Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book Review: Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd & The Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary

Hewitson, Ian. Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd and the Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary. Minneapolis MN, NextStep Resources, 2011, Pp. 277. $25.00

Do you know how faith and works fit together? If we are saved from our sins by faith, then why all the commands to do good works? Why does Paul say we are justified by faith, but James says, "you see that a man is not justified by faith alone, but by his works," (2:24)? How can we express the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and yet find any congruence with what James says?

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, the doctrine of justification by "faith alone" came under scrutiny at Westminster Theological Seminary. One of the reasons that precipitated a long, drawn-out, and painful controversy there is because the Rev. Norman Shepherd sought to do faithful exegesis of the text of Scripture in comparing the so-called contradictory pronouncements on justification between Paul and James. He did so while staying faithful to his Reformed tradition as expressed in the Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms). While Shepherd came to question Luther's statement of "justification by faith alone," he wondered why exegetical theology could not express itself in terms of the simpler, and more biblical, "justification by faith." It was, after all, Martin Luther who added the gloss "alone" (glauben allein) into the text of Romans 3:28, which is not in the Greek text.

Ian Hewitson, Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, reveals in his clear, erudite dissertation, that at the crux of the debate over Shepherd's teachings was the Lutheran-Calvinist distinction in what constitutes justifying faith. For Luther, the faith that justifies is "alone." That is, faith is an entity that exists all by itself, is "alone," and is devoid of any and all good works. In this sense "justification by faith alone" uses "alone" as an adjective. What kind of faith is it that justifies? It is an "alone" faith. It is faith in abstraction from all else. That is the adjectival use of the word "alone" in "justification by faith alone."

The Calvinist understanding, however was comfortable with the notion of justifying faith as a living, active, obedient faith. The (Calvinist) Westminster Confession of Faith states, "Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love" (Chapter 10, Section 2). The Calvinist understanding of "justification by faith alone" uses "alone" in the adverbial sense. That is, faith is an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs. Hence, we ask the question this time: how is a person justified? The answer is, "the only way of salvation is by Jesus Christ and by His work on our behalf. Those who trust in Him alone with a living and active faith will be justified" (Hewitson, 26 emphasis added).

The distinction between faith and works is important for those of the Protestant Reformation, but--the Lutherans and Calvinists expressed that difference in pedantic, yet ponderous ways. Hewitson adds excellent detail and documentation to this discussion in the opening of the book, which sets the stage for the reader to understand the base assumptions of the controversy in these historical terms.

Of important note in this book is Hewitson's discussion of the temporal versus the logical distinction between justification and sanctification. The difference here is expressed in the fact that both sides on the controversy believe there should be a distinction between justification (legal declaration of the forgiveness of sins) on the one hand, and sanctification (growing in grace, holiness, and Christ-likeness), on the other. The desire to draw the distinction between justification and sanctification is not only understandable, but absolutely necessary, because otherwise justification would be a process. If justification is a process, then believers have no comfort of the total forgiveness of sins, because they remain sinners. This would put people in jeopardy of submitting to a system of cleansing that provides no assurance and is based on works. Shepherd's opponents, however, insisted on a temporal distinction between justification and sanctification, and a temporal distinction here does not leave room for language that describes saving faith as "living, active and obedient," while a logical distinction does. A logical distinction merely discusses the differences between justification and sanctification in the essence of their respective imports, but that does not mean that they cannot happen at the same time. In fact, the Westminster Standards speak of justification and sanctification as "inseparably joined," yet distinct (Larger Catechism, Q. 77). Oddly enough, some reformed pastors today want to speak of a "nanosecond" that exists between justification and sanctification, in order to rescue the doctrine of "justification by faith alone." Thus, the commitment to a temporal distinction results in extra-biblical terminology that has no basis in Scripture, confuses people, and wreaks of scholasticism. The logical distinction holds true to the Larger Catechism, the message of Scripture and the idea that one is justified by a living, active, obedient faith.

One of the major components of the controversy was Shepherd's understanding of the "covenant dynamic" with respect to election. Shepherd taught that with respect to election, Christians must not look to the doctrine of the divine decrees in order to know if someone or one's self is elect, because Christians do not have access to that information: only God does. But what do Christians have access to? Well, that would be the Scriptures, and human experience. Shepherd therefore taught that election (and other doctrines) may be understood from two perspectives: God's and man's. For election to be understood from the perspective of the covenant sounded too much like Roman Catholic or Arminian theology to Shepherd's opponents, and even though he was exonerated time and again by the seminary, his opponents did not give up. However, Hewitson shows with remarkable clarity, skill and research that Shepherd was supported by Scripture, Reformed tradition in the Standards and in the writings of the Reformers themselves, as well as Faculty at the seminary.

