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The Theological Novum of the Reformation

My Response to William Hill and Dr. J. V. Fesko

In my response to Gentry’s interview on Covenant Radio, I said that the post-apostolic church never taught “forensic justification by faith alone” until about the year 1500. Here is the quote:

“As for the argument that the church couldn’t have been wrong about eschatology for about 2,00 years (or more accurately, about 1,800 years), Gentry is yet again using a Roman Catholic argument. How could the Reformers have been correct about ‘forensic justification by faith alone’ when the post-apostolic church NEVER taught that doctrine until about the year 1500? According to Gentry’s fallacious reasoning, Reformed Theology must be an unbiblical and damnable heresy. Gentry’s argument (‘Hyper-preterism’ is new in church history. Therefore it is false.) brings the Reformation down like a house of cards. ‘Forensic justification by faith alone’ was just as ‘new’ in the 1500’s as ‘hyper-preterism’ was ‘new’ in the 1800’s.”

William Hill of Covenant Radio (the gentleman who interviewed Gentry) has responded to this statement by means of his recent interview with Dr. J. V. Fesko. After reading the above quote aloud to Dr. Fesko, William Hill continued, referring to me:

” . . . Then he goes on to make another silly comment. But how would you respond to that statement? Apparently according to this particular person, who has authored a book and calls himself a Bible student [incredulous laughter], makes the claim, with no supporting argument, just flat out states that the church never taught the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone in the post-apostolic era. How would you respond to such a comment?”

Dr. Fesko responded to William Hill by saying that there were “expressions” of the doctrine of “forensic justification by faith alone” before the Reformation, but that those expressions were “unrefined,” “undefined” and imprecise. He said that when the pre-Reformation theologians spoke of the doctrine, their statements were “perhaps not the clearest that we would hope for, or perhaps at times confuse things.” At the end of the interview, William Hill and Dr. Fesko agreed that it is unthinkable that there was “no concept” of “forensic justification by faith alone” before the Reformation.

MY RESPONSE TO WILLIAM HILL AND DR. FESKO:

It’s not William Hill’s fault, but he misunderstood my statement, because he lacked its context. My statement was an unqualified, shorthand summary of what I wrote in House Divided: Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology (which I’m assuming that William Hill has not read). In that book, on pages 45-49, I argue, with documentation from Alister E. McGrath (Iustitia Dei), that before the Reformation, justification was never thought of as being strictly or only a “forensic declaration.” It was never defined before the Reformation as being merely or simply “a legal declaration of God.”

As I wrote: Before the Reformation, justification was not simply forensic. “It was an all-encompassing and progressive change both in a man’s status and in his nature. . . . [J]ustification encompassed the entire Christian life, from initial justification at the time of baptism to the perfection of justification in the end of the world. . . . [J]ustification was the gradual restoration of every aspect of man to God’s original created order. [The pre-Reformation fathers] conflated ‘regeneration’ and ‘sanctification’ into a processive and nature-changing concept of ‘justification.’ What we today would call ‘regeneration, progressive sanctification, and consummated sanctification,’ [the pre-Reformation fathers] simply called ‘justification.'”

It was not until the 1500’s that “justification” became strictly a change in a man’s status before God, and NOT a change in a man’s nature. It was not until the 1500’s that “justification” became strictly a “legal declaration” and NOT a process. This alteration in the doctrine of justification was “a genuine theological novum” (Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, pages 184, 186-187). In regard to this change, there were no “forerunners of the Reformation” (ibid., 185). As McGrath sums it up: It was thus in the Reformation that “a fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before” (ibid., 184, 186).

I also wrote in House Divided (page 48) that the truth about justification was expressed before the Reformation, but only in “bits and pieces” –just as “hyper-preterism” was expressed throughout church history, but only in “bits and pieces.” Dr. Fesko said it well: Before the Reformation, the expressions of the biblical view of justification were “unrefined,” “undefined,” imprecise, not clear, and confusing. I agree. It was only in the Reformation that the baggage of Augustine was shed from justification, and it was no longer thought of as being a nature-changing process. It became instead, purely the legal declaration that we are granted through “faith alone.” This understanding of justification never existed in the post-apostolic church until the 1500’s.

Therefore, Gentry’s argument (”Hyper-preterism” is new in church history. Therefore it is false.) brings the Reformation down like a house of cards, because the Reformation understanding of justification was just as “new” in the 1500’s as “hyper-preterism” was “new” in the 1800’s.

David Green

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