Justification: Traditional Reformed Perspective

I’m working my way through Justification: Five Views, in chapter 3 of which Michael Horton helpfully lays out the traditional Reformed position on justification in direct contrast to the Council of Trent decree on justification (which is cited in the current Catechism of the Roman Catholic church), and then defends it against other contemporary Protestant views. He relies overwhelmingly on Romans, citing it 45 times, Galatians 10 times, with 5 or fewer citations to each of 5 other Pauline letters. A foundational element of his argument was Paul’s anthropology of “universal human depravity” (91), which he asserts without elaboration.

This essay introduced me to the notion of the active and passive obedience of Christ. It seems exceedingly odd to me that willingly undergoing torture and death would be termed “passive obedience,” but perhaps this is meant in the sense of “let it be done to me according to your will.” His active obedience, by which is meant Christ’s perfect obedience to the law during his life, at least provides a theological foundation for the Incarnation, which is generally neglected when substitutionary atonement is discussed. Horton’s emphasis of its importance seems however to be motivated by a desire to make the moral credit balance come out positive rather than merely zero, but without much explanation for why this would be necessary.

I’m also troubled by the awareness that Torah does not strictly mean law in the contemporary sense, but has a range of meanings encompassing instruction, way, covenant faithfulness, and so on. Paul is clearly using judicial language at times, and so does the Tanakh, but it’s not clear to me how this language would have played with the rest of the semantic range in the theological imagination of a Second Temple Pharisee. Furthermore, to the extent that law was a primary concern of the Pharisees, it seems that the primacy of this metaphor may be particularly Pauline, rather than universal to the early church.

Horton shows that the additional Pauline metaphors of adoption, inheritance, and clothing are compatible with the judicial metaphor, but his insistence that justification in the forensic sense is both primary and inherently prior seems justified (ahem) only by reasoning that if adoption, inheritance, or clothing occurred first, then the judicial declaration of innocence would no longer be necessary. This reasoning only makes sense if we abandon the paradigm of metaphor entirely, and insist that this language describes various actions of God that must be harmonized.

Although the doctrine vigorously affirms that by God’s grace, the law has no power over us, the Reformed theological imagination certainly appears to be thoroughly bound by the law. The event at the heart of Christianity is the cross and resurrection, not the court of law: this alone would seem to argue for the priority of a transformational, rather than judicial, paradigm of salvation.

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One Response to Justification: Traditional Reformed Perspective

  1. Pingback: Justification: More Views | Gaudete Theology

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