Archive for the ‘Justification’ Category


The Error in Liberal Protestantism – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

October 25, 2012

The Christian religion presents itself not as a creation superimposed on nature, but as an elevation, an assumption, a transfiguration, a grace that makes use of normal faculties, fortifies them without destroying them, rests on rational foundations, and perfects without suppressing. Moreover, if it is true that the mysteries of faith remain impenetrable to our intellectual insight, just as the life of grace as such remains unconscious, still mysteries and grace bring with them a light that shines in what we know and in our conscience.
Maurice Blondel

The Error in Liberal Protestantism
This grave misconception concerning our supernatural life, reducing it essentially to faith in Christ and excluding sanctifying grace, charity and meritorious works, was destined to lead gradually to Naturalism; it was to result finally in considering as “just” the man who, whatever his beliefs, valued and practiced those natural virtues which were known even to the pagan philosophers who lived before Christ.
[Footnote: J. Maritain explains very clearly how Naturalism arises necessarily from the principles of Protestantism: “According to the Lutheran theology, it is we ourselves, and only we ourselves, who lay hold of the mantle of Christ so that with it we may “cover all our shame.” It is we who exercise this “ability to jump from our own sin on to the justice of Christ, thus becoming as sure of possessing the holiness of Christ as we are of possessing our own bodies.”]

The Lutheran theory of justification by faith may be called a Pelagianism born of despair. In ultimate analysis it is man who is left to work out his own redemption by stimulating himself to a despairing confidence in Christ. Human nature has then only to cast aside, as a useless theological accessory, the mantle of a grace which means nothing to him, and to transfer its faith-confidence from Christ to itself — and there you have that admirable emancipated brute, whose unfailing and continuous progress is an object of wonder to the universe. In Luther and his doctrine we witness — on the spiritual and religious plane — the advent of the Ego.

“We say that it is so in fact; it is the inevitable outcome of Luther’s theology. But this does not prevent the same theology in theory from committing the contrary excess…And so Luther tells us that salvation and faith are to such an extent the work of God and of Christ that these alone are active in the business of our redemption, without any co-operation on our part. . . .

Luther’s theology was to oscillate between these two solutions: in theory it is the first, apparently, that must prevail: Christ alone, without our co-operation, is the author of our salvation. But since it is psychologically impossible to suppress human activity, the second has inevitably prevailed in fact. It is a matter of history that liberal Protestantism has issued in Naturalism.

In such an outlook, the question which is actually of the first importance does not even arise: Is man capable in his present state, without divine grace, of observing all the precepts of the natural law, including those that relate to God? Is he able without grace to love God the sovereign Good, the author of our nature, and to love Him, not with a merely inoperative affection, but with a truly efficacious love, more than he loves himself and more than he loves anything else?

The early Protestants would have answered in the negative, as Catholic theologians have always done.[ Cf. St. Thomas, I-IIae, Q. cfx, art 3] Liberal Protestantism, the offspring of Luther’s theology, does not even ask the question; because it does not admit the necessity of grace, the necessity of an infused supernatural life. Nevertheless, the question still recurs under a more general form: Is man able, without some help from on high, to get beyond himself, and truly and efficaciously to love Truth and Goodness more than he loves himself? Clearly, these problems are essentially connected with that of the nature of our interior life; for our interior life is nothing else than a knowledge of the True and a love of the Good; or better, a knowledge and love of God.

A Fundamental Truth Of The Christian Spiritual Life Is Sanctifying Grace
Nevertheless, we may here emphasize a fundamental truth of the Christian spiritual life, or of Christian mysticism, which has always been taught by the Catholic Church.

In the first place it is clear that according to the Scriptures the justification or conversion of the sinner does not merely cover his sins as with a mantle; it blots them out by the infusion of a new life. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy,” so the Psalmist implores; “and according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity, Wash me yet more from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow…Blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God; and renew a right spirit within my bowels, Cast me not away from thy face, and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.” [Psalms. 1, 3-14]

The Prophets use similar language. Thus God says, through the prophet Isaiah: “I am he that blot out thy iniquities for my own sake.” [Isaiah, 43:25] And the same expression recurs throughout the Bible: God is not content merely to cover our sins; He blots them out, He takes them away. And therefore, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him, he says: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who taketh away the sin of the world!”

We find the same idea in St. John’s first Epistle:[1 John 1:7] “The blood of Jesus Christ…cleanseth us from all sin.” St. Paul writes, similarly, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians: “Not the effeminate nor the impure nor thieves nor Covetous nor drunkards nor railers nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God. And such some of you were. But you are washed; but you are sanctified; but you are justified; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God.”[1 Corinthians 6:10

If it were true that by conversion sins were only veiled, and not blotted out, it would follow that a man is at once both just and ungodly, both justified, and yet still in the state of sin. God would love the sinner as His friend, despite the corruption of his soul, which He is apparently incapable of healing. The Savior would not have taken away the sins of the world if He had not delivered the just man from the servitude of sin. Again, for the Christian these truths are elementary; the profound understanding of them, the continual and quasi-experiment living of them is what we call the contemplation of the saints.

