Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges

Written by Bruce L. McCormack, ed. Reviewed By Kent Eilers

The doctrine of justification has received a great deal of attention from across the Christian spectrum over the last few decades. Some want to discard altogether the “forensic” articulation that has held sway as the standard view among Protestants at least since Calvin, while others have worked to reaffirm, bolster, or complement the traditional Protestant view according to fresh readings of Paul, Luther, Calvin, or Barth. Considering Luther confessed grasping the breadth and depth of this doctrine only in “meagre rudiments and fragments,” we should not be surprised that in the present day the doctrine of justification is surrounded again in debate. The joyful task of Christian theology to give orderly articulation to the truths of Scripture goes onward.

Looking at the debate, one can see four interpretive angles that have been opened up on the doctrine of justification, and both volumes considered here include contributions that in one way or another survey, attempt to further, or critique each of these angles. The angles are these, and the books will be considered according to their contribution to each: corporate/covenantal, apocalyptic, ecumenical, and theōsis.

The first seeks to reinterpret justification according to corporate, covenantal categories, shifting justification’s meaning from the declaration of an individual’s right standing before God to a corporate, covenantal identity. Known generally as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), its origins might be traced back to Krister Stendahl and later to E.P. Sanders. More recently still, James Dunn and N.T. Wright developed these trajectories along different but often related lines. What they hold in common is a shared conviction that the Pauline message concerning “justification” should be interpreted corporately and according to covenantal categories rather than individually and according to legal categories.

Justification in Perspective engages directly with the NPP through essays by N. T. Wright and Simon Gathercole. This might not be surprising considering the evangelical and Reformed outlook of the contributors. The essays originated as lectures given at the tenth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, 2003, and, taken together, are characterized as “a progress report on the state of the Protestant doctrine of justification today in the midst of challenge and change” (p. 9).

In his essay Simon Gathercole, a mild opponent of the NPP, engages with the vies of his doktorvater, James Dunn, as well as those of N. T. Wright. Gathercole is a good example of someone who takes the standard Protestant view in hand and looks back to the sources in Paul in order to offer a fresh and more robust articulation of justification that remains in conversation with recent theology while retaining the shape of the traditional Protestant view. One way of reading Gathercole’s essay—and I believe Eberhard Jüngel’s work is consonant with this as well (Justification [2006])—is to see it as an effort to balance the “subjective” and “objective” aspects of the standard Protestant view of justification. That is, a doctrine of justification must speak not only of the individual’s status as righteous before God (“subjective”), but it must give robust testimony as well to the work of the justifying One who makes the sinner righteous through his declaration. For example, Gathercole finds Wright’s definition of justification as being “reckoned to be in covenant with God” simply too minimal. With an ear to Jüngel, Gathercole wants to offer instead a theological understanding of divine reckoning in order to show that God’s justifying act is not only one of recognition, but is actually closer to creation: “It is God’s determination of our new identity rather than a recognition of it” (p. 229). In line with this, Gathercole also finds Wright’s view of both the nature of the works of the law and their function, again, too minimal: “Justification, then, is not merely a reckoning as being in covenant membership. It is something bigger—God’s creative act whereby, through divine determination, the believer has done everything that God requires” (p. 240).

The second interpretive angle on justification might be termed “apocalyptic,” and Douglas Harrink’s Paul among the Postliberals (2003) is one of its most recent iterations. Drinking deeply from recent “apocalyptic” interpretations of Paul (e.g., J. Louis Martyn, Martinus de Boer, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa), Harrink argues that we interpret Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation as God’s once-for-all-time act to deliver the universe and humanity from the enslaving powers of sin and death. On Harrink’s reading, justification should be understood as having less to do with an individual’s standing before God (“subjective”) and more to do with the event of God’s apocalyptic, transformational activity (“objective”) by which God vindicates himself and through which the cultural, corporate, and political activities of “justified” individuals is called forth (“Doing Justice to Justification,” in The Christian Century, June 14, 2005, p. 25).

