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Thomas C. Oden

A Calm Answer

… to a critique of "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration."

Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, a contributing editor of Books & Culture, was asked by some of his fellow drafters of "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration" to respond to Robert Gundry's critique, which appeared in the previous issue of B&C ("Why I Didn't Endorse," January/February, 2001). Below is Oden's response and a reply from Gundry. While Oden expresses disappointment at the prospect of a public debate over "Celebration" ("we had hoped that we might be spared this sort of public squabble," he writes, speaking for the drafters of the statement), we at B&C think evangelicals can only gain from a forthright airing of concerns, in the spirit suggested by the statement itself. In fact, one of the reasons B&C was created was precisely to serve as a forum for such dialogue.

It is to Robert H. Gundry's credit that he intends to seek precision in speaking of the relation of justification teaching to the life of Jesus prior to his death. Whether that intention is rightly and sufficiently fulfilled remains at issue.

But let us first clarify points upon which "Celebration" and its critic, I think, agree:

Both the critique and "Celebration" seek unity in evangelical testimony without a sacrifice of intellect.

Both agree that "Jesus had to live a life of perfect righteousness if he was to qualify as the bearer of our sins" (Gundry).

Both agree that evangelicals "look toward their risen Lord in repentance and hope for empowering through the Holy Spirit."

Apparently, the critic's desire is to defend Arminians from overweening Calvinists, but in doing so the critique presents arguments that neither Arminians or Calvinists would find acceptable, based on their classical confessions.

Since the drafters of "Celebration" sought to be as inclusive as possible of major evangelical voices, including those our critic thinks have been neglected, we had hoped that we might be spared this sort of public squabble. But the critique makes it evident that the issues are such that they must be answered in a timely way, on behalf of the many who have conscientiously signed it.

The purpose of "Celebration" is to define those points of common understanding upon which diverse evangelicals agree. If this is not a decent goal, I would hope our critics would state their reasons why it is not, rather than attacking the irenic effort at its edges. It is not intended to inquire exhaustively into all points of ambiguity and difference between evangelicals. "Celebration" states what differing evangelicals hold in common while still being true to their distinctive traditions, historical memories, and exegetical convictions.

Whether the Advocate of Arminianism Has Understood Arminianism

Most classical Wesleyan, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Pentecostal teachings have basically agreed that Jesus' active and passive obedience are both indispensable to the justifying verdict on the cross in which the believers' sins are accounted as sharing in Christ's righteousness. This is a standard pan-Protestant consensus that has stood the test of four hundred years. Yet the critique argues that this view represents a highly partisan "Reformed stamp that many evangelicals cannot knowingly endorse." But who among evangelicals could not endorse the complementarity of the active and passive obedience of Christ? Certainly not classic Wesleyans who have read Wesley's sermons on "Justification by Faith" and "The Lord Our Righteousness" or his "Doctrinal Minutes on Justification" or the Edwardian homilies on salvation.

Wesley indeed thought that the doctrine of accredited or imputed righteousness, while itself being thoroughly biblical and Pauline, could by misinterpretation become exaggerated toward antinomianism. But if you read his caveats in "Thoughts on the Imputed Righteousness of Christ" and his Letter to James Hervey of Oct. 15, 1756, you will see that there is no attempt to disavow what he has previously said so clearly in his standard sermons on justification, but rather only to resist its misinterpretation. Some highly defensive and proactive self-avowed "Arminians" have themselves at times so exaggerated their differences with Calvinism in a counter-ecumenical polemical effort so as to stress repudiations which cannot be found in the Wesley texts. The best account of active and passive obedience vis-à-vis Calvin and Wesley is found in John Deschner's work on Wesley's Christology.

There is nothing whatever in "Celebration" that "rules out the Arminian doctrine of faith as an exercise of free will." The free will that is enabled by grace is strongly affirmed in "Celebration" in a way that is totally accept able to patristic and Reformation teaching. The statement "our faith itself is the fruit of God's grace" is not only unobjectionable to Wesleyans and Arminians, but moreso it is thoroughly in accord with patristic teachers such as Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen and Augustine, and with Luther, Calvin, and their Anglican and Methodist followers.

A great deal is at stake in the question of the extent to which the children of Dort and the children of Arminius are able to come in good conscience to consensus in a way no longer dominated by outmoded defensiveness and bitterness. "Celebration" found agreement in language that satisfied both parties' concerns by showing that they have more in common than previously realized. Why would not our critic wish to see such an irenic effort succeed where three hundred years of polemics have despoiled and embittered the Protestant consensus fidelium?

