Richard Gaffin, Jr. – Missing the Mark

With the publication of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification, author Stephen Cunha has provided another excellent example of how the central mission of the Trinity Foundation is being fulfilled.  When the first issue of the Trinity Review first appeared in 1978 they began by boldly stating their reason for existence in “The Trinity Manifesto – A Program for Our Time.”  For those of you who may have purchased any of the books published by the Trinity Foundation over the years, you probably are already familiar with the Trinity Manifesto as it can be found, at least in a slightly modified version, in the back pages of every one of their  publications and which includes the following thought from the late Dr. Gordon Clark:

To echo an early Reformation thought, when the plough man and the garage attendant know the Bible as well as the theologian does, and know it better than some contemporary theologians, then the desired awakening shall have already occurred.

While I would not presume to claim that the desired awakening has already occurred.  If it has I must have missed it.   I can say that Cunha, who states up front that he has no seminary degree and is not an ordained officer in the church but rather toils “in the business world,” clearly knows the Bible as well, if not better, than most (not some) contemporary theologians.  In addition, his book is a much needed piece in the puzzle exposing Richard Gaffin’s false gospel demonstrating that Gaffin has more in common with Norman Shepherd (the granddaddy of the Federal Vision) than anything remotely approaching the historic Reformed and Christian faith. This is important, because Gaffin, now retired, was professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and taught there from 1965 until 2007.

For more than forty years Dr. Gaffin has trained would be pastors and budding theologians and scholars in his unique brand of neo-legalism that he helped forge with Shepherd.  According to Dr. Mark Karlberg Gaffin along with Shepherd is the “co-father of the new, anti-Reformational teaching at Westminster Seminary” (see “The Changing of the Guard,” Trinity Review, March-April 2001).  Not surprisingly Gaffin has never publicly distanced himself from Shepherd, much less repudiated him or his false gospel.  Which could explain his glowing endorsement of Shepherd’s horrendous, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (a book where Shepherd restates the doctrines that got him dismissed from WTS) and is something that continues to be a cause of embarrassment for many of Gaffin’s most ardent supporters.  (Lane Keister claims that in a private telephone conversation with Gaffin he “admitted that Shepherd’s theology is imbalanced” and “that Shepherd considers the inseparability of faith and works to the exclusion of the distinctness between the two.”  Hardly the appropriate response when they Gospel is at stake and from a man who openly defended Shepherd during the entire time the Shepherd controversy raged at WTS).   As Cunha notes:

In this writer’s judgement, Dr. Gaffin’s endorsement of Mr. Shepherd in general, though it does not necessarily imply agreement with Mr. Shepherd on all points of doctrine, is fully consistent with Dr. Gaffin’s own view on the role of works relative to justification. (93)

It is this consistency that Cunha demonstrates throughout his book as he pulls material primarily from Gaffin’s By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation along with recorded lectures.  Combined with Mark Karlberg’s devastating The Changing of the Guard which focuses on the Shepherd-Gaffin nexus at WTS (both East and West), Paul Elliot’s handling of Gaffin’s own New Perspective on Paul along with his shameful defense of Shepherdite and neo-legalist John Kinnaird in Christianity and Neo-Liberalism, John Robbins article “In Christ” where he examines Gaffin’s erroneous and anti-Christian “existential” theory of union with Christ via the waters of baptism, and now Cunha’s new addition dealing with Gaffin’s anti-Christian doctrine of justification, and the similarities between Gaffin and the false gospel of Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision become impossible to deny.