Hewitson provides a good sketch of Shepherd's bi-perspectival approach, or what is called his "covenant dynamic." The covenant dynamic seeks to express the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. One asks, "If the elect can never fall away, then how do we make sense of the warning passages that warn God's people to persevere in the faith in order to avoid eternal judgment?" The covenant dynamic speaks to the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility with respect to this issue (and others) by means of the dynamic of two perspectives: God's and man's. For example, from God's perspective, there is divine election. Corresponding to this is man's perspective, which is membership in the church. Now, Shepherd's opponents could not (or would not?) understand this paradigm, and accused Shepherd of teaching that membership in the church meant a person was elect--in term's of God's perspective, that is. But Shepherd made himself very clear, as Hewitson shows in his documentation, that he meant a person may be considered elect by virtue of their membership in the church, not because anyone has access to God's divine decree (the book of Life), but because one has access to the standards of the covenant (revealed in Scripture, the covenant document), and the standards of the covenant are that one belongs to the church (marked by baptism). From man's perspective, one can say a certain member in the church is elect, because that person confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, is baptized, and lives a life that expresses obedience to Him (not sinless obedience, you understand). But that person, according to the divine decree may not be elect--they may not really believe at all, and may prove this by falling away from the faith some day and never coming back. So, they apostatize. In this sense (man's perspective here), their status as "elect" was not irrevocable. However, on the opposite end, in terms of the divine decree and God's perspective, they never actually were elect, and they have proven this by their confession and/or lifestyle (or both). But from man's perspective, there was--at one time--every reason to believe they were elect.

Time after time, Shepherd was exonerated from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was never found guilty of error. He was never found guilty of heresy. Ever. In fact, he has to this day to receive a letter of dismissal from WTS. Readers will find this book not a little damning toward those who opposed him. Hewitson even indulges readers with personal interviews and letters of Shepherd's main protractors.

Believing that Norman Shepherd is heterodox, unorthodox, or a heretic is impossible after reading this book. That is, unless the evidence is dismissed, disbelieved, or counted as insufficient. But the evidence that Ian Hewitson provides in this tome is overwhelming. First, Hewitson reveals with meticulous detail, the history behind the justification controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The amount of documentation from various meetings (Board of Trustees, Faculty and other committees) is as high and interminable as a WWII pillbox on Omaha beach. Second, Hewitson covers the theological debate in a clear, outlined format that shows exactly what the controversy covered concerning Shepherd’s views, namely on covenant, election, baptism, and justification (with a discussion on the phrase, “justification by faith alone”). He shows from Shepherd's own writings, those of the Westminster Standards, and of the Reformers as well, that Shepherd's theological thought was well within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, and in fact reflected much of it, including the likes of Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, and John Murray, Shepherd's predecessor.

Hewitson’s chief aim in this book is to “rise to the defense of a man [he] had come to believe was being unjustly slandered” (p.15). After reading the story of what happened to Shepherd, and how a few, bold, men opposed him—after reading the account of the witch hunt that went secretly behind the authority of the seminary—after reading the personal letters of those who opposed and supported him, it is difficult to read the book without gasping at the activity of Christian men who sought the destruction of a brother after being exonerated by the seminary countless times. Of course, Hewitson is so fair-minded in his history, and so objective in his retelling, that one reads this story from the perspective of receiving just the facts. But, as John Frame tells in the forward, that fact is this—that after all the controversy, the seminary came to an impasse: Shepherd’s opponents were causing a stir that was “injuring the seminary’s reputation, enrollment, and financial stability…. There is no way in which the seminary could have silenced Shepherd’s critics; it had to choose between Shepherd and them. And so they perpetrated an injustice” (p.11).

This book should be read by all. This isn't just playing games with theological skirmishes. Anyone who wants to understand how faith and works correspond to one another will be edified. Most importantly, they should learn from Norman Shepherd what sound, exegetical theology looks like, and they should honor his name.


Randy said...

I read the puritanboard blog discussion of the book this morning and then I read your review. Your review 1; puritanboard discussion 0.

The scriptures principally teach what we should believe and how we should live (what the reformers called "our duty"). Thanks for the well written post, which gets right to the issue of how we should then live. I once commented extensively on a certain WTS West Professor's blog. He asked me at one point, "Do you really think the great need in churches is the third use of the law?" (He obviously thought the great issue of our day was justification by faith - alone). He refused to answer my questions concerning some fairly obvious passages in scripture. I learned in reading the puritanboard this morning (where he commented) that he has a nice little label for people who try to use scripture to support their positions. How sad. At the antinomian (in terms of preaching) 300 member PCA church I used to attend, in the span of a little more than 10 years, five elders divorced (one TE and four REs). Other marriages and families suffered terribly. Justification by faith alone was not the crying need. The crying need was for someone to believe and preach that "the Spirit of Christ subdues and enables the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done." WCF Chapter 19-6. Ezekiel 36:27. I will buy the book. Thanks again.

chris van allsburg said...

Dear Randy,

Thank-you so much for these kind words. May the Lord bless you.

A. B. Caneday said...

I've read the book. Your review has captured the book very well. Nice job!

Ian Hewitson is my colleague at Northwestern College.