Harrink’s work is addressed by Bruce McCormack in Justification in Perspective: “Justitia aliena: Karl Barth in Conversation with the Evangelical Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness.” What Harrink fails to appreciate, McCormack argues, is the forensic context in which Barth’s claims about faith and works are situated and which give them their meaning. Through his brief interaction with Harrink and his lengthy exposition of Barth’s doctrine of justification, he goes to great length to demonstrate that Barth’s doctrine of justification is a radicalization and extension of the traditional Protestant view, but is not fundamentally a break from it. Instead, Barth offers the Protestant tradition a view of justification in which God’s justifying action remains primary—“justification is complete and effective in Jesus Christ; the awakening of faith adds nothing to this completed action, nor does it give to it an efficacy that it does not have in itself” (p. 196)—but it remains primary in such a way that the importance of the individual’s awakening to faith by the Spirit is not depleted.

The third angle, “ecumenical,” led to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on October 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany. Broadly speaking, the Joint Declaration articulated a basic consensus on the doctrine of justification and agreed that the condemnations of the sixteenth century on this doctrine no longer apply. It has been hailed in some quarters as a significant step in the dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans with far-reaching implications for other participants in the ongoing ecumenical movement. Other Lutherans and Roman Catholics, however, found it a disappointment both in what it said and in what it did not say.

The Joint Declaration receives scant attention in Justification in Perspective but retains pride of place in The Gospel of Justification in Christ. The essays in this collection were taken from the 2002 theology and mission conference at Luther Seminary organized by the Institute for Mission in the USA. The contributors represent a far more diverse cross-section of the Christian tradition than is found in the other volume, including Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed participants. All of the authors here clearly breathe from the same ecumenical air, so most essays deal with issues of ecumenical reconciliation or the dialogue among religions. Margaret O’Gara, Michael Root, George Hunsinger, Steven Paulson, Avery Cardinal Dulles, and Paul Varo Martinson all wrestle specifically with the Joint Declaration and its implications for furthering ecumenical advances.

Though not focused narrowly on the Joint Declaration, Gabriel Fackre’s contribution is almost worth the price of the book itself: “Affirmations and Admonitions: Lutheran and Reformed.” Most thought-provoking here is Fackre’s interpretation of the overall elements of each tradition that actually “shape” their proposals on justification but also on Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc. Fackre characterizes them as (1) the Reformed accent on divine sovereignty “over” vis-à-vis the Lutheran accent on the divine solidarity “in, with, and under” and (2) the Reformed emphasis on the sanctification of the believer vis-à-vis the Lutheran emphasis on the simultaneity of sinfulness and justification of the sinner (p. 8).

Fackre’s characteristics serve as a helpful lens toward seeing beneath the surface of Reformed and Lutheran doctrinal commitments and theological reasoning; specifically related to the doctrine of justification this certainly seems to be the case. For example, the relationship between God and creatures can be conceived anywhere along a spectrum of “intrinsicist” / “extrinsicist” options. An extrinsicist account would emphasize the external nature of the divine working, often given shape through Word and Spirit (Western theology). On an intrinsicist account, the activity of God is conceived within the structures of creaturely existence; God works from within the person to enable him or her to act in certain ways (Eastern theology).

The differences between intrinsicist and extrinsicist views rise close to the surface in the fourth and final interpretive angle on the doctrine of justification: theōsis. The Finnish school of Luther interpretation (known as “The Mannermaa School” or “the Finnish Luther Research”) originated as an ecumenical dialogue between Finnish Lutheran and Russian Orthodox and argues for a reinterpretation not primarily of Paul but of Luther’s reading of Paul. The figures in this program are many, but Tuomo Mannermaa is recognizably the most well-known and prolifically published. The heart of Mannermaa’s Luther interpretation is found in Christ Present in Faith (2005).

At the center of Mannermaa’s argument is the rejection of a purely forensic and transactional understanding of justification, which is based heavily on Luther’s Galatians commentary and its delineation of union with Christ. Convinced that Luther’s concept of faith denotes a “real union” with the person of Christ, Mannermaa contends that believers thus participate in the very essence of God. On Mannermaa’s account, the forensic, legal aspect of justification is absorbed into a theology of ontic participation; this is justification-as-deification, not justification-as-declaration.