An Effective And Operative Love Produces Lovableness
The blotting out and remission of Sins thus described by the Scriptures can be effected only by the infusion of sanctifying grace and charity -- which is the supernatural love of God and of men for God’s sake.
Ezekiel, speaking in the name of God, tells us that this is so: “I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness; and I will cleanse you from all your idols, And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; and Iwill take away the stony heart out of your flesh and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in the midst of you; and Iwill cause you to walk in my commandments.”[ Ezekiel  36:25]

This pure water which regenerates is the water of grace, of which it is said in the Gospel of St. John [John 1:16] “Of his fullness we have all received; and grace for grace.” “By (our Lord Jesus Christ) we have received grace,” we read in the Epistle to the Romans[Romans 1:5]:, “the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost who is given to us” [Romans 5:5] and in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “To every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ.”[Ephesians 4:7]

If it were otherwise, God’s uncreated love for the man whom He converts would be merely an idle affection, and not an effective and operative love. But God’s uncreated love for us, as St. Thomas shows, is a love which, far from presupposing in us any lovableness, actually produces that lovableness within us. His creative love gives and preserves in us our nature and our existence; but his life-giving love gives and preserves in us the life of grace which makes us lovable in His eyes, and lovable not merely as His servants but as His sons. (I, Q, xx, art, 2),

Sanctifying grace, the principle of our interior life, makes us truly the children of God because it makes us partakers of His nature. We cannot be sons of God by nature, as the Word is; but we are truly sons of God by grace and by adoption. And whereas a man who adopts a child brings about no interior change in him, but simply declares him his heir, God, when He loves us as adoptive sons, transforms us inwardly, giving us a share in His own intimate divine life.

The Nature Of Sanctifying Grace
Hence we read in the Gospel of St. John: “(The Word) came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[John1 11-13] And our Lord Himself said to Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of Water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Wonder not that I said to thee: You must be born again”[John 3:5]

St. John himself, moreover, writes in his first Epistle [John 3:9]: “Whosoever is born of God committeth not sin; for God’s seed abideth in him. And he cannot sin because he is born of God.” In other words, the seed of God, which is grace — accompanied by charity, or the love of God — cannot exist together with mortal sin which turns a man away from God; and, though it can exist together with venial sin, of which St. John had spoken earlier[John 1:8]yet grace is not the source of venial sins; on the contrary, it makes them gradually disappear.

Still clearer, if possible, is the language of St. Peter, who writes: “By (Christ) he hath given us most great and precious promises, that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature,”[2 Peter 1:4]  and St. James thus expresses the same idea: “Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. For of his own will hath he begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be some beginning of his creature.” [2 Peter 1:17]

Truly sanctifying grace is a real and formal participation of the divine nature, for it is the principle of operations which are specifically divine.

When in heaven it has reached its full development, and can no longer be lost, it will be the source of operations which will have absolutely the same formal object as the eternal and uncreated operations of God’s own inner life; it will make us able to see Him immediately as He sees Himself, and to love Him as He loves Himself: “Dearly beloved,” says St. John, [1 John 3:2] “we are now the Sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when it shall appear we shall be like to him, for we shall see him as he is.”


The Modern Protestant Conversation On Justification– James K. Beilby, Paul Rhodes Eddy & Steven E. Enderlein

June 12, 2012

The French-Swiss Christian theologian John Calvin (1504 – 1564) was, like Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, a major Protestant reformer. He was the founder of the so-called Calvinist mode of Protestantism, a precursor of modern Protestant Christianity not only in France but in the entire Western world. As ecclesiastical leader in Geneva for several decades, he shaped a very pious and stringent way of civic living. His theology of predestination strongly influenced religious conceptions of time in terms of human salvation.

With the rise of the Enlightenment, the broadly shared understanding of the basic human spiritual plight that characterized the Reformation-era debates came under attack. For all of their differences, the various viewpoints represented in the medieval and Reformation periods agreed that the fundamental human problem was the dire state of sinfulness and the desperate need for a gracious God. Within the Enlightenment vision, this problem and therefore its solution appeared less and less plausible. Though stated several centuries later, this statement from a 1963 meeting of The Lutheran World Federation succinctly captures a sentiment that came to characterize the Enlightenment mindset:

The man of today no longer asks, “How can I find a gracious God?” He suffers not from God’s wrath, but from the impression of his absence; not from sin, but from the meaninglessness of his own existence; he asks not about a gracious God, but whether God really exists.

Rather than spiritual justification, it was the here-and-now quest for human autonomy and fulfillment that progressively took center stage in the modern “enlightened” world. With Deism came a stream of critiques of particular Christian doctrines — the Trinity, the deity of Christ, original sin, substitutionary atonement — each of which played a significant role in more traditional views of justification. In such a context, the traditional doctrine of justification itself was sure to suffer in certain quarters

During the modern period there are, of course, those like Whitefield and Wesley, like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge — those who staunchly maintained traditional elements of the Reformation view of justification, despite the modernist tides. And then there is Pietism.

Reacting against the perceived “dead orthodoxy” of Protestant scholasticism, the Pietist movement, originally centered in the University of Halle, has been assessed variously with regard to its embrace of justification by faith. On one hand, many scholars point out that the Pietist emphasis on a living faith that results in personal holiness and heart devotion naturally leads to a critique of the standard Reformation view of a purely forensic justification.

On the other hand, there are those who see the early Pietists, with their commitment to biblical authority, as defending the traditional doctrine, even while warning of the damaging effects of its common misunderstanding. In any case, as Carl Braaten notes, after years of steady neglect and decline, it was with the nineteenth-century University of Halle theologian and Pietist Martin Kahler that the doctrine of justification made a “dramatic comeback” — and in “a fashion resembling the form and function it possessed in the thought of the Reformers.