Careful students of Jacob Arminius are not satisfied with nineteenth-century stereotypes and have shown Arminius's theology to be understood as a type of Calvinism and not rightly viewed as in opposition to Calvinism (although he was resistant to specific points of the Counter-Remonstrance, which represents another type of Calvinism). Only a few defensive Wesleyans and self-declared Arminians still insist on pitting Arminian exegesis strictly against Calvin and Calvinism. As Dort is a type of Calvinism, so is Arminianism.

It is an exaggerated and defensive and tendentious reading of "Celebration" that leads the critic to conclude that "such evangelicals" as Arminians are being "kept outside the fold." No such intent is present or even implied in the confession. Prominent Wesleyans and Pentecostals and Charismatics have not felt such an exclusion. They have indeed voluntarily signed the document in good conscience. The critic feels that Arminians cannot "knowingly endorse" "Celebration." Why then did so many do so? Does the critic think that they did not read it, or that he knows better how to read it for them than they do themselves? Does he question their integrity? Are the very people he is trying to defend uninformed about their true beliefs? Hardly.

The critic dislikes repetition in "Celebration." There may indeed be some repetition in the document, but any document that goes through a multi-layered review and editorial process is likely to wind up with some repetition. It should be pointed out to one who dislikes repetition that he himself has repeated the phrase numerous times that this is a "strongly Reformed" document with a tone and stamp that "rules out" Arminian believers. But there is in fact no "denial of evangelical citizenship to freewillers" in "Celebration."

Whether the Pauline Language of Accrediting Is Rightly Viewed

Apparently the critic is in categorical disagreement with the essential distinction upon which both Calvin and Wesley thoroughly agreed (along with patristic exegetes): that through his active life Christ fulfilled the divine requirement, and by his suffering death he paid the penalty for others' sin. By his life-long active obedience he provided a completely adequate fulfillment of the law (Calvin, Inst. 2.16.5; Wesley, "The Lord Our Righteousness"). And by his passive obedience in death he transferred penalties to himself. "Thus he honors obedience by his action, and proves it experimentally by his Passion" (Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 30.6).

Hence when the emphasis of the critique says, "What a pity that in its insistence on an imputation of Christ's righteousness as a pivot of justification by faith, 'Celebration' is deeply flawed at its self-proclaimed core!" there apparently is some attempt here to defend Arminians in a way that is counter-Arminian and counter-Wesleyan. Neither Arminius nor Wesley nor Calvin nor Whitefield nor Torrey nor Gordon would disagree with the "insistence on an imputation of Christ's righteousness as a pivot of justification by faith." To argue that Paul does not use the language of crediting or imputation or the accounting metaphor at all (!) is to argue against, not for, Torrey and Gordon. What the critique calls "the usual suspects" are selected New Testament passages that assert the accounting metaphor as applied to justification, which he one by one attempts to refute, unavailingly in my view.

Justification occurs by accounting (or imputing or crediting—all derived from the same Pauline metaphor) to the believer by God himself the perfect righteousness of God's own representative and guarantee: God the Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:3-9). Justification is not the cheap forgiveness of a man without righteousness, but the costly pardon provided by God the Son. It is a declaration by which the sinner now possesses a righteousness which perfectly and for ever satisfies the law, namely God the Son's own righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:6-8). It does a disservice to both Calvin and Wesley to imagine that either of them disavowed this.

The idea that one's sins are unconditionally covered by another's righteousness may, indeed, if misunderstood, tend toward license. It is indeed through faith that Christ's righteousness is accounted to us (Rom. 3:24-25), but it is misleading to conclude from this that personal qualities of Christ's actual obedience are being directly or immediately imparted (given) or infused (poured in) to the believer without faith that freely becomes active in love. The faith that saves is faith that trusts in Christ so as to work in love (Calvin, Inst. 3.16-18; Wesley, Minutes 1747, June 17). If one appears to have trusted in Christ but does not show forth a good faith response of seeking to be ac countable to God's justifying action on our behalf, then that apparent trust is not and never was saving faith.

The Westminster Larger Catechism asks the person whose baptism is being confirmed: "Q.70. What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sin, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight, not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone." It is amid this metaphorical theater that the biblical terms are understood: dikaiosis (a judicial decision or sentence of acquittal), dikaios (righteous), dikaioma (judgment), dikaioo (to declare righteous, to justify), logizomai (to reckon or credit the account of), and dikaiosyne (righteousness) all derive from the same judicial metaphorical premise.

Such terms are not applied flatly or literally or univocally, but analogically as an attempt of limited human speech to do approximate justice to God's declarative action of pardon that actually occurred on the cross. Analogies express intuitive similarities amid objective differences. Such analogies are not equations or mathematical correlations or statements of fact. Rather they represent through human language a divine verdict that actually occurred in a particular historical event, the Cross. The law is not being thereby circumvented but fulfilled through a substitute punishment. The law itself is vindicated, reestablished, and magnified both through Christ's life and death.

