lean to the decretive realm, thereby thinning out the revealed realm.

    To flip a phrase, the virtual becomes actual, and the actual world becomes virtual. What this means is that for many, the decretal world is the “real” world, the actual world is but a shadow of that. Hence they spend all their energies probing the depths of the decretal world with intense speculative theologies and debates. When you thin-out the actual word like they do, you get into some very dodgy implicatons, prayer, evangelism, anthropology, lop-sided predestinarian schemas, etc etc.

    Hope that helps,
    Take care,
    David

  8. David,

    Witsius’ three-fold distinction sounds right — and is pretty much how I’ve always understood the Reformed confessions.

    I guess Girardeau didn’t care for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    My first substantive introduction to the problems with the virtual-actual dualism in Calvinism was from Thomas Torrance’s work. Of course, he was unequivocal in rejecting Dordt and Westminster, which unfortunately means that most confessional Reformed thinkers won’t give him the time of day.

  9. Westminster California stresses the preeminence as it were of justification more so than Westminster in Philadelphia, which is more into the duplex gratia approach that makes justification and sanctification coordinate, with both clearly subordinated to union with Christ. The people who favor Gaffin’s views express things more like G. Vos:

    “One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but lays hold of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, as his rich and full Messiah.”

  10. John,

    That’s interesting to know. I read, somewhere, someone accusing WSC of being too Lutheran, namely via Horton and Clark. Of course, Clark’s sloppy dogmatic work above (positing an either/or scenario for sanctification concurrent or after justification) is not exactly something most Lutherans would want to claim.

  11. Hey Kevin,

    You say:

    Witsius’ three-fold distinction sounds right — and is pretty much how I’ve always understood the Reformed confessions.

    David: I think tho that the WCF disallows for justification before faith.: God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect,[11] and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification:[12] nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. 11:4. These ideas of pre-faith justification were known even then.

    Kevin:
    I guess Girardeau didn’t care for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    David: I guess thats why I dont care for Girardeau. He was not very good. There is a big danger in organizing your polemics around a simple, A or B grid, cos your opponent can always posit, C, and then you are screwed.

    Kevin: My first substantive introduction to the problems with the virtual-actual dualism in Calvinism was from Thomas Torrance’s work. Of course, he was unequivocal in rejecting Dordt and Westminster, which unfortunately means that most confessional Reformed thinkers won’t give him the time of day.

    David: You may disagree, but the roots of the virtual-actual as a hermeneutical axis lies in Lapsarianism. Thus I can understand Torrance’s response to some degree.

    Take care,
    David

  12. Kevin: In retrospect it might have been better had I not mentioned any names in my previous post. However, since I have permit me to also say that I took Dr. Muller for Patristic Theology (many years ago), and I found his insights within that context to be most helpful. Also, overall Fuller was quite a positive experience for me. While there I took a class from a visiting professor, a certain James Torrance, of Aberdeen. This was truly a transformative experience for me.

    Francesca: Coming from a Pietist perspective myself, I agree that it is difficult to see how these highly technical discussions on justification have any relation to the human experience of forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation. It is not the Logic of the Christ, it is the Passion of the Christ.

  13. David,

    I think tho that the WCF disallows for justification before faith.: God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect,[11] and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification:[12] nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. 11:4.

    It seems like an overly strict use of “justification” to only apply it to a person once he comes to faith, but I suppose it makes the elect’s life without faith (i.e., before faith) more truly condemnatory…or something like that. So, before faith, the elect is under the wrath of God apart from the propitiation of Christ; while after faith, the elect is under the wrath of God propitiated by Christ. But, if God from eternity and in view of Christ’s economy chooses a person for justification, then it seems legitimate to collapse justification into election…which is what I assumed all the Reformed confessions were doing, but I’m sure you’re right about the WCF denying this for certain reasons. Thanks for the input.

    Mike,

    It’s good to have a Pietist here. My blog is a rarity in the theo-blogosphere in being Pietist-friendly 🙂 . Many times I’ve defended such insidious works like youth groups, revivals, CCM, etc. against unbalanced confessionalists. Anyway, I’m sure Dr. Muller is great to learn from, and I’ve long applauded Fuller for defying fundamentalist tripe. I can imagine that James Torrance was great too. I’ve never heard him lecture, since he is in retirement. John Webster is the current Professor of S. T. at Aberdeen, and I’m sure you would enjoy his work.

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