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Francis Turretin on Justification


Francis Turretin was the grandson of a Protestant Italian merchant who had emigrated to Beza's Geneva. When Turretin died in Geneva in September 1687, nearly 170 years had passed since Martin Luther had sparked the Protestant Reformation by posting the Ninety-Five Theses. During that period of time, Lutheran and Reformed churches emerged, while the Council of Trent birthed what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's hope of reforming the church had been dashed against the rocks of papal intransigence. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in particular fell under Trent's "anathemas" or curses.

The Protestant churches understood justification to be a biblical doctrine. They could not, therefore, conscientiously repudiate it. As Rome applied increasing intellectual pressure against the Lutheran and the Reformed in the sixteenth and sevenqteenth centuries, it became clear that the Protestants were going to have to mount a formidable, biblical defense of justification.

In God's providence, a succession of faithful men did just that. In that succession was Francis Turretin, who arguably represents the high water mark of the post-Reformational Reformed response to Rome. Described by a biographer as "the last of the great Reformed epigones of Calvin's city." Turretin taught theology in Geneva from 1653 to 1687.1 He is best known for his massive Institutes of Elenctic Theology, published between 1679-1685, and recently translated in its entirety into English. This work has had deserved influence within both the Scottish and American Presbyterian churches. It stands as a monument to the intellectual achievements and biblical fidelity of the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation.

In his preface to the Institutes, Turretin clarifies for the reader his intentions. He did not propose to draft "a full and accurate system of theology" but to "explain the importance of the principal controversies which lie between us and our adversaries (ancient and modern) and supply to the young the thread of Ariadne, by the help of which they may more easily extricate themselves from their labyrinth."2 To anyone familiar with the Institutes, Turretin's comparison of his labors with those of the Greek mythical figure, Ariadne rings true. According to legend, Ariadne provided the string that allowed her beloved Theseus to find his way out of King Minos' Labyrinth after Theseus had slain the Minotaur in the heart of the Labyrinth. Turretin understood that these theological controversies were intricate and sometimes labyrinthine, but he also knew that their biblical resolution was necessary to the vitality and integrity of the Protestant churches.

Turretin's abilities particularly shine in his discussion of justification. This discussion follows the pattern that he employs throughout the Institutes. Turretin first states the question, clarifying where the true differences between Reformed and non-Reformed theologies lie. He then answers the question, providing biblical and theological support for that answer. Then follow the "sources of explanation," in which Turretin offers further elaboration of, handles objections to, and resolves difficulties that arise from the Reformed doctrine under consideration.

Turretin's prose is elaborate and ponderous, studded with technical philosophical and theological terminology. What reward is held out to the modern reader who perseveres through the Institutes, and especially his discussion of justification? We may look briefly at his defense of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer for justification. From this defense surface at least two benefits that Turretin offers his twenty-first century readership.

The first benefit is a robust biblical and theological exposition and defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. Turretin's discussion of imputed righteousness consists of thirty-one paragraphs. The first ten paragraphs are all preparatory to setting up the question. In these paragraphs, Turretin rehearses elements of the doctrine of justification crucial to this question - that justification is a strictly legal or forensic grace; that God requires perfect righteousness in order to justify a person; that only the God-man, Christ, can supply this righteousness; that we must be united to Christ if we are to have any share in this righteousness; that Christ imputes righteousness to us for justification, and that he infuses righteousness to us for sanctification; that "imputation" denotes accounting to someone a reward or punishment either for something that they have done or for what another has done for them (the latter is in view in justification); that imputed righteousness is not a legal fiction; that the active and passive obedience of Christ constitute a sufficient righteousness for a person's justification; that, while justification and sanctification must never be confused, they may never be separated.

Turretin then proposes the question - "is the righteousness and obedience of Christ imputed to us the meritorious cause and foundation of our justification with God?" In four paragraphs, he answers in the affirmative against two parties, Rome and the Socinians (a rationalistic movement that emerged within the Reformation churches). In the next seven paragraphs, he proves the question by advancing a detailed exegesis of Rom 5:18,19; Rom 4:3; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Rom 8:3; and Rom 4:5; by reflecting on the nature of Christ's suretyship; and by offering corroborative testimony from the early Church Fathers.

Turretin then turns to "sources of explanation" in the final ten paragraphs. In this section, Turretin points out that the imputation of Christ's righteousness does not mean that "we are no less righteous than Christ and are thus considered like Christ, saviors and redeemers of the world." He also shows how it is that God's declaration in justification is not fictive but "according to truth."3

Turretin's treatment of imputed righteousness demonstrates how concerned he is to ground the doctrine in the testimony of Scripture. Much of the explanation of the doctrine is taken up with biblical exegesis. Many of the objections raised against imputed righteousness in the seventeenth century remain in circulation in the twenty-first century. Turretin's exegetical responses to these objections deftly and effectively serve us today in defending the doctrine against its detractors.