The Liberal Protestant Response
As the Enlightenment mood spread, it fostered a rationalist sense of morality, one based in the commonsense workings of nature, which deeply affected certain European sensibilities about “justification.” Essential to this moral vision was the presupposition that whatever was expected of humanity, ethically speaking, was well within its autonomous capacity to achieve. Immanuel Kant, in his own unique (if internally tensive) way, brought a moral challenge to this modernist approach.

As the eighteenth gave way to the nineteenth century, bringing with it the growing sentiments of Romanticism, Friedrich Schleiermacher offered a religious critique of the Enlightenment rooted in the fundamental idea of human “feeling” (a never entirely adequate translation of the German term Gefuhl), particularly the sense of being absolutely dependent upon God (i.e., “God-consciousness”). Schleiermacher’s attempt to find a mediating path between Enlightenment religion and Protestant orthodoxy would, of course, deeply impact his concept of salvation: Christ’s superlative God-consciousness is mediated to humanity, though always through natural means.

With regard to justification specifically, Schleiermacher clearly strives to maintain a line of continuity with the Reformation tradition. And yet his proclivities, Pietist and otherwise, led him to resist emphasizing a purely imputed, forensic righteousness. He adamantly rejects the idea that justification is about appeasing God’s wrath and avoiding divine punishment. While he distances himself from the Catholic Church, since it holds that justification “takes place [after faith is exercised] by means of good works,” he also has critical words for the traditional Reformation doctrine. He writes: “There is only one eternal and universal decree justifying men for Christ’s sake.” And yet this decree is never simply a “declaratory act” alone.

As the nineteenth century progressed under the continued pressure of modernism and Hegel’s increasing influence, attitudes toward traditional, objective notions of justification steadily declined within liberal Christian circles. However, after the mid-century faltering of Hegelianism, a new reconsideration of the doctrine of justification presented itself in the form of Albrecht Ritschl’s three-volume study, A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1870, 1874). Like a number of other left-leaning Christians of the modern age, Ritschl believed the pristine faith of the early church had been progressively corrupted by Hellenistic metaphysics, an unfortunate effect that informed a number of classical Christian dogmas. Nonetheless, Ritschl’s study of justification, while critiquing aspects of the Reformation view, retains a central place for this longstanding Christian concept.

Ritschl saw himself as recovering the original kernel of insight that Luther had stumbled upon centuries earlier, an insight that, with Melanchthon and Reformation orthodoxy, had progressively degenerated. It is not surprising therefore that “Ritschl regards the justification of humanity as the fundamental datum from which all theological discussion must proceed, and upon which it is ultimately grounded.” Ritschl even returns an objective component to justification involves the forgiveness of sins and the acceptance of sinful people by God back into relationship with him.

However, Ritschl’s reformulation of the doctrine of justification remains decidedly “modern” in its essence. In his attempt to render it understandable, let alone palatable, to the modern Christian mind, Ritschl makes it clear that justification is ultimately a means to an end — namely, “the communal striving for the kingdom of God.” And in this sense, Ritschl’s theology can be seen as “a reformulation and reinterpretation of Kant’s philosophy of religion.”

Existentialist Reinterpretations
Reinterpretation and reformulation of the Reformation doctrine of justification continued unabated into the twentieth century. Existentialist interpretations of justification were made popular by two German Lutherans, Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. From Kahler, his former teacher at Halle, Tillich appropriated the conviction of the centrality of justification to the Christian faith, even identifying its essence with “the Protestant principle.” Tillich’s reformulation, however, brought some interesting developments. For example, in Tillich’s words:

The step I myself made. . . was the insight that the principle of justification through faith refers not only to the religious-ethical but also to the religious-intellectual life. Not only he who is in sin but he who is in doubt is justified through faith. The situation of doubt, even doubt about God, need not separate us from God…. So the paradox got hold of me that he who seriously denies God, affirms him. Without it I could not have remained a theologian.
Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era

Bultmann, the son of a Lutheran minister, when engaged in descriptive exegetical tasks, echoes many Reformation themes. Thus, he regards the issue of justification — and self-justification — as important from early on. In a 1924 essay, he writes: “Man’s fundamental sin is his will to justify himself as man, for thereby he makes himself God.”

Later, he defined sin as “man’s self-powered striving … to procure salvation by his own strength”; then, he claims that the heart of Paul’s gospel, Romans 3:21-7:6, establishes “that `righteousness’ is bestowed upon the faith which appropriates the grace of God and not upon the works of the Law.” Furthermore, he considers justification (or being “rightwised,” as he prefers) to be a forensic term — not being innocent, but acknowledged as innocent — and stresses that it is God’s eschatological judgment made real in the present.

However, Bultmann’s existentialist hermeneutic and his program of “demythologizing” — translating the mythological language of the New Testament into existentialist language relevant for contemporary humanity — lead him to reconfigure traditional Protestant thinking. In this reconfiguration, anthropology dominates. For instance, he determines that Pauline theology “deals with God not as He is in Himself but only with God as He is significant for man” and that “every assertion about God is simultaneously an assertion about man and vice versa. For this reason and in this sense Paul’s theology is, at the same time, anthropology.” As Richard Hays points out, this “inevitably tends to shift the weight of emphasis away from God’s action and onto the human-faith decision.” For justification this entails that the subjective side is magnified, while the objective grounding is minimized.

Thus, once demythologized from its Jewish-cultic and Hellenistic-Gnostic redeemer myth elements, “the salvation occurrence is nowhere present except in the proclaiming, accosting, demanding, and promising word of preaching … which accosts the hearer and compels him to decide for or against it.” Here, the historical reality of the death of Christ, while accepted by Bultmann, recedes into the background, and, in the process concedes the foreground to the existentially critical decision of faith in the present and, with it, the subjective appropriation of justification. 

