This last week my friend Peter Leithart did some musing out loud about some problems that he identifies as resulting from an emphasis on the “legal status” of righteousness. One post, “How to Say, ‘I Am Righteous'” is here, and another related post on Luther and imputation/infusion can be found here.
In response I have some questions, some hesitations, some suggestions, some objections, and some exhortations. Here we go.
Peter argues that we hesitate to speak the way the psalmist sometimes does because of unbelief. Peter says that to say that I am legally righteous and existentially sinful is dualism — a dualism “fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the ‘legal me’ as righteous while consigning the ‘real, existential me’ or ‘my nature’ to the realm of sin.”
First, what is dualism exactly? I don’t think we can say that it occurs just because we have distinct nouns for distinct things. Sun and moon are two, as are heaven and earth, but do not represent dualism, and to affirm that God created mankind as male and female is not dualism either. So it seems that dualism occurs when two distinct things are put into an unbiblical relation to one another, or one thing that should remain as one is broken in two.
So justification and sanctification could be understood dualistically, just as a misogynist understands sex dualistically. But that is his rebellion, not a design feature. In a very non-dualistic way, the Westminster Confession sings justification and sanctification together in a very sweet harmony. It is certainly possible to differ with Westminster here (although I do not), but impossible, I think, to charge the Confession with dualism.
“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2).
“This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (WCF 13.2)
This means that any Protestant preaching that consigns the “real me” to the realm of sin, to drown there in tubs of depravity, would be preaching that is, in addition to being unbiblical, radically unconfessional. As long as I have been Reformed I have been instructed on the distinction between reigning sin (which is no more) and remaining sin (which must addressed and dealt with by faith, in the whole man, on a daily basis). I have also been instructed, over and over, on the distinction between justification and sanctification, coupled with their inseparability. As I said before, this could all be wrong, but it seems to me that battalions of Reformed theologians have taken exquisite pains over the course of centuries to not be dualistic on the point.
But this leads to my central question. Having said all this, I do not dispute that Peter has seen the kind of disjunct that he describes. I don’t doubt that he has seen it because I have certainly seen it. There are more than a few Protestant preachers who wouldn’t recognize the Westminster Confession if it landed in their front yard in a helicopter. There is a functional dualism that is certainly out there. But what causes it?
Well — and this is my preacher side coming out — sin causes it. The world God actually created is harmoniously integrated, and unregenerate hearts refuse to treat it that way. The teaching of Scripture is harmoniously integrated, and unregenerate hearts refuse to read it that way. The body, soul, and spirit of the Lord Jesus were perfectly integrated. But in an unregenerate man, these aspects of a man are all disjointed and dislocated. So dualism occurs when men separate what God has joined together.
And this is why I think Peter’s proposed solution to this actual difficulty won’t really get at the root of the pastoral problem at all. He says, “If, by contrast, we renounce the dualism of inner and outer and take justification as a fundamental redefinition not just of my status but of who I am, then we have a stronger basis for assurance.”
In contrast, I would argue that we can never surmount this problem by rearranging the words, or bringing in extra adjectives. It does not matter what words of renunciation you give an unregenerate man, he will always manage to carve some sort of dualism out of them. If he is an old guard confessional unregenerate man, that dualism will be between his legal status of justification and his actual lack of sanctification. Or if he goes Peter’s route, it will be between his fundamental redefinition of who he is, and what he is actually acting like over the breakfast table to his wife.
The problem here is that “my old Protestant status” and this new fundamental redefinition of “who I am” are both descriptions of my basic formal status, just using different words. But if a woman were despondent over her weight, would we try to cheer her up by having her translate the same weight out of pounds and into kilograms?
A person who accepts this fundamental redefinition of who he is will still have a series of discipleship choices the following Monday morning. An essential part of that discipleship is striving to have those choices align with who we are called to be in Christ. The Bible teaches us two realities — who we are in Christ and who we are called to be in Christ. If these two do not align, as sometimes they do not, we have a problem — a discrepancy between our calling in Christ and what we just said or did. This discrepancy is to be expected in a world like ours, and we are supposed to teach true Christians what to do when they encounter it.
