New Or Nuanced Perspective On Calvin? A Reply To Thomas Wenger -- By: Marcus Johnson

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 51:3 (Sep 2008)
Article: New Or Nuanced Perspective On Calvin? A Reply To Thomas Wenger
Author: Marcus Johnson

New Or Nuanced Perspective On Calvin? A Reply To Thomas Wenger

Marcus Johnson*

* Marcus Johnson is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, 820 N. LaSalle Blvd., Chicago, IL 60610.

Thomas Wenger’s recent article in JETS has provided the service of bringing to the fore some significant and even perennial issues relating to the heart of Protestant soteriology.1 His concerns are weighty in that they deal with bedrock doctrinal convictions that undergird basic Protestant beliefs about salvation—that is, justification, sanctification, union with Christ, and the relationship between them (ordo salutis). As such, his concerns are important and commendable. Wenger’s more specific concern has to do with the alleged misappropriation of these basic soteriolοgical doctrines by those in a group he labels the “New Perspective on Calvin.” Because this strain of Reformation scholarship has subsumed Calvin’s soteriology under the rubric of union with Christ, they have jettisoned the “traditional understanding of Calvin’s theology” and have proposed a “realigning of Calvin’s doctrines of justification and sanctification.” Wenger’s claim is that for various reasons— methodological, historiographical, and exegetical—this reading of Calvin, which overstresses the importance of the union with Christ, is “an unfair one.”2 The commendation of Wenger’s interests and concerns aside (after all, response articles are not primarily laudatory so much as critical), in this article I want to redress a number of Wenger’s criticisms in the order in which they were presented.

Before moving to concerns of more substance, a preliminary note on the use of the label “New Perspective on Calvin” is in order. Although Wenger is careful to disassociate his use of the label from any real or perceived connections with other strands of scholarship, the disclaimer does not make the selection of phrase any more salutary, and this for at least two reasons. The first is that there is nothing particularly “new” in the assertion that union with Christ is a controlling principle in Calvin’s soteriology. John Williamson

Nevin (1803–1886), the noted Reformed theologian and co-founder (with Philip Schaff) of the Mercersburg Theology, formulated an articulate defense of the significance of the union motif in Calvin’s theology. Calvin’s understanding of the believer’s union with Christ, Nevin thought, was crucial to his soteriology and had definite implications for his understanding of justification and sanctification.

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