Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

New or Nuanced Perspective on Calvin? a Reply to Thomas Wenger

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

New or Nuanced Perspective on Calvin? a Reply to Thomas Wenger

Article excerpt

Thomas Wenger's recent article in JETS has provided the service of bringing to the fore some significant and even perennial issues relating to the heart of Protestant soteriology.1 His concerns are weighty in that they deal with bedrock doctrinal convictions that undergird basic Protestant beliefs about salvation-that is, justification, sanctification, union with Christ, and the relationship between them (ordo salutis). As such, his concerns are important and commendable. Wenger's more specific concern has to do with the alleged misappropriation of these basic soteriological doctrines by those in a group he labels the "New Perspective on Calvin." Because this strain of Reformation scholarship has subsumed Calvin's soteriology under the rubric of union with Christ, they have jettisoned the "traditional understanding of Calvin's theology" and have proposed a "realigning of Calvin's doctrines of justification and sanctification." Wenger's claim is that for various reasons-methodological, historiographical, and exegetical-this reading of Calvin, which overstresses the importance of the union with Christ, is "an unfair one."2 The commendation of Wenger's interests and concerns aside (after all, response articles are not primarily laudatory so much as critical), in this article I want to redress a number of Wenger's criticisms in the order in which they were presented.

Before moving to concerns of more substance, a preliminary note on the use of the label "New Perspective on Calvin" is in order. Although Wenger is careful to disassociate his use of the label from any real or perceived connections with other strands of scholarship, the disclaimer does not make the selection of phrase any more salutary, and this for at least two reasons. The first is that there is nothing particularly "new" in the assertion that union with Christ is a controlling principle in Calvin's soteriology. John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886), the noted Reformed theologian and co-founder (with Philip Schaff) of the Mercersburg Theology, formulated an articulate defense of the significance of the union motif in Calvin's theology. Calvin's understanding of the believer's union with Christ, Nevin thought, was crucial to his soteriology and had definite implications for his understanding of justification and sanctification.3 So, too, may we note the magisterial and highly influential work on Calvin's thought by Francois Wendel, who recognized not only the indispensability of union with Christ for understanding Calvin's soteriology, but also the implications for Calvin's theology with respect to the relation between justification and sanctification.4

The second reason is the almost inescapable association the phrase "New Perspective on Calvin" (NPC) has with the controversial NT studies movement, "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP). Although Wenger is quick to note that he intends not to infer "guilt by association," it is difficult to overlook such associations given the precedent in existing scholarship.5 Frankly, the association runs the risk of obscuring the interests and concerns of one group at the expense of the other. There are other concerns with such a label,6 but we must turn now to issues of greater substance.

I. CALVIN AND UNION WITH CHRIST: CENTRAL DOGMAS AND METHODOLOGY

Wenger's caution about establishing union with Christ as Calvin's central dogma is surely correct. Calvin scholars are generally agreed that the search for a central dogma in Calvin's writing, around which his entire theological enterprise may be said to revolve is best abandoned. To say that Calvin's theology is a logically oriented system that relies upon a fundamental doctrine for its rationality and coherence-whether this doctrine is the absolute sovereignty of God, predestination, or Christology, among others-fails to do justice to the complexity of Calvin's thought, or his intention to write biblical as opposed to philosophical theology. The effort to view Calvin's theology as the product of his duties as pastor of Geneva and as biblical exegete, rather than as logical system-builder, is to be commended. …

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