Thursday, May 14, 2009

Calvinists who DENY the imputation of Christ's Obedience.

While this title probably wont shock many (confessional) Calvinists today - because they know there are so called "Calvinists" who do reject the imputation of Christ's Righteousness - I would bet most reading this have never heard of the group I'm thinking of. Of all the "Calvinist" groups you might be thinking of when reading this, I'm not going to be talking about the "liberals," "N.T. Wright and the New Perspective," or even "Federal Vision." I'm well aware of those groups, and I know the uproar among confessional Calvinists by what they see as a blatant rejection of a key aspect of Sola Fide. So who is left?

Some background is necessary. Sola Fide is the Protestant doctrine that through faith the sinner is formally credited with Christ's Righteousness, this takes place at Justification (where God legally declares the individual to be in good legal standing before Him). This Righteousness consists of two components, popularly termed Christ's "active obedience" and "passive obedience." The "active obedience" consists of Christ's perfect obedience to the Law, while the "passive obedience" consists of Christ's suffering the full punishment due to your sins.
Luther famously referred to this situation as the "Great Exchange," where Christ's perfect obedience to the Law was credited to your sinful account (making your account look as if you had been perfectly obedient), while your sin and guilt was credited to Christ's sinless account (who then received the punishment due, though He was never personally guilty of sin). That's Sola Fide in a nutshell.

While Catholics dogmatically reject the above description, because we don't believe it is found in Scripture, that is not the topic of this post.

Just when I thought I had see all the various definitions of Sola Fide, I came across a blog advocating something I never imagined. This blog was run by a Calvinist who denied the imputation (crediting) of the "active obedience" of Christ. I invite you to check out the link and especially read the brief (but very insightful) articles he wrote and linked to. He does not deny Christ lived a life of perfect obedience, that is a common misunderstanding, he simply denies this life of perfect obedience to the Law is imputed to the sinner and thus has no role in the sinner's Justification.

This Calvinist alleges that there were disputes early on in the Reformation, especially in England, where Protestants could not agree on whether or not Christ's active obedience played a role in justification. (There was no dispute regarding Christ's passive obedience, all sides agreed it played a role in justification.) This dispute was especially brought out in the drafting up of two major Protestant confessions, the Anglican 39 Articles and the Westminster Confession. The "Majority" crowd held that Christ's active obedience did play a role in justification, while the "Minority" crowd denied this. This Calvinist states that historical records show that a compromise was reached when these Confessions were drafted, the areas talking about justification would be deliberately stated vaguely enough that both the Majority and Minority view would be acceptable.

I looked up both Confessions myself, and I can see how this would be possible, though I have to admit sometimes the wording seems to favor the Majority view. However, what really convinced me that the wording was deliberately vague is when I looked up what the London Baptist Confession (1689) had to say. The LBC basically took the Westminster Confession (1646), word for word, and made slight modifications towards the Baptist view (e.g. the Westminster commanded infant baptism while the LBC explicitly denied it). One of the modifications, which I never noticed before, was very subtle but clearly no accident. Compare the Westminster and LBC on their chapters regarding justification:
Westminster Ch 11: I. 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, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

London Baptist Ch 11: 1. Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies, 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 Christ's active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.
Notice how the wording is virtually identical until this last point. It is especially significant that the LBC explicitly made the distinction between active obedience and passive obedience, where as the WC did not. This to me is clear evidence that there was such a dispute and that the WC was deliberately vague on this point.

What I as a Catholic find fascinating about the Minority view is how much I agree with it's reasoning for rejecting the concept of active obedience. The Scriptures simply nowhere state that Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Law in our place. The Minority view is adamant and sees the few texts popularly given as evidence (e.g. Romans 5:19) as simply falling well short of evidence for active obedience, especially in key contexts discussing justification (e.g. they point out Romans 3:21-26 is concerned only with Christ's death, with no mention of active obedience). The main difficulty I see for the Minority view, looking at this as if I were Protestant, is how they explain Adam was justified since active obedience is not required and he obviously didn't need sins forgiven. From a Catholic perspective, the main problem remaining with the Minority view is that it affirms Christ's passive obedience (suffering and death) came in the form of Penal Substitution - which is a view of the Atonement which Catholics deny as unBiblical (see my Penal Substitution debate for more information).

Not only is this fascinating to me, but I believe it is a hopeful sign of a future reconciliation of Protestantism back to the Catholic Church, because the Minority view is in many ways "halfway" there (considering, as Luther put it, Sola Fide is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls). While I've always been aware of the Majority view, I see the Minority view as a way of building a sort of bridge because "half" of the definition of Sola Fide has been addressed.

