J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012. Pp. 416. Hardcover.
Reviewed by Ryan McGraw
Soteriology occupied a dominant place in the Protestant conflict with Roman Catholicism. While Reformed theologians rooted salvation in union with Christ in his person and work, they taught a logical order in the application of the benefits of redemption known as the ordo salutis. J. V. Fesko’s Beyond Calvin, explores the Reformed development of the order of salvation as it related to the doctrines of union with Christ and justification. While not without flaws, this work usefully addresses a neglected area of Reformed orthodox historical theology.
Fesko argues for four primary points (29-30, 380-381). First, that Calvin is not normative for the Reformed tradition. Second, that there is no entirely monolithic ordo salutis or doctrine of union with Christ in Reformed orthodoxy. Third, that union with Christ and the ordo salutis are compatible ideas. Last, that Reformed soteriology prioritized justification over sanctification. He defends these points against the claims of Richard Gaffin, and also against authors such as Mark Garcia, William Evans, Lane Tipton, and Herman Ridderbos (17-24, 53-71). The choice of these authors reflects the fact that one of Fesko’s purposes is to use historical theology to address contemporary theological concerns (383-384).
This work proceeds roughly in three stages. Chapters 1 through 5 present the state of the question, the influences of Aristotelian causality on the Reformed ordo salutis, a historical refutation of modern critics of the ordo salutis, the historical development of the ordo salutis, and medieval constructions of union with Christ and justification. Chapters 6 through 18 highlight the relationship between union with Christ and justification in Luther, Melanchthon, Juan de Valdez, Bullinger, Vermigli, Zanchi, Socinus, Perkins, Arminius, Owen, Baxter, Turretin, and Witsius. Beginning with chapter 15 (on Owen), the intra-trinitarian pactum salutis takes a prominent role in Fesko’s argument. Chapter 19 is comprised of a short conclusion.
Beyond Calvin contributes important points to the study of Reformed orthodoxy. For instance, chapter 4 explodes the assertion that the term, ordo salutis, originated in the eighteenth century (80-81, 84-87) as well as the notion that the doctrine was based exclusively upon using Romans 8:30 as a dogmatic proof-text. The term appears early in Reformed history and the concept grew out of a series of inferences drawn from various passages of Scripture. This analysis sheds light on the oft criticized relationship between exegesis and dogmatic formulation in Reformed theology.
In addition, Fesko demonstrates ably both that union with Christ was the ground of the application of the benefits of redemption and that justification logically preceded sanctification. Though he argues extensively that Reformed orthodox writers believed that justification was the cause of sanctification (36-46), he clarifies that “justification is not generative of sanctification” (351). In other words, justification is the “cause” of sanctification in a different sense than union with Christ is, since union with Christ is the ground of all of the benefits of salvation, including justification. Prioritizing union with Christ over justification reflects the historical Reformed records. However, Fesko overstates the case when he says that “for Perkins union with Christ and the ordo salutis are one in the same” (268). For Perkins, as with the other Reformed authors, some elements of the ordo salutis, such as effectual calling and faith, preceded union with Christ. In spite of this deficiency, Fesko draws appropriate attention to the foundational function of union with Christ in historic Reformed soteriology.
This book contains a few substantial faults, including a large number of typographical errors. The chapter on William Perkins is replete with them, especially in the titles of books in the footnotes. A later example of this is its citation of Paul Helm’s work as Calvin Against the Calvinists rather than Calvin and the Calvinists (318).
In addition, Fesko slightly misses his opponents. For instance, he proves that justification and sanctification remain distinct and retain a proper order even though both are grounded in union with Christ (183). While Evans may be guilty of this historical error, Gaffin would likely object to the charge. Even though Gaffin leaves a fuzzy and unsatisfying picture of his own construction of the ordo salutis, he affirms frequently that he does not deny sequence and order in the application of redemption. In either case, this material potentially crosses the bounds between systematic and historical theology.
Most serious is Fesko’s concluding assertion that while union with Christ is the ground justification, “Correlatively, justification is the legal ground of the believer’s union with Christ” (382, emphasis original). He argues this because the eternal pactum salutis included the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by way of decree. This conclusion has no obvious connection to the data presented in the body of this work. Asserting that justification is the “legal ground” of union with Christ by virtue of the eternal decree of God goes beyond the position of the “antinomians” whom Fesko surveyed in chapter 18. Many of those accused of antinomianism rejected eternal justification (375), but in contrast to their Reformed orthodox peers, they believed that justification preceded union with Christ. By making justification “the legal ground” of union with Christ based upon the pactum salutis, Fesko gives the impression that the general tenor of Reformed tradition went beyond some of the most prominent antinomians of the time. On the next page, Fesko warns, “we must not peer down the well of history in an effort to see ourselves” (383). To this reviewer’s knowledge, Reformed orthodox theologians did not refer to justification as the “legal ground” of union with Christ and they would have had difficulty understanding how justification could function in this way.
In spite of this fact, Fesko’s Beyond Calvin succeeds in proving its fourfold thesis and furnishes students with thought-provoking material on a vital aspect of historic Reformed orthodoxy.
The preceding review first appeared in Calvin Theological Journal in 2013.