Accordingly, Bultmann marginalizes the traditional connection between atonement theology and justification. In the final analysis, because Bultmann’s concerns were overridingly anthropological, his understanding of justification placed primary emphasis on the anthropological dimension. This magnified a tendency, already present in the dominant Lutheran understanding, to read justification texts as concerned principally with — myopically so, in the view of some — how humans appropriate justification. The surprising fact is that Bultmann’s elevation of the subjective side of justification over its objective basis exhibits such curious affinities with traditions, like popular evangelicalism, which have overtly rejected his hermeneutical paradigm.

Karl Barth
Despite critique of the traditional Reformation doctrine of justification from classical liberal and existentialist Christian quarters, other twentieth-century forces served to revive important elements of it, if in modified forms. Karl Holl and the “Luther renaissance” is one key factor here. So is the massive influence of the single most influential theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth. As with virtually any topic related to Barth today, there is ample discussion and debate about his doctrine of justification.

For some, Barth’s emphasis on the radical, transcendent “otherness” of God and his “righteousness” is something of a recovery of Luther’s similar sentiments. For others, Barth is still too beholden to the modern mind, granting it far too much power to define things, even as he critiques it. Here, we will avoid most of the debate about Barth, and simply note several of the provocative statements from Barth himself that have energized that debate.

In his monumental Church Dogmatics, Barth writes: “There never was and there never can be any true Christian church without the doctrine of justification. In this sense, it is indeed the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (i.e., “the article by which the church stands or falls”). And yet, for Barth, this is not the final word on the matter. Within a few pages, Barth picks up the same topic, with noticeably different results:

The articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae is not the doctrine of justification as such, but its basis and culmination: the confession of Jesus Christ… The knowledge of his being and activity for us and to us and with us. It tcould probably be shown that this was also the opinion of Luther. If here as everywhere, we allow Christ to be the centre, the starting-point and the finishing point, we have no reason to fear that there will be any lack of unity and cohesion, and therefore of systematics in the best sense of the word.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

No one familiar with Barth will be surprised by this qualification. For, as Braaten has memorably put it, “Barth put all his methodological eggs in a Christological basket.” Everything in Christian theology — including the all-important doctrine of justification — must ultimately be seen through the lens of Christology. And so, in Church Dogmatics, justification finds its place as one of three aspects of the wider doctrine of reconciliation — justification, sanctification and vocation (i.e., calling).

But what, for Barth, constitutes the doctrine of justification? Again, the key is found in Jesus Christ — literally. Justification takes place, first and foremost, within Jesus Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection. The objective reconciliation — including the justification — of God and sinful humanity takes place within the very person of the God-man, Jesus Christ. And so, as Bruce McCormack succinctly puts it, for Barth, “what Jesus Christ accomplishes is not merely the possibility of reconciliation but the reality of it.” But this does not mean that the subjective experience of justification is lost for the rest of humanity. As Barth states:

There is no room for any fears that in the justification of man we are dealing only with a verbal action, with a kind of bracketed “as if,” as though what is pronounced were not the whole truth about man. Certainly we have to do with a declaring righteous, but it is a declaration about man which is fulfilled and therefore effective in this event, which corresponds to actuality because it creates and therefore reveals the actuality. It is a declaring righteous which without any reserve can be called a making righteous.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

And so, with the range of complex and provocative language about justification in his work, it is not surprising that Barth’s view has been variously interpreted as, on one hand, in “fundamental agreement” with that of the Roman Catholic Church, and, on the other, as “an extension and radicalization of the Reformation doctrine.


Justification in The Protestant Reformation And Its Aftermath – James K. Beilby, Paul Rhodes Eddy & Steven E. Enderlein

June 11, 2012

The Reformation window at St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina depicts key events in the Protestant Reformation.

When it comes to the question of “forerunners” of the Protestant doctrine of justification, once again debate ensues. Heiko Oberman has argued that just such “forerunners” did exist in the context of the fourteenth-century Augustinian renaissance, with its strongly anti-Pelagian sentiments (e.g., Gregory of Rimini). In contrast, McGrath argues that, with respect to the real Protestant distinctives, there really is no medieval “forerunner.” For McGrath: “The doctrines of justification associated with the Lutheran and Reformed Confessions may be concluded to constitute genuine theological nova.” And yet, while “forerunner” may be too strong a term, it has been pointed out that Luther and Melanchthon were both indebted to Erasmus — not least for his 1516 Greek New Testament, including his annotations and later paraphrases — for elements of what would become their breakthrough doctrine of justification.

Martin Luther
Whatever the case, all can agree that Martin Luther’s prioritization and articulation of the doctrine of justification marks a seismic shift in the conversation.
In Luther’s words:

[I]f we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything. Hence the most necessary and important thing is that we teach and repeat this doctrine daily, as Moses says about his Law (Deuteronomy 6:7). For it cannot be grasped or held enough or too much. In fact, though we may urge and inculcate it vigorously, no one grasps it perfectly or believes it with all his heart. So frail is our flesh and so disobedient to the Spirit.

With Luther, the doctrine of justification is presented as “the article by which the church stands or falls.”

