Ryan M. McGraw
Doctrine in Development: Johannes Piscator and Debates Over Christ’s Active Obedience, by Heber Carlos de Campos, Jr., Reformed Historical-Theological Studies. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2017, 304 pages, $25.00, paper.
The imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers in their justification is an important contemporary theological issue. It was an important issue in historic Reformed theology as well, yet its development is somewhat complex. It is difficult, in writing historical theology, to set an adequate context and to avoid importing contemporary concerns into historical debates. In Doctrine in Development, Heber de Campos furnishes us with an exemplary model of contextual historical theology that illustrates the theological and exegetical development of what became a key issue in the Reformed doctrine of justification. His book is clearly argued and theologically nuanced enough to help readers understand why the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was compatible with early Reformed theology and why it became so integral to later formulations. This review focuses both on how de Campos pursues his historical task in order to demonstrate the value of this book as a model for doing history, as well as on the content of his findings.
This book stresses the reasons why Johannes Piscator openly opposed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in justification. However, the author argues persuasively that if Piscator was the first Reformed theologian to reject the imputation of active obedience to believers, then Theodore Beza was one of the first to promote it (257). This nuanced study demonstrates that earlier Reformed authors did not oppose active obedience and that they left room for it without the teaching being embedded in their theologies (especially ch. 3). In order to understand Piscator’s views and their historical significance in context, de Campos surveys the views of early Reformed theologians on the significance of Christ’s obedience in relation to his work on the cross (chs. 1–3), he explores medieval precedents, he outlines Lutheran and Roman Catholic teachings on the subject (both in ch. 4), and he shows the relation of Piscator’s views to later trajectories in Reformed thought (chs. 7–8). It is striking that only chapters five and six directly treat Piscator’s arguments against the imputation of Christ’s active obedience directly. In my opinion, this is how historical theology should be done. If historians fail to situate Reformed authors in their contemporary historical contexts, with an eye to Protestant, Roman Catholic, and medieval precedents, and with an aim to subsequent theological trajectories, then they run the risk of misinterpreting their subjects. This is why de Campos is a model of sound and thorough historical theology.
de Campos’s corrections to Chad Van Dixhoorn’s evaluation of Christ’s active obedience in relation to the Westminster Assembly highlight the importance of setting such a broad historical context. While Van Dixhoorn concludes that the explicit omission of “active obedience” or “whole obedience” in the Westminster Standards shows that these were consensus or compromise documents designed to encompass all parties present, de Campos shows the presence in these documents of language that was used for the preceding fifty years (drawing from medieval precedents) to affirm the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in opposition to Piscator. The fact that a historian of Van Dixhoorn’s quality missed this point is not so much a critique of his scholarship as it is a demonstration of how hard it is to write contextually informed history (Van Dixhoorn concedes the soundness of the correction in his endorsement of the book). de Campos has achieved a rare level of scholarship that exemplifies the kind of questions that we need to ask of the development of historical ideas.
In addition to exemplifying sound historical method, this book helps readers understand how the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience came about and why it became so important in Reformed thought. In contrast to earlier evaluations of Piscator’s denials of the doctrine, the author argues repeatedly that early Reformed and Lutheran authors were unclear on the question. However, being unclear neither meant that they taught active obedience by implication nor that they intended to oppose it. The real battle lines in this regard were drawn between Beza’s and Piscator’s views. Beza taught that believers need Christ’s righteous habits by virtue of his incarnation, the imputation of his righteous life by his active obedience, and the removal of the curse of sin through the cross (e.g., 65, 77, 93). Piscator taught that Christ’s obedient life merely qualified him for the cross and that removing the curse of sin was enough to constitute believers righteous in God’s sight (112). He shifted the emphasis of acceptance with God from the legal category of justification to that of adoption as sons by the Father (157–58). While other Reformed authors did not deny the importance of adoption, they increasingly located our acceptance with God in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the removal of God’s wrath and curse, which correspond to Christ’s righteous life and his cross respectively (240–47). Adoption then refers to the fact that we are heirs of God in Christ (246). While Piscator believed that in his humanity Christ owed obedience to God and that he could not obey in the place of others (146), most Reformed authors argued that Christ’s obedience was voluntary condescension on his part because his human nature had no distinct personal subsistence (247–55). de Campos shows masterfully Reformed authors overwhelmingly affirmed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers in their justification (ch. 8) based on: the stability of divine law coupled with a developing Reformed covenant theology, the nature of justification in relation to the righteous requirements of the law and its penalty, and Christological reflections. Piscator thus represents, in part, the growing pains involved in clarifying Reformed doctrine in the context of seventeenth-century theological developments (262).
Doctrine in Development is an important book. It clarifies a major component of the Reformed presentation of the gospel and it provides those writing and reading historical theology with a model of how things should be done. This book is academic in tone, but it is accessible to all who are interested in understanding this key doctrine better.
Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, North Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2018.