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Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards: Book Review

Alan D. Strange, Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards. Explorations in Reformed Confessional Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019. Pp. xviii + 154. $10.00 (paperback).

The rush of books, articles, reviews, and even a hymnal that has flowed from the pen (or, more likely, keyboard) of Dr. Alan D. Strange has been a most appreciated and welcomed gift to the church. His latest work is no exception as it takes up the vital gospel issue of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ—“no hope without it,” voiced the dying Machen. Strange’s focus is primarily historical, investigating the Westminster Assembly and the Westminster Standards, but this does not keep him from skillfully integrating this history with precise dogmatic formulations, warm pastoral exhortations, penetrating polemical argumentations, and judicious ecclesiastical implications—a truly masterful feat that is both academic and devotional, for both the classroom and the coffeehouse.

Strange’s stated aim is to advance the argument that “while the Assembly may never have explicitly affirmed active obedience in what it finally adopted, nonetheless, the Westminster documents, taken as a whole, tend to affirm it” (2). He seeks to accomplish this by carefully considering both the original intent of the framers of the Westminster Assembly and the animus imponentis, that is, the way in which subsequent ecclesiastical assemblies have understood the Standards (128–29). In his own words:

It is my contention, however, that a few lacunae remain which, when examined, will fill in the picture and permit us to see more clearly that the Assembly affirmed active obedience when it specifically addressed the issue. Although the final language of the Assembly’s documents may not have reflected it as some other formulations do (such as the Savoy Declaration of 1658), they reflect a two-covenant structure that affirms (indeed, that entails and requires…) the doctrine of active obedience. Furthermore, I will argue that the original intent of the Westminster divines favors active obedience, as does the interpretation and application of those standards over the years of those churches that have adopted them (in other words, the animus imponentis favors such an affirmation). Moreover, the Assembly’s constitution as a body to give advice to Parliament rather than as a ruling body of the church materially affected how it did its work; consideration of this is relevant in a variety of controversies, including the question of whether the Assembly affirmed active obedience. (3)

But before arriving in Westminster Abbey in the 17th century, Strange excavates the ancient and medieval church to find seeds of the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience. While some (like Norman Shepherd) have denied any such antecedents, Strange demonstrates that such denial is wrongheaded. In the early church, Irenaeus’s recapitulation theory, anticipated by Justin Martyr, included Christ obeying where Adam disobeyed, and Athanasius’s reasoning for the incarnation expressed the positive need for Christ to fulfill the law “that stood in danger of never being fulfilled because of the sin of Adam and his progeny” (22). In the medieval church, theologians such as Hugh, Lombard, Alexander of Hales, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Biel contended that Christ had no need to merit anything for himself, which implies that what he did merit, he merited for us

Strange further observes that any historical survey of the doctrine of active obedience must consider not only the doctrine of Christ, but also the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it was when the Westminster divines were addressing the latter at the Assembly that the debate about active obedience commenced. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit did not come into its own until the Reformation—most notably with Calvin, whom Warfield knighted “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” This explains why “the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, which is distinctly the work of the Holy Spirit, received comparatively little attention until the Reformation”: the church had yet to enjoy the proper categories by which to understand the doctrine more robustly (29–30).

In the Reformation, the seeds of active obedience are found in Luther and Melanchthon, which eventually bloomed in their successors, like Martin Chemnitz, and in the Formula of Concord (3.14–15). Calvin may not have clearly distinguished the active from the passive obedience of Christ, but there is considerable evidence that he “does teach a doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that includes what later writers distinguished into Christ’s active and passive obedience” (35). This would be stated more explicitly by his successor, Theodore Beza, as well as in the Heidelberg Catechism 60–61 and the Belgic Confession article 22. Johannes Piscator “became the first, particularly in response to the affirmation of Beza, to argue that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness was restricted to His obedience in making satisfaction for the sins of His people” (38). But many Reformed theologians rose to oppose him and affirm active obedience, including the international French Reformed synods of Privas (1612) and Tonneins (1614). Lastly, the Irish Articles of 1615, the most immediate antecedent to Westminster, explicitly affirmed Christ’s active obedience in articles 30, 34, and 35.