As Luther himself reports, a key interpretive moment came when he happened upon a new understanding of Paul’s words in Romans 1:16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; for, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew, first, and to the Greek. For, in it the righteousness of God is revealed by faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous one by faith will live.”
(authors’ translation)

In his famous “tower experience” (recounted years later in the 1545 preface to his Latin writings), Luther shifted from understanding the “righteousness of God” in this passage as God’s terrifying righteousness by which he justly judges and punishes sinners, to the gracious righteousness that God imputes to sinners and by which they are now counted as “righteous” in his sight. And this righteousness by which sinners are justified in God’s sight is appropriated by faith alone.

But what, exactly, did this mean for Luther, and how should we interpret his many subsequent statements on justification over the years? With these and other questions we are brought to another point of significant debate today: How best to understand Luther’s own doctrine of justification?

McGrath has helpfully noted three points that distinguish the mature Protestant doctrine of justification:

(1) Justification involves a forensic declaration of righteousness that effects a change in legal status before God, as opposed to a process that actually makes one righteous.

(2) There is a clear conceptual difference between justification (“the act by which God declares the sinner to be righteous”) and either regeneration or sanctification (the actual “internal process of renewal by the Holy Spirit”).

(3) Justifying righteousness is understood as an external, “alien” righteousness, graciously imputed to the Christian through the act of faith

But where does the “historical Luther” fit with regard to these distinctives? In scholarship today, the answer is anything but uniform. For some, the traditional Protestant story line of Luther’s view remains valid — while Luther’s own views clearly underwent development, with his mature view of justification we find remarkable consistency between Luther, Melanchthon and the Protestant orthodoxy that followed them. For others, Luther shared some but not all of what would become the classical Protestant distinctives.

According to McGrath, while Luther clearly defended the “alien” nature of justifying righteousness, he “did not teach a doctrine of forensic justification in the strict sense…. Indeed, Luther can be regarded as remaining faithful to the Augustinian understanding of justification as both event and process.” By McGrath’s lights, it is only with Melanchthon and later Protestant orthodoxy that an unambiguously forensic view of justification is reached, and with it an equally clear distinction between justification and sanctification. The idea of a decisive cleft between Luther and the later Melanchthon is a staple of this perspective, one that has characterized readings of Luther such as those of Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack and the twentieth-century “Luther renaissance” initiated by the work of Karl Holl.

Finally, in recent years the “Finnish school” of Luther interpretation has emerged (on which, more below), and with it the claim that Luther’s approach to justification has far more in common with the Eastern Orthodox view of theosis than has generally been recognized. One’s take on Luther here will, in part, depend upon one’s sense of the development — or essential lack thereof — of his doctrine of justification over the course of his lifetime.

The Traditional Reformation Doctrine Of Justification: Lutheran And Reformed
Whatever one makes of the particulars of Luther, the traditional Protestant Reformed doctrine of justification emerged and, in its essentials, came to characterize both the traditional Lutheran and Calvinist-Reformed perspectives on the matter. John Calvin was no less clear than Martin Luther that justification was “the primary article of the Christian religion.” From the Lutheran Book of Concord to the Heidelberg Catechism to the Westminster Confession, one finds the same general proclamation of justification by faith as a forensic declaration of God in which Christ’s righteousness is graciously imputed to the believer through faith alone.

There are, of course, nuances that have distinguished Lutheran and Reformed articulations of justification over the years. Another matter of debate today is the nature and significance of these differences. One issue here involves the question of how Luther and Calvin approached the ordo salutis (i.e., the “order of salvation”) regarding justification and union with Christ. Some argue that, while Calvin emphasized that union with Christ is the ground from which flow the distinct but unprioritized benefits of justification and sanctification, Luther, in contrast, believed that justification gives rise to union with Christ.

Others have challenged this interpretation of Luther, proposing instead that, while Luther may lack the terminological precision of Calvin and the subsequent Reformed tradition, his own view is quite close to that of Calvin, and perhaps helped to shape Calvin’s own idea of union with Christ. In any case, these sorts of nuances aside, major voices from both Lutheran and Reformed groups have continued to articulate and defend the same basic contours of the Reformation doctrine of justification.

Due to the influence of Luther and especially Melanchthon on Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican Church came to hold a view on justification largely in line with the traditional Reformation View (expressed in article 4 of The Thirteen Article). There has been a long-standing debate as to whether or not the influential sixteenth-century Anglican Richard Hooker wandered from the Reformation view, but it appears that he maintained its essence.

John Wesley, an Anglican until his death, deviated from the Reformed theological tradition by embracing the “Arminian” notion of a Christologically grounded universal prevenient grace that afforded all people the ability to to exercise saving faith.” Nonetheless, his “heart-warming” experience on Aldersgate Street in 1738, while listening to Luther’s Preface to Romans being read aloud, left its mark on his doctrine of justification. Wesley aligned himself with a significant tenet of the Reformation view by affirming that justification does not entail being made righteous; justification and sanctification must be distinguished. However, contrary to traditional Protestantism, Wesley did not emphasize the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the Christian.

In the early nineteenth century, John Henry Newman presented his famous Lectures on Justification, originally offered as an Anglican “middle-way” between Rome and Protestantism. Decades later, having converted from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism (in fact, just a few years before being made a Cardinal), he reissued the original text with virtually no change of substance, saying that he was still able fully to embrace its essence. And so, this same text has been influential in both Anglican and Roman Catholic contexts. In it, he writes:

It appears that justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God breaking upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative word upon chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous.

Counter Reformation And Beyond: The Roman Catholic Response
The official Roman Catholic response to Luther and the Protestant Reformation, including its doctrine of justification, came with the Council of Trent, which met for twenty-five sessions between 1545 and 1563-64.
For our purposes, it suffices to say that Trent’s primary intentions concerning justification were to present the Catholic position, while making clear the errors of the Protestants. As many have pointed out, the language of Trent avoids much of the technical phrasing associated with the medieval Catholic debates, frequently making use of biblical terminology.