Consider the following “modification” (or more properly nullification) of the Law/Gospel distinction from By Faith, Not By Sight as cited by Cuhna:

From this perceptive, the antithesis between law and gospel is not an end in itself.  It is not a theological ultimate.  Rather, that antithesis enters not be virtue of creation but as a consequence of sin, and the gospel functions for its overcoming. The gospel is to the end of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer [emphasis Cunha].  (38)

Or, consider this from Gaffin’s recorded “Lectures on Romans” and his discussion of Romans 2:13:

As that judgement decides, in its way, we’re going to wanna (sic) qualify that deciding, but as it decides the ultimate outcome for all believers and for all humanity, believers as well as unbelievers. That is, death or life. It’s a life and death situation that’s in view here. Further, this ultimate judgement has as its criterion or standard, brought into view here, the criterion for that judgement is works, good works.  The doing of the law, as that is the criterion for all human beings, again, believers as well as unbelievers.  In fact, in the case of the believer a positive outcome is in view and that positive outcome is explicitly said to be justification. So, again the point on the one side of the passage is that eternal life… depends on and follows from a future justification according to works.  Eternal life follows upon a future justification by doing the law. (55-56)

As Cunha correctly notes “Dr. Gaffin holds to the view that Romans 2:13 is referring in a positive sense to a final justification for believers according to imperfect works produced through faith.” (56)  Now compare Dr. Gaffin’s teaching with the PCA’s FV/NPP report’s concluding point #9:

The view that justification is in any way based on our works, or that the so-called “final verdict of justification” is based on anything other than the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ received through faith alone, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

Further, and as Cunha carefully demonstrates:

Given the context of Paul’s argument, it is not so surprising that Calvin would say regarding Romans 2:13, “they who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children.”  Give the context, it is extremely unlikely that “the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13) refers in a positive way to believers . . . Dr. Gaffin’s reading would have the practical effect of directing sinners to endeavor to obtain their justification through faith plus works.” (57-59)

I should say so. Every step of the way Cunha takes Gaffin at his word.  But, more importantly, he carefully contrasts Gaffin’s word with God’s Word and in every instance Gaffin comes up short.  More importantly, Gaffin’s gross mishandling of Romans 2:13 cannot be easily dismissed as former OPC elder Paul Elliot explains in “The Orthodox Presbyterian Cover-Up“:

Strangely, the [OPC] Justification Study Committee deliberately chose not to address Romans 2:13 head-on. It said only that “this report does not have the space to explore“ the “many current exegetical debates” concerning the passage. In light of the OPC’s history and facts that have come to light since the conclusion of the 2006 General Assembly, this is a serious – and revealing – omission.

Norman Shepherd misused Romans 2:13 in his Thirty-Four Theses on Justification and elsewhere. It is a linchpin of his false gospel. He uses this verse to say that  law-keeping by the individual believer is required in order to be justified before God. As noted earlier in this book, the OPC’s Presbytery of Philadelphia had repeated opportunities to condemn this teaching in 1979 and 1980; but through the efforts of Gaffin, Tyson, and other neo-liberals, it failed to do so. The Presbytery said, in fact, that Shepherd’s teaching on Romans 2:13 was in accord with the OPC’s ordination vows.

Following Shepherd’s example, John Kinnaird also misuses Romans 2:13. Kinnaird teaches that “it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgment.” Kinnaird consistently adds the last five words to his personal paraphrase of this text of Scripture, thus changing its meaning entirely. In context, the Apostle Paul is teaching that no one but Christ is capable of keeping the law, and that His perfect law-keeping righteousness is imputed to believers. But by adding his own words to the end of the verse whenever he mentions it, Kinnaird changes Romans 2:13 to mean that lawkeeping is required of believers themselves in order to be declared righteous on the Last Day. Dr. Peter Lillback, now president of Westminster Theological Seminary, defended Kinnaird’s twisting of Romans 2:13 in testimony at his heresy trial. Federal Visionists such as Richard Lusk and New Perspectivalists such as N. T. Wright also twist Romans 2:13 to invent an un-Biblical “second justification” at the Last Day.

Sadly, Gaffin’s mishandling of Paul is in no way limited to Romans 2:13. Consider Gaffin’s take on Paul’s use of the phrase “obedience of faith” found in Romans 1:5 and 16:26:

In this expression “of faith,” is best taken as intentionally multivalent.  In relation to “obedience,” it is both appositional and indications source or origin. In other words, in view is faith itself as an act of obedience (cf. Acts 16:31), as well as other acts of obedience that stem from faith.