A final but very relevant point, though I don't think needs to be discussed too much at the present moment, is to note how Sola Scriptura failed in this regard to lead two groups of Christians to agree on what "the truth" was, and how Sola Scriptura ultimately cannot settle disputes like this. From a Catholic perspective, to deny Christ's active obedience is a huge blow to Sola Fide, because to deny it effectively refutes Sola Fide for the (great) Majority of Protestants (especially Calvinists and Lutherans).


D.J. Williams said...


Did you listen to Piper's message yet? I'm curious to hear your response.

Thanks for swinging by the blog.

D.J. Williams said...

BTW, I think you're making an assumption here...

"This to me is clear evidence that there was such a dispute and that the WC was deliberately vague on this point."What is your evidence that the WC was deliberately vague on the point?

Nick said...

Hi DJ,

I've had so much stuff I've been trying to get to that I havn't gotten to your clip yet, but I will and surely get to you asap.

As for your question about my evidence for deliberate vagueness, first the Calvinist I quoted posted historical references from which he drew his information. The "minutes" of the Westminster assembly was apparently kept and indicates this dispute and compromise was made, and apparently this isn't a secret (it's just simply not well known). Further, an even bigger point I found when I looked into this was that the London Confession which came 40 years after Westminster (and practically quoted Westminster word for word on everything) had clearly changed the sentence in that definition of justification which now explicitly distinguished between "passive" and "active" (something the Westminster did not do). The need for this "clarification" is strong evidence to me that people did not (or did not have to) make that distinction beforehand.

Emil said...

yep, there's also a small Lutheran Church in Finland that denies the imputation of the active obedience and I caused some extreme irritation to a confessional Lutheran friend who also belongs to a small Lutheran group distinct from the State Church by pointing out that there is some discord about this every now and then even in Lutheranism...

Dan Martin said...

but I believe it is a hopeful sign of a future reconciliation of Protestantism back to the Catholic Church

We haven't discussed this, Nick, and so I don't know where you are coming from, but I would submit that whether or not this ever happens depends a great deal on what you mean by "reconciliation." If you are hoping for an organizational reconciliation, as I know many Catholics are (that is, Protestants submitting themselves to the hierarchy of the R.C. ecclesial structure) I don't think that's either likely or good. As an Anabaptist myself, my objections to doing so are quite different from the usual Protestant ones, but no less intractible.

On the other hand, if you are hoping (as I am) for a reconciliation of fellowship--that is, where we can acknowledge that we are each seeking to serve our Lord and King, Jesus Christ, and that we can and must find ways to serve him and his creation together--this, I believe, is already happening. . .and it can and will continue to happen whether or not we get all our dogmatic ducks in a row.

For the latter, I hope, work, and pray (and write). For the former, no.



Nick said...

D.J. I did hear the sermon you linked to, and I responded on your page:


I realize "reconciliation" is an extremely touchy subject, but I'm glad you talked about it.

I must be honest here, I am hoping for an "institutional reconciliation," but I believe it goes hand in hand with a "fellowship reconciliation" as well. The two cannot be separated.

I realize how much such comments can be taken negatively, but I believe the Unity Christ desires is one in which Christians can worship under the same banner, and that requires "institutional reconciliation." This is especially true if it turns out Luther was wrong on issues like Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide, because if he was then his whole reason for accusing Rome of a false gospel collapse.

Rather than this being a violent and unChristian reconciliation, which unfortunately took place in the past, I believe today many are seeing that the classical Protestant Confessions are built more along the lines of pre-exising ideas (as you have pointed out in your own blog, eg the Passover chat), and as a result coming to a Spirit led reconciliation through their own study.

Dan Martin said...

I appreciate your reply, Nick. I posted at all because you have made it clear already that you are open to genuine dialog on this. I don't buy your statement that fellowship and institutional can't be separated. Even if both were desirable, I would hate for you and me to defer referring to--and serving as--brothers just because our respective denominations haven't figured out how to get along. I'm not saying I sense that risk in you. . .I'm just saying we have the power to work on the one; the other, perhaps not as much.

You know well that I have as many issues with conventional Protestant theology as I do Catholic. . .which fits well with my Anabaptist background; Catholics and Protestants weren't united about much in the 16th century, but they agreed we had to go! ;{)

But my concern is that your statement of "worshipping under the same banner" not get conflated with the system of hierarchy which many churches have, but which the R.C. church has developed as a fine art. I believe there are genuine biblical issues with both the concept of apostolic succession, and the broader concept of a rather rigid hierarchical structure in the church. This latter is an issue I have with pastoral authority in Protestant/Evangelical churches too, so I'm not just questioning the Catholic position. But hierarchy, human priesthood, and ecclesiastical authority are issues that (along with some other theological ones) would prevent me from affiliating with the Catholic church, but they don't in any way prevent me from worshipping with Catholics in their churches, as I have done on many occasions. (For what it's worth, I am not a member of the current church I attend either--because of issues with the Evangelical statement of faith. I serve and participate, but I can't formalize it due to the strictures they have put on formal membership).