In fact, by Rowan Williams’s assessment, Trent’s decree on justification “is actually much closer to Luther and Calvin than to the medieval debate.” Nonetheless, contrary to the Protestant view, one of the chief emphases of Trent regarding justification is that it involves not only the forgiveness of sins but also the internal transformation of the believer in terms of holiness.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S J., helpfully summarizes the essential continuity on justification in the Catholic Church from Trent down to the twentieth century:

The theology of justification in Roman Catholic teaching has undergone no dramatic changes since the Council of Trent…. Justification is rarely discussed at length except in polemics against, or dialogue with, Protestants…. From the time of Trent until the early twentieth century, justification was studied primarily with the conceptual tools of late Scholasticism. It was accordingly understood as an efficacious divine intervention whereby a supernatural accident was infused into the human soul as a kind of ornament rendering it pleasing in God’s sight. This accident (“sanctifying grace”) made its possessor inherently righteous and able to perform meritorious actions, thus earning a strict title to eternal rewards.

This basic continuity from Trent down to today is apparent from the official statement contained in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church: “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” It should be noted that, contrary to Luther and Calvin — but quite in line with Erasmus, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Anabaptists, the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition and most Pentecostals — the post-Tridentine Catholic Church has tended to maintain a role for some form of libertarian human freedom within the salvation process. Ever since Augustine, lurking behind many of the twists and turns of the justification debate lay the issue of the nature of human freedom and its role in the salvific process.

Along with these fundamental continuities, the twentieth century did bring a change in tone in the articulation of justification among a number of leading Catholic theologians. Scholastic modes of expression were increasingly modified. The combined forces of the Thomistic revival, personalist phenomenology and renewed interest in biblical and patristic theology led a variety of Roman Catholic scholars to explore new ways of thinking about traditional theological categories, including justification. The most influential twentieth-century Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, is a case in point.

For Rahner, “while admitting that the objective event of God’s act in Christ is causally prior to any change in the redeemed,” he continues to maintain the traditional Catholic view by affirming that the subjective justification of the individual is really identical with that individual’s sanctification. Yet, aided by the resources of transcendental Thomism and the categories of mystery and symbol, Rahner is able to articulate the basic Catholic convictions about justification “in terms of uncreated grace and symbolic actuation,” and in doing so has provided many contemporary Roman Catholics with a new means of moving beyond traditional scholastic language and of entering more fruitfully into dialogue about justification with other Christian traditions.”


Justification in the Early Church, Origen and Augustine – James K. Beilby, Paul Rhodes Eddy & Steven E. Enderlein

June 8, 2012

Theological debates within scholarly quarters of the church are nothing new for the Christian faith. Occasionally, however, one of these debates spills over from the academic world and begins to ignite controversy within and among churches and para-church ministries, between pastors and friends. This was certainly the case with the “openness of God” debate that rocked the evangelical Christian world in the 1990s. At the opening of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it appears that another debate has reached similar proportions in evangelical circles and beyond, namely, the debate on the nature of justification and its proper place within Christian theology.

In an important sense, the church was handed the justification debate within the very texts that constitute its authoritative canon. There, the apostle Paul writes concerning the nature of grace, faith and works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NRSV). And concerning justification:

Because by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for through law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been manifested, although it is testified to by the law; the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith of Jesus Christ to all those who believe. For there is no distinction, for all sinned and are lacking the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
[Romans 3:20-24, authors' translation]

And then there is James:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
[James 2:18-24, 26 NSRV][The above is the authors own translation. They have provided it to preserve some of the ambiguities in the text, in order not to privilege any single interpretive option.]

Sixteen centuries later, the Protestant Reformers would seize upon Paul’s expression of justification as constituting the very essence of the gospel itself. Similar to traditional Lutherans, many Reformed evangelicals today view the doctrine of justification by faith as “the heart of the Gospel,” as “the article by which the church stands or falls.”[J. I. Packer, "Justification in Protestant Theology," in Here We Stand: Justification by Faith Today, by J. I. Packer et al.]

And so, it is not surprising to find a number of Reformed evangelicals making strong statements in defense of the centrality of justification over the last several decades . However, more recently the debate has intensified among evangelicals in that challenges to the traditional Reformed understanding of justification are increasingly arising from within the broader evangelical camp itself. From academic monographs to the popular pages of Christianity Today magazine, from the high-profile engagement of renowned pastor-scholars John Piper and N. T. Wright to controversy within campus para-church ministries, the justification debate is being felt throughout the evangelical world.

Unlike the “openness of God” debate, however, contemporary ferment related to justification ranges far beyond evangelical circles. For example, in the eyes of many, the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” has served largely to reverse the five-hundred-year split between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches on justification. In academic New Testament studies today, the “new perspective on Paul” has embroiled scholars of many stripes in both exegetical debates about justification and historical disagreements about the nature of Second Temple Judaism(s).

In fact, as one begins to canvas the various issues related to justification today, it quickly becomes apparent that almost every question is a contested one. Debate piles upon debate, layer upon layer. And like most theological  controversies of magnitude, the intensity of the contemporary justification debate(s) is in large part due to the fact that it is inherently tied to a number of other issues of significant import — issues exegetical and hermeneutical, soteriological and ecclesiological, methodological and historic ethical and practical. This post and the next offer an historical survey of the development of, and debates concerning, the doctrine of justification in its many permutations throughout church history.

