Justification, Paul’s doctrine that secured covenantal equality between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity during the mid-fifties A.D. would ironically become the seed bed for a host of theological divisions in the centuries to follow. Such is the doctrinal-irony of ecclesial history. Justification, however, was not a central motif (as opposed to any other images Paul uses to describe salvation) for most of the church’s life, until that is, the sixteenth-century Reformation. From this period on justification is catapulted center-stage as the locus of discussion between Catholic and Protestant positions of that period. The dust of course settled, and (depending on your vantage point) the supremacy of the largely traditional Lutheran and Calvinist-Reformed perspective (each have their own distinguishing traits as well) of this doctrine is awarded the grandiose title, “orthodox.”
The Justification question had largely been settled, that is, until E.P. Sanders’ 1977 publication Paul and Palestinian Judaism argued forcefully against for what he perceived as the Reformed [mis]characterization of Second-Temple Judaism as essentially being “legalistic” (there were precursors, but Sanders’ thesis was more persuasive) On the contrary, Sanders was able to detect, through a fresh encounter of the literature of the Second-Temple period, a larger “pattern of religion” which he styled “covenantal nomism.” Namely, that the works required of Israel were in response to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant when redeeming them from Egyptian bondage on behalf of the promises given to the patriarchs. The works required didn’t “earn” merit per se, but were part of Israel’s proper response within a covenantal arrangement between Israel—an already redeemed people—and their God, who also provided a sacrificial system to deal with transgression when it arose. Voilà!—(well, sort of) overnight new life was breathed into Pauline scholarship, and while Sanders’ thesis has been challenged, reworked, and integrated at various levels, it inevitably led to a reconsideration of the precise meaning of justification.
If one desires to enter the discussion, the amount of publications currently swirling around this discussion can make one’s head spin; thankfully, James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy have published Justification: Five Views which will help one get their feet wet with the various positions currently being advocated. The format is reader’s dream come true; each view is presented followed immediately by responses from the remaining four views. This theological-cage-match breaks up the monotony sometimes accompanied with monographs that articulate a singular stance. It also allows one to engage with the most serious challenges to any single position on justification; right then, right there. And that’s not all!—the book includes a brief history of the doctrine that is incredibly informative. The views and their advocates are as follows:
1. The Traditional Reformed View by Michael S. Horton: “The Reformers taught and evangelicals teach that justification is distinct from sanctification. Although both are inseparable gifts of union with Christ through faith, justification is a verdict that declares sinners to be righteous even while they are inherently unrighteous, simply on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them… [AND] rather than working toward the verdict of divine vindication, the believer leaves the court justified in the joy that bears the fruit of faith: namely, good works.”
2. The Progressive Reformed View by Michael F. Bird: “Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age. By faith we are united to Christ in his condemnation on the cross and we are also united to his justification and resurrection. To expand upon that, God’s verdict of condemnation against our sin at the cross is transformed into God’s verdict of righteousness issued in the raising of the Son. We are, then, incorporated into the righteousness of Jesus Christ so that his vindication, and his obedient act that was the basis for it, is counted as ours.”
3. The New Perspective View by James D.G. Dunn: “For Paul, the truth of the gospel was demonstrated by the breaking down of the boundary markers and the wall that divided Jew from Gentile, a conviction that remained the central part of his mission precisely because it was such a fundamental expression of and test case for the gospel. This is the missing dimension of Paul’s doctrine of justification that the new perspective has brought back to the center of the stage where Paul himself placed it.”
4. The Deification View by Veli-Matti Kärkäinen: “Justification can be described in three interrelated ways: participation in God, the presence of Christ in the believer through the Holy Spirit, or theosis… In other words, Christ in both his person and his work is present in faith and is through this presence identical with the righteousness of faith.”
5. Roman Catholic View by Gerald O’ Collins and Oliver Rafferty: “I would call justification God’s faithful activity of human and cosmic restoration effected though the inseparable work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, a restoration vividly manifested in the worship of Christian communities formed and nourished through the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”
Though all the contributors are to be commended for their work in this reflective-cornucopia on justification, the most persuasive presentation was Michael F. Bird’s Progressive Reformed view. Bird is able to articulate a reading of justification that is keenly sensitive to the wider apocalyptic framework and fervor of the Second-Temple period, the actual contextual situations both in Galatia and Rome affected as they were by sociopolitical events of the day, and the ethnic concerns between Gentile and Jewish converts in light of Israel’s national election. Bird’s apocalyptic-eschatology (hopefully he would accept this term) allows the twin concepts of “Righteousness of God” and “faithfulness of Christ” to take on a more concrete historical meaning (and in my opinion, a more theologically active one), namely that, “The dramatic revelation of God’s salvation that reaches into the whole world through Israel is unleashed in the good news that the risen Jesus is Lord and Messiah.” This assertion is strengthened in light of passages like Romans 15:7-9 that are clearly programmatic for Paul and summarize his mission in a sort of two-staged apocalyptic scenario that runs as follows: God’s radical in-breaking into history to fulfill His covenant promises through the faithful death of Jesus the Messiah for Israel carried forward by Paul’s mission to Gentiles to and beyond Rome (clunky, I know). I only have one major contention with Bird’s position, and that is his sort of generalized reading of Galatians 3:6 -14. I think adopting a narrative approach as articulated by either Richard Hays or N.T. Wright here would strengthen his overall position, especially in light of his emphasis on an apocalyptically colored historia salutis.
