Now almost forty years old, Richard Gaffin’s work on The Centrality of the Resurrection (republished as Resurrection and Redemption in 1987) still stands strong as a contrarian manifesto in late twentieth-century debates among confessional Reformed theologians, not least with respect to those issues deemed most important by the mainstream scholastic strain articulated in (mostly) American Reformed dogmatics. This work in many ways served as a harbinger of the coming hostile separations within those churches insofar as it “revised” (in the words of his opponents) doctrines essential to salvation—faith, redemption, justification, sanctification, and adoption—providing an alternative way to think of how salvation itself is accomplished and applied in this time between the coming of the Messiah and his reappearance.
At the risk of oversimplification, the contours of Gaffin’s theology emphasizes redemptive history (historia salutis) as the essential place in which the order of salvation (ordo salutis) works itself out. This he thinks serves as a corrective to the emphasis on the often abstract and forensic, juridical ordo at the expense of the historia within the Reformed tradition. Moreover, the center of the ordo as he explains it in this and other works, is not justification by faith alone (which entails the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, which in turn tends to focus only on his death, pp. 11–12 n.2, 15) but rather union with Christ wrought by the resurrection through Spirit-empowered faith. Put another way, the centerpiece of salvation consists in being and continuing to be united with Christ by faith in virtue of his resurrection, faith that, through the power of the Spirit, embraces the risen Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel (pp. 12–13, 135–36). Gaffin has often argued that this ordo is reflected at several points in the Reformed tradition, though not as clearly elaborated as one might wish. It’s at this point that he picks up on the ideas emphasized among the Dutch Reformed redemptive-historical school, most notably Geerhardus Vos in The Pauline Eschatology and Herman Ridderbos in Paul: An Outline of His Theology (as well as the Scot John Murray).
In Part 1, Gaffin lays out his “Methodological Considerations,” which in a nutshell serves as his apologetic to favor approaching scripture according to “biblical theological” methods that are consonant with “systematic theological” ones. They are not to be “arbitrarily and artificially separated" (for Gaffin, Vos embodies the former; Kuyper the latter). I realize in the 1970s it was especially popular to pit the former interpretative methodology against that of the systematic theologians, who over the years, it must be admitted, have contorted much of the canon by forcing it through some kind of procrustean pedagogical grid or, in Gaffin’s words, “encyclopaedic distinctions” (e.g., the covenant of works/grace schema—itself as historically situated and biased as that of the scripture’s original authors, not to mention of biblical-theological exegetes). We have to do better in this regard. This is not to suggest, however, that the turn toward history (or, redemptive-history in this instance) wasn’t necessary in the modern era. With the rise of socio-grammatical exegesis of scripture during the Reformation period came the need to understand the historical horizon in which these texts were written, as well as the mind by which they were produced. This also meant recognizing that an exegete’s understanding of the parts hinges on her understanding of a larger whole, which, again, can only be understood on the basis of the parts—the so-called hermeneutical circle. What does not lend itself to immediate understanding can be interpreted by means of philological work. Thus, the study of history became an indispensable tool in the process of unlocking hermetic meaning and language-use. But all of this Gaffin washes over, even if it’s lurking beneath the surface, and yet the very writers he heavily leans upon produced their works in precisely this light. Of course, Gaffin’s book is far more narrowly focused than to get into such epochal socio-cultural turns that led to the paradigmatic shifts across all theological traditions, not just the Reformed one. Nevertheless, perhaps his argument would have been better served if he made the case that his study embodies best what’s required—in light of the turn toward hermeneutics and history—to do the sort of theological and exegetical work he sets out to do in Centrality.
Parts 2–3 of the book contain Gaffin’s exegetical and theological account for this paradigmatic shift (the turn toward heilsgeschte and the resurrection) within the Reformed tradition, focusing, as the title indicates, on how the resurrection of Christ changes everything forever, and he goes on to traverse how that event plays out in the redemptive story, especially as told in the writings of St. Paul. People are saved, so Gaffin, not through belief in the finished work of Christ alone, and certainly not through belief in some set of doctrines about Christ, but through an “existential” and “experiential” union through which believers achieve “solidarity” with Christ. Believers, in short, participate with Christ in his benefits and thus obtain salvation (via the believer’s past spiritual resurrection—i.e., union through faith—and future bodily resurrection, pp. 33–62). Each soteriological loci—including but not limited to redemption, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification—was accomplished by Christ in his person and work, raised to life by the Father (pp. 62–66), and applied already (though not yet fully) to believers when they are unified with him by the power of the Spirit (pp. 66–74).
And what kicks this journey off? According to Gaffin, it’s baptism: “Baptism signifies and seals a transition in the experience of the recipient, a transition from being (existentially) apart from Christ to being (existentially) joined to him. Galatians 3:27 is even more graphic: ‘Those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ’ (cf. I Cor. 12:13)” (pp. 50–51). This union with Christ thus commences with baptism—“the inception of the individual Christian existence, the moment of being joined existentially to Christ” (p. 58), thereby causing participation in the very accomplishments and subsequent rewards of the risen Christ (p. 129). Since Christ himself was redeemed (delivered from death) via the resurrection (pp. 114–17), those who have been raised with him participate in that same deliverance. Just as the resurrection forensically declared Jesus to be God’s Son, at that time adopted as the second Adam (Rom 1:4), so too are believers now adopted children in God’s family, brothers and sisters of Christ and thus heirs as children of the living God (pp. 117–19). In Christ’s justification (1 Tim. 3:16)—that is, by virtue of his bearing the sins of the people as the ungodly one and subsequently being raised from the dead—those united with him, both now and in the future (pp. 119–24, 133), are also declared not guilty. Distinct but not separated from this justification is the believer’s definitive and progressive sanctification, again, all his through union with Christ, by virtue of his resurrection (definitive sanctification) from the old aeon into the new (pp. 124–26). Finally, Christ’s glorification experienced at his resurrection “involves the final definitive investiture of his person with glory.” This, too, means that what Christ is by virtue of resurrection, through solidarity with him, believers will be as well on that final day when they are resurrected (p. 126).
There is no doubt that Centrality brought to the fore in a more accessible manner strains within the Reformed tradition that until that time had largely been underemphasized. At their worst, oppositional critiques defame Gaffin with undoing the very principles of the Reformation (i.e., justification by faith alone). I would strongly object. Speaking personally, I found very little in Centrality theologically or exegetically with which to disagree. I experienced within my own journey through the American Reformed landscape both strands—scholastic and redemptive-historical—both vibrant, and both, sadly, at each others’ necks (though admittedly it was the former that set itself up as the keepers of the orthodox gate—and not without warrant, as that crowd had been for well-nigh three hundred years). However, the gospel proper (which is neither justification by faith nor union with Christ but the fact that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, sent to rescue the world, is Lord) was never at stake in the course of these particular debates; and yet it isn’t mere semantics either. The battle was and is over the center from which the gospel is heralded and applied to the life of God’s people. Be that as it may, the appropriate critique of the Reformers contra late medieval Roman Catholic merit theology is only partially appropriate today. The alternative ways to tell this gospel story, perhaps itself ensconced in the very divisions felt between biblical theology on the one hand and systematic theology on the other, are just as desperately needed in our late modern context as sola fide was (and no doubt still is) in the early modern situation.