Dr. Hart asked me why I reject “the imputation of the active obedience of Christ” (IAOC). My answer to the question is simple: the most significant reason denying the IAOC is important to me is the odd recent insistence by some that confessing that formulation is necessary in order to maintain one’s Reformed credentials.
I will deny the IAOC with gusto as long as people keep insisting on binding my conscience with such a formulation. You see, I confess and embrace the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 20 “Of Christian Liberty, and the Liberty of Conscience.” I believe that God alone is Lord of my conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and the commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship.
You ask me what I gain by denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Not much theologically. I just don’t think such a formulation is helpful and adequately summarizes the Biblical data. I certainly don’t think that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone requires such a formulation. That’s all. I’m not sure why a denial of the IOAOC is inexorably linked with Shepherd’s project.
The real reason I deny it is because I’m being told that I must affirm it even though I do not find it in the Westminster Standards or in the Bible.
Perhaps a story will help.
In 1537, Peter Caroli, a Reformed minister at Lausanne, accused Calvin and Farel of Arianism. It seems that the Genevan Reformers were not using the precise Patristic terminology in their teaching about the deity of the Son and the Trinity. Their opponents wondered whether they were truly “orthodox” in their statements about the Trinity.
At a special synod, Caroli demanded that Calvin subscribe to the early church creeds. Calvin refused. No, that’s not a typo. He refused.
It is part of our Calvinian heritage to refuse to be bound by extrabiblical categories and terminology. The Bible has absolute priority over all traditional formulations, the Westminster standards included.
Consider Warfield’s discussion of this episode and its significance in his “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of B.B. Warfield, vol. 5, pp. 180-220.
Warfield says, “Calvin refused to subscribe to the ancient creeds at Caroli’s dictation, not in the least because he did not find himself in accord with their teaching, but solely because he was determined to preserve for himself and his colleagues the liberties belonging to Christian men, subject in matters of faith to no other authority than that of God speaking in the Scriptures” (p. 207).
Calvin himself says, “I have long learned by experience, and that over and over again, that those who contend thus pertinaciously about terms, are really cherishing a secret poison” (Inst. 1.8.5).
But listen to what Warfield says and apply it mutatis mutandis to the current controversies in our circles:
“[Calvin’s] sole design was to make it apparent that Caroli’s insistence that only in words of these creeds could faith in the Trinity be fitly expressed was ridiculous” (p. 211).
“He [Calvin] considered it intolerable that the Christian teacher’s faith should be subjected to the authority of any traditional modes of statement, however venerable, or however true; and he refused to be the instrument of creating a precedent for such tyranny in the Reformed Churches by seeming to allow that a teacher might be justly treated as a heretic until he cleared himself by subscribing ancient symbols thrust before him by this or that disturber of the peace” (p. 208).
Wow. How the Reformed church has fallen. Fallen into the sterile trap of Westminster traditionalism. These days, in some quarters of the Presbyterian church, if you don’t define theological terms in exactly the same way as some branch of the Reformed tradition, you are a heretic.
Part of the problem is that we have so little theological imagination, not to mention intellectual honesty, that we cannot admit that the substance of a matter might be confessed using nontraditional words and categories. If someone is not speaking the language of the 17th century, defining terms like they did, that doesn’t mean they are not Reformed, or worse, heretics.
Maybe the most troubling example of this is when men are accused of denying salvation by grace because they do not use the precise language and categories of some branch of the Reformed tradition. Someone thrusts the words “the imputation of the active obedience of Christ” in my face and says sign this or you deny the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. I say, I won’t sign that. Presto! I’m an Arminian or worse.
No matter how loudly we protest that we don’t believe in salvation by works and that we do believe that we are saved by Christ’s righteousness alone, our traditionalist opponents accuse us of Arminianism or worse, and all because we won’t sign our names under their pet theological formulations.
Maybe we’re not right about our own doctrinal formulations. Maybe we misunderstand the Bible. We should all be open to correction from one another. But one thing we are doing, in good Calvinian fashion, is exegeting the Bible with the freedom that the Reformers won for the liberated churches of Protestantism. We want to go where the Bible leads us. That’s a good thing. We may be wrong in our exegesis. But that’s where the debate ought to be foughtâ€”at the level of biblical exposition, not subscription to idiosyncratic formulations no matter how venerable or traditional they may be.
If we are not careful, we will out do Rome in our Romanizing traditionalism. In some circles the Westminster standards seem to have become the infallible voice of the Reformed magisterium. If you deviate from the exact words, definitions, and formulations therein, or if you suggest that they might be corrected by the Bible, you may be hauled before a Reformed inquisition.
As the traditionalists are ripping out various ministers’ ecclesiastical entrails, perhaps a loud cry of “freedom!” now and then might be appropriate. Calvin would be proud.