Perhaps, my biggest frustration is Michael Horton’s defense of the Traditional Reformed view. In light of the barrage of criticisms being currently leveled at Traditional Reformed view I would have expected a fresh restatement of the Reformed position that is less polemical; containing less rehashed statements from the large pool of Reformed dogma. What is needed is a rearticulation that is first an exegetical, historical, and contextual defense of the Traditional stance that doesn’t attempt to derive its strength from any past creeds or Reformers—including Calvin! In short, how is the Traditional Reformed view the more appropriate model for interpreting the historical and contextual situations of Israel and the early churches raised by NPP proponents (Tell me Dr. Horton, I want to know!)? For example, Horton almost entirely ignores how the term “righteousness of God” would have been understood in light of its OT usage and amidst the apocalyptic concerns of Second-Temple period; instead, he straightforwardly adopts Luther’s understanding that it means God’s “essential righteousness” which condemns us. This is fascinating because Paul’s usage of the phrase throughout Romans 1-3 is shaped largely by its usage in Psalm 143 (not mentioned by Horton) which portrays God’s righteousness as his ability to save, not to condemn.
More to the point, for Paul, God’s “righteous judgment” is not actually going to be revealed until the “day of God’s wrath (Romans 2:6),” so it can hardly be said that God’s righteousness as spelled out in Romans is what presently condemns us. On the contrary, it seems more natural to read Paul as saying that God’s righteousness (as his covenant faithfulness) is what saves us from God’s eschatological day of righteous judgment (Romans 8:1-4 fits well with this proposal). Traditional readings like Horton’s likewise tend to downplay Paul’s statements in 3:1-7 which pits God’s truthfulness vis-à-vis Israel’s unfaithfulness and unrighteousness to bring salvation to the Gentiles (or in Paul’s terms, a “light for those who are in the dark”) which set the context for the climactic passage in 3:21-26. God’s righteousness in these verses is actually seemingly dependent on Israel’s righteousness not necessarily standing over against it condemning Israel’s lack of it.
Thus, term the “righteousness of God” for Paul (and other Jews) is not abstract condemnation stemming from God’s “essential nature” at all, but the issue seems to be that Israel’s “doing” of the Law (their “faith[!]” in Rom. 3:3) is precisely how God determined to bring about his “promise” to Abraham. In other words, one type of covenant (promissory) is only fulfilled through a second type (obedience to the law of the covenant as agreed upon at Sinai). However, once Israel fails at this task, the way God solves this would not be to do it despite Israel per se (because in doing so he would not be faithful), but through the faithfulness of Jesus who is a descendant of David (Rom: 1:3 and a reading that Horton rejects). God is faithful to the covenant of promise through the faithful Israelite (to borrow from Wright) whose act of righteousness brings salvation to the Gentiles. Horton is right to distinguish between the two types of covenants, but fails at recognizing how the obedience to one (covenant of obedience) fulfills the other (covenant of promise) and how this is done through Christ’s own obedience (Rom. 5:19) despite Israel’s historic failure at fulfilling the law. Nevertheless, Horton rightly critiques some NPP caricatures of the Reformed position of which I am thankful and will ensure that I am more nuanced in my future conversations on this subject.
The runner-up position goes to James D.G. Dunn’s New Perspective view. Dunn wonderfully highlights the necessary historical backdrop—such as the Maccabean crises—that drives the attempt of some Jewish Christians to turn Paul’s Gentile converts into Judaizers. Dunn is also highly sensitive to the ethnic issues surrounding Paul’s articulation of justification by faith, often ignored in some decontextualized Reformed treatments. I also resonate with Dunn’s repeated plea to hear “all of Paul’s gospel” in regards to his repeated warnings to believers who fail morally or otherwise that they can indeed “run in vain.” Those with Calvinist ears should hear what Paul is saying to his churches! Or as Dunn says, “The logic of dogma must bow the knee to exegesis.”
And though space fails me, Veli-Matti Kärkäinen and Gerald O’ Collins and Oliver Rafferty’s theses do offer some insightful points and present some useful historical information; nevertheless their positions were so devoid of any serious exegesis that it was hard to see any good reason as to why I should adopt any of their versions of Paul’s doctrine. The lack of exegesis is most likely due to their systematic theological backgrounds, but some exegesis is needed if one is going to be persuasive. Nonetheless, Justification: Five Views is an absolute treasure trove of information regarding this beloved doctrine so near and dear to Paul, the Reformers, and those articulating it afresh today. If you are currently deciding which position to take, before you do, you should engage this work thoroughly and with an open mind and heart—and yes, an open Bible! Even if you’ve already arrived at a position, it may be helpful to engage the weightiest arguments against it allowing you to nuance and modify your stance as necessary. In any case, this is a book you cannot afford to ignore.