Review of Justification: Five Views (IVP, 2011) (Part 2 of 2)

(This is Part 2 of 2 of this review. For part 1, go here.)

Some Observations

Each of the essays in this volume deserves a close reading and detailed interaction and I regret that I cannot devote that kind of space to them here, especially in the case of Dunn’s essay which should be read carefully before more is published at the popular level regarding the “new perspective” model. I would like, however, to note a few features of the essays that may serve to advance discussion still further. As my point of departure, I note Horton’s observation, correct in my view, that the differences between his view and Bird’s, while in some cases deep-running and significant, are in other cases more inflated in appearance than they are in reality. Certainly, as I think is clear so far, I find I agree with most of what Horton says, yet in those places where I differ from Horton it is Bird that I look to in this volume to press those matters, which he does admirably and persuasively. But before noting an example of how their models might be brought closer together, I offer a few brief observations on the essays as a whole.

Firstly, many of the contributors refer to the importance of the “faith of/in Jesus Christ” debate in Pauline studies, a debate over whether the underlying Greek construction should be understood as referring to Christ’s own faith/faithfulness (the “subjective” genitive) or to the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ (the “objective” genitive). In fact it appears to me that this question is even more pertinent to the justification debate than the attention given to it in these essays suggests. The reader should note that Bird co-edited a valuable collection of essays on this question that should be thoroughly digested. His own somewhat mediating stance also seems to me the most judicious in handling the evidence.

Secondly, a somewhat unsettling feature in several of the essays and responses is the talk of justification as but one of many available and biblical ways of speaking of the reality of salvation, a term we may use alongside other concepts such as “union with Christ” and “reconciliation.” Granted that the truth of this theological complementarity is important to affirm, and granted that the language of this kind of terminological interplay goes a long way toward avoiding myopia, it is also rather important to affirm the distinctions between, and the nature of the relationships among, these terms and concepts. In fact, to a significant extent the differences among the essayists reduce down to the question of just that relationship. Despite how some writers write and some readers read, it is quite important to note that neither in Scripture nor in tradition is “faith” characteristically a synonym for “justification,” nor is “justification” a synonym for “reconciliation” or “salvation.” Certainly “justification” is not a synonym for “the Gospel” or “union with Christ.” The ideas all belong together, undoubtedly, but they are distinct as well. For Reformed theologians in the Westminster confessional tradition, at least, union with Christ and justification are not simply two ways of speaking of one reality. The latter is an aspect of the former – manifesting it, we should note, in an irreversible relationship (cf. WLC 69).

Thirdly, I have complained about this elsewhere (see some entries in Publications) and will spare the reader a repeat performance, but we would benefit, I think, from more careful attention to the ways the relationship between justification and sanctification/transformation is articulated using language of “cause” or “source.” There is a world of difference between saying on the one hand that the fact of justification – or, put differently, the knowledge of our justification – provides great motivation for the life of sanctification, and on the other hand that justification itself is the cause of sanctification. The former, I have to think, is uncontroversial and carries with it the weight of many forefathers in the Faith besides the testimony of Scripture in many places. (It is also, incidentally, how Calvin’s “justification as the main hinge of religion” language ought to be understood, in keeping with then-traditional uses of religio for the Christian life. More on this in another post.) The latter notion, however, is quite controversial and, as I have argued before, rather problematic theologically.

Usually this connection is put forward as a way to explain why the life of good works is necessary, particularly in view of the old Roman Catholic charge that justification by faith alone opens the door to licentiousness. But, theologically (rather than experientially) speaking, it is not justification itself that provides the rationale for this necessity but, as Calvin and others have tirelessly insisted, union with Christ that does so. Indeed, the reason justification cannot exist independently of transformation is not due to what justification is in terms of itself but because of the reality of which justification speaks in its own distinct way: that we are “in Christ.” As Horton himself notes, the Heidelberg Catechism rejects moral licentiousness by arguing that “it is impossible for those who are engrafted into Christ by true faith not to bring forth the fruit of gratitude” (89, emphasis mine), which is quite different from arguing that it is impossible because one has been justified unless one means that if one is justified it is because one is in Christ, and anyone in Christ is also sanctified.

To put it in other terms, the peace of conscience that the fact of justification affords is invaluable as a motivation for a life of holiness. In fact we cannot have the pursuit of real holiness if we believe our justification is in question and that we thus need to earn it in some way. Justification necessarily comes with and alongside a host of realities and blessings, and it entails a range of ethical conclusions as well, particularly in the area of communion or fellowship. But to note the experiential benefits of knowing our justification is secure is not the same as noting the theological relationship between justification and sanctification, and the writers in this volume occasionally blend the two together. We must take great care in our language of justification as a cause of sanctification not to suggest that it is justification itself but our knowledge of it that, in a limited sense, may be understood as a “cause” of a life of good works. Speaking immoderately on this point suggests something false about justification, viz., that it is not in fact a purely forensic declaration but something inherently generative, along the lines of what God’s Word is in the very different context of his act of creation. At issue, then, are assumptions about the nature of God’s speech and whether or not it is always the same kind of act, but we cannot explore them here.

