Substituting Water for Wine: Scott Clark’s Extrinsic Covenantalism

Bill Evans head shot

Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary in California has posted an interesting response to my recent post (also on the AquilaReport here) on “pervasive covenantalism.”  He provides a reasonable summary of my much briefer piece, and he indicates some areas of agreement.  Nevertheless, there are striking areas of disagreement—regarding, e.g., how to read the Reformed tradition, the unity and diversity of that tradition, and the normative center of that tradition—that merit further discussion.

One obvious difference between Clark and myself is our scholarly focus, and this accounts for the way that we sometimes talk past each other (a quick read of this piece linked by Clark, and especially the comments section at the bottom, illustrates this rather well).  Clark writes as a scholar of Reformed scholasticism of the period after Calvin, while my doctoral studies focused more on Reformed theology in the 18th through the 20th centuries.  He views his period of focus as a pretty adequate articulation of what Reformed theology should be, and his familiarity with later periods is more limited.  My own dissertation work (later published as Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology [Paternoster, 2008]) was, in a nutshell, an effort to explain how it was that nineteenth-century American and British covenant theologians were so hostile to Calvin’s notion of union with Christ, especially as it was expressed in his view of the sacraments, and to outline the contours of the larger debate in that period.  The irony here of Charles Hodge—the preeminent American “Calvinist” of his day—taking Calvin himself to task for allegedly undermining the doctrine of justification was obvious.  Clearly there was a story to be told!

The most persistent line of criticism of my 2008 book (from Clark’s colleague J. V. Fesko, Richard Muller, and a few others) has been that it fails to provide an adequate account of Reformed orthodoxy.  That is to say, the criticisms have focused primarily on one or two chapters of a nine-chapter book!  In fact, however, my purpose was not to present a comprehensive treatment of union with Christ in Reformed Orthodoxy.  That is impossible in short compass because of the diversity (in the book I define “Reformed Orthodoxy” as “the dynamic confluence of Reformation, scholastic, and pietist influences”) and timespan of the movement.  Rather, I sought to explain how certain features of later federal theology, which are abundantly evident in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century context and debates, emerged.  For example, how was it that Calvin’s notion of a “substantial” union with the incarnate humanity of Christ increasingly drops out of the tradition and is replaced by notions of “virtual communion” (i.e., the reception of the “virtue” or saving benefits of Christ work—namely justification and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit)?  How and why did the ordo salutis construction evolve?  How did the bifurcation of solidarity with Christ into a “federal” or legal union and a vital or spiritual union emerge?  All this is abundantly evident in the nineteenth-century federalists and has roots in the earlier periods.  Of course, one can pick and choose figures from the period of Orthodoxy who say differently, but that is to miss the forest for the trees as well as to misunderstand what I was trying to accomplish.

Clark’s post provides a lot of references to books he thinks I should read, particularly to scholars whose conclusions he finds congenial, and he suggests that my own scholarship is shoddy and out of date (“One could be a little more sympathetic to Evans’ account of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy were this 1859, 1959 or even 1979 but it’s 2013 and his narrative is simply not tenable or remotely credible.”).  Not only is this line of attack needlessly uncharitable, but it is also misleading.  What Clark conveniently fails to note is the diversity of scholarship on the issue, and the host of scholars who disagree with him on key questions—Garcia, Gaffin, Tipton, Ryken, Partee, Ferguson, Letham, McGrath, Torrance, Johnson, Canlis, as well as yours truly, to mention only a few.  In fact, Clark’s position, if I’m reading the landscape accurately, is a minority point of view.  Perhaps that accounts for his defensiveness and bluster.

But there is a deeper irony here.  There is little evidence in Clark’s post that he has actually read the book (my Imputation and Impartation) that informs my blog piece on pervasive covenantalism.  And this is not the first time.  In fact, Clark seems to have an unfortunate habit of critiquing positions that he has not fully digested.  Back in 2009 he took a swipe at the book on his Heidelblog after apparently skimming the last chapter.  When called on it, he admitted as much (he wrote in a comment, “I should have made clear. I have not read the book. I read the last section and found those paragraphs to be provocative.”).  If Clark does read it, I trust he will discover that my approach to Reformed Orthodoxy is not quite as troglodytic or contemptible as he thinks.

