Review of Hafemann’s “God of Promise”

Hafemann, Scott J. The God of Promise and the Life of Faith: Understanding the Heart of the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001. 256pp. $19.99.

In The God of Promise and the Life of Faith, Scott J. Hafemann, Gerald F. Hawthorne Chair of New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College, expounds a biblical theology that was grown in the garden of his teachers’ theology. At the outset, Hafemann acknowledges the prominent role that Daniel Fuller and John Piper played in shaping his view of the scriptures (p. 13). While one immediately notices the similarities between Hafemann and his teachers, the careful reader also discovers some significant differences. The nature of these differences will determine whether Hafemann remains within the bounds of the Reformation (with John Piper) or without (Daniel Fuller).

Hafemann intends this work to be a “biblical theology” of “the triune God and the implications of his never-changing character for our lives” (p. 18). In chapter one, Hafemann contends that God intends “creation itself” to teach his people to “put away our idols by recognizing God alone as our Creator and Provider” (p. 39). Chapter two explains how this Creator God relates to his people—through covenant. Hafemann’s understanding of the Bible rests on his definition of covenant, “a covenant declares its foundation in the past, outlines its stipulations for the present, and announces its expectations for the future” (p. 51). According to Hafemann, God always relates to man through this covenant framework, “The covenant relationship established in the Garden of Eden provides the basis and contours of the relationship that exists between God and his people throughout history” (p. 55). Thus, God’s relationship to his people throughout history rests upon God’s unconditional acts of provision in the past, the covenant stipulations/conditions for the present, and the resulting covenant promises/curses in the future (p. 56). This one uniform covenant structure provides the unity of the Bible. Because this covenant begins with provision, it is therefore gracious in character. Thus the interpreter must “no longer divide the Bible into two conflicting messages, ‘the Law’ versus ‘the Gospel,’ or a ‘covenant of works,’ versus a ‘covenant of grace’” (p. 59). Chapter three discusses Adam and Eve’s covenant breaking and the rapprochement initiated by God in the protoevangelium and in the election of Abraham (p. 67). These first three chapters lay the groundwork for understanding the focus and foundation of faith (chapter four), the future-oriented nature of faith (chapter five), suffering and the sovereignty of God (chapter six), hope as the motivation for obedience (chapter 8), and the place of Jesus in the new covenant (chapter 9). Hafemann concludes with a brief description of the “Marks of a Christian” (p. 211).

Evaluation & Critique
While there is much to commend and critique in Hafemann’s synthesis of the biblical message, this review will focus on three areas: (1) the relationship between Law and Gospel, (2) faith and works as conditions for God’s blessing, and (3) implications for the protestant doctrine of justification.

The Relationship between Law and Gospel

Hafemann really misunderstands New Testament teaching in his formulation of how the Law relates to the Gospel. As stated above, Fuller rejects any antithesis between Law and Gospel—as if each one represented different ways of relating to God. For Fuller, “the Law as a whole embodied God’s . . .promises” (p. 193). Whereas more traditional formulations tend to set the Law (and the works it calls for) against the Gospel (and the faith it calls for), Hafemann maintains both Law and Gospel require the same thing: the obedience of faith. This essential unity between the Law and the Gospel enables Hafemann to conclude that the “works of law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:10) are the “appropriate response to God’s saving righteousness under the old covenant, there is nothing wrong with them per se” (p. 230).
Space forbids a comprehensive response to this contention, but certainly Galatians 3 cannot fit into Hafemann’s understanding of how the Law relates to Gospel. Paul clearly contrasts the “works of the Law” with “hearing with faith” (Gal 3: 5). He goes on to explain that the Gospel differs from the Law in that the Gospel calls for faith, while the Law calls for works. The fundamental incongruity of Law and Gospel is manifested in Paul’s assertion that “the Law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12). Because Law and Gospel are so clearly antithetical in Paul’s mind, he has to give an apologetic for why the Law does not nullify the promise (Gal 3:15-18). If Law and Gospel were as agreeable as Hafemann imagines, then why does Paul even have to venture such an explanation?