IAOC and Future Justification

Finally, and more extensively, as noted above, Horton affirms the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAOC) whereas Bird does not, and Bird affirms a form of not-yet (final) justification according to (but not on the grounds of) works which Horton denies, at least for now. Here are two ideas not usually considered together, yet I suggest they ought to be and that it might be a fruitful and interesting relationship to explore. I can only be suggestive here, of course, yet I would offer the following thoughts.

With regard to the eschatology of justification, the nature of the final judgment has regretfully faded from view in current debates in favor of interest in other questions, but it has long been a key area of discussion within and outside the Reformed tradition. And while there have been some who have denied a final justification altogether, believing it to be a danger to the reality of an “already” (present) justification in Christ by faith alone, such a danger is not necessary. Readers of these essays will discover, I think, that for all the real risks of abuse it involves (as does justification “by faith alone,” for that matter), talk of eschatological justification in some non-meritorious relation to works does not itself make one a Catholic, as Bird rightly reminds us. This much should be known already by those familiar with the pertinent texts rather than only popular presentations of the question, but the reminder is always timely.

In these debates it is often assumed, I think, that it is the idea of justification in Christ at the end, rather than justification in Christ now, that is in need of defense. Yet the situation is actually quite the reverse, biblically. The weight and pull of the biblical witness, especially in the Prophets, is on the final Day of the LORD and all that that Day will bring. So the problem, so to speak, of NT theology is the explanation of the ways in which the realities of that long-awaited Day have now been brought forward in history in the person and work of Christ – yet not in whole but provisionally, and in full expectation still of that Day of consummation to come. The fact of a justification secured and real now need not require that it have no future dimension any more than our sanctification or adoption now requires that we do not look forward to our final sanctification or adoption. Instead, as aspects of what it means to be united to Christ, our union is itself, in all its varied ways, including justification, an already and not-yet blessed reality. So, as Geerhardus Vos noted with characteristic acuity, “In Gal. v. 5 Christians ‘through the Spirit by faith wait for the hope of righteousness’ (that is for the realization of the hoped for things pertaining to the state of righteousness conferred in justification)” (The Pauline Eschatology, p. 30, emphases added). The question, of course, is how to articulate this eschatological realization of justification in a way that does justice to the full scope of the biblical witness to it as something already truly (and wonderfully!) secure now and yet also anticipated as the telos or end of a life of perseverance, obedience, and suffering. Each of the writers in this volume addresses the question in some way and their differences on this point are instructive.

What, then, about the relationship I am suggesting between final justification “according to” works and  the idea of the IAOC? To speak simply, it is a matter of coordinating one idea with the other in light of union with Christ. For those who, like Horton (and myself), affirm the IAOC, Christ was justified by the Spirit in resurrection from the dead (1 Tim. 3:16) because of and only after the life of Torah obedience that culminated in his suffering and death on the cross. He is the uniquely faithful second and last Adam (and Israel). Those united to Christ by faith and the Spirit are justified as they are included in him, and thus in the verdict passed over him by the Father in resurrection from the dead. On the other hand, for those who, like Bird (and myself), affirm a carefully nuanced view of final justification “according to” but not on the meritorious grounds of obedience or perseverance, we note how believers are frequently encouraged to perseverance in view of this final legal prospect, very much in keeping with the testimony of the OT prophets. In Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians, persevering obedience in love is prospective and not only retrospective (as in a gratitude-only construct), belonging productively and indispensably to the Christ-path of the Christian life which will culminate in final blamelessness on the coming Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 3:12-14; 5:23). (Such a construction is well represented historically and long familiar in biblical studies, yet it could use development; the recent monograph by Matthew D. Aernie, Forensic Language and the Day of the Lord Motif in Second Thessalonians 1 and the Effects on the Meaning of the Text [WEST Theological Monograph Series; Wipf & Stock, 2011], should, I hope, put features of the biblical question quietly to rest.)

Yet we should note that, as Paul unpacks the dynamics of our union with Christ, it is rather clear that this union entails a Christ-storied form for the Church’s life in Christ – that the obedience “material,” if you will, of Christ’s submission to the Father’s will (his “active” obedience) is the “material” of the believer’s obedience to the Father’s will in union with Christ (as recognized, e.g., in Reformed expositions of the so-called “third use” of the law). For instance, against the highly relevant backdrop of law, obedience, Spirit, and life in Rom. 8:3-13, we note the Christological shape of the closely articulated if-then relationship in Rom. 8:17, “…and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” The theology of Paul’s matter-of-fact connection here, far from unique to Romans 8, extends well beyond the suffering-obedience of Christians as merely a thankful reflex of justification. To put the matter more concisely, in the NT, there is a relationship between Christ’s positive Torah obedience (his active obedience) under the long shadow of the cross which was prospective of his own justification by resurrection, and the believer’s own positive obedience in cross-bearing which is prospective of his own finally-realized justification by resurrection. It would appear that those who argue for either IAOC or for final justification in accordance with (not on the basis of) nonmeritorious works are in the best position to do full justice to the other side of this same picture.