Moreover, there are things in the current post having to do with more recent developments that similarly suggest a lack of familiarity with my line of argument.  For example, Clark opines:

I don’t see how covenant or federalism had anything to do with Hodge’s (or Dabney’s) problem with Calvin’s view of the supper. That had a lot more to do with the intellectual climate of the time, the influence perhaps of a kind of mild rationalism, than it did with covenant or federal theology. Indeed, historically, covenantal or federal theology has help to stimulate a vigorous doctrine of the sacraments.

To be sure, Hodge’s Scottish Common Sense Realism had something to do with it, but Hodge was also a firm proponent of the extrinsic piety of later federal orthodoxy, and the connections to later federalism in his thinking are both abundant and clear.  Although this is getting tiresome to say, a careful reading of chapter six of my book would help to inform the discussion, as I deal with all of this in considerable detail.    And furthermore, if federal theology has indeed helped to “stimulate a vigorous doctrine of the sacraments,” how does Clark account for the fact that Zwinglianism is now pretty much the default position in conservative Reformed circles?

There are other curiosities in Clark’s post as well.  For example, with an anachronistic flourish he opines that “Irenaeus was a federal and covenant theologian, as was Justin and as were other patristic writers.”  Here the assumption seems to be that anybody who mentions the covenant theme is a “federal theologian,” and his assertion will be astonishing to anyone with a detailed knowledge of the fathers.  Also, he suggests that anyone critical of his extrinsic soteriology is guilty of “moving in with Osiander,” when the real problem with Osiander, as Calvin noted at length, was his notion of an immediate union with the deity and his slighting of the importance of Christ’s incarnate humanity.

Clark also takes me to task for parroting Barth.  He contends:

The argument that too much covenant leads to Barth is ironic because Evans’ case is suffused with the Barthian critique of Reformed orthodoxy and covenant theology, beginning with the claim that the covenant of works is speculative. It wasn’t covenant that wrecked Barth’s theology, it was, according to Van Til, Modernity.

To be sure, Barth is complicated.  The theme of covenant is important in Barth, but it is transposed into a new idiom, and he certainly is critical of some aspects of the older Orthodoxy.  On that Clark and I will agree.  However, there is a deeper irony here having to do with the key soteriological questions that divide us.  In fact, Clark is much closer to Barth on the question of soteriological solidarity than I am, and I critiqued Barth on precisely this point in the book (Imputation and Impartation, pp. 243-245).

But this assertion, which is perhaps counterintuitive to some, requires more explanation.  Barth’s soteriology, despite his use of terms like “participation,” is (particularly in connection with justification) rather thoroughly extrinsic (see, e.g., Adam Neder, Participation in Christ, p. 12).  In fact, some excellent contemporary Barth scholars have contended that precisely in his insistent emphasis on the extra nos of Christ “for us” Barth is the truly consistent Protestant.  Thus Bruce McCormack takes Calvin to task for saying that justification flows from mystical union with Christ.  This, according to McCormack “would seem to make justification and regeneration the effects of a logically prior ‘participation’ in Christ that has been effected by the uniting action of the Holy Spirit.”  This, he says, is a problem from a truly Reformational standpoint in that “the work of God ‘in us’ is, once again (and now on the soil of the Reformation!) made to be the ground of the divine forgiveness of sins.”  McCormack goes on to propose a Barthian actualistic theological ontology (what he calls, interestingly, a “covenantal ontology”) as the answer to this problem (Bruce McCormack, “What’s At Stake in the Current Debates over Justification,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier [IVP, 2004], pp. 101-102, 113-117).

It is this effort to protect the doctrine of forensic justification by means of an extrinsic soteriology that connects Barth with later federal theology of the sort that Clark espouses.  The similarities are fairly obvious, and this, I think, may account for the interest that some contemporary Barthians are now showing in Reformed orthodoxy.  It also helps to account for the use that Clark’s colleague Mike Horton is now making of McCormack’s Barthian theological ontology, though Horton does not endorse McCormack’s indictment of Calvin (see Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation [WJK, 2007], pp. 200-204).