The second benefit that Turretin's discussion offers is a model of theological moderation. He does not run to extremes in formulating Christian doctrine. He vigorously opposes Rome's opposition to imputed righteousness. But Turretin is well aware that there are errors that lie in the other direction. For this reason, he will not allow himself to be identified with the antinomian error that justification may be separated from sanctification. He will not countenance the view that the sinner's righteousness in Christ for justification renders him righteous in precisely the same sense that Christ is righteous. The truth, Turretin argues here (and frequently elsewhere), does not lie at the fringes but in the center. In this respect, Turretin is a theologian of the middle way.

Turretin is valuable, then, for what he says about justification - his a robust biblical and theological defense and explanation of the doctrine. But he is equally valuable for how he says what he says. His method promotes both precision and balance. In our day, we need both at least as much as Turretin's readers did in the seventeenth century. Reformed Christians in the generations following Turretin saw him not as an antiquated relic but a reliable guide to biblical truth. Sadly, justification by faith alone still lies under Rome's anathema. Thankfully, Turretin's magisterial work remains with us today. Will we take the "thread of Ariadne" from his hand?

1. James T. Dennison, Jr., "The Life and Career of Francis Turretin," in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George M. Giger (3 vols.; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992-1997), 3.645.

2. Turretin, Institutes, 1.xl.

3. Ibid., 2.655.

Turretin's treasure

About fifteen years ago at one of the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Allan Fisher gave me, a poor doctoral student at the time, one of the best gifts that an aspiring student of theology could ever receive: a copy of Francis Turretin's three-volume Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Though Turretin's name is well-known in Reformed theology, Turretin having earned a reputation for his many years of faithful service as professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva, his Institutes of Elenctic Theology is not well-read today. This is partly due to the fact that, upon its publication, Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology replaced Turretin's Institutes as the theological textbook of choice at Princeton Seminary, thus narrowing Turretin's history of reception in North America. Perhaps more significantly, lack of readerly attention to Turretin's Institutes is also due to the fact that this massive work represents a theological genre and sensibility (i.e., Reformed  "scholasticism") that has become increasingly foreign to us over the past century or so. This neglect of Turretin's Institutes is, in my judgment, to our theological impoverishment. 

Turretin's Institutes is an interesting work. By Turretin's own admission, it does not intend to offer "a full and accurate system of theology." As the title indicates, the Institutes is an exercise in "elenctics." As such, it engages some of the principal heads of controversy that lie between Reformed theology and its rivals (both ancient and modern) in order to refute error and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. The design of the Institutes explains the polemical edge that characterizes its (quite thorough) treatment of various disputed questions in theology. For all its polemical intent, Turretin's work is nevertheless an example of Reformed theology at its finest: rooted in sound exegesis, a model of conceptual clarity, and rich in pastoral wisdom. For those willing to familiarize themselves with the canons and genres of scholastic debate, and willing to spend some time learning the history of theology that Turretin often presupposes, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology repays careful study.

Turretin's discussion of the covenant of grace, a topic which he expounds over the course of twelve questions (roughly twelve chapters), provides a particularly good example of what readers may expect to find in his Institutes. Therein, the professor of Geneva discusses the various biblical terms for covenant, both Hebrew and Greek, along with their Latin equivalents.  He also addresses knotty issues such as whether or not the covenant of grace is a "conditional" covenant (and, by the way, his treatment of this issue is much more sophisticated than many contemporary discussions), whether and how the old and new covenants differ, the difference between "accepting" and "keeping" the covenant, and how Christ mediated grace to the patriarchs under the Old Testament. 

In addressing these and other issues of great systematic theological importance, Turretin does not neglect to comment upon their spiritual import. In what is perhaps my favorite section of the Institutes, Turretin discusses the various blessings that God grants us in the covenant of grace. Principal among these blessings, according to Turretin, God "gives himself to us that ever after he may be ours as much essentially . . . (as to his nature and attributes) as hypostatically . . . (as to the persons and personal operations)."

What does it mean for God to give himself to us "essentially"? According to Turretin:

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

And how does God give himself to us "hypostatically" or "personally"? Turretin explains:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person--the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.

As these passages indicate, in spite of Turretin's polemical design, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology cannot avoid being a work of penetrating theological insight and profound pastoral comfort, drawing as deeply as it does from the wells of Holy Scripture. As we approach the anniversary of Turretin's death (September 28, 1687), it might be worth foregoing a couple of months of cable to obtain this treasure trove of Reformed theology. If that is not possible, then perhaps you will stumble upon an exceptionally generous Christian book editor.

Postscript: For those interested in exploring Turretin's covenant theology, I recommend Professor Mark Beach's excellent book, Christ and the Covenant: Francis Turretin's Federal Theology as a Defense of the Doctrine of Grace.