Review of Justification: Five Views (IVP, 2011) (Part 1 of 2)

Justification: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy (IVP Academic, 2011). 319 pages.

To ask what the legacy of recent justification debates will be for future debates over the Gospel and the Church’s proclamation of it is implicitly to ask what we have clearly, decisively learned in these debates. In theology, one generation’s conflict means the next generation’s clarity. At least we hope so. This book, consisting of carefully executed essays and responses written by highly accomplished theologians, serves as something of a barometer for real progress in understanding.

Thankfully this is a fairly substantial volume of approximately 300 pages rather than the unforgivably thin hat-tip some “views” books devote to important topics. And what is more, the contributors largely measure up to the challenging task they are given: Michael S. Horton writes what is termed a “traditional” Reformed essay, Michael F. Bird contributes a “progressive” Reformed view (again pardoning the seldom helpful adjective), James D. G. Dunn is an excellent and respected voice for a “New Perspective” position, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen offers a “deification” view, and Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty present a Roman Catholic view.

The lineup of authors is impressive, if occasionally a little curious. Kärkkäinen is eminently qualified to write on a vast range of theological questions, but as an ordained Pentecostal his deification essay – a topic traditionally associated with the Orthodox tradition – reminds us that these “views” volumes typically (inevitably?) suffer somewhat on the horns of a dilemma: will they be oriented to ecclesiastical and confessional traditions (Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox) or to theological models (union with Christ, deification and theosis, new perspective(s) on Paul, justification-centralism)? The difficulty is real, not least because there are no clean lines of demarcation here. As I have noted elsewhere, the confessions of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions overlap extensively on justification, at least when the topic is defined narrowly enough, and within the Reformed tradition one can easily find varieties of both “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul alongside, and integrated with, a focus on union with Christ, as well as some highly nuanced forms of theosis. And then the actual substance of Kärkkäinen’s deification essay further complicates the picture. His contribution expounds deification largely with a view to developments in one pocket of contemporary Lutheranism, and this in a book lacking a traditional Lutheran essay.

And that surprising tidbit requires a comment. Ironically it is Kärkkäinen’s essay that comes closest to being overtly Lutheran, and yet there are plenty of good reasons to object to his reading of that tradition. (At least many Lutherans would think so.) Why, then, is there no Lutheran essay when that is historically the tradition most readily identifiable with the topic? The editors explain that they did not think it necessary to include a Lutheran essay because Horton’s piece made it redundant to do so: his contribution is, they say, “functionally identical in all the significant theological respects to the traditional Lutheran view” (10). I agree with the editors’ evaluation of Horton’s essay, and at least they recognized the apparent omission of a Lutheran contribution would require an explanation, but it seems rather unfair to Horton who presumably didn’t realize his essay was expected to do double service. It is also unfair to confessional Lutherans who have a rather well-defined and articulated theological system of their own on this topic – one that is arguably more clearly the default mode of (especially popular) evangelical thinking than any of the other views represented in this volume.

But having already criticized the volume, let me rush quickly to charity, too: editors of such volumes simply cannot accomplish everything. While one might have hoped for an essay by an Orthodox priest or theologian to represent that tradition (could one ever have enough David Bentley Hart?), and a Lutheran one as well (Robert Kolb? Timothy Wengert?), or perhaps some other scholar’s analysis of the historic Orthodox tradition on justification (Gerald Bray? Robert Letham?), certainly one would not have wanted to miss out on Kärkkäinen’s essay either. And apart from author selections, it must be noted that the editors’ two introductions to the volume – one on justification in historical perspective and one on current debates – are alone worth more than the price of the book. Introductions to collections of this sort are sometimes lamentably, I admit infuriatingly, weak. But not in this case. Here are clear, well-articulated maps for getting to grips with the real issues and making the most of the fine essays that follow. More than that, here are helpful tools for cultivating that rare but indispensable feature of a truly Christian debate: a reading that is both informed and charitable.

The Essays

For those familiar with the debates and the authors the essays themselves are, with a few exceptions, predictable in their arguments. Readers of this review will likely be most interested in the essays by Horton, Bird, and possibly Dunn, but it would be a shame to overlook the essays by Kärkkäinen and O’Collins/Rafferty. Both essays exhibit such clarity and candor that their essays should be high on the list of first reads on the topic, even if their distinctive proposals are ultimately unpersuasive.

For his part, Kärkkäinen winsomely commends a new interpretation of justification prompted by the Finnish Lutheran and Orthodox dialogues which have been dissected extensively in the journals and, at least as a reading of Luther, found wanting. The thrust of this ecumenical endeavor is to bring about a rapprochement between Lutheran soteriology and Roman Catholicism by way of the East, and in particular the idea of deification.