The Early Church
The seemingly straightforward question of the status of the doctrine of justification in the early church is, in fact, a significant point of debate today. No one doubts that Pauline-like statements on justification are scattered throughout the early church writings. For instance, near the end of the first century, we find Clement of Rome professing:

And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
(1 Clement 32.4)

Similar statements throughout the next several centuries are common. But the question is: What is to be made of such statements? For some, despite statements such as these, the pre-Augustinian fathers show an unfortunate lack of truly independent interest in, or reflection upon, Pauline doctrines of original sin, grace and justification by faith alone. According to Alister McGrath, the limited amount of attention given to the topic in patristic literature is characterized by “inexactitude and occasional apparent naivety,” and reflects a “works-righteousness approach to justification.”

For others, early Christian statements on justification reflect a significant continuity not only between the patristic writers and Paul, but between patristic writers and the Reformers themselves. No one has argued this point more forcefully than Thomas Oden, who claims that “there is a full-orbed patristic consensus on justification that is virtually indistinguishable from the Reformer’s teaching.”

Between these two views, one finds a range of scholars who conclude for some form of a via media. Most emphasize that serious account must be taken of the historical, polemical and rhetorical particularities of the early church, that the richly textured images of salvation are many and varied within patristic literature, and that what Reformation-sensitive ears could easily hear as “justification by works” is better interpreted as an early Christian defense of the biblical notions of human freedom, moral responsibility and the goodness of God against the competing perspectives of astrology/fatalism, stoicism and Gnosticism.

While concern with Paul broadly, and justification by faith specifically, can be found in the early church, we cannot thereby conclude that they meant by these statements what the later Reformers would mean. What does seem clear is that when the pre-Augustinian fathers wrote of the gracious, works-free nature of salvation/justification, many of them indexed this to initial justification, which itself was connected to conversion and/ or baptism. Once initial justification had taken place, believers were expected to be caught up in a transformative process of growth in grace, virtue and good works.

Assessments of the distance between patristic and later Protestant conceptions of justification vary. Again, Oden argues that a robust patristic “consensus” on justification existed and is in substantial continuity with the later Reformers. For others, certain early writers stand out as significantly “more Protestant,” whether Clement of Rome, Marius Victorinus, Augustine of course, or even — in terms of an emphasis on “faith alone “Pelagius himself. And then there is Origen.

Much of the debate about the fate of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith in the pre-Augustinian church has centered on Origen and his Commentary on Romans. Here, Origen expounds on Paul’s teaching on justification:

A human being is justified through faith; the works of the law contribute nothing to his being justified. But where there is no faith which justifies the believer, even if one possesses works from the law, nevertheless because they have not been built upon the foundation of faith, although they appear to be good things, nevertheless they are not able to justify the one doing them, because from them faith is absent, which is the sign of those who are justified by God.
Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

And yet, despite such statements, Origen’s view of justification has not infrequently come under strong suspicion. Owing in no small part to Melanchthon, many within the Reformation tradition have come to see Origen as an early corrupter of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith — even as something of a pre-Pelagian “Pelagian.”

From this perspective, it is only with Augustine that we finally arrive at the “fountainhead” of the doctrine of justification in the post-New Testament church. Others, however, offer more complex assessments of Origen and the import of his doctrine of justification — including his influence upon Augustine’s later formulation. Rowan Williams, for example, proposes that Origen is “very close to Pauline thinking in his commentary on Romans,” while Eric Osborn concludes that the “gospel of justification by grace was still [Origen's] chief concern. Mark Reasoner has argued for a significant conceptual continuity between Origen’s understanding of Paul’s thought in Romans and the new perspective on Paul.

In the most comprehensive study of Origen’s doctrine of justification to’ date, Thomas Scheck argues that Origen’s commentary was not simply motivated by anti-Gnostic, anti-Marcionite concerns, but also by a real desire to understand Paul. This being said, Scheck reveals the importance of the anti-Marcionite factor. Given that Marcion was the first Christian to claim that the “works” of the believer will not be weighed by God in the final judgment, it is not surprising to find Origen (and not only Origen) arguing – in defense of the orthodox Rule of Faith, against Marcion – that faith and good works are “two complementary conditions of salvation that must not be separated.” Scheck concludes that “on the theme of justification, faith, and works, Augustine does not differ substantially from Origen.

In turning to Augustine, there is wide agreement that his mature understanding of justification is indebted to a significant theological shift that came with a letter written in 396 to his former mentor, Simplicianus. In the years leading up to this, Augustine had wrestled with key Pauline texts from Romans concerning the nature of grace, election and salvation. Prior to his Letter to Simplicianus, his conclusions on these questions reflected the wide-ranging patristic consensus — that is, he maintained a strong doctrine of human freedom, and explained God’s election as predicated upon divine foreknowledge of future human choices, as opposed to divine pre-determinism.

However, with his 396 response to Simplicianus’ questions on these matters, Augustine essentially rejects his earlier approach — and with it the patristic consensus — and instead locates the reason for the divide between the elect and the reprobate as, ultimately, residing within God’s own mysterious will. Decades later, Augustine would explain this 396 reversal: “I, indeed, labored in defense of the free choice of the human will; but the grace of God conquered, and finally I was able to understand, with full clarity, the meaning of the Apostle:’. . . what hast thou that thou hast not received?”