This brings us to the heart of Strange’s book in which the debate over active obedience at the Westminster Assembly in 1643 is carefully documented and analyzed within its historical, political, and ecclesiastical context. The Assembly’s original task was not to draft a new confession of faith, but to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles, in which only a single article, article 11, treated justification. This article “had to bear the entire weight of all the major aspects of the doctrine of justification.” The divines, therefore, had relatively brief space, putting precision at a premium (51–52). In this context, the word whole (to qualify Christ’s obedience) carried significant weight as short hand for affirming active obedience.

A heated and drawn-out debate ensued over that weighty word, whole, but when it finally came to a vote, only three or four men out of fifty voted against affirming active obedience. Furthermore, their reasons for opposing it were not owing in the least to a desire “to introduce any element of human merit or works (as a part of our faithfulness) into the equation of our justification” (61). Rather, the minority opposition was mainly owing to fear of antinomianism, “the main theological error among Protestants” at that time (56–57). Yet, despite the potential misuse of the affirmation of active obedience, the Assembly affirmed it anyway, for they believed such “to be at the heart of the gospel” (58).

Thus, the Assembly in its initial debate overwhelmingly affirmed active obedience. Why then is the precise language of whole obedience absent from the Standards they later drafted? Strange answers,

[A]ctive obedience was affirmed in the revision of article 11 in 1643, and there is no reason to suppose that it was not also affirmed in WCF 11 and in the other relevant chapters of the WCF, even though the specific wording of revised article 11 never again appears. It is my contention that it did not need to appear in that form because the wording of WCF 11.3 and 8.5 did everything that the revision of article 11 by the addition of the word whole was intended to do (and arguably more). (67)

Strange supports his thesis with a survey of the Westminster Standards to demonstrate the ubiquitous presence of active obedience, despite the absence of the exact wording of whole obedience. Furthermore, he provides a global perspective of the Standards in terms of its covenant theology, showing how the system of doctrine contained therein falls apart when active obedience is denied. He correctly points out that those who deny active obedience today will “not stop at a mere denial of active obedience; they would likely have problems with the whole theological scheme of Westminster, of which active obedience is merely an important plank” (136). In other words, active obedience is not something one can reject without doing substantial damage to the whole system, and those who do “are wanting as Reformed theologians” (136–37).

The bulk of the book has been concerned with the original intent of the framers of the Westminster Assembly, but Strange concludes with an important consideration of the animus imponentis in the final chapter. To give just a cursory overview: both the PCA and OPC have had committees address the broader question of justification in which active obedience was affirmed. This is on par with judicatories in both denominations requiring the affirmation of limited atonement, despite the original intent being unclear. “Similarly,” says Strange, “the recent reports of committees erected by such bodies also testify that an animus has developed in the church that reads our standards to require the affirmation of active obedience, even as they routinely require the affirmation of the doctrine of limited atonement” (134). A similar animus is also evidenced in the PCA, OPC, RCUS, OCRC, URCNA, and RPCNA who have received committee reports that “have either condemned FV [Federal Vision] and NPP [New Perspective on Paul] errors or have adopted statements that reaffirm and highlight confessional statements that militate against positions of at least some of their supporters” and affirm active obedience (137n10).

The compact size of this book would be a false indication of its massive achievement in historical and confessional theology. In a word, it punches well above its weight-class, especially in contemporary debates concerning justification, like Federal Vision. Strange’s thesis that the Westminster Assembly and Standards affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is carefully and persuasively argued. This volume will be of great service to the church in her task to guard the good deposit of the gospel.

Dr. Alan D. Strange has graced Christ the Center on numerous occasions, including an interview on the book reviewed above:

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