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Francis Turretin on Justification

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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.