Faith and Works as Conditions for God’s Blessing

Hafemann’s view of the Law-Gospel question inevitably informs his explanation of the place of faith and works as conditions for God’s blessing. At this point, one detects ambivalence in Hafemann’s argument. On the one hand, Hafemann can sound as if God’s favor is conditioned upon obedience to Law. On the other hand, Hafemann is clear that “we are not justified by our own ‘works’” (p. 209). This tension results from a clear statement of the primacy of sola gratia in all of God’s dealings coupled with an unclear commitment to sola fide. God’s grace to His people consists in His divine enablement to fulfill the law (i.e. to obey).[1] Yet this obedience (graciously wrought by the Spirit) is often presented as the necessary condition of salvation/justification. Reformed readers may be enticed when Hafemann claims, “Though faith and its obedience is absolutely essential, it is God’s work of grace on our behalf which enables that response, not our response itself, that saves us” (p. 229). The Reformed reader also happily agrees that one cannot be saved “through our own efforts (a ‘works-righteousness’)” (p. 181). But this is not the end of the story because Hafemann does not exhibit the same clarity with respect to sola fide. Because Hafemann regards faith to be virtually equal to obedience[2], he opens himself up to the charge that works are included in the instrumental cause of Justification. Certainly all reformed readers agree that faith and its obedience are inseparably connected. But reformed theologians would also absolutely insist that faith be distinguished from works with respect to the instrumental cause of justification. He writes, “Trusting and obeying God are not two different ways to relate to him” (p. 99). What does he mean by this statement? Without distinguishing himself from his teacher’s clear renunciation of sola fide[3], Hafemann leaves himself open to the charge of being outside the reformation.

Implications for the Protestant Doctrine of Justification
Hafemann also shows ambivalence with respect to the temporal location of Justification. Sometimes it appears as future; other times it appears as past (bound up with Christ’s cross-work). Because the transforming works of the Spirit are conceived as conditions of God’s favor, God’s final justifying work is postponed until the future. The decisive moment of Justification is bound up with the Spirit’s eschatological perfection of ethical righteousness in the believer. Hafemann writes, “the declaration ‘not guilty’ at the judgment seat of Christ will not be based on anything we have ever done for God. . ., but on what God has done, is doing, and will do for us right up to the end” (p. 218). Notice two things in this statement. First of all, Justification is something that happens in the future. Second, this Justification is based on the Holy Spirit’s work of renewal in the believer. Once again, Hafemann seems to indicate that the Spirit’s enabling work is included in the cause of Justification. Because of this fact, final Justification has to be postponed until the Spirit’s work is complete. At other places, Hafemann locates forgiveness in the cross-work of Christ, “the final verdict to be handed down at the last judgment concerning our eternal destiny has already been declared in advance” (p. 206). This already/not yet tension is characteristic of New Testament teaching, but one wonders where this leaves Hafemann confessionally.

Hafemann’s synthesis is stimulating to say the least. But in the final analysis his approach leaves much to be desired. His virtual equation of the Law and Gospel does not cohere with the apparent antithesis in Paul’s writings. The connection between faith and works leaves questions with regard to sola fide. Hafemann also does not clearly locate God’s decisive act of Justification in the cross of Christ. Hopefully Hafemann will be able to clarify these issues in the future.
[1]“our ‘good works’ are, in reality, the product of God’s good work within us” (p. 219).
[2]Hafemann regards the genitive in “obedience of faith” to be explanatory, “so that the ‘obedience’ in view is actually faith in Christ or the Gospel, in contrast to obedience to God’s law. In other words, faith is being defined as obedience to the message of the Gospel” (p. 244). This interpretation appears with other affirmations that faith and its obedience are an organic unity, “union of faith, hope, and obedience, that is at the heart of our covenant relationship” (p. 189), “unity of faith and obedience” (p. 102).
[3]Daniel P. Fuller, “A Response on the Subjects of Works and Grace,” Presbyterion 9 (1983): 77, 79


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