Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Greg L. Bahnsen versus Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision: Part 1

Greg L. Bahnsen
The late Greg L. Bahnsen, one of the modern theonomic reformation's most influential voices, has unfortunately been accused as one who would have sided with Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision heresy in general if he were alive today.  We find this hard to believe, given statements that Bahnsen made while he was alive.

In this series, we will show that Bahnsen's view of justification was orthodox, and not in line with the Federal Vision.  We will draw from a chapter from John M. Otis' "Danger in the Camp: An Analysis and Refutation of the Heresies of the Federal Vision," titled, "Greg Bahnsen is not in the Federal Vision Camp."  We encourage readers to read this downloadable chapter for a more thorough analysis.  

A quote some seize upon to "show" that Bahnsen believed in the Federal Vision doctrine of justification by works is the following from Bahnsen's 1986 audio tape on Calvin's Institutes.  Randy Booth, a Federal Vision heretic who heads Covenant Media Foundation (which unfortunately has control over much of Bahnsen's works) used this to try and show that Bahnsen would have agreed with Norman Shepherd's interpretation of James 2 (however, pay close attention to the text we bolded):
I think (this) is rather convoluted … let me very briefly point out, some people will say James can’t mean the word justify in a forensic sense, because then he would contradict Paul.  Paul says we are justified by faith, not works. James says we are justified by works.

So if they both mean “justify” in the forensic sense, there is a contradiction. Well, I don’t think so, because in Galatians 5:6 Paul teaches exactly what James does. Paul says we are justified by faith working by love. We are justified by working, active, living faith. I think that’s what James is teaching. They mean exactly the same thing.

But nevertheless some people have insisted- and this has been a bone of controversy in my denomination even, because a professor at Westminster Seminary insisted James means this in the forensic sense.  Now … people who don’t like that say, It is to be taken in the demonstrative sense. The problem is, the demonstrative sense of the word justify means “to show someone to be righteous,” and that doesn’t relieve the contradiction between James and Paul, because Paul in Romans 4 looks at Abraham as an example of how God justifies the ungodly.

James is saying, Look at how God justifies someone demonstrated as godly. The contradiction is not relieved. And so what you really get – and this is crucial, this is a crucial point- modern interpreters who don’t like what I am suggesting and what Professor Shepherd is suggesting end up saying that to justify in James 2 really means “to demonstrate justification,” not to “demonstrate righteousness.”

That is, they make the word to justify mean “to justify the fact that I’m justified.” And the word never means that. That’s utterly contrived. It means either “to declare righteous” or “to demonstrate righteous” It does not mean “to justify that one’s justified.”
... Am I making myself clear? I’m suggesting that the reason Paul and James are not contrary to one another is because the only kind of faith that will justify us is working faith, and the only kind of justification ever presented in the Bible after the Fall is a justification by working faith, a faith that receives its merit from God and proceeds to work as a regenerated, new person.[1]

On this John Otis writes,
Those in the Federal Vision camp think that this comment from Greg Bahnsen demonstrates that if alive he would be clearly on the Federal Vision side of the controversy. I do not think this to be the case at all. The Greg Bahnsen quote that Randy Booth is referring to is not how Shepherd views James 2 in his book The Call of Grace.

Bahnsen does mention in his quote that Shepherd was teaching that the meaning of the word “justified” was still a forensic meaning.  Let’s assume that is the case. This still does not mean that Bahnsen’s quote supports Shepherd’s views that reemerged in the late 1990’s [remember, Bahnsen said what he said in 1986. S.H.] and to the present.  The way that Shepherd now expresses his views on works as they relate to justification is not what Bahnsen stated in the above quote and are not in conformity with what Bahnsen wrote in Theonomy In Christian Ethics.

Let’s examine closely Bahnsen’s quote. When Bahnsen states that justification is a justification by working faith, a faith that receives its merit from God and proceeds to work as a regenerated, new person, this is not what Shepherd and the rest of the Federal Vision has said about justification.

Shepherd has defined saving faith as “the obedience of faith.” In his book The Call of Grace Shepherd made the comment about James 2 that “the faith credited to Abraham as righteousness was a living and active faith.[2]  Shepherd also stated, “In fact, Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham’s faith was so significant that it was credited to him as righteousness! If so, then righteousness was a condition to be met, and faith met that condition.[3]

Bahnsen speaks about a faith that proceeds to work as a regenerated, new person. When he said the word “proceed” Bahnsen separated himself in what Shepherd came to articulate. Bahnsen has said nothing different than what the Westminster Confession of Faith says in chapter 11:2.

This section states: “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 worketh by love.

The proof texts given for the last phrases in this section are James 2:17, 22, 26 and Galatians 5:6. Bahnsen was saying that saving faith is a living, active faith. Now, when Shepherd says that faith is a living, active faith he means something different because he means that the essence of faith is obedience to God’s law.
Bahnsen, in short, taught that good works come after saving faith, while Shepherd and those in the Federal Vision in general teach that good works are the essence of saving faith.


[1] Randy Booth, "Caution and Respect In Controversy." Booth quotes Bahnsen's 1986 audio tape on Calvin's Institutes.  Cited in John M. Otis, Danger in the Camp: An Analysis and Refutation of the Heresies of the Federal Vision (Corpus Christi, TX: Triumphant Publications, 2005), 434.

[2] Shepherd, The Call of Grace , 16. Cited in Ibid.

[3] Shepherd, The Call of Grace, 15. Cited in Ibid.


Anonymous said...

Praise the LORD! I'm looking forward to reading and sharing this series with others. Thanks for posting it.

Steve said...

You are most welcome--I appreciate you passing this on to others. Brother Bahnsen's reputation has for too long been maligned by baseless accusations against him. God bless,
Steve H.