John Davenant: The Formal Cause of Justification
October 24, 2017
One of the key theological battles between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church was over the doctrine of justification. This important battle continued on into the seventeenth century and indeed it continues unabated today. John Davenant, the Bishop of Salisbury and a British delegate to the Synod of Dort, wrote a treatise on justification (published in 1631) wherein he defended the Protestant and Reformed position over against the Roman Catholic position, particularly as it was championed by Robert Bellarmine. In this article, I will focus on what Davenant says about the basis or ground of our justification before God. He refers to this as the formal cause of justification.
By formal cause Davenant means "nothing else than that by which we stand, in the sight of God, freed from condemnation, innocent, and graciously accepted unto life eternal" (1:211). In others words, the issue at hand is "what, and of what kind, that righteousness is, which justifies man before God, and in the view of which, God himself pronounces man to be free from sin, and the penalty of sin, and accounts him worthy of his favour and eternal life" (1:157).
The Roman Catholic position is that the formal cause of justification is the infused or inherent righteousness in believers. They teach, according to Davenant, that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, not with respect to itself but only in terms of its effects. Christ merited infused grace and that meritorious work is imputed to believers in that they are infused with grace. This infused or inherent grace achieves two things in justification. First, it entirely removes everything in the believer that has the formal nature of sin, including every aspect of original sin. Sin, therefore, is not just cast down but cast out altogether. Second, infused grace enables believers to be righteous in themselves, which in turn makes them worthy of eternal life. In short, Christ merited infused grace so that we might merit eternal life by our own personal righteousness.
Davenant dismantles the Roman Catholic view primarily by showing that sin remains in the regenerate believer. He cogently argues that although the guilt of original sin is removed completely, the "contagion of it is not altogether extirpated out of his nature" (1:25). Sin no longer has dominion over the believer as the Apostle Paul notes in Romans 6, nonetheless the believer must still battle against the presence of sin in his own heart and life as indicated by Paul’s command to not let sin reign in his mortal body, to make him obey its passions.
This is not to say that Davenant denied that there was inherent or infused grace in the justified believer. Contrary to the repeated misrepresentations by various Roman Catholic authors, Davenant emphatically and at length argued that Protestants in accord with Scripture strongly affirm the presence of infused grace in the justified and at the moment of justification. The justified are new creatures "not from our justification strictly taken, but from sanctification, its invariable companion" (1:168). Moreover, the justified are called righteous in Scripture "not by imputation only, but on account of the real inherence of the inchoate [not fully formed] righteousness which is not, in any measure, inherent in the unregenerate" (1:13). In fact, Davenant is willing to grant that the inherent righteousness of the justified believer may be seen as the formal cause of justification in the sense of making just. However, this inherent righteousness is imperfect and inchoate so that it "renders a man just, but imperfectly and inchoately" (1:160). Since this is the case, inherent righteousness cannot be the formal cause of justification because justification requires an absolute, perfect righteousness. And this is Davenant’s main but devastating point against his Roman Catholic opponents. Sin continues to plague the believer until the day he dies, and therefore his own personal righteousness simply can’t be the basis of his justification before God. Davenant writes:
This then is the force of this argument: No righteousness but that which is perfect, according to the exact rule of the law, justifies before God; but our inherent righteousness is not such, nay in its best and innermost parts it labours under faults and defects…But we all sin every day. Every day we seek remission, and in the article of death do so most urgently and humbly. Consequently we acknowledge that we do not stand justified, or worthy of heaven, by the quality of righteousness permanently inherent in us, but that by remission of sins and Divine grace, life eternal for Christ's sake is bestowed upon us, though most unworthy of it…The plain reason of it is this: the best of the regenerate, in order that they may be justified and saved, need the daily pardon of sins and the unceasing mercy of God. They are consequently not justified by the quality of their inherent righteousness (1:217, 229, 230).
So, what then is the formal cause of our justification? The answer is the obedience and righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to believers by faith alone. Davenant notes that this is the "common opinion of all of our divines" (1:161). The righteousness by which we are justified is and remains Christ’s own perfect, personal righteousness. Nonetheless, our justification is not a legal fiction because of our union with Christ, which enables what properly belongs to Christ to "become ours in the way of bestowal and saving participation" (1:187). This means that God does not regard us as righteous "merely because he looks upon us covered with the righteousness of our Redeemer; but because, according to his own appointment, he regards all who believe and are united into one person with Christ, as become truly partakers of his righteousness and obedience" (1:177).
The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the reason we are absolved from the guilt and punishment of our sins. It is also the reason we are delivered from the curse of the law and obtain the reward of eternal life that is promised to the observers of the law. In other words, the imputation of Christ’s whole obedience (passive and active) is the formal cause of our justification.
Davenant draws upon a number of arguments to prove this Protestant position. He notes that since the benefit of justification is placed in apprehending Christ by faith then justification must arise from imputation and not infusion. He also appeals to the analogy with Adam in Romans 5. We are guilty in Adam by imputation and we are righteous in Christ by imputation. He writes:
Spiritual regeneration and the closest union with Christ, as with a new root, are equally availing that his obedience should be imputed to us for the effect of justification, as that natural generation and union with Adam, the old root, availed, so that his disobedience was imputed to the effect of condemnation. Since then it is certain, that the actual disobedience of Adam is imputed to us, so that through it we stand condemned; no reason can be brought, why the obedience and righteousness of Christ should not also be so imputed, that by it we should stand justified" (1:237-238).
Furthermore, the Scriptures speak of the imputation of penal satisfaction in Isaiah 53 and Matthew 20:28. And "if the righteousness of Christ making satisfaction becomes ours by imputation, why not also the righteousness of Christ fulfilling the law" (1:239)? The Scriptures also declare that the righteousness of Christ becomes ours (1 Cor. 1:30) and this cannot be understood except by imputation.
The verses that might appear to contradict the Protestant position are the ones that speak of faith being counted for righteousness (e.g. Rom. 4:5). Davenant argues that this means that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers because "faith, considered as a quality, can no more be imputed for righteousness, than other qualities infused by the same Spirit; but it must be necessarily understood thus, viz. as far as it apprehends its own object, namely Christ with his saving righteousness, and applies it to the believer" (1:249). Besides, it is common "to attribute to the appropriating cause, that which properly and immediately pertains to the thing appropriated. Hence because faith apprehends and applies the righteousness of Christ to us, there is attributed to faith itself, what is due in reality to Christ" (1:249).
One of the main debates between Protestants and Roman Catholics was over the formal cause of justification. Roman Catholicism has argued that our inherent righteousness is the basis for our justification, while Protestantism has argued that it is the imputed righteousness of Christ. The difference between these two positions is enormous, and it is one reason the church desperately needed a Reformation.