Justification: The Traditional Reformed View

March 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

[This is part of the Justification: Five Views mini-series]

We’ve now come to the second to last view in Justification: Five Views. Thanks to IVP Academic, we’ve been working through a view a week as we move closer to Easter. Though separate views, both this view and the next fall into a broadly construed “Reformed” context. The difference between the two, as captured by Michael Bird:

My “Progressive Reformed” position can be differentiated from his [Michael Horton’s] “Traditional Reformed” perpsective by virtue of my willingness to incorporate insights from fields beyond the Reformed confessions and out my readiness to modify some of the confessional claims where I think that they need correction or clarification (112).

The view we’re examining briefly today amounts to Michael Horton unpacking the view of justification presented in the Three Forms of Unity (aka the Reformed confessions). A side issue is that there is not a single interpretation of the “view” of justification in the confessions (just as there are multiple interpretations of the “view” of justification in the Council of Trent). Laying that aside though, James Dunn n comments in his response that Horton’s essay “as clear and as vigorous an exposition and defense of the classic Reformed theology of justification in terms of imputation as one could have wished for” (117).

The essay begins with a short summary (about a page and a half of the position). Horton then spends the remainder of his space digging into the Reformation controversy and then some exegetical sparring. The majority of the essay centers on the exegetical issues and the primary foil for Horton is N. T. Wright. This is another reason it might have been nice for Wright to contribute the New Perspective chapter, since Horton only mentions Dunn in passing, and then only to comment on his Arminian theological presuppositions.

As I was reading, I noticed that once again Horton was quoting from Wright’s oldest book on Paul to make his case, rather than attending to his more recent book, and his even more recent address at ETS which was published in JETS this time last year. Maybe his writing here was sent to the publisher prior to that article being published. In any case, I started having a sense of deja vu and realized I had seen the string of quotations before. I pulled my copy of The Christian Faith off the shelf and realized that Horton’s essay in this book more or less comes straight from his chapter on justification. “Borrows heavily” would be a nice way of putting it, but in many places whole paragraphs have been imported to work double duty.

Now, generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with this. However, in this case, Horton does not make notation of either source using the other. Since Justification: Five Views was published later, Horton more or less plagiarized himself. Typically, authors are free to reuse their material so that’s not particularly a problem, but they are generally expected to footnote the earlier source when that happens. I tried to see if there were significant differences between the two works in terms of content, and as far as I could tell, the essay here in the Five Views book is more or less a selective condensation of the chapter in The Christian Faith, with all of the heading in the former also appearing in the latter. Many of the footnotes are identical as well.

Perhaps the two publishers are aware that they’ve both published the same material and the editor forgot to make a note of it. Since that’s the case however, you can read my thoughts on the larger chapter in The Christian Faith by going here.

As far as critiques from the other contributors go, Bird is appreciative of Horton’s work, but prods him on 4 exegetical points regarding justification and (1) sanctification, (2) forgiveness, (3) imputation, and (4) the social context. Dunn comments that Horton has missed much of the point of the New Perspective of Paul’s purpose. Horton responds as if the New Perspective is meant to supersede the old much like the New Covenant does. However, it is aiming to add an overlooked dimension to the picture, not to repaint the canvas. The other two responses were helpful, but noting particularly stands out to mention here.

In the end, it was somewhat disappointing to read a recycled essay. I have a hard time not seeing the traditional Reformed position as exposited by Horton to be tied more to confessional explanations rooted in the Reformation than to Scripture. I realized that the counter-argument is that the exegesis of Scripture was just as sound in the 16th century as it is now (as Horton directly says in the opening paragraph, 83). However, since I’m not part of a denomination that is tied to the confessions and see them as open to cautious revision in light of more nuanced understandings of Scripture, I’m not really a traditional Reformed guy, when traditional means “bound by the Reformed confessions.”

It would seem though Bird’s appropriation of the Reformed view into a larger framework open to outside insights is the better way to go, and to that we’ll turn next week.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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