Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (Romans 4:16)
After having revealed to us in Romans 1-3 our rebellion against God by both Jew and Gentile and the need for a savior that is established by the law of Moses and the natural law, Paul presses forward by explaining Abraham’s role in the history of redemption and how it is instructive for us as believers today. Abraham, before he had the mark of circumcision, believed God and it was “counted” (v.3) or “imputed” (v.23) for righteousness. This was a gratuitous gift of God which was given to Abraham before he was circumcised; Paul finds in this an example that faith has always been the basis upon which we have a right standing before God, as he declares in Romans 1:17 (quoting Habakkuk 2:4): “The just shall live by faith.”
We turn again to this passage which we looked at previously in our commentary on Genesis 15. It is worth examining the interpretation of Calvin here on the word word “imputed” as stated in v.23:
To render this more intelligible, when Moses says that faith was imputed to Abram for righteousness, he does not mean that faith was that first cause of righteousness which is called the efficient, but only the formal cause; as if he had said, that Abram was therefore justified, because, relying on the paternal loving-kindness of God, he trusted to His mere goodness, and not to himself, nor to his own merits.
When speaking of causes here, Calvin is using a classic scholastic set of distinctions regarding the cause of a thing or event. These distinctions were common in the theology of his time and were inherited by Aristotle. He is referring to the Four Causes. I will briefly provide an example from the linked article to explain the difference. These distinctions are very helpful in understanding how the doctrine of justification was explained during the Reformation:
- The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
- The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
- The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
- The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.
Thus, when referring back to our quote from Calvin, it is easily seen what he is saying. God is the efficient cause (the source) of his being justified. His faith is the form (formal cause) of that justification.
What is the importance here? Understanding such an important and nuanced thing as our salvation is important lest we be led into error. In our day, there is an overwhelming desire to cast off the past, tradition, and the older forms of theology as outdated or too reliant on heathen philosophy. This charge is without merit, especially when we consider Calvin. Calvin was a remarkable exegete who took all his theology back to Scripture. This is evident throughout his Institutes and his commentaries. Scholasticism is an acknowledgment that man is a rational creature and therefore must approach the text in a rational way. This can be abused, obviously, but the abuse does negate the use of reason in our theology. Using it will be inevitable – we will either use it badly by relying to heavily on it (and end up in humanism or Deism) or by relying to little on it (and ending up in fundamentalism or grave literalist errors).
When used properly, these methods help us to understanding the riches of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ and give us a common language by which we may communicate that salvation to others. Today, consider that the Westminster Confession was one of the simplest and most widely used expressions of Protestant scholasticism and gives us a glorious example of how theology can serve the church and the believer in its doctrine, piety and practice.