The Church’s Gospel-defining insistence, of course, is that Christ’s obedience is uniquely meritorious and the Christian’s is a non-meritorious participation in him by the Spirit. Our obedience and Jesus’ obedience are not on any kind of a meritorious continuum (the “material” commonality of Christ’s obedience and ours referred to above is, crucially, not of this kind) and the Church cannot insist on this too strongly.

The language of merit reminds us of this. Bird, I think, is correct to shudder at much of the use of “merits” in theology (note the plural in my use of the term here). I agree that the notion of a pool or bucket of merits is foreign to the testimony of Scripture and a step or two away from how “Christ our righteousness” should be understood. Yet I hasten to add that the Gospel very much depends on affirming that there is a qualitative (what it is), and not only quantitative (how much there is), difference between Christ’s obedience and my own, and I believe this can be well captured by the traditional language of “merit” (note now the singular). Use of merit in history from Tertullian forward has been, in its finest moments at least, a valiant and sometimes imperfect attempt to do justice to that crucial distinction between Jesus and me, particularly in view of that Christological shape of Christian obedience I just referred to above. Speaking of the uniquely meritorious quality of Christ’s obedience, as the obedience and righteousness of the one who is alone the second and last Adam, safeguards the Church from some of the wrong-headed ambiguities of the old “imitation of Christ” traditions of piety, while preserving its authentically biblical instinct. Surely the talk of merits is subject to abuse and misunderstanding, but we likely have a baby and bathwater situation here rather than something obviously and necessarily requiring excision from our vocabulary. And to speak more pointedly, the less capable we are of accounting for the positive, biblical role of obedience and perseverance in salvation within a Reformed theological model, the more attractive the positions of the New Perspective, Rome, and Constantinople will appear.

In sum, perhaps there is something here worth exploring, particularly among Reformed theologians. Horton and Bird, I think, have readers in different places on the right track, though as you can see I’d like to press a matter here and there.

Final Remarks

What, then, to return to my opening observation, about the legacy of the justification debates? What does this volume suggest that we have truly learned? Even a cursory read should put to rest a range of fictions common in the popular arenas of the debate, such as the idea of a (singular) “new perspective” on Paul that can be responsibly addressed as such, or that Roman Catholic theologians merely repeat Trent and do so as a monolithic group. The essays by Dunn and O’Collins/Rafferty should alone put to rest such oversimplifications, and one should hope they will.

Furthermore, we have been reminded of the importance of the social implications of justification in the New Testament, and despite some overambitious and misguided uses of this reminder, it remains important not to lose sight of it. The social and theological Jew-Gentile challenge of the first century may not have been the sum-total of the justification question as Paul addressed it, but it was the principal historical context for his working that question out. Neither is this observation the invention of New Perspective writers; the history of Pauline exegesis bears out that we may have indeed lost sight of something only recently reemphasized.

Lastly, despite the easily defensible dominance of Paul’s writings in this volume, I expect the contributors would agree that we must take care not to give the impression that justification is something the Apostle invented rather than part of the Gospel the Apostles proclaimed on the basis of the witness of Israel’s Scriptures (which are ours). I trust it is not too adventurous to suggest that we will understand the NT teaching on justification to the extent that we understand exactly how the NT writers argue the case for the Gospel, including justification, from the OT Scriptures in the light of the coming of the Christ.

Some may be weary of the justification discussions, but we should rather be quite excited about what is going on, especially in biblical studies. Advancing in our theology of salvation will require not only a skilled and responsible retrieval of the invaluable work done by fathers of the Faith but also the critical engagement with solid, pioneering work being done today. In my view, this volume encourages confidence that it is within the Reformed tradition that the best justice can be done to the biblical breadth and scope of this eminently important theological topic, and listening in on the critical engagement among these contributors shows how that work might continue to be done. After all, Reformed theologians will do their best work as Reformed theologians when interacting carefully with the contrary voices of history and reality, rather than of myth and caricature. In the end, Horton’s essay clearly and admirably reaffirms the most important features of the doctrine of justification while including, in my view at least, a few less persuasive features, while Bird’s essay – and Bird’s work more generally – provides a needed, astute, and largely persuasive complement to Horton’s essay which deserves serious consideration by theologians of all traditions who, with Paul, commend Christ alone as the Church’s hope in this age and in the age to come.

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