Gaffin’s Interpretation of Calvin
In my previous post, I mentioned that I would summarize Gaffin’s essay, “Justification and Union with Christ.” This is Chapter 11 in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (P&R, 2008) (hereafter cited as TG, for Theological Guide, followed by the page number). It is an important essay that covers much of the same ground as the Always Reforming essay, but with a more explicit focus on expounding Calvin’s teaching on justification and union with Christ.
Gaffin’s assignment in this essay was not to cover Calvin’s doctrine of justification as a whole (in his commentaries, sermons, and other writings), but to discuss his treatment of justification in the Institutes, Book 3, chapters 11-18. This chapter is therefore almost like a commentary on that section of the Institutes, dealing not only with the literary development of the Institutes in its various editions from the first edition in 1536 to the final edition in 1559, but also summarizing and expositing the flow of Calvin’s argument here.
At the outset of this essay, Gaffin grants Calvin privileged status. He sees Calvin as “an important fountainhead figure,” whose treatment of the doctrine of justification is “unsurpassed” within “the tradition of confessional Reformed orthodoxy” (TG, 248). The status of Calvin within the Reformed tradition is an important question that the WSC school answers differently (cp. the title of Fesko’s book, Beyond Calvin).
Gaffin establishes that Calvin’s applied soteriology has a “union-twofold grace” structure. Union with Christ, of course, means vital union, the union that we have with Christ as Christ is grasped by faith. “Union … does not exist apart from or prior to faith but is given with … faith” (TG, 259). “Union with Christ … is forged by the Spirit’s working faith in us …. Faith is the bond of that union” (TG, 259). Then, having grasped Christ by faith, we partake of a twofold grace, justification and sanctification. Gaffin says this “union-twofold grace” structure “determines the framework” of Calvin’s thinking with regard to redemption applied (TG, 253). “This, at its core, is Calvin’s ordo salutis: union with Christ by Spirit-worked faith” (TG, 259).
Gaffin makes two observations on Calvin’s view of the relationship between “union” and “the twofold grace.” First, “union with Christ has precedence in the sense that the twofold grace is rooted in union and flows out of it” (TG, 253). Second, the two benefits of union with Christ, justification and sanctification, are distinct and inseparable.
Not only are they distinct and inseparable, they are also not causally prioritized with respect to one another, according to Gaffin’s reading of Calvin. He makes this point by pointing to a “noteworthy feature” of the structure of Book 3 of the Institutes. That noteworthy feature is the fact that Calvin treats the twofold benefit in an order that might seem “counterintuitive” (TG, 254) to our Reformed instincts—Calvin treats sanctification at length (chs. 3-10) before justification (chs. 11-18). Gaffin acknowledges that one factor is polemical. The Roman Catholic Church had repeatedly brought up the charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification leads to indifference to the pursuit of sanctification. Calvin responds to the charge of Rome “by showing that faith … entails a disposition to holiness without explicit reference to its sole instrumental function in justification” (TG, 255). Sanctification and the concern for godly living follows justification in time, “but it is not simply a consequence of justification” (TG, 255). Gaffin argues that Calvin “can proceed as he has in this fashion, treating sanctification at length before justification, because for him ‘justification and sanctification were given to faith simultaneously and inseparably, thought also invariably, so that the order of their presentation was discretionary’” (quoting George Hunsinger, “A Tale of Two Simultaneities: Justification and Sanctification in Calvin and Barth”) (TG, 255).
In other words, discussing sanctification before justification wasn’t just a polemical strategy on Calvin’s part. It stemmed from a positive theological conviction. “Calvin knows nothing of a justification that is first settled and then is only subsequently followed by sanctification” (TG, 256). Calvin would acknowledge that justification is prior to progressive sanctification in the obvious sense that the former is an instantaneous declaration at the moment of effectual calling and the latter is a lifelong process. “But this is not the same thing as saying, what Calvin does not say, that justification is the source of sanctification or that justification causes sanctification” (TG, 256). The source or cause of both justification and sanctification, without giving causal priority to one over the other, is vital union with Christ.
How does Gaffin deal with Calvin’s statement that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (praecipuum … sustinendae religionis cardinem) (Institutes 3.11.1)? Calvin seems to assign some sort of priority to justification over sanctification. To begin, Gaffin thinks the translation “turns” is misleading. Gaffin thinks this translation is better: “the principal hinge by which religion is supported.” Note, however, that Gaffin does not question the translation of the noun cardo as “hinge.” Furthermore, he acknowledges the use of the “foundation” metaphor in the next sentence. Translation matters aside, Gaffin argues that we ought not to lift the “hinge” and “foundation” metaphors out of context, because, as Gaffin has already shown, Calvin has made clear that union with Christ is the cause and foundation of the twofold benefit of justification and sanctification. Sure, justification is the principal hinge on which religion is supported, but “the ‘hinge’ of justification … is not a ‘skyhook’” (TG, 257); it is anchored securely in vital union with Christ.
In the remaining section of the essay, Gaffin deals with the relationship between imputation and union with Christ. He argues that, for Calvin, justification involves two divine actions: first, God imputes righteousness to us; then, on the basis of that imputation, he reckons us as righteous (TG, 261). But both actions, the imputation and the reckoning, take place within vital union with Christ. Vital union is prior to and the precondition for both the imputation and the reckoning of righteousness (TG, 261-62). This might seem to make imputation somehow nonforensic (as George Hunsinger seems to suggest), but Gaffin resists that reading of Calvin and demonstrates that Calvin maintained that “union is Spirit-forged, a pneumatic reality, but the imputation given with that union is not” (TG, 264).
Gaffin finishes the essay with several pages examining Calvin’s critique of Osiander who had argued that the righteousness of Christ’s divine nature, his “essential” righteousness, is communicated to us by some sort of infusion or transfusion. Calvin’s critique of Osiander is “so unsparing” because he saw it as essentially the Roman Catholic view in different garb, that is, the view that our justification depends on Spirit-wrought righteousness resident in the believer rather than solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ (TG, 267).