John Fesko on Justification

There has been a resurgence of interest in the Reformed doctrine of justification, especially since the advent of the New Perspective on Paul in the 60’s and 70’s with the publication of Krister Stendahl’s article on the introspective conscience of the West, and E.P. Sanders’s book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. There has been a flurry of responses written, especially in the last ten years, both from Lutherans and from Reformed folk. However, there has not been a single-volume book on the doctrine itself, written by one person, until now. And it is a wonderful book, full of good things. Probably the best single aspect about the book is Fesko’s determination to root justification in the history of salvation. Indeed, he winds up rooting the entire ordo salutis in the historia salutis. However, one can easily see that justification, in particular, must be grounded on the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, or we’re all lost.

Broadly speaking, one can divide up the book into five main parts. Chapters 1 and 2 are introductory, dealing with a broad outline of church history and issues of prolegomena (where Fesko ably defends the unity of theological discourse, one of my passions). Chapters 3-5 deal with justification and biblical theology (as defined in the Vossian sense), treating redemptive history, the covenant of works, and the work of Christ. Chapters 6-8 deal with church history, including a broad historical overview, and the New Perspective on Paul. Chapters 9-13 deal with systematic theological concerns, examining imputation, union, sanctification, the final judgment, and the church. And finally, chapters 14-15 deal with apologetics, with specific reference to the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is really only one thing missing, and John knows it is missing. I had a nice long talk with him about certain aspects of this book, and he was able to clarify many things for me, this one being one of them. I asked him why he did not include a history of the doctrine that focussed on the post-Reformation period of theology (a la Muller). He said that he had a chapter ready on that, but all the other chapters were already long, and he wanted to make sure that contemporary issues were handled. So, he has done his work in that field, but hasn’t put it in this book. Maybe he can write a supplementary pamphlet (or an article for a major journal) and include in it this material.

Let me just say that the treatment is masterful. He has plainly read just about everything that is important, and has dealt fairly and accurately with viewpoints differing from his own. I want to single out for special attention his handling of N.T. Wright’s exegetical arguments. After describing them accurately, he goes on to show why they are wrong, exegetically. Included is discussion of Wright’s definition of righteousness (pp. 221-223), exegesis of Romans 4:1-8, Psalm 106:31, 4Q MMT, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Romans 5:12-21. These arguments are certainly convincing to me, and pose a serious challenge to Wright.

In short, I recommend this book enthusiastically, with two thumbs up. This is the best treatment of the doctrine by one writer since Buchanan.