“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them” (Col. 3:1–7).
I wouldn’t want to accuse the apostle Paul of dualism because he says that my life is hid with Christ in God, and also that my life might have some toxic weeds in it that need to be nuked by the Spirit.
Now any professing Christian who refuses to deal with such things is confronted with the conclusion of a practical syllogism that plays pretty rough. “Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Scripture frequently tells Christians that they aren’t really. We sometimes speak as though lack of assurance were the only possible problem. But assurance is a problem when someone has it who shouldn’t, and lack of assurance is only a problem when someone doesn’t have assurance who should. We should always care more about the presence of the truth than the presence of assurance.
In short, I believe the old categories and the old formulations (re: justification, imputation, sanctification, infusion) are fully biblical and therefore sufficient to deal with this practical pastoral problem. As Chesterton would have said, had he only thought of it, historic Protestantism has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. I believe the difficulties that Peter is trying to solve by thought experiments with the early Luther, or with various forms of ecumenical nuance, are difficulties that actually have elegant solutions in our own largely untapped tradition.
And this unfolds into my final concerns. Peter is concerned about a particular pastoral problem among some Protestants. But to muse out loud about untested possible solutions that appear to directly challenge older Protestant solutions to the same problem — solutions that have been road-tested for some centuries — is going to generate a broad range of brand new pastoral problems. This is especially the case if the challenged Protestant solutions concern central issues like the relationship of imputed righteousness to infused righteousness.
Peter summarizes the older problematic Protestant view in a way that seems to include the tradition itself, and not just a few unconfessional preachers falsely representing it. He says “a legal declaration is not like a way of life; a man declared innocent is innocent, and there is no double jeopardy.” But then he adds, “Compelling as this may be in some ways, the implied dualism can only undermine assurance.” First, I would want to know what ways this older construct is compelling, and why we are not then compelled by it. But then also, is he saying that the Reformed tradition itself has this implied dualism in it? Or just some preachers who didn’t get the confessional memo?
This legal declaration is not a legal fiction. My “legal me” is Jesus, and I am genuinely united to Him by faith. How could it possibly be dualism to be united to Christ?
In short, there is no implied dualism in the historic Reformed view of this at all, and therefore we do not need to take any drastic action to fix the consequences of such an implied dualism. The implication is not there at all, and so we do not need to head it off.
But does Peter believe that we need to amend our confessions at this point? If so, is he clear in his own mind as to what form such amendments should take? What specific language would he propose? But if we are not yet at a point in these discussions where there is language ready to debate and discuss, then it seems to me that these questions are large and weighty enough that we shouldn’t really be speculating about them in public this way, however tentatively.
This is closely related to another issue. When the Federal Vision controversy erupted over a decade ago, there was a great deal of confusion involved in it. More than a few Girardian elbows were thrown, some folks jumped into the fray who couldn’t be troubled to read a book, or pick up a phone, and there was at least one troubled anti-FV prosecutor who was in the process of poping himself. From where I sit the responsibility for the lion’s share of those confusions rested with the accusers. But if that controversy ever heats up again, I am concerned that preliminary sketches and speculations like these recent posts could shift responsibility for the confusion to our side of the aisle. If we care about the peace and purity of the church, we must cultivate the virtue of theological clarity.
So clearly, the Protestant world has to go into the future, right along with everybody else. But as we do, we have a fundamental choice. We could take our responsibility as being defined by our own mini-eschatology, by pious guesswork on what the Spirit is going to be doing next, or we can take our guidance from making sure we have genuinely understood what the Spirit has already done. The latter is the course of action that I believe is pressing and urgent. It is the course of evangelical resourcement, and I believe it is the best way to address all Peter’s legitimate concerns and then some.