Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thomism in Reformed Orthodoxy

Christopher Cleveland, Thomism in John Owen. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2013. 179pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan McGraw

Recent scholarship has increasingly mined the medieval roots of Reformed theology. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas held an essential place in post-Reformation theological education. While various authors accepted, rejected or modified Thomas’s teaching, his influence is important in understanding the development of what is common called Reformed orthodoxy.

This short book is an important contribution to the study of Reformed orthodoxy. Christopher Cleveland traces the influence of Thomas Aquinas and Thomistic authors, both medieval and seventeenth-century, in John Owen’s thought.

He traces this influence in three areas: God as pure act, infused habits of grace, and the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures. Aquinas used the concept of God as “pure act” to argue for the simplicity of God. The idea is that in God there is actuality and no potentiality. This explained God’s immutability and eternality as well as several other divine attributes. Cleveland shows how Owen used this Thomistic concept to refute Arminians, Socinians, and the Lutheran argument for Christ’s human nature taking on divine attributes, such as ubiquity.

The author then illustrates how Owen used extensively the concept of habits of grace in his massive work on the Holy Spirit. In contrast to Aristotle, Aquinas and Owen taught that some habits did not result from learned behavior. Instead, God infused human nature with natural habits that included the intellectual ability to understand the Scriptures, and he endowed believers with a supernatural habit of grace that enabled them to obey God. This habit of grace is equivalent to the biblical doctrine of regeneration. Cleveland divides this subject into two chapters, the second of which traces the relationship between an infused habit of grace and acts of grace in obedience to Christ in sanctification. For Owen, sanctification consisted of an infused habit of holiness. This infused habit is the source of all actual obedience in the Christian life, making the Christian life a supernatural work of divine grace.

Cleveland then explores Owen’s appropriation of Aquinas in describing the hypostatic union between Christ’s divine and human natures. He concludes his book by showing how, in line with his Thomism, Owen built his theology on a distinctively western trinitarianism (156). This is an important point in light of several attempts in recent literature to trace eastern influences in seventeenth-century trinitarian theology. Owen frequently stands at the heart of these attempts.

There are two significant shortcomings of this work. First, Cleveland provides little analysis or evaluation in his research. He demonstrates the influence of Thomism in John Owen, but most of the book consists of large block citations from Owen, Aquinas, Alvarez, and others. Most of his analysis of this material is merely the regurgitation of secondary sources by way of further block citations. His method is to introduce a block citation and then summarize it in his own words. Instead of shedding light on the significance of the quoted material, readers will walk away from Cleveland’s summaries thinking, “I just read this.” This makes the book unnecessarily repetitive. This feature is ubiquitous in this work. Second, in his treatment of infused habits of grace, he slightly misses Owen’s intent in referring to the “old creation” (79-80). Cleveland states that this phrase designated the Spirit’s work in the “inanimate” creation. However, Owen included Adam’s dependence on the Spirit prior to his fall into sin. Owen argued is several places that Adam’s true failure in the garden was that he stopped actively depending on the Holy Spirit in order to obey God. While Cleveland includes a suggestive statement from Carl Trueman to the effect that Owen’s view has potential parallels to Aquinas’s donum super addadum, he does not appear to pick up on the significance of Thomistic influence in this connection. Thomas believed that Adam naturally tended towards corruption and that God gave him a supper added gift of grace in order to prevent this. When Adam fell, he lost this gift and became corrupted. Owen did not believe that God created Adam with a tendency to corruption, but he did believe that Adam required the supernatural grace of the Spirit to prevent his fall. This is a significant Thomistic influence that the author bypasses entirely and possibly misunderstands.

This book is an important first step in expanding our view of medieval influences on one of the most significant thinkers in Reformed orthodoxy. It provides a useful starting point for further research.


'Ordo Salutis' in Reformed Orthodoxy

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.