Not that reviews of books at Amazon.com are ever adequate or trustworthy, the one for Ian Hewitson’s book on the Shepherd Controversy is revealing and adds context to the current polemics among militant critiques of Lutheranism from biblical theologians. The initial hostility in Presbyterian circles to Lutheran notions of justification came from Norman Shepherd. The reviewer is correct to note:
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the doctrine of justification by “faith alone” came under scrutiny at Westminster Theological Seminary. One of the reasons that precipitated a long, drawn-out, and painful controversy there is because the Rev. Norman Shepherd sought to do faithful exegesis of the text of Scripture in comparing the so-called contradictory pronouncements on justification between Paul and James. He did so while staying faithful to his Reformed tradition as expressed in the Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms). While Shepherd came to question Luther’s statement of “justification by faith alone,” he wondered why exegetical theology could not express itself in terms of the simpler, and more biblical, “justification by faith.” It was, after all, Martin Luther who added the gloss “alone” (glauben allein) into the text of Romans 3:28, which is not in the Greek text.
Ian Hewitson, Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, reveals in his clear, erudite dissertation, that at the crux of the debate over Shepherd’s teachings was the Lutheran-Calvinist distinction in what constitutes justifying faith. For Luther, the faith that justifies is “alone.” That is, faith is an entity that exists all by itself, is “alone,” and is devoid of any and all good works. In this sense “justification by faith alone” uses “alone” as an adjective. What kind of faith is it that justifies? It is an “alone” faith. It is faith in abstraction from all else. That is the adjectival use of the word “alone” in “justification by faith alone.”
Before Shepherd, theologians like John Murray or Louis Berkhof would not have objected to the Lutheran doctrine of justification. But Shepherd did.
Before sympathetic readers here jump on the anti-Shepherd bandwagon, they need to remember that at the time Reformed rigor was on the decline and evangelical breadth was on the rise among conservative Presbyterians in the OPC, PCA, and Westminster Seminary. John Frame’s book, Evangelical Reunion (for starters) would be ironically one example of that New School turn among conservative Presbyterians away from Old School practices and convictions. Shepherd’s desire for a consistently Reformed doctrine of salvation was part of an Old School instinct to preserve a distinctly Reformed voice.
What needs to be noted is that Shepherd was correct to resist the decline of Reformed militancy and singularity at his seminary and within his communion. I wonder if John Frame’s endorsement of Shepherd actually includes some recognition of the distance between him and Shepherd on the Reformed identity and militant character of the OPC, with Shepherd embodying one strand of Machen’s warrior children and Frame exhibiting boredom with fighting period. (Fight liberalism, sure. But that was so yesterday.)
The question is whether Shepherd needed to find a really, really, really Reformed doctrine of justification in order to right the ship. My answer, for what it’s worth, is negative.