Abraham became for Christians the decisive type of faith: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (Heb. 11:8). His faith "was credited [accounted] to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Calvin, Inst. 3.11).

Where is there an evangelical who does not affirm that "Him who did not know sin he made sin for us in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21)? But does this rule out the contribution of Christ's active obedience to our salvation? On what basis? The Lord actively obeyed through his becoming obedient to his parents, and to the law, by being circumcised, by proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and confirming it through miracles. Did he not "learn obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8) both in life and death? It is a classic heresy to assert that Christ's life had no salvific reference to his death.

The critic thinks "Celebration" is too dependent upon Pauline language of "accrediting" (the Latin verb of which is imputare, translating the Greek logizomai, to reckon or credit the account of). He holds fast to a highly idiosyncratic view of Paul's crediting or accounting metaphor, yet he thinks of his own view as standard for recent evangelical exegesis. Yet many highly qualified New Testament exegetes signed "Celebration" in good conscience. It seems evident that there remain various debatable opinions about what Paul meant by the metaphor of accounting. We can leave it to the exegetical conscience of evangelical readers to assess the merits of linguistic and philological arguments. "Celebration" does not attempt to argue in detail a particular view of the language of the crediting of sin and righteousness or to read out of evangelical citizenship those who have other views. "Celebration" attempts to state where the most general convergence lies in evangelical teaching. If such a convergence is intrinsically a dilution, then we have a right to hear arguments as to why it is thought to be, but these have not been put forth.

Whether the Classic Protestant Teaching of Justification Is Sustained

The Westminster Confession (1646) is arguably the most widely received and authoritative Reformed confession in the English and American traditions. Its eleventh article, Of Justification, contains three negations each with corresponding affirmations: "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 any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor 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." Wesley carefully examined the articles of Westminster but did not disagree substantively with this portion of them.

The critic apparently is unawed, even bored, by these hard-won and long-standing achievements of Protestant exegesis. Apparently he prefers to deal only with recent exegesis, as if these crucial exegetical points had no relevant history of interpretation. Why does he not understand that his ancestors were willing to bleed and die for these precise definitions? Why is he so cavalier about the blood-stained work of the Holy Spirit in the history of the church amid its struggle for doctrinal clarity, balance, and rigor? He forgets that church history is essentially the history of exegesis. How then can contemporary exegesis divorce itself from the layers of history of interpretation of the text?

Is a disproportional amount of attention paid to justification, as opposed to the larger theological issues facing evangelicals? Remember that the purpose of "Celebration" is to seek convergence on the gospel. Justification teaching is central to the gospel. "Celebration" is not trying to define evangelicalism but to clarify what evangelicals share concerning the heart and essence of the gospel, despite continuing legitimate disagreements on subsidiary points.

Whether the Active and Passive Obedience of Christ Is Rightly Understood

Does the active obedience of Christ prior to his death form any part of the righteousness of Christ? The critic appears to answer no. But consider the alternative: Suppose Jesus is a bum, a philanderer, a punk. Would he be qualified to become our Mediator? This is an easy question for all evangelicals I know. It is not simply and exclusively his death, as if separable from his life, but his life as well that has salvific significance for us, as Luther and Calvin and Wesley all taught. "Celebration" rightly demands "the contribution of Jesus' life as well as death to Christian believers' reconciliation by God." The consensus of classic evangelical confessional teaching holds that the premise that both Christ's life and death, both his active and passive obedience, enable our salvation to be not only unobjectionable but necessary. To deny this would be to deny a premise strongly shared by Lutheran, Calvinist, and Wesleyan teaching of justification. "Celebration" is attentive to Reformed teaching, but not in such a way as to exclude those of the Wesleyan and Arminian and Pentecostal traditions.

He argues that Gal. 3:13 says nothing about Christ's life, but only his death. Yet simply to hang on a tree would have no salvific effect were it not preceded by a life of righteousness. Matthew 3:15 says that he came "to fulfill all righteousness." Christ fulfilled the law for us through the work he came to do as prophet, priest, and king. His prophetic office was fulfilled through his words (Matt.7:28-29), deeds (John 10:25), and the example of his life (1 Pet. 2:21-23). Though more than a prophet, Christ fulfilled the prophetic office by his proclamation and teaching, so as not to abolish but fulfill the law by proclaiming the good news of God's coming kingdom. His manner of life was congruent with his identity and mission and ministry and miracles. Is it a "common inaccuracy of biblical interpretation," as the critic proposes, to affirm that both his life and his death, both his active and passive obedience, enable our salvation? To answer yes is to disagree with both Calvin and Wesley.

In Rom. 5:19 Paul writes: "For as through the one man's disobedience the many were constituted (katestathesan, or "has binding results for") sinners, so also through the obedience of the One the many shall be reckoned or constituted (katastathesontai) righteousness." This text does not specify whether the obedience of this One is through his life or death or both. Our critic argues for "his death alone," apart from his proclamation, suffering, miracles, and obedience to the law. We, along with classic Protestant doctrine, argue for the complementarity of the active and passive obedience of Christ. Our critic thinks that katastathesontai does not imply any accrediting metaphor whatever. We think the contrary case can be argued exegetically.

Does "Celebration" indeed say, as charged, that the perfect life of Christ is unilaterally imputed to the actual behavior of believers? That would be to aggressively overread the actual text, which states in a more balanced and typically Protestant way: "We affirm that Christ's saving work included both his life and his death on our behalf (Gal. 3:13). We declare that faith in the perfect obedience of Christ by which he fulfilled all the demands of the Law of God in our behalf is essential to the Gospel. We deny that our salvation was achieved merely or exclusively by the death of Christ without reference to his life of perfect righteousness."

Whether Universalism and Annihilationism Are Allowable

Is "Celebration" soft or ambiguous in fostering a tendency toward "universal salvation," as our critic suggests, or edging toward universalism? Clearly no. "We deny that the doctrines of the Gospel can be rejected without harm. Denial of the Gospel brings spiritual ruin and exposes us to God's judgment." Also: "We learn from the Gospel that, as all have sinned, so all who do not receive Christ will be judged according to their just deserts as measured by God's holy law and face eternal retributive punishment." Also: "we cannot embrace any form of doctrinal indifferentism, or relativism, or pluralism by which God's truth is sacrificed for a false peace." These statements could not be made by anyone seriously arguing for the doctrine of universal salvation.

Evangelicals agree that "no one comes to the Father except through the Son." "Celebration" clearly rejects universal salvation, and it seems unexplainable how anyone might draw the conclusion that this point is "ambiguous" or "uncertain." Yet even though he himself remains "uncertain" about whether "Celebration" affirms universal salvation and annihilationism, the critic does not risk offering his own constructive view in relation to the language of the document, except to criticize what he perceives as its ambiguity. This begs for some constructive response, so that he might help clarify what he regards as ambiguous.

Is "Celebration" soft or ambiguous concerning annihilationism? Although this is not the central issue of "Celebration," it is evident that annihilationism cannot by any means come under its definition that "We learn from the Gospel that, as all have sinned, so all who do not receive Christ will be judged according to their just deserts as measured by God's holy law, and face eternal retributive punishment."

Remaining Questions

It can remain a debatable point as to whether the "empowerment for Christian life and witness requires a work of the Holy Spirit above and beyond justification by faith" and as to whether "all Christians have experienced this further work." This is not a question that "Celebration" at tempts to answer in detail, but I have my self attempted to answer it in detail in my book The Transforming Power of Grace in a way that mediates between Dort and Arminius and between Whitefield and Wesley, and between the hyper-Augustinians and the semi-Augustinians. Wesley defended a constrained doctrine of free will under grace, but rejected semi-Pelagianism ("Predestination Calmly Considered," sections 43-49).

It can also remain debatable among evangelicals the extent to which empowerment by the Holy Spirit is an accomplished fact the moment one receives justifying grace by faith or a gradual process to be prayed through looking toward full sanctification. Wesley himself made it clear that both instantaneous and gradual metaphors apply to the complex work of grace working preveniently, to elicit responses to God's cooperating grace, that enables the faith that responds positively to God's justifying grace, and in some way (however debatable) looks toward fulfillment in glory, whether in this life or in the celestial city. "Celebration" does not attempt to "rule out" particular views such as those of A.J. Gordon and R.A. Torrey on these issues that continue to be argued exegetically without "denial of evangelical citizenship."

The critic attempts an unusually sharp bifurcation between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, arguing that Paul never speaks of the latter. But if Christ is God (as John 1 states), then is not this distinction dubious? Does Paul assert a righteousness of God with no relation whatever to the righteousness of Christ? How could that be argued in the light of Phil. 2? When Paul says: "So one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men" (Rom 5:18), is this "one man" not Jesus Christ? And is his one act inclusive of both his life and his death? Could his death be bifurcated from his life?

Finally, is "Celebration" anti-Catholic? If so, why then would those who have been most intimately connected with the efforts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants be included as drafters and signers—J. I. Packer, Timothy George, John Woodbridge, Charles Colson (as well as those who have publicly opposed some efforts at rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics)? "Celebration" is not anti-Roman but does clearly distinguish the differences between the infusion metaphor and the accounting metaphor in the reception of grace, which traditionally has stood as a difference between Protestants and Catholics.

Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. He is the author of many books and the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, published by InterVarsity Press.

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