I have long wondered if, after all the qualifications and nuances customarily attached to more modest versions of theosis and deification (in order to guard against a range of ontological red flags), we do not end up with something quite close to the most robust and realistic forms of the Reformed doctrine of glorification. The responses to Kärkkäinen’s essay by the other contributors, especially Horton’s, suggest that this may in fact be the case, though it is less obvious that this is due to Western parallels to the distinction of “essence” from “energies,” a parallel disputed strongly by some in the last few decades in the context of Trinitarian theology. As with Kärkkäinen’s essay, ongoing discussions of theosis may serve at least as reminders that glorification remains a severely and inexcusably underexplored feature of Reformed theology. This is ironic since it forms something of a capstone and telos to so much of what is distinctive about Reformed theology, and with the resources at hand one can hope the situation will soon begin to improve.

For their part, O’Collins and Rafferty present a Roman Catholic view by means of a historical survey focused on the twin and related notions of (1) man as deeply but not irretrievably affected by the Fall and of (2) human freedom to cooperate with divine grace. They explain the ongoing importance of Trent – still the stubbornly defining moment in the official Roman Catholic theology of justification – in the context of variations within the Catholic tradition on the question. This is followed by a rather extensive autobiographical account by O’Collins of the development of his own thinking, including his hearing the great German New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann lecture on Romans and, thirty years later, his participation in the well-known “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” However, as Kärkkäinen points out (305-6), it would have been helpful if O’Collins and Rafferty had discussed the meaning today of that 1999 Declaration.

Horton’s Essay

Horton’s essay, the first in the series, is in many respects a commendable, clearly presented overview of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification. His goal is not merely “to repeat the relevant paragraphs in our confessions and catechisms, but to argue that their view of justification is even more firmly established by recent investigations” (83). This includes a fair overview of the historical and biblical materials on imputation and the vocabulary of justification and the righteousness of God.

Though one will quibble (and sometimes argue) with his expressions now and then, Horton’s summary is helpful and in most respects accurate. However, as one reads closely there are several lingering questions worth asking, in addition to those pointed out by his interlocutors. (And I raise these questions at some length because, in the big picture, Horton’s theological identity – on this question and more generally – is closest to my own.) For instance, it may be overreaching to argue that the heart of the Reformation debate turned on the lexical meaning of the term dikaioō (92), and it is at least debatable that in Rom. 8:30 Paul intends an “ordo salutis” in the modern sense of the word (101 et al.). Furthermore, Horton takes N. T. Wright to task for saying “present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life” (97, quoting Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129; emphasis is Horton’s). However, Horton does not mention here that Wright later clarified his meaning by saying future justification “will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived,” rather than on the basis of it. Whatever one might conclude about Wright’s restatement, this is a significant clarification and one of which the reader should be aware. Thankfully it is included in one of the introductions to the volume (71). More on this topic below.

Furthermore, Horton is rightly concerned to make clear that justification is based not on the righteousness of God’s divinity (what or who God is as divine) but on the gift of righteousness from God (in the incarnate Jesus obedient unto death). Horton stresses the point over several pages. But he muddies the waters somewhat by suggesting the opposite at times, such as when he argues that the gift of God in Jesus Christ for sinners includes not only the righteousness that the law requires but also the righteousness that God is (96), an affirmation Horton makes more than once.

Also, Horton is perhaps most confusing on the relationship of union with Christ, justification, and sanctification. This appears when he argues (as he has elsewhere) that, on the one hand, “to ‘put on Christ’ is to derive all of one’s righteousness from him, both for justification and sanctification” (emphasis mine) and then, on the other hand (and on the same page, p. 108), putting on or “being clothed with” Christ is only justification language and the basis for the sanctification of daily conduct. Similarly, Horton says justification is the “basis for the transformative effects of union with Christ.” He later offers a formulation to explain the relationship, saying “if union with Christ in the covenant of grace is the matrix for Paul’s ordo, justification remains its source, even for adoption” (110). (I think Horton wants us to read “union with Christ” rather than the “covenant of grace” as the antecedent for “its” in this statement, though I may be mistaken here.) Later, however, in fact on the same page, Horton states that “Justification is distinct from regeneration, yet both are the effect of union with Christ, which the Spirit effects by his Word. This is why Paul compares justification and its effects to God’s creation of the world ex nihilo by his Word (Rom. 4:17, with Ps 33:6)” (110).

