Chapter 6: Of Justification by Faith and by the Merits of Works
(Note: I did not have to write a reflection on chapter five “On Penitence”)
There comes a point in this chapter where Calvin must assess the evidence from Scripture which seems to assert that one is justified by works. Over all, he does an admirable job of understanding each example within its context. However, there is one feature of his exegesis that was surprising. He often performs hermeneutical gymnastics in order to show that individual’s were already saved prior to their words/actions in Scripture. For example, he statement concerning the efficacy of Cornelius’ prayer (p. 362) seems to imply that Cornelius was already saved: “since he was a lover of righteousness which is the fruit of the Spirit, he must have been sanctified by the same Spirit” (emphasis mine). This one example is the outcome of a prior conclusion which Calvin stated on p. 347: “how much more should the good works which He has given us serve that purpose, since they show that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us.” That is, if there is any evidence of someone doing good works prior to a conversion experience, they must have already been regenerated by God. In this way, Calvin is able to easily elude any implication from texts which appear to say that an individual has found favor with God based upon something they did before they were “saved.” I do not insist that because Calvin is exhibiting poor exegesis that the corollary is therefore true. Instead, I am interested in the way that prior theological conclusions influence biblical exegesis. More so, in what way did Calvin’s opponents shape the outcome of his exegesis? Current proponents of the New Perspectives on Paul claim that Luther and Calvin were reacting to late Medieval merit theology which in turn formed the way they interpreted the text. While they reach different conclusions than the Medievals, they are still working within a merit framework. Has enough time passed to where the Reformation can be reassessed, or must the dogmatic declarations of Post-Reformational synods be the eternal lens through which we eisegete the text? Is the Reformation really over?