I don't know if you follow Scot McKnight's "Jesus Creed" blog at all, but I commented a number of times on his series on heresy, and expanded a bit on my concerns with this post of my own. While I don't accept all of Luther's conclusions on Sola Scriptura (not least because I don't think he achieved a Sola Scriptura standard in his theology), I believe he had the concept right, and I do believe any claims by any other authority (including the Holy See) need to be tested against a scriptural foundation. You may not be surprised to hear my Evangelical pastors don't always appreciate this stance either. . . ;{)

Finally, I would add (with tongue definitely in cheek here) that it always sounds a bit funny to me when anybody (and Catholics aren't the only offenders here) says that reconciliation is a wonderful thing that should be accomplished by everybody acknowledging that his own system is the "right one" the rest should just accept. That's not reconciliation, that's assimilation a la the Borg. . .lol

Nick said...

I would think Apostolic Succession would probably be the greatest divide here, because how one views this greatly determines ecclesiology.

I realize that an Anabaptist perspective is comfortable 'not having a home,' but from my view I cannot imagine more discomfort. To me there has to be a Church out there preaching a 100% perfect Gospel, because the Church is the Body of Christ with Him as the Head. It demands a unified set of doctrines and authority.

You are very correct, and it is very funny, that you point out "reconciliation" via a Borg model. But now that I think about it, I cannot think of a matter of reconciliation where the guilt was 50/50, nor that the guilt is of the same nature. For example, someone angering another is a sin, but that leaves no right for the other to go do something extreme. Reconciliation would require both parties to admit their wrong, without any way implying the guilt was equally born. I'd say the Church at the time of Luther had so many abuses it scandalized Luther, who then over-reacted, but two wrongs dont make a right.

Dan Martin said...

I would think Apostolic Succession would probably be the greatest divide here, because how one views this greatly determines ecclesiology.Half correct, Nick. I would argue that ecclesiology is a place where most Catholics and Protestants get it equally wrong, in that both propose systems (albeit different systems) where a church authority structure basically dictates what the faithful are to believe/do, and they are accountable (in the final analysis) only upward to God, and not horizontally to the community of believers. A key element of Anabaptist teaching--rejected equally by Catholics and Reformers--was "The Priesthood of All Believers" which, among other things, had two key elements vis-a-vis this discussion:

1) There is only one mediator between man and God, the Man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Ever since the curtain was torn in the temple (Matt 27:51), the role of any human to specially mediate grace between God and the rest of humanity was removed, except as Jesus commissioned us all to perform it as his ambassadors (John 20:21, 2 Cor. 5:18-20).

2) As above with offices of grace, so also in authority: while there are various offices among the church community for various functions, there is no more priesthood or hierarchy permitted among followers of Jesus. Rather, the community is accountable to each other to search the scriptures under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and it is not the individual, but the body in community, who discerns the will of God. (Interestingly, I'm finding a new form of this among believing bloggers).

This actually addresses your point about not having a "home." In fact we need a home--faith is not a solo sport--but that home is the community of believers (and to some extent the small-c catholic church), not a specific denomination. This can be quite freeing, as it releases me to recognize the work of Jesus in a lot of dissimilar folk. . .but I don't expect any human institution, even with the Holy Spirit, to make it to a 100% perfect gospel. In fact I know they won't, and any group who claims they have achieved it earns my instant suspicion.

I acknowledge your statement that not all reconciliation comes from 50/50 give & take of wronged parties. I wouldn't begin to proportion the wrongs that have been committed by all "sides" in the schisms of the church--they are legion, and there are plenty to go around. I think by now you know that I flatly reject elements of the Reformers' positions, and those of their spiritual descendants, but that doesn't mean I think they got it all wrong, or that they unjustly accused the Catholic church which they were leaving. I'm quite bothered, really, that neither Catholics nor Protestants (as a whole, though there are obviously individual exceptions in each) appear to me to have taken seriously the notion of "semper reformanda" which we all need.

Nevertheless, I think that the model of reconciliation I seek is one where, as I said before, you and I and our brothers and sisters can unite in love to reflect Christ to the world in all the messy diversity of the broken-but-healing vessels that we are, celebrating the fact that despite our differences in worship and in certain doctrines, we trust in--and try to emulate and model--the love of Christ Jesus. That sort of reconciliation has happened among many and can happen among many more, without any sort of institutional contests, mergers & acquisitions, or the like muddying the waters. Frankly, it happens when people like you and I candidly discuss our differences while affirming the gospel we recognize in each other's writing. That's what I'm talking about.

Dan Martin said...

I discovered in browsing this afternoon (thanks to a post by Brian McLaren) that I misidentified the "Priesthood of All Believers" doctrine as Anabaptist. In fact, I now learn, Luther and Calvin both held to it as well.