Setting aside what I see as a misunderstanding of Rom. 4, these last two sentences are simply bewildering: both justification and regeneration are the effects (or “the effect”) of union with Christ, a union effected by the Spirit through the Word. Yet it is justification, not the union, that Horton goes on to say in the next sentence has creation-like effects. Further, justification is the source of the ordo salutis (while union with Christ is its “matrix”).In his response, Dunn asks in a footnote, “Does Horton really mean it when he says, ‘Justification is distinct from regeneration, yet both are the effect of union with Christ, which the Spirit effects by his Word’?” (120, n. 2). If I understand Horton correctly, and I beg the reader’s patience if I do not, Horton does indeed seem to want to say exactly that. It would appear he understands union with Christ as in some attenuated sense the “matrix” for every gracious blessing, including regeneration (which the Reformed confessional tradition has typically understood as a spiritual prerequisite to faith-union with Christ, which may explain Dunn’s perplexity), and yet that it is justification that functions as a creative word bringing about, as source, the blessings of the ordo salutis, including especially the good works of sanctification, the glories of the new creation, and, as we now note, the disarming of our enemies.

Related to this, then, is Horton’s argument that the justification of the ungodly is itself “the source of the abundant and varied fruit of Christ’s conquest,” pointing to Col. 2:13-15 and 1 Cor. 15:53-56. Yet it is not clear how either text supports such a focused theological connection. In Col. 2, Paul argues that the cross of Christ secured the forgiveness of sins for believers (the debt incurred by the Law’s demands can no longer stand against us) and was indeed also the event of the disarming of “the rulers and authorities” over which he triumphed. But Paul does not thereby draw a line from one benefit of the cross (forgiveness) to the other (disarmed rulers) in causal fashion as Horton suggests, making justification or the forgiveness of sins itself what disarms the rulers. Paul does not suggest, as Horton states, that “Christ’s conquest of the powers is based on his having borne our debt for violation of the law” (98, emphasis mine). For Paul in Col. 2, it is not justification which accomplished this but the cross, the one cross of Christ which both brought justification and disarmed our enemies. Neither is it clear that it is exclusively the legal facet of death and the law that is in view in 1 Cor. 15. The distinction is a nuanced one, yet an important one as well.

Finally Horton, like many before him, appeals to 2 Cor. 5:21 (“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”) as evidence of imputation. Here again I will comment more fully below but, in my view, 5:19 (among other passages), with its language of “not counting trespasses,” provides significant biblical warrant for the doctrine of imputation in Paul, properly understood. But it is possible that 5:21 may have a reality inclusive but more comprehensive than imputation in view, not least because Paul has quickly, and otherwise curiously, changed his verb from “count” or “impute” (logizomai) in 5:19 to “become” (ginomai) in 5:21, and a more expansive, ultimate vista for our “becoming the righteousness of God” in Christ would also seem to make the most sense against the Isaiah backdrop commentators usually recognize that Paul appears to have in view.

In my view, while Kärkkäinen, Dunn, and O’Collins say much of instructive value, the most interesting response to Horton comes from Bird. In reply to Horton, Bird agrees with the lion’s share of Horton’s presentation though he would take exception to certain assumptions and conclusions along the way. Indeed, it appears that Bird assumes he and Horton agree that justification and transformation (which Bird prefers to “sanctification,” with good cause as he explains on p. 112) are “linked logically and Christologically, but the latter cannot be subsumed under the former conceptually” (113), but in light of Horton’s stress on justification as the source of sanctification or transformation, I suspect Bird may have (charitably) missed how Horton does in fact subsume one under the other conceptually. However, Bird does take issue with the confidence of Horton’s lexical survey, noting helpfully how some NT uses of “righteousness” do not seem to fit Horton’s expectations as neatly as one might wish. Also, though Bird holds to imputation himself, regarding it as a “theological implicate of the biblical teaching,” he does not endorse the kind of merit theology that is often used to support the idea, preferring instead to point to the reckoning that occurs within the context of union with Christ (116). His “biggest gripe with Horton’s treatment,” however, “is what he does not say” (116), and this concerns the relationship between justification and Paul’s social context or, put differently, the Jew-Gentile question which was in fact the primary concern the Apostle had, rather than the Council of Trent. Given the shape of justification debates in the last few decades, this is indeed a curious silence on Horton’s part, not least because of the ways I am confident he would want to speak clearly and compellingly to the issue.

Bird’s Essay

Bird’s own “progressive Reformed” essay is both interesting and compelling, and Horton’s should not be read without the benefit of Bird’s (and, I suggest, vice versa). With meticulous attention to the texts, and with the benefit of having already published an important study of Paul and justification, he develops the Apostle’s language of the righteousness of faith in Galatians and Romans, including along the way an important observation on the (temporary, I note) disagreement between Paul and Peter (often overlooked in Reformed discussions of Paul’s theology) and, not to be missed, a helpful discussion of what the “righteousness of God” is not. Bird affirms that “there is indeed a gift of a righteous status from God… but the righteousness of God introduces the entire package of salvation in all of Romans…” rather than justification by faith, a carefully explained observation that rings true. In a clarification worth pondering and repeating, he explains that the “righteousness of God” is not the gospel, but “is something that is revealed in the gospel” (141). Bird follows his survey of Romans with a robust defense of the imputation of Jesus’ law obedience as the grounds of the believer’s righteousness, and locates this imputation in the context of Jesus’ own justification by the Father and our union with him by faith, appropriately noting some blind spots in N. T. Wright’s statements on the question (145-52). Among the last sections in Bird’s essay is a valuable discussion of justification by works in Paul and James, including Bird’s admission that he is “acutely uncomfortable” with how Wright has sometimes expressed himself on this matter. Nevertheless, Bird wishes to make clear that justification “according to” works is entirely biblical, and to explain what that does and does not mean. In this I judge him to have largely succeeded, and in a way that navigates a controversial question with exemplary care.

Incidentally, Bird explains the adjective “progressive” along the lines of seeing the need to remedy, among other things, a perceived poverty of interest both in historia salutis (history of salvation) because of a myopic preoccupation with ordo salutis (order of salvation), and in the social context of Paul’s writings and all its implications (131-2). I can hardly agree more strongly and yet, in light of Reformed exegesis and theology in the last generation or two, I’m not sure it is ultimately very progressive to insist on them. In any case, Bird properly urges the importance of reading the Apostle on his own terms rather than the ones dictated by polemics.

In his response, Horton objects to Bird’s criticisms of the notion of merits with an appeal to the antiquity of this language. He does this, first, by referring to the “merit of the fathers” among rabbinical teachers, though, with others who have written on the topic, I’m not confident this rabbinical language is necessarily reflective of biblical usage. Horton also appeals to covenantal substitution in Isaiah 53 which, I think, is more compelling, though it also clarifies how merit language is a theological construct designed to capture a feature of the biblical witness in a way the text itself (i.e., explicitly) does not. There is nothing illegitimate about employing such a construct, of course; it is the task of theology to articulate these features of the text in order that the coherence of biblical teaching might be grasped by faith. For this reason, I appreciate Horton’s subsequent remark that merit asks, in essence, “to what purpose” was Christ’s obedience as the uniquely faithful Adam and Israel? I might subtly modify the question to “of what quality” is that obedience in order to include Horton’s focus but also accent what seems to me to be the continuing value of properly nuanced merit language.

Horton also disagrees with Bird on Paul’s language of “becoming” sin and righteousness, explaining “In my estimation, Romans 5:19 (like 2 Cor. 5:21) does not refer to a transformative ‘becoming’ as Bird suggests, any more than Christ’s ‘becoming’ sin for us refers to a degenerative process rather than imputation.” Horton is with the majority of interpreters here, yet I have my doubts, particularly with what Horton sees as an obviously incorrect consequence: Christ’s “becoming” sin in a way that goes beyond imputation to something more personally substantial. I find just such a feature of the atonement when I read of the suffering Servant as one who becomes, in the heights (or is it depths?) of his becoming sin for us, one “from whom men hid their faces” (Isa. 53:3), so disfigured or, to use Horton’s term, degenerated was his appearance. Here is something distinct from the legal condemnation, something of a piece with the monstrosity that the land had become – substantially – as cursed under Israel’s disobedience (pace Deuteronomy). Here is an extensive description of consummate judgment which suggests that here, at the cross being anticipated, sin comes finally and climactically to fully embodied expression in a way that is not captured by the language only of a guilty status and also goes beyond all the dark yet hitherto restrained expressions of the curse’s horror in Israel’s history.

Further, Horton demurs from the idea of a final justification by works yet he – astutely, charitably, and correctly, in my view – acknowledges that a distinction between judgment according to rather than through or on account of works is “well attested in classic Reformed treatments,” and that he himself is indeed “open to Bird’s interpretation.” Not simply because I happen to agree with Bird’s construction on this point, I regard this is as among the finest of many encouraging moments in Horton’s contributions to this volume. It exhibits a spirit of honest and patient inquiry which makes all the difference not only in these “views” volumes but in the wider discussions of which it is an example.

Part 2 continues here.