It is important to consider Augustine’s series of reflections on Pauline themes such as grace, election and justification in the context of the wider fourth-century renaissance in the study of Paul’s letters. Some scholars see Augustine’s study of Paul in the 390s as born of a “non-polemical context,” and motivated primarily by a straightforward interest in Paul. Increasingly however, the fourth-century renewal of interest in Paul — Augustine’s own interest included and perhaps especially — is seen as directly tied to the spread of Manichaeism.

The Manichees had made tireless use of Paul, particularly the very texts (Romans 7 and 9) with which Augustine wrestled — texts that could easily be read as supporting a robust anthropological dualism and predestinarian election that characterized Manichaean theology. In fact, it has been argued that Augustine’s 396 shift was very likely directly — if unconsciously — related to his previous public polemical engagement with the Manichaean apologist, Fortunatus, in 392.

In any case, Augustine’s post-396 perspective on the workings of grace led him to a conception of salvation — including justification — that is solely indebted to God’s sovereign grace and particular election, and in this sense Augustine can be seen as pre-shadowing the Reformation doctrine of justification. In Augustine’s words:

“What have you that you did not receive?” (1Corinthians 4:7). If, therefore, faith entreats and receives justification, according as God has apportioned to each in the measure of his faith (Romans 12:3), nothing of human merit precedes the grace of God, but grace itself merits increase … with the will accompanying but not leading, following along but not going in advance.

On the other hand, in contrast to what would emerge as the standard Reformation doctrine, Augustine often states that justification includes the idea of “making righteous,” not simply “declaring/reckoning as righteous.” This has led to a debate concerning just how closely Augustine’s view of justification anticipates that of Martin Luther’s. While some propose a close affinity, others, such as McGrath, emphasize an important distinction:

Augustine has an all-embracing transformative understanding of justification, which includes both the event of justification (brought about by operative grace) and the process of justification (brought about by cooperative grace). Augustine himself does not, in fact, see any need to distinguish between these two aspects of justification; the distinction dates from the sixteenth century.

The Latin Middle Ages
“All medieval theology is `Augustinian’ to a greater or lesser extent,” notes McGrath. And such is the case with the doctrine of justification in the Western/Latin context. Reflecting the thought of Augustine, the standard view of the medieval Catholic Church is that “justification refers not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which Christians are made righteous in the sight of God and of humanity through a fundamental change in their nature, and not merely in their status.” It is not surprising to find the concept of justification taking on a new importance during this period of the Western church.

In the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury constructed a critique of the Christus Victor model of the atonement, which had dominated the church throughout its first millennium. In its place, Anselm offered his satisfaction theory in his work Cur Deus Homo? (Why God Became Human). The attractiveness of Anselm’s theory in the Middle Ages is connected to the fact that it capitalized on an idea that was tied both to the Catholic practice of penance and to the recently arisen feudal system — the idea of satisfaction.

This theory had the advantages of avoiding some of the eccentricities of the Christus Victor model (i.e., the ransom theory with its “bait and switch” images), while providing an explication of the work of Christ that takes human sin seriously and offers a reasonable explanation of how Jesus’ death satisfies the demands of God’s honor. With Anselm’s new approach to the atonement came a turn from the “Satanward” paradigm of the Christus Victor model (i.e., atonement as Jesus’ victory over Satan via cosmic battle) to an “objective” paradigm wherein legal and moral categories now took center stage. Within this theological context, the concept of “justification” and its juridical entailments found a natural home.

Taking Augustine’s concept of God’s indwelling presence in justified persons as a starting point, much of medieval theology’s reflection on justification can be seen, broadly speaking, as exploring the question of the “effect produced by that presence.” With Thomas Aquinas, we find a classic medieval expression of the four-stage process of justification in the life of the Christian:

(1)     the infusion of grace,
(2)     the movement of the free will directed toward God through faith,
(3)     the movement of the free will directed against sin, and finally
(4)     the remission of sin.

Aquinas continues to reflect Augustine when he insists that justification includes both forgiveness of sins and the actual transformation of the sinner’s life: “in justification of souls, two things occur together, namely, the remission of guilt and the newness of life through grace.

With High Scholasticism (e.g., the mid-thirteenth-century Summa Fratris Alexandri) came the idea that the unique presence of God within the justified sinner necessarily brings with it “created grace,” that is, grace that produces an ontological change in the soul of the Christian that conforms them to God. While God is seen as the sole author of this internal change of the soul, the change itself is real and transformative.

Later medieval theology saw the rise of the via moderna (i.e., “Nominalism”) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, associated with such scholars as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Following the prior work of Duns Scotus, a strong emphasis on the absolute freedom of God’s gracious initiative characterizes this approach, one designed to make it abundantly clear that no human moral achievement of any sort ever obligates God to any particular response.

In regard to justification, this emphasis on God’s absolute, nonobligatory freedom in the salvation process eventually manifested itself in the concept of God’s “two powers” — that is, his “absolute power” to do whatever he pleases, on the one hand, and the power of his radically contingent, self-imposed decision to (in this case) graciously produce the effects of justification in the Christian’s life, on the other.

Nonetheless, in his comprehensive survey of the doctrine of justification in the Latin Middle Ages, McGrath concludes that “the entire medieval discussion of justification proceeds upon the assumption that a real change in the sinner is effected thereby. This observation is as true of the via moderna as it is for the earlier period.” Among the various ways of expressing justification on the eve of the Reformation, the broad common ground held that justification was a process, one that began at baptism and continued on, and one that involved actual intrinsic righteousness, made possible by God’s initiating grace and subsequent human cooperation with that grace.


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