For Clark, the crux of the matter is his conviction that the doctrine of forensic justification demands the sort of extrinsic relationship between Christ and the Christian that he advocates.  He writes:

On what basis does God accept us? Who earned that righteousness? How does a sinner come into possession of that righteousness? Where is that righteousness to be found relative to the sinner, within us or without? Evans may scoff at the doctrine of an “extrinsic” doctrine of justification but Paul himself asked these questions and historically the only alternative to extrinsic (alien) righteousness is a “proper” or “intrinsic” ground of divine acceptance and in that case we’re right back in the medieval soup or, to switch metaphors, moving in with Andreas Osiander. 

The fundamental logic here is that our gracious acceptance by God in justification is compromised by any sort of real relationship or connection intrinsic to the persons involved.  And here we are not just talking about the meritorious foundation or analytic ground of justification.  Justification according to Clark cannot even be communicated (as to the mode of imputation) by such a relationship.  Or, to phrase it a bit differently, justification cannot be made to hinge on anything that God does “in us.”  This, for Clark, is the heart of the Reformation, and thus the later apparatus of developed federal theology—covenant of works, covenant of redemption, ordo salutis, etc. developed to support this extrinsic edifice—is “essential” to the Reformation.

There are, of course, biblical difficulties with this picture that Clark paints.  As I noted in a recent blog post, the most extensive current treatment of the “in Christ” language in Paul (by Con Campbell) concludes that justification is an outworking of spiritual union with Christ.  The author writes:

[T]he findings of this study thus far seem to accord with the suggestion that justification occurs as an outworking of union with Christ.  This can be claimed by virtue of the fact that union with Christ language is employed in an instrumental fashion with respect to justification, as observed above; justification occurs through and in Christ.  Moreover, broader consideration suggests that because such a multiplicity of Christ’s works are related to union with Christ, often with an instrumental relationship in view, it follows that union is an originating theme through which others derive.  On that score, justification is likewise derived through union with Christ and coheres with Christ’s other works by virtue of their common source in Christ (Constantine Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study [Grand Rapids, 2012], p. 396).

A second problem for Clark is that a significant portion of the Reformed tradition, while staunchly defending the gratuity of justification by grace through faith, simply has not accepted his extrinsic logic.  Witness this well-known and powerful statement by John Calvin in opposition to extrinsicism:

How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men?  First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us (Institutes [McNeill ed.], III.1.1).

Or how about this from Calvin:

We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him (Institutes [McNeill ed.], III.11.10).

Or how about this from Jonathan Edwards:

What is real in the union between Christ and his people, is the foundation of what is legal; that is, it is something that is really in them, and between them, uniting them, that is the ground of the suitableness of their being accounted as one by the Judge (Justification by Faith, in Works [Carter ed.], IV.70). 

Or how about this from William G. T. Shedd:

Upon this spiritual and mystical union, rests the federal and legal union between Christ and his people.  Because they are spiritually, vitally, eternally, and mystically one with him, his merit is imputable to them, and their demerit is imputable to him (Dogmatic Theology, II: 534).

We could go on, but the point is well made.  For all his posturing about diversity, Clark’s view is a narrow one.  He would have us embrace his own particular take on the Reformed tradition, to the exclusion of venerable witnesses that don’t fit his Procrustean bed.  In reality, he has substituted water for wine.  The grand Catholic vision of John Calvin and others has been replaced by something both more abstract and less adequate and attractive.  Those today who wonder why the conservative Reformed tradition seems to have “lost its mojo” would do well to examine this debate carefully.

Given the unfortunate polarities current in the Reformed community, this is a discussion that needs to take place.  But it needs to take place on the basis of a sound knowledge of the exegetical options, the Reformed tradition, and the literature dealing with it rather than slogans.  Alas, Scott Clark has not advanced the discussion.