John Fesko is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California. He is both the author of this volume and also joint editor (with Matthew Barrett) of the Reformed, Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies series.
Fesko indicates that his primary academic concern is to study the doctrine of justification and its component parts. He has already published other works on this theme and sees this volume as a further step. At the same time, Fesko has a serious interest in stating and defending those doctrines which relate to the overall theme of ‘covenant theology’. This volume on imputation assists in both projects, in that he sees imputation both as a key element in the doctrine of justification and as central to covenant theology.
The book is in three parts. First, Fesko deals with the history of the doctrine of imputation. Second, he deals with the exegetical issues on which the doctrine is founded. Then third, he addresses the dogmatic construction of the doctrine. This is a helpful approach and enables the reader to view the doctrine from a range of perspectives.
The first part of the book on history begins by looking in chapter 1 at the early church (Augustine) and the middle ages (Lombard, Anselm and Aquinas). What Fesko has written here is helpful but one wonders if the choice is too limited. Why no Eastern theologian from the early church period? Chapter 2 deals with the Reformation and chapter 3 with the post-Reformation period. The balance of material here is on the post-Reformation period and this is clearly where the author is most comfortable and well read. In chapter 4, Fesko turns his attention to the American Modern period before finishing the historical section in chapter 5 by looking at the ‘Present Day’. The selection of scholars mentioned in this last historical chapter seems somewhat arbitrary: Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, N.T. Wright and Peter Enns.
Part two of the book has two chapters. The first is on imputation in the Old Testament and the second, imputation in the New Testament. Then finally we come to Part Three of the book: Dogmatic Formulation.
Given the range of views on imputation which have been discussed in the earlier chapters, one might expect a degree of hesitancy in reaching final conclusions. Instead Fesko lays down a very clear and precise doctrine of imputation. He writes, ‘The Scriptures clearly teach the threefold immediate imputation of Adam’s guilt and Christ’s righteousness within the context of the covenants of works and grace’ (p. 276). There is no leeway given to those who might hold to the headship of Adam and the imputation of his sin, while rejecting the idea of a covenant of works. The many other views on imputation are dismissed.
In other words, although in the early part of the book Fesko lays out the variety of opinions regarding imputation in the history of Reformed theology, as well as in wider Christian theology, he appears to believe that only one view is truly Reformed and acceptable. For example, he recognises that John Murray of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia held to ‘a non-covenantal but nevertheless federal imputation’ (p. 22). He says that this is ‘odd’ but at no point does he seriously engage with Murray’s arguments. The present reviewer, having written on Murray and covenant theology, would argue that Murray cannot be dismissed so easily.
This book, while containing much that is helpful, perhaps represents the increasing tendency to regard Reformed Theology as a single strand of thought, rather than as a ‘school of thought’ where a range of views is acceptable within the ‘camp’. For example, Fesko argues that what is imputed to the elect is the active and passive obedience of Christ. Many of our best Reformed theologians argue that it was the ‘righteousness’ of Christ which was imputed, while not denying the importance of both his active and passive obedience. We are impoverished whenever an attempt is made to say that only one strand of Reformed thought is acceptable.