I don't think they held to it all that well, nor their ecclesial progeny, as they have (IMHO) replaced one grace-dispensing hierarchy with another. Whether the papacy or the episcopacy or the synod or the pastor in a lot of Evangelical churches, the clergy-laiety dichotomy lives on. They may define it differently, but in some way the clergy are still vested with a sacramental authority that I believe to be contra-biblical. We are all called to pray for, and minister God's gifts to, each other for the building up of the church.

Nevertheless I erred in assigning the doctrine solely to the Anabaptists, and I retract that element of my argument.

Nick said...


I don't know how far off topic we should go, but the danger of not having hierarchy (a thing very clearly indicated in the NT, and OT) is that of having the masses determine doctrine, whether individually or by majority. This makes truth a matter of popularity contest, or worse yet having the "teacher" be subject to the "students." Either he is a bishop with authority or he can be overturned by those he is guiding. It's a slippery slope because then "authority" loses it's meaning.

One of interesting passage in this regard is 2 Tim 4:3, where Paul warns against those with "itching ears" who will elect teachers who will say what they want to hear. Also, I'm not sure how your system would mesh with a clear example like Acts 15 and 16:4.

While the term "priesthood of believers" is found in the NT, you have to be careful with it because that term is actually applied to the Israelites as a whole in the OT...and yet they still had hierarchy.

We're obviously coming from two different directions here, because I cannot explain the fear I would have not having a "home," especially one which at least claims historical continuity. I'm 2000 years removed, so if someone has not been faithfully passing a pure and undefiled Gospel down, what chance do I have of getting it right?

And I think the heart of this all comes down to your comment here:
"but I don't expect any human institution, even with the Holy Spirit, to make it to a 100% perfect gospel"

To me, if the Church is the Body of Christ, with Him as it's head, the Church is indefectible and guarded against a tainted Gospel by definition (1 Tim 3:15; Mat 16:19). What hurts most about the Reformation is that Luther introduced the notion we are not to trust the Church, and this spun off into a notion that no body of Christians has the full Truth. To me that doesn't make sense on so many fronts.

My big question to you, if you don't believe any one group has the fullness of Truth: Would you trust a church that openly said the Gospel they preach surely has some error to it?
I'd RUN away.

Dan Martin said...

Nick, this is a great discussion. I started by responding here, but my response ran longer than the comment limit would accept, so I started a thread on my blog. I hope you will join me there and continue the debate! Thank you, and Peace be upon you!

Nick said...

Great, I'll be sure to check it out and comment asap. I'm busy for the moment.

I didn't know there were word limits in the comment box, and I've written some pretty long stuff in other people's before, so you must have written a ton for it to be rejected.

Webfoot said...

Hi, Nick,
Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog.

You seem like a nice guy. I'm not interested in being a Catholic, though. No offense.

Hey, take care,
Mrs. Webfoot

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

Nick - I found an English translation of the letter of Pope Gregory VII to King Anzir. Details here.

Dan Martin said...


Thanks for posting this. I'm glad I was still subscribed to the comments, as I was not familiar either with Pope Gregory's letter or Nostra Aetate. I am happy to see and read both of them. I was a little disappointed that Nostra Aetate doesn't appear to show the same amiability toward non-Catholic Christians, that it shows toward other faiths; nevertheless these are important words.

I presume, though not knowing all of your discussions, that you guys are also familiar with A Common Word between Us and You issued by Muslim leaders to Christians a couple years ago? If not, I recommend it.



Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

(I posted that link here simply because I ran across Nick's question elsewhere and didn't know how else to contact him.)

Dan, the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate was specifically a declaration to/about non-Christian religions. The Council had another document entirely about non-Catholic Christians, Unitatis Redintegratio.

NA says, among other things, that the "Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men" (that is, Jesus Christ himself).

UR says that "many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ."

Both of those documents must be viewed, in turn, in light of the Council's declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which reaffirms unequivocally, "traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

(Nick, didn't mean to hijack this post -- I'm sure you could have a whole year of comments on a post specifically about Vatican II's statements about non-Catholics!)

Dan Martin said...

Thanks, Jeff, for the clarification. I'm afraid as far as hijacking goes, I'm already guilty as you'll see from the comments above. . .Nick and I went back and forth on this for quite a while on his blog and mine.

I appreciate the reference to Unitatis Redintegratio. I just read it, and it's certainly familiar territory with some of our discussions already. I am glad that Catholics have room to recognize other followers of Jesus as brothers in Him. That's important, and all-too-often missing from both "sides" of Catholic-Protestant dialog. I am disappointed that the "one True Church" is seen as the RC institution rather than the "church invisible" that comprises all those members of the Body of Christ. Nevertheless that's territory we've covered before. I'll take fellowship and good will where/how I find it! ;{)