Carl Trueman, in Justification in Perspective, argues against Mannermaa’s proposals based entirely on his interpretation of Luther and Melanchthon. One of Mannermaa’s moves is to bifurcate between the two, while Trueman argues that the two positions need not be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive (p. 89). In The Gospel of Justification in Christ, George Hunsinger’s proposal for “Faith as participation” is decidedly consonant with Mannermaa’s work. He looks to Luther and argues for the same prominence of bridegroom over courtroom metaphors as Mannermaa does, then he goes on to insist, also as Mannermaa does, that “We have been made righteous precisely by virtue of our participation in him, and so by grace through faith” (p. 75). I would not want to say that Hunsinger adopts Mannermaa’s interpretation of Luther, but only that other Protestants are making similar cases for a revised, less forensic understanding of justification. One sees a subtle shift away from the extrinsicism side of the spectrum (long found among Reformed theologians) toward a more intrinsicist flavor.

Taken together, these collections provide a useful window into the various angles from which justification has been assessed and hint at the future prospects for development. Regarding prospects, some argue that a strong reaffirmation of the standard Protestant view in all its fullness is required, and there is little doubt we will continue seeing a proliferation of Reformed, evangelical reaffirmations of the traditional Reformed perspective on justification in line with those which have recently appeared. Along the same trajectory, but differentiated from the first in its incorporation of certain insights from the New Perspective, another cadre of thinkers will surely attempt a reaffirmation and refinement of the standard view such as we saw Gathercole doing in the essay reviewed here.

Others contend that what the church requires is a fundamentally revised understanding of what justification indicates and to whom the language of justification applies. In this vein, there is every indication that N. T. Wright and those sharing his fundamental insights will continue working out the implications of their proposals (Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision [2009]) or will further explore apocalyptic angles (e.g., Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul [2009]). And among Lutherans, the views of the Finnish School will likely be read and considered for some time (even if not widely adopted), not least of which because they are given dogmatic form in the systematic theologies of two recent, prominent Lutheran theologians (Robert Jenson and Wolfhart Pannenberg). Likewise, the insights of the Finnish School into Luther’s mysticism have ignited interest among Reformed thinkers to apply the same thinking to Calvin (cf. Billings, Calvin, Participation and the Gift [2008]; various essays in Christenson and Wittung, Partakers of the Divine Nature [2008]).

So what should we make of all the current debate on the doctrine of justification? Perhaps, at the very least, we find reason for both encouragement and caution.

We should be encouraged by the vigorous, serious attention to the biblical text this engagement has aroused and that through it sharp attention is being drawn to both the “objective” and “subjective” aspects of justification. For a doctrine of justification to fulfill its duty it should give an orderly account both of the divine “objective” work of justification (however that be conceived) and the “subjective” implications of that work for the identity (ontology) and standing of individuals before God and among the people of God as well. To cordon one from the other—either making the focus of the doctrine entirely “objective” or “subjective”—would seem to narrow the scope of God’s action. This tips my hand toward the recent work of Jüngel, McCormack, and Gathercole, which I find offering persuasive amendments to standard articulations. Each argue in their own way that God’s justifying activity be conceived according to the creative, transformative nature of God’s declarative word. In McCormack’s words, God’s word “creates the reality it depicts” (“What’s at Stake in the Current Debates over Justification,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates [2004], p. 107).

Encouraged, yes, but also cautious. In our eagerness either to transcend the traditional Protestant view or to protect it, we should remain cautious that we do not overstep Luther’s insight that our “grasp” on the wisdom of faith is in “poor rudiments and fragments” and thereby fail to hear and appreciate the insights of our brothers and sisters across the table. The insights from the NPP serve, at least, to remind Reformed traditionalists that one’s standing before God in Christ includes as well his or her standing among others in Christ as the people of God. The fruitful work of various Reformed thinkers to widen the scope of divine justifying action should serve as well to chasten those too hasty to altogether discard the traditional view as a culturally infected “legal fiction.” As the discussion surrounding the doctrine of justification continues, the church can only hope and pray that its servants (theologians) will carry out their service through repeated, careful attention both to the text of scripture and to the pastoral care of the church’s people.

Kent Eilers

Huntington University

Huntington, Indiana, USA

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