Justification – 4 Interpretive “Angles”

Over the last few decades, the doctrine of justification has received a great deal of attention from across the Christian spectrum. Theologians in some circles want to discard altogether the “forensic” articulation that has held sway as the standard view among Protestants at least since Calvin. Others have worked to reaffirm, bolster, or complement the traditional Protestant view according to fresh readings of Paul, Luther, Calvin, or Karl Barth.

martin-lutherConsidering that Luther confessed grasping the breadth and depth of this doctrine only in “poor rudiments and fragments”, we should not be surprised that in the present-day the doctrine of justification is surrounded again in debate and discussion.

Having looked at a fair amount of the literature coming out of this debate, there seem to be  at least four interpretive angles that have been opened up on the doctrine of justification (I welcome your feedback on this little mapping exercise).

1. Corporate / Covenantal

This angle works to reinterpret justification according to corporate, covenantal categories, shifting justification’s meaning from a declaration of an individual’s right standing before God to a corporate, covenantal identity. Put forward with various emphases and nuances by a highly diverse group of New Testament scholars usually grouped under the name the “New Perspective on Paul”, the origins of this angle might be traced back to Krister Stendahl. Stendahl argued in the late 1970s that western Christian theology misconstrued Paul’s argument about justification according to its preconceptions about the guilt conscience and the quest for the assurance of salvation (Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles [Fortress, 1976]). Working out from this basic contention, E.P. Sanders drew upon recent research into Second Temple Judaism in order to reject the idea that the Judaism of Paul’s day was a religion of merit and works righteousness. Sanders preferred to call it nt-wright“covenantal nomism”.

More recently still, James Dunn and N.T. Wright furthered 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.

Although the New Perspective school is quite diverse, we might identify at least five common elements: (1) Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace not legalism; the law was not given as a path for earning salvation but as a means of living under the covenant God established; (2) “works of the law” are not prideful attempts to secure divine favor but ethnic markers for the Jewish people to distinguish them from the Gentiles; (3) justification by faith is only a subordinate theme of Paul’s theology; (4) the “righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) does not mean the righteousness by which God justifies the ungodly but, in the context of Second Temple Judaism, God’s faithfulness to his covenant with his people; (5) thus, Paul’s use of “justification” is meant to indicate who is the people of God and how we can know them (Dawn Devries, “Justification,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology [Oxford, 2007], 200-201).

2. Apocalyptic

The second interpretive angle on justification is “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 act to deliver the universe and humanity from the enslaving powers of sin and death.

Through Jesus Christ’s faithful life and death on the cross (Harrink reads pistis Iesou Christou as “the faith of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ”), God invades the world overcome by the powers of sin and death to remake the creation. On Harrink’s reading, then, 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 he 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).

3. Ecumenical

The third interpretive angle led to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Roman Catholicjoint-declaration Church and the Lutheran World Federation on October 31, 1999 in Augsburg Germany. The third and fourth angles are surely concerned with faithful interpretation of Paul, but the material weight of these angles seems to be more on either the theological or historical.

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. The Joint Declaration 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. To these interpreters, it represented an answer to prayer and was greeted with liturgical celebration. Other Lutherans and Roman Catholics, however, found the Joint Declaration a disappointment both in what it said and what it did not say. Regarding what it said, some argue that the contradictions between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs simply cannot be harmonized, and regarding what it did not say, others contend that the actual language of the document did not really resolve the issues.

4. Theōsis

The Finnish school of Luther interpretation (known as “The Mannermaa School” or “the Finnish Luther Research”) Tuomo Mannermaaoriginated 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: Luther’s View of Justification (2005) although other articles present it in condensed form¹.

At the center of Mannermaa’s argument is the rejection of a purely forensic and transactional understanding of justification, and it is based heavily on Luther’s Galatians commentary and his 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. Justification is not primarily about forensic declaration, Mannermaa argues, but about the real, “ontic” presence of Christ in the believer and their participation in the person and work of Christ thereby (Christ Present in Faith, pp. 19-22). 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.

Any suggestions for refining this fourfold way to map the current discussions on justification?

¹ “Theosis as a Subject of Finnish Luther Research” in Pro Ecclesia IV/1 [1995]: 37-48; “Justification and Theosis in Lutheran-Orthodox Perspective” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson [Eerdmans, 1998], 25-41


6 thoughts on “Justification – 4 Interpretive “Angles”

  1. I don’t think that salvation-as-deification can be fairly restricted to the Mannermaa School. Aside from being essential to Eastern Orthodox theologies of salvation, it is present in the thought of many non-Finnish Lutheran Western Christian theologians, such as Leonardo Boff and Rowan Williams.

    For some references:

    Boff, Leonardo. “Holy Trinity, Perfect Community.” trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000).

    Williams, Rowan. “On Christian Theology” (London: Blackwells, 2000).

    I’ll try and track down a reference for Eastern Christian deification.

  2. Yes donagh, you are entirely right! There is a far broader group contending for salvation as deification, though I was not aware Boff was in that group. Thanks.

    Among Lutherans, I would add Robert Jenson and Wolfhart Pannenberg as well (although I wouldn’t say Pannenberg has a doctrine of deification in formal sense, but he finds Mannermaa’s reinterpretation of Luther on the mark). And more recently Bruce Marshall (“Justification as Declaration and Deification,” International Journal for Systematic Theology 4/1 (2002).

    For readers interested in the Orthodox teaching of salvation as deification, Vladimir Lossky is a great place to start (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, 213-15; In the Image and Likeness of God, 97-110) or more recently David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite). For good survey essays, see Gosta Hallosten, “Theosis in Recent Research: A Renewal of Interest and Need for Clarity” in Partakers of the Divine Nature (Baker, 2007), and also David Vincent Merconi, “The Consummation of the Christian Promise: Recent Studies on Deification” in New Blackfriars 87/1007 (January 2006): 3-12.

    Even among Reformed thinkers it is not entirely uncommon, Trevor Hart being only one example (“Redemption and Fall” in Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine”, 198). Norman Russell lists Barth as another example of a Reformed thinker whose thought on salvation affirms the created finitude of the individual while also affirming a kind of divinization (The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition[Oxford, 2004]).

    And (even) among Baptists, Paul Fiddes argues for salvation as deification saying, “The goal of salvation is ‘divinization’ (theosis)” which he qualifies explaining that “Theosis is not, of course, a ‘becoming God,’ but being made into the ‘likeness’ of God, which means being drawn much more deeply into the relationships in which God exists as a Trinity of love” (“Salvation” in Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology” [2007], 176; similarly, “The Quest for a place which is ‘not-a-place’: the hiddenness of God and the presence of God’ in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation [Cambridge, 2002], 35-60).

    This is a hot topic these days, and I am sure there are other helpful sources. Feel free to add some more.

  3. For Orthodox Theosis:

    Lossky, Vladimir, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 7-22.

    Theosis was a particular emphasis of Lossky’s theology, which is likely why it is also present in Rowan Williams thought. Lossky is a major interest of Williams’, and was the subject of William’s doctoral work.

    Further on equivalent thought in Anglicanism:

    Andrewes, Lancelot, “Ninety-Six Sermons” (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1850), 109.

  4. I would agree with R. Todd Billings that the reformed aspect of the theosis tradition needs to happen as a distinctly reformed conversation, and not merely a comparative analysis with Orthodox theologians (or, more specifically, Palamas). In this sense, the reformed have, deep within the tradition, concepts of union and theosis. Edwards would fall within this camp. His understanding of justification