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Covenant and Salvation: A Review Article

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, by Michael S. Horton. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2007, xi, 324 pages, $16.99.

This, the third in a projected four-volume series, continues Dr. Horton's reflections on systematic-theological topics in light of the covenant theme. The first treated eschatology, the second Christology and the fourth is to be on ecclesiology. This book deals with soteriology, understood as matters primarily concerning the application of redemption. Evident again is the wide reading and ongoing interaction with a similarly wide spectrum of viewpoints, past and present, that mark the earlier volumes. There are two major sections, "Covenant and Justification" (11-125) and "Covenant and Participation" (128-307). The concern pervasive throughout is to demonstrate the relationship, understood covenantally, between justification and union with Christ, between the forensic/legal and the participatory/relational/effective in salvation.

The full magnitude of the undertaking this book represents precludes doing justice to it in a relatively brief review so I will have to limit myself selectively to highlighting several matters. Part One is largely occupied with tendencies prominent within the New Perspective on Paul as well as on the Judaism of his day—tendencies that, on the one hand, accent continuity between Paul and that Judaism to the point of obscuring crucial differences, and on the other hand, stress discontinuity between Paul's teaching on justification and the Reformation doctrine to the point of denying that the latter is true to the former. Horton provides a probing analysis and sustained critique of these tendencies in the course of arguing for the solid biblical foundation of the Reformation doctrine in its basic elements, with a concluding stress on the importance of imputation in the face of contemporary denials (102-25).

This is a welcome and profitable discussion. I mention an overall reservation I have primarily because it concerns a matter clearly important for Horton. As he alerts us at the outset (2), "Part 1, therefore, offers the most sustained and direct treatment of the particular type of covenant theology that I have drawn upon and assumed throughout this series." At issue is not the bi-covenantal (covenant of works - covenant of grace) structure that I'm concerned with him to maintain, particularly in the face of contemporary monocovenantalisms and the errors of the New Perspective. I remain unpersuaded, however, that this structure either requires or is particularly enhanced by Horton's view that under the Mosaic economy the judicial role of the law in the life of God's people functioned, at the typological level, for inheritance by works (as the covenant of works reintroduced) in antithesis to grace.

It is difficult for me to see how this way of viewing the theocratic role of Israel as God's covenant people from Moses to Christ (historia salutis) avoids creating an uneasy tension, if not polarization, in the lives of his people between grace/faith and (good) works/obedience (ordo salutis), especially under the Mosaic economy. As far as I can see from reading the Old Testament, particularly the prophets, the reason Israel went into exile was not failure as a nation to maintain a requisite level of formal obedience to the law in all its details. Rather, Israel lost the land for the deeper reason of unbelief, because of the idolatry that was at the root of and focused the unbelieving nonremnant's disobedience of God and his law. A further discussion of this issue cannot be entered into here.

Part Two addresses more directly the justification-union with Christ relationship. How in Horton's covenantal outlook on the application of salvation is the forensic related to the participatory or organic, with the latter apparently seen as more or less interchangeable with the transformative and including sanctification?

The answer to this basic soteriological question lies in the "covenantal ontology" the book seeks to articulate (e.g., 182ff., 216ff., 310). That, rather than its subtitle ("Union with Christ"), may fairly be seen as much as any as its main thrust. The core notion of this ontology is that "justification is not an inert but a living Word, on a par with creation ex nihilo" (247, with an appeal to Rom. 4:17 and Ps. 33:6), or in the words of a chapter subtitle, "The Verdict That Does What It Says" (243). In a more detailed phrasing, "justification should be seen more clearly not merely as ontologically different from inner renewal, but also as the ontological source of that change" (198, italics original). Accordingly, covenantally understood, while union includes justification and is "the wider matrix for treating justification and sanctification" (310; "the wider field within which the Reformers recognize the integral connection of justification and sanctification," 141), justification is nonetheless the source of that matrix, "the fountain of union in all of its renewing aspects" (143). Justification, understood in this way as a creating and effective forensicism, Horton argues, not only provides a firm forensic foundation for the application of salvation as a whole, but as it does so also maintains justification and sanctification, the legal and the renovative, as well as the relational in salvation, in "a complementary rather than antagonistic relationship" (310).

Hoping that this summary characterization, though it hardly does justice to his detailed argumentation, is reasonably accurate, how, as we continue to process it, should we assess this covenantal ontology?

I share fully Horton's conviction that the foundation of the application of salvation in its entirety is and must be forensic. Since something of my own views on that forensic priority as well as on the interrelationships between union, justification, and sanctification, in Calvin and in Scripture, is present elsewhere in this issue, I refer readers to those comments and limit myself here to noting several related matters for clarification or further discussion.

First, Horton's view of the relationship between justification and union with Christ seems unclear. For instance, just prior to the statement on page 143 cited above, in discussing Reformation views of union, he says, "Regardless of whether union temporally preceded justification, Calvin is clear that the latter is the basis for the former" (as far as I can see, the Calvin citation in the following sentence does not support this statement and the quote from Institutes, 3.16.1 on the previous page in fact tells against it); and on page 147, "While a great deal more than justification is included as a result of being in Christ, Reformed theology has emphasized with Lutheran doctrine that justification is the judicial ground of it all."

Considering these statements as well as others also cited above, prompts the following questions: How is it that justification is the basis of union when union is antecedent, possibly, it appears for Horton, even temporally antecedent, to justification? How can justification be the ground of the union of which it is a result? How is justification the source or fountain of the matrix or field (union) of which it is a part? Perhaps I am missing something, but how Horton's covenantal ontology resolves these questions is not apparent to me.

