I’ve started phase 2 of my independent study on Paul, so I’m now thinking about “justification.” I’ve read the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification along with the Roman Catholic and Lutheran responses to it, the resulting clarifying annex that accompanied the signing statement, and the statement with which the United Methodist Church signed on to the agreement. I’ve started reading Justification: Five Views, starting from the end with the chapter on the Roman Catholic view of justification in hopes of getting oriented.

The eighth footnote in this chapter quotes Cardinal Walter Kaspar pointing out that Catholics tend to speak about salvation, forgiveness, and reconciliation rather than justification. Yes! I wrote in the margin. As I mentioned to my professor last week, “justification” is just not in my native vocabulary as a Catholic. It’s not a word I’ve ever used except when talking to or about Protestants.

I think of it as a peculiarly Protestant thing, emphasis on the peculiar. 😉 But I think I can build some Catholic bridges to some of the ideas. Here’s what I’m thinking based on what I’ve read so far — maybe some Protestant readers can help me out.

First off, I have to ask, why cut justification out from the rest of salvation? Isn’t that like cutting the crucifixion off from the resurrection, or faith off from works, or the bread off from the wine in the Lord’s Supper?

Then, it seems that justification is unambiguously, inexorably a forensic concept from the domain of law and courts: a judge pronouncing the status of the defendant. Prioritizing justification as the primary doctrine of Christianity, more important than all the rest, seems to inevitably prioritize “judge” as the primary understanding of God, more important than all the rest.

And honestly, I don’t get that. When I look at Jesus, at his life and public ministry, at his passion and death, at his resurrection and ascension, I do not primarily see a judge. I see a lot of other things before I see a judge. And Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. So how can the image of God as judge be primary in Christianity?

Not only does justification seem to require God as judge: it also seems to require some form of penal substitution or satisfaction theory as the necessary framework. Well, I have a problem with that, because that’s a fairly late development: for the first thousand years of Christianity, the primary model of the atonement was the Christus Victor model, which still dominates Catholic liturgical texts about Easter. It’s all over the Easter Sequence[1].

On the other hand, some of the traditional Catholic objections to the Lutheran and Reformed understandings of justification I don’t really get either. To Luther’s famous simul justus et peccator, both saint and sinner, I would say “of course!” To me this is coherent with inaugurated eschatology, perhaps the personal version of it: Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension has saved and renewed the world — and, that salvation and renewal has not yet come to its full perfection.

The Protestant emphasis seems to be that God declares the sinner righteous, and that’s separate from, and prior to, anything that actually, ontologically happens to the justified person. But… but that’s like separating Fiat lux! from “And there was light.” God’s speech is effective — God’s words are the ultimate performative speech. (But at least I think I get it now how this is not “just a legal fiction” which was a phrase that came up in my earlier reading.)

When I think about Luther’s scrupulosity, and his experience of repeatedly receiving absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation and yet not feeling any safer from the fires of Hell and the mouth of Purgatory as a result, then I can understand why this forensic metaphor would have been so powerful for him: it would mean that he was safe, saved, and justified even though he didn’t feel any different, because the feeling-different part would happen later.

And that’s actually not so different from (some contemporary, at least) RC thinking about the sacrament of reconciliation: we are forgiven first and it is the experience of forgiveness that opens our hearts and causes us to repent and seek absolution.

When Catholics receive this sacrament, we say an Act of Contrition after we confess our sins and before the priest pronounces[2] our absolution and penance. This is the version I learned when I was in 2nd grade:

O my God, I am heartily sorry
for having offended Thee.
And I detest all my sins,
because of Thy just punishment,
but most of all because they offend Thee, my God,
who art all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace,
to sin no more, and avoid the near occasion of sin.

It’s that resolution and grace that sit underneath “justification” and cause difficulties in the Protestant-Catholic dialogue. Fundamentally it appears to be a question of theological anthropology, related to the great Brunner-Barth debate: what happened to the imago dei at the Fall? Was it obliterated, or merely tarnished? Is it possible for human beings to incline towards God? or is the human will utterly and irrevocably enslaved by sin prior to justification? Does grace build on nature, or bind and replace it?

But here is my question: How much does it matter? Why is this a church-dividing issue? Why is this not a matter for theological discussion and development, with differences of emphasis and opinion expected and accepted?

Why is the understanding of the mechanism of salvation a church-dividing issue, if we can all agree that salvation is and was wrought by the Christ event, and made available to us through Jesus Christ?


Christians, praise the Paschal Victim;
Offer thankful sacrifice.
Christ the Lamb has saved the sheep;
Christ the Innocent paid the price,
Reconciling sinners to the Father.

Death and life fought bitterly
For this wondrous victory;
The Lord of life who died
Reigns glorified.

O Mary, come and say
what you saw at break of day.
“The empty tomb of my living Lord!
I saw Christ Jesus risen, and adored!”

Bright angels testified,
Shroud and grave clothes side by side!
“Yes, Christ my hope rose gloriously!
He goes before you into Galilee!”

Share the good news, sing joyfully:
His death is victory!
Lord Jesus, Victor King,
Show us mercy.

Amen. Alleluia!

[2] “pronounces absolution” — isn’t that a forensic-sounding term? I’m guessing that was the idiom around the sacrament at the time.

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