Talk about trying to have your cake an eat it too.   It this kind of deceptive analysis and faulty exegesis where Gaffin’s doctrine of justification by faith and works (or what Wes White calls the doctrine of sola fidelity) really comes into view.  As Cunha explains:

In other words, Dr. Gaffin believes that when Paul used the phrase “obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5 and 16:26, he meant both “faith itself as an act of obedience” and “the obedience that comes from faith.” Dr. Gaffin uses this interpretation of Romans 1:5 and 16:26 to help bolster his view that, within the context of justification, “there is a positive or synthetic relationship between faith and works, a constructive bound between faith and what it does.” (77)

By dissecting Gaffin’s doctrine of justification and holding it up repeatedly to the light of Scripture, Cunha’s careful analysis inexorably leads to the conclusion that Gaffin has taught, and arguably continues to teach, another gospel.  Cunha concludes in part:

The heart of the problem is Dr. Gaffin’s view that works in some sense play a causal role in justification.  This view destroys the classic Protestant Law/Gospel antithesis and is inimical to the teaching that justification is by faith alone.  This teaching ultimately leads men to look, at least to some degree, to the production of good works in order to secure justification before God.

Dr. Gaffin qualifies his teaching by saying that works are not (co-) instrumental in justification, but it is clear from his writings and support of Mr. Shepherd that Dr. Gaffin believes that works have a non-meritorious, causal role in justification.  Non-meritorious causality with respect to justification equates to instrumental causality in the language of those who subscribe to the Westminster Standards. (95)

The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification is an important new addition in the study of the false gospel of faith and works that continues to plague the church.

Explore posts in the same categories: Heresies

11 Comments on “Richard Gaffin, Jr. – Missing the Mark”

  1. Hugh McCann Says:

    Sounds a bit schizophrenic, this.

    Didn’t Dick Gaffin promote & defend a heretic for decades, then later critique in committee but a part of that heretic’s teaching, without distancing himself from that heretic? Bewildering at best.

    Professional bedfellows appear hard to separate.

  2. Sean Gerety Says:

    Here is another review of Cunha’s book by Paul Elliot.

  3. Hugh McCann Says:

    The PCA & OPC are falling into the trap Gary North warned of in _Crossed Fingers_: No sanctions.

    Liberals didn’t take over the PCUSA (& Episcopal Church) by up-front assaults, they won the battles because ostensibly good men would neither discipline or separate.

    Apart from discipline, the church fails to uphold the truth, orthodoxy-affirming committees of nice guys ad infinitum et nauseum, notwithstanding!

    See also

  4. markmcculley Says:

    I particularly like this paragraph in Cunha’s book on Gaffin, p83—“Whatever is made of the fact that the new birth precedes faith, the Biblical definition of faith itself must not be altered in order to acommodate a preconceived notion that the forensic act of justification cannot be preceded….by the actual changed produced within a man through the creative work of the new birth. To say, for example, that faith is merely an awareness of justification that has occurred prior to faith is to define faith in a way that is foreign to Scripture….”

  5. Hugh McCann Says:

    MarkMc ~ The very debate we be having at Facebook’s ‘Reason by Design’ page!

  6. brandonadams Says:

    I finally had a chance to read the book. It was very helpful. I don’t have Gaffin’s book, but I would love to read his quote about the law gospel distinction not being an absolute in its broader context. Gaffin didn’t seem to leave himself much wiggle room on that one

  7. Dear Brandon:

    Thank you for the link. : – )

    I find Lee Irons review of Stephen M. Cunha [The Emperor Has No Clothes (2008)] quirky.

    The main reason being Irons does not paid enough attention to the dual settings on which the events took place:

    (a) One setting for the events is happenings taking place in the churches of God.

    (b) Another setting for the events is academic debates taking place in educational institutions.

    Lee Irons wrote: “First, I do not like the tone set by the title of the book …”

    If treating Richard Gaffin, Jr. as an academic, “tone” may have a secondary role in evaluating his writings and only a secondary role.

