A Customary Calvinist Vitiation

Keith Mathison presents some information about James Buchanan (not an endorsement of Mathison or Ligonier or R.C. Sproul):

“James Buchanan (1804-1870) was both a minister and Reformed theologian. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1827 but joined the Free Church in 1843. He served as a minister in the church until 1845 when he was appointed to teach apologetics at the New College in Edinburgh. In 1847, he was appointed to the chair of systematic theology in the same college and held that position until 1868. Among his works are books on affliction, the Holy Spirit, modern atheism, and apologetics. His most well-known work, however, is his defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification, first published in 1867.

When Banner of Truth reprinted Buchanan’s book in 1961, it had been for almost one hundred years the only full-scale treatment of the doctrine in English. Thankfully, that situation has changed since 1961, and several full-scale books on the doctrine have been published in English, including R.C. Sproul’s Faith Alone (Baker Books, 1995) and J.V. Fesko’s Justification (P&R Publishing, 2008). Although these works deal with more contemporary issues and debates surrounding the doctrine of justification, Buchanan’s book should not be ignored.

The chapters of Buchanan’s book were originally the Cunningham Lectures for 1866 at New College, Edinburgh. They are not dry as many such lectures can be, however. It is probably because Buchanan had been a preacher that these lectures exhibit his passion for truth rather than a detached abstract approach. Following a short introductory essay and brief biography of the author, the book is divided into two parts. The first seven chapters survey the history of the doctrine of justification. Buchanan traces the doctrine through the Old and New Testaments before looking at its development from the early church to the nineteenth century. Among his most helpful information is his survey in chapter six of the doctrines of various post-Reformation Protestant groups and individuals. Here he looks at the teaching of groups as diverse as the Socinians, Arminians, and Quakers. He also surveys Amyraldianism and neonomianism before jumping into an evaluation of the Marrow Controversy.

Part Two of the book is Buchanan’s point-by-point exposition of the doctrine of justification. Here, in eight chapters, he explains and defends the Reformed doctrine as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. These chapters are theology in the best sense of the word — biblical, precise, pious, and practical. The biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is as precious today as it has always been. I urge any who do not understand what the Bible teaches on the subject or why it is so important to read this book.” (Keith Mathison; underlining mine–CD)

In the beginning paragraph Mathison called Buchanan’s work on justification a “defense.”  After witnessing Gresham Machen’s “defenses” of the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the Deity of Christ, and the Virgin Birth;  and after observing Bruce A. Ware’s “defense” against Open Theism, we start to get an idea of the customary Calvinist vitiation of the doctrines they are claiming to “defend.”

In these alleged “defenses” of doctrines that are “claimed” to be essential to the gospel, these writers, at the end of the day, end up sending the essential gospel doctrine down the Adiaphoran Waterfall in a barrel.  Let us see if Buchanan will continue the Reformed tradition of vitiating doctrines in order to reveal precisely what “gospel” he believes to be the power of God to salvation.  For if the doctrine wherein the righteousness of God is revealed (Romans 1:16-17, 3:21-26) is an optional or take-it-or-leave-it doctrine, then all that remains is a “gospel” which the apostle himself anathematized.  Those who believe that justification by the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ ALONE is optional, fall under Paul’s anathema (Galatians 1:8-9).  Here is Buchanan (in the appendix where his Lecture Notes are placed at the end of the book):

Many Wesleyan Methodists, following the example of their founder, have strenuously defended the doctrine of a free remission of sin through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and have as keenly opposed that of His imputed righteousness. They have taught with great earnestness, that ‘He who knew no sin was made sin for us,’ but have not been equally clear and explicit in showing, that ‘we are made the righteousness of God in Him.’ Much of the success of their preaching has arisen from their bold proclamation of some of the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel, such as those of original sin, in so far as it consists in inherent hereditary depravity, of the imputation of our sins to Christ as our substitute, and of His atoning sufferings and death; for these great truths have commended themselves to the hearts and consciences of many anxious inquirers, even among the rudest classes of society; and no one will doubt, what even Southey and Coleridge have admitted, that we are largely indebted to them for the preservation of vital religion in many a neglected district of our land. All this may be granted, and yet we may still maintain the fundamental importance of the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness. For although they refuse to admit it, and often argue keenly enough against it, this arises, in many cases, either from some misconception of its meaning, or from some sincere but groundless apprehension of its moral tendency; and we cannot doubt that some earnest souls even in the Romish Church, and not a few amongst our Wesleyan brethren, really believe all that we mean by that doctrine, when, emptied of all self-righteousness, they cast themselves down at the foot of the Cross, and trust only in the ‘merits of Christ.’ It has been well said, that it is safer to judge of some men from their prayers, than from their professed opinions: for some will object in controversial discussion to the doctrine which affirms the irresistible efficacy of divine grace, and yet, when they fall down on their knees, they will make use of the Psalmist’s prayer, ‘Create in me a clean heart, renew in me a right spirit;’ and others will object to the doctrine which affirms the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and yet, when they come into the divine presence, can find no language more suitable to their case, or more expressive of their feelings, than this: ‘If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquity, O Lord, who shall stand? Enter not into judgment with me, for in Thy sight shall no flesh living be justified.’

For this reason we can cheerfully acquiesce, and cordially concur, in the truly catholic deliverance of Dr. Owen, when, speaking of the sentiments of Calvinistic divines on this point, he says:

‘They do not think nor judge, that all those are excluded from salvation who cannot apprehend, or do deny, the doctrine of the imputation of righteousness, as by them declared. But they judge that they are so, unto whom that righteousness is not really imputed; nor can they do otherwise, whilst they make it the foundation of all their own acceptation with God and eternal salvation. These things greatly differ. To believe the doctrine of it, or not to believe it, as thus or thus explained, is one thing; and to enjoy the thing, or not enjoy it, is another. I no way doubt, but that many men do receive more grace from God than they understand or will own, and have a greater efficacy of it in them than they will believe. Men may be really saved by that’ (irresistible, efficacious) ‘grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed. For the faith of it is included in that general assent which they give unto the truths of the Gospel; and such an adherence to Christ may ensue thereon, as that their mistake of the way whereby they are saved by Him, shall not deprive them of a real interest therein. And for my part, I must say, that notwithstanding all the disputes that I see and read about Justification, I do not believe but that the authors of them (if they be not Socinians throughout, denying the whole merit and satisfaction of Christ) do really trust unto the Mediator of Christ for the pardon of their sins, and for acceptance with God, and not unto their own works or obedience. Nor will I believe the contrary, until they expressly declare it.’—Dr. Owen, Works, xi. p. 203.” (James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification) [underlining emphasis mine–CD]

A brief response (for now) is that James Buchanan and John Owen blatantly contradict and deny the essential gospel doctrine the apostle Paul sets forth in Romans 10:1-4:

“Brothers, truly my heart’s pleasure and supplication to God on behalf of Israel is for [it] to be saved. For I testify to them that they have zeal to God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to the righteousness of God. For Christ [is] the end of Law for righteousness to everyone that believes.” (Romans 10:1-4)