Deja Vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy In Historical Perspective -- By: William B. Evans

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 72:1 (Spring 2010)
Article: Deja Vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy In Historical Perspective
Author: William B. Evans


Deja Vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy In Historical Perspective

William B. Evans

William B. Evans is the Eunice Witherspoon Bell Taunts and Willie Camp Taunts Professor of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, S. C.

Those familiar with the conservative Reformed subculture in the United States have likely noticed considerable recent debate on matters soteriological (i.e., issues having to do with the doctrine of salvation). Issues long thought settled have emerged with new vigor, new questions have emerged, and long-forgotten or even suppressed aspects of the Reformed tradition have been brought to light. For example, the doctrine of justification by faith, thought by many to be the material principle of the Reformation and a hallmark of Reformed Christianity, is now under intense discussion in a variety of circles. Related to this are, to use John Murray’s influential terminology, issues of redemption accomplished (i.e., the work of Christ) and redemption applied (i.e., the nature of the believer’s union with Christ and the means of grace).

In this article we will look briefly at the prehistory of these matters, where we will discover that there is less novelty in the current discussions than some might initially think. We will then attempt a rough taxonomy of the parties in the debate. Finally, we will offer some observations about the nature and implications of these debates.

I. Prologue

Reformed soteriology particularly in America, has been anything but monolithic. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex process of historical development, let us begin with Calvin, who set a formal agenda for most subsequent Reformed thinking by highlighting the Pauline theme of union with Christ. Here we recall his famous statement at the beginning of Institutes 3.1.1 that the benefits of salvation remain unavailable to us as long as “Christ remains outside of us.”1 Note also Calvin’s insistence that it is through union and participation with the “substance” of Christ’s incarnate humanity that both the power of his

deity and the forensic benefits of salvation (e.g., justification) are conveyed to the Christian.2 But Calvin’s view of union with Christ and soteriology in general involved a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories which was never fully developed and explained. Categories such as “substance” and “participation” are ontological, while “imputation” and synthetic justification are forensic, and the Reformer never fully explained how the f...

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