    If treating Richard Gaffin, Jr. as a teacher in the church of God, then the errors Richard Gaffin, Jr. and Norman Shepherd made should be condemned as heresy — in the harshest “tone”.

    Confessional theologians should be first and foremost evaluated as servants in the church of God and only secondarily as academics.



  8. Dear All:

    1. On further reflection, “quirky” understated Lee Irons review of Stephen M. Cunha [The Emperor Has No Clothes (2008)] by too much, a better description is “academic snobbishness”.

    Irons reviewed three books in his review.

    Two of the three books are published by The Trinity Foundation, one by Stephen M. Cunha and the other by O. Palmer Robertson.

    Cunha, because he is a non-academic, got the short-end of the draw.

    Lee Irons wrote in his review of Stephen M. Cunha:

    “Third, the publisher (The Trinity Foundation, run by John Robbins until his death) is not an objective source, but is known as extremely critical of Van Til, the OPC, and Dr. Gaffin – pretty much writing all of them off as heretics who deny the gospel.”

    “Mr. Cunha, true to the Publisher’s intemperate rhetoric, charges Dr. Gaffin with teaching a false gospel.”

    Of O. Palmer Robertson’s book by the same publisher, Lee Irons wrote: “I wish I had Robertson’s excellent account back then.”

    The Trinity Foundation has taken a definite stance on many theological issues and not everyone has to like them.

    Like everyone else, The Trinity Foundation is open to criticism.

    But how Lee Irons treated the two books by the same publisher is just academic snobbishness.

    2. Of the contents of Stephen M. Cunha’s books, Lee Irons wrote:

    “In spite of my misgivings about the author’s tone, my theological sympathies lie with Mr. Cunha. I agree 100% with his own formulation of the doctrine of justification and the proper relationship of faith and works. I agree with Mr. Cunha that Dr. Gaffin’s (pre-2006) formulation of a future justification according to works was not in line with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and certainly finds no foundation in Romans 2:6-13 when read in context. In addition to his mistaken formulation of future justification, Dr. Gaffin had a long track record of consistently defending Norman Shepherd. He also made the tragic error of endorsing Shepherd’s book, The Call of Grace (2000). Even more recently, at the 70th GA in 2003, he defended OPC ruling elder John Kinnaird, who taught that believers do not attain glorification and entrance into heaven on the sole ground of Christ’s righteousness but by their holy living and good works.”

    After noting some changes in Richard Gaffin, Jr. circa 2006, Lee Irons wrote:

    “I cannot recommend this book, but I understand what motivates it.”

    After the extensive agreement with Cunha, the “I cannot recommend this book” is nothing but academic snobbishness.

    3. Regarding a possible change in Richard Gaffin, Jr.’s view, Lee Irons wrote: “I do think, however, that something happened to Dr. Gaffin ca. 2006. I don’t know exactly what happened, but something did.”

    The failings of Richard Gaffin, Jr. are not just doctrinal but moral, and Lee Irons are making excuses for Gaffin just because Gaffin is an academic.

    Granting Irons premise that Gaffin has changed his view for the better, then:

    If treating Richard Gaffin, Jr. as an academic, then he has failed to be open and honest about his change in view which is an academic failure.

    If treating Richard Gaffin, Jr. as a teacher in God’s church, then he should confess his sins to the church he has so wronged.

    Saving face by hiding one’s academic and moral failings is not a consideration in Richard Gaffin, Jr. circumstances.

    It is not a failure of Cunha to not note some possible recent signs of changes in Richard Gaffin, Jr., the failure is on Gaffin for not being open about his changes.

    Let Richard Gaffin, Jr. openly repudiated his previous views if indeed he has changed them.

    Lee Irons is academically snobbish by making excuses for Richard Gaffin, Jr.

    Lastly, it may give a scholar great pleasure in tracing out and distinguishing the pre-2006 and post-2006 Richard Gaffin, Jr.

    But it is not for us to make excuses for him: Let the man be honest before man and God.



  9. brandonadams Says:

    Thank you Benjamin

  10. markmcculley Says:

    i also thank you. Ben—-

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