Further concerning the citation above from page 147, there is certainly important agreement between Reformed and Lutheran on the internal structure of justification (the imputation of Christ's righteousness and the sole instrumentality of faith), and we should not lose sight of or minimize that agreement. However, Horton's statement overlooks differences in the overall understanding of the application of redemption, all related, I take it, to different understandings of the place and role of union with Christ. To mention just one such difference, Reformed theology has not commonly seen justification as the judicial basis for regeneration, which it understands as the eschatologically irreversible origin of the faith that appropriates justification.

Second, on page 201 Horton shares Bruce McCormack's evaluation of John Murray's statement that "the declarative act of God in the justification of the ungodly is constitutive. In this consists its incomparable character." Murray's point is that justification is a forensically constitutive declaration; the declaration as such constitutes the forensic status of being righteous that it declares to be. Horton appears to support McCormack's criticism that Murray's understanding of the constitutive in justification is too narrow and ought to be expanded to include regeneration and the renovative as well as the forensic.

I wish Horton had more clearly distanced himself from McCormack's position in the article Horton utilizes positively for the most part here and elsewhere in Part Two. That position, as it builds on Barth and as Barth himself makes clear (e.g., Church Dogmatics, 4/2: 502-03), necessarily entails doing away with the distinction between the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption and its ongoing application (as well as the historical before and after of Christ's states of humiliation and exaltation). The result is an understanding of the constitutive or effective nature of justification and of its relationship to sanctification that differs radically from confessional Reformed orthodoxy.

This is surely not what Horton intends. Expressed throughout is a clear concern not to confuse justification and sanctification or otherwise blur the difference between the forensic and the nonforensic (transformative) in salvation. Still, his covenantal ontology leaves me wondering what it is about the forensic, as forensic, that is constitutive or effective nonforensically. If justification (imputation), as forensically effective, is also, as such, nonforensically effective, what differentiates the one from the other? What within justification as constitutive distinguishes the forensically constitutive from the nonforensically constitutive? Does not the expansion of the constitutive in justification to include nonforensic renovation ("new being" as well as "new status," 201) amount to a kind of soteriological overload that has the unintended effect of blurring the difference between justification and inner renewal? I do hope these questions are not posed ineptly or unfairly. (In this regard it seems to me much clearer and sounder biblically to see union with Christ by faith as what is antecedently "constitutive" in our salvation, issuing in both justification and sanctification, the forensic and the nonforensic/renovative, each with its own constitutive or effective moment, distinct yet inseparable from the other.)

Third, throughout Part Two Horton voices reservations about the Reformed doctrine of regeneration. He agrees with its substance and intention but finds problematic the way it has been formulated, in particular the notion that regeneration produces a habitual change and involves the infusion of new habits (a new habitus). This he sees as a lingering residue of the medieval ontology that eventually made the Reformation necessary. These concerns, with his own proposal, are articulated especially in Chapter 10 ("Covenantal Ontology and Effectual Calling"). The promising alternative for him lies in adapting the Eastern Orthodox distinction between divine essence and energies, so that the activity of the Spirit in salvation is understood as an exercise of his energies that avoids "a causal scheme of infused habits" (213).

I share fully Horton's concerns about the notion sometime present in Reformed treatments of the ordo salutis that regeneration is prior to effectual calling and produces an antecedent state addressed in effectual calling. That notion is quite problematic and ought to be rejected. However, his view of "Regeneration as Effectual Calling" (240, italics original) as a corrective, assuming I have not misunderstood him, seems to involve a kind of actualism that prompts the following observations.

Calling as such brings into view a divine activity without yet saying anything about its results or how it is effective. Regeneration, in contrast, brings into view not only a specific divine activity but the specific result of that activity; the state of being regenerate. Having been called effectively involves having been regenerated, but the two are not identical. The exercise of the Spirit's energies in calling produces an enduring change within sinners distinct from that exercise. The result, effected by those creating energies yet distinct from their exercise, is a permanent regenerate state marked, anthropologically, by a new and lasting disposition inherent in them, what Scripture calls a new "heart." That is, at the core of my being, I am no longer against God and disposed to rebel against his will but, now and forever, for him and disposed in the deepest recesses of whom I am to delight in doing his will.

In view of the undeniable reality of their own indwelling sin, believers need to be exhorted not to quench or grieve the Spirit at work in their lives. But his work in the justified ungodly does not merely consist of an ongoing countering activity within those otherwise only disposed to be thoroughly resistant and recalcitrant. The definitive, nothing less than eschatological death-to-life change effected and maintained in believers by the Spirit provides a stable basis within them for his continuing day-by-day activity of renewing and maturing them according to their inner selves (2 Cor. 4:16), for his continuing toward completion the good work begun in them (Phil. 1:6). The Reformed use of "habitual" to describe this irreversible change, this radical dispositional reorientation, in believers seems appropriate and useful. I'm unsure whether and, if so, how these comments square with Horton's covenantal ontology.

Covenant and Salvation with its forensically-charged ontology represents an innovative proposal of major proportions for Reformed soteriology with implications for its theology more generally. This review hardly captures the breadth of its scope in tackling issues, some of them difficult and daunting, of perennial importance in the life of the church. This is not an easy book to read but those who do will find their thinking stimulated and perhaps, like mine, at places challenged. I hope my comments here will motivate others to give it their careful attention and its proposals the further reflection they warrant.

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Ordained Servant, March 2009.