Justification: More Views

This week I worked my way through the rest of Justification: Five Views.

Michael Bird’s discussion of the Progressive Reformed perspective places the judicial metaphor in the context of Paul’s other language that draws on relational, covenantal, and eschatological themes as well. He works through Paul’s arguments in Galatians and Romans 1-4 in detail, with very extensive citations to Romans (about 60) and Galatians (about 30), and a few references to five other letters. This systematic treatment was convincing to me, and taken together with the broader context and the resulting image of God as primarily rescuer and vindicator rather than judge, I found this perspective more persuasive than the Traditional Reformed.

His rejection of the imputation of Christ’s merit and positive obedience in favor of participationist language was also convincing, although he then fails to provide a meaningful theological basis for the Incarnation in its place. His discussion of the integral relationship between faith and works is well grounded by calling attention to Pauline passages that exhort good works and express concern that Paul’s preaching of the gospel will have been in vain if its precepts are not carried out in good works. Thus, this perspective was in many respects familiar to me.

Interestingly, at various times while I was reading these two chapters, I happened to converse with two women who had been raised Catholic (one still is, the other is lapsed), and explained to them the forensic understanding of justification and its rejection of works-righteousness. Each of them immediately objected that there seemed to be no incentive to living a moral life, then! My response was that good works are understood as the inevitable fruit of justification, and I speculated that in some cases, since the sacraments are not understood as efficacious ex opere operato, the incentive might be to prove that one had, indeed, been justified. (They did not seem to find this particularly convincing.) (Any Protestant readers want to respond to this objection, and/or vet my response?)

If the Progressive Reformed view is more persuasive than the Traditional because it broadens the understanding of Paul’s language about God and salvation, then the New Perspective (presented by James Dunn) is more persuasive still because it broadens the context in which we understand Paul, his culture, and his mission. I was very struck by the extensive citations of the Tanakh in the earlier parts of Dunn’s essay: it makes sense to me that we must see Paul’s letters as organically connected to the texts and practices of Paul’s Judaism. Dunn’s argument that Luther read Paul’s reaction against Judaism as congruent with his own reaction against Catholicism, and that thus Catholicism sometimes acts as a drop-in replacement for Judaism in Protestant polemic, resonated for me. I agree too that Paul’s concern to reconcile Jew and Gentile is critical for properly understanding his letters. Dunn makes a good case that Paul held justification and participation language together, but is less clear on how he did and thus how we may.

Karkkainen’s essay describes a “theosis” view of justification, which comes out of recent work among Finnish Lutherans in dialogue with their Russian Orthodox neighbors. It seems as much a new perspective on Luther, as an essay on Paul. I was fascinated to discover the use of participation and theosis language by Luther and his emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the believer, which rings in eucharistic terms in my ears. Overall his article had both covenantal and transformational implications that go beyond the Reformed views.

A key element of the excellent series of which this book is a part is that after each essay, it presents responses from each of the other authors. In the responses, I was particularly struck by Karkkainen’s observation that neither the Reformers nor the Catholic Counter-Reformers ever made it much past chapter 5 of Romans.

I also read a 1983 paper on justification by the Orthodox theologian Constantine Scouteris. [1] Interestingly, he frames the discussion of justification with Johannine references, emphasizing the hypostatic union of the Incarnation as the ground for Christ’s justifying work, before proceeding to the Pauline references. Scouteris also exhibits the characteristic Orthodox avoidance of speculation and philosophical construct beyond the language of the New Testament. The strong connection between justification, the church, the eucharist, and the practice of the Christian life is also typical. I was only slightly aware of the emphasis on ascesis in Orthodoxy, and wondered about the link between ascesis and kenosis. I was struck by his statement that “It is this very dynamism of justification which constitutes sanctification.” (154)

Andy Johnson’s article, described to me as a survey of a few “post-new perspective” views on justification, highlights the various directions in which the traditional concept of justification has been spreading out, apparently in a variety of laudable attempts to engage with and systematize the whole gospel of Paul, as a couple of the Five Views authors plaintively put it.

The three criteria that emerge for me as important in constructing a comprehensive and reliable understanding of Pauline theology are a) a broad canonical basis, including the Tanakh (specifically in the Greek translation Paul likely used), b) a broad socio-cultural understanding of Paul as a Pharisaical Jewish missionary to the Gentiles with an eschatological, Isaiah-grounded framework for the Christ event, and c) an organic understanding of soteriology that avoids reductionism and holds together all the elements of Paul’s preaching.


[1] Scouteris, Constantine. “Church and justification : an Orthodox approach to the issue of justification and collective faith.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28, no. 2 (June 1, 1983): 145-155.

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One Response to Justification: More Views

  1. Pingback: July 2012 Biblical Studies Carnival « Reading Acts

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