Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bullinger on Union with Christ and Justification

J.V. Fesko has written an article “Heinrich Bullinger on Union with Christ and Justification” in The Confessional Presbyterian, vol. 6 (2010), pp3-10. Fesko has written widely on justification, specifically on the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ. He has written, for example, “A Critical Examination of N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification” in The Confessional Presbyterian, vol 1 (2005), pp102-115.

In this article, Fesko seeks to respond to many authors who see union in Christ in the writing of Calvin as the context for understanding justification and sanctification. In citing the work of William Evans, Imputation and Impartation (Carlisle/Eugene: Paternoster/Wipf & Stock, 2008), Fesko summarizes: “Evans explains that Calvin gave causal priority to union with Christ, in that justification and sanctification were communicated through union; union with Christ is the instrumental basis of both justification and sanctification. Justification should not have logical priority over sanctification, but rather union with Christ should have logical priority over both justification and sanctification.”

Fesko endeavours to demonstrate that Bullinger (primarily from the Decades and the Compendium) affirms the ordo salutis of later Reformed theology (‘Calvinism’) in giving priority to justification over sanctification. He acknowledges that one might easily conclude that Bullinger’s doctrine of union with Christ is undifferentiated – ie that he does not make distinctions between justification and sanctification. He concludes: “Though Bullinger prioritizes justification over sanctification, he does not render them asunder. Both justification and sanctification are aspects of union with Christ. He also shows that they are united but distinct: ‘But grace or faith and works, justification also and sanctification, are so joined together, that they cannot be severed one from another…. I verily neither dare nor do in any ease gainsay, that faith and works do cleave together.’ So for Bullinger, justification and sanctification are inseparably joined together, but neither are they confused.” (the quotation is from the Decades 3ix)

Fesko concludes his article in the following fashion: “This essay has demonstrated that Evans’ construction of the relationship between Calvin and the subsequent Reformed tradition requires greater nuance and exploration of the work of other Reformed theologians such as Bullinger. Bullinger clearly affirms the doctrine of union with Christ, which features prominently in his doctrine of election, since those elected are in Christ. But he also does so in conjunction with his basic ordo salutis, which accords justification priority over sanctification. Bullinger prioritizes justification by giving it chief place – that which secures our salvation and is the lens through which the believer is always viewed – but he does not emphasize it to the exclusion of sanctification. Rather, ‘Good works belong to grace, but after a certain manner, order, and fashion.’” (another quotation from the Decades 3ix)

I am not in a position to critically evaluate Fesko’s understanding of Bullinger. Fesko has certainly prompted us to further study Bullinger’s works. However, I would like to make the following observations.

Fesko has based his conclusions on his understanding of the Decades, the Compendium and the Second Helvetic Confession. He does not refer to Bullinger’s commentaries with respect to key New Testament texts.

Fesko does not refer to Burrows' work that has been referred to in previous posts of this blog - Mark S. Burrows, “ ‘Christus intra nos Vivens’ The Peculiar Genius of Bullinger’s Doctrine of Sanctification”, Zeitschschrift für Kirchengeschichte, vol. 98 (no.1), 1987, pp48-69. This widely cited work of Burrows argues that that a characteristic feature of Bullinger’s thought is “the manner in which he speaks of sanctification in essential identity with justification, as two aspects of Christ’s one saving act.” As far as I can see those who cite Burrows work do not criticize or doubt his conclusions with respect to his understanding of Bullinger.

Perhaps someone out there in blogosphere has read widely in Bullinger and can shed some light on whether Burrows’ understanding of Bullinger is closer to the mark than Fesko’s? I hope to find the time to check all the quotations that Fesko makes to Bullinger and then, in due course, put up some posts for all to consider. Let us let Bullinger speak for himself. As many misunderstand Zwingli with respect to the Lord’s Supper so I humbly think that Fesko has misunderstood Bullinger. Furthermore, referring to the final comment in Fesko’s article, I wonder if Calvin’s view re union with Christ vis-à-vis justification and sanctification is so close to that of Bullinger that Calvin must have been influenced by Bullinger’s work.

My gut feeling is that Bullinger's view supports the approach of Mike Bird who refers to incorporated righteousness in The Saving Righteousness of God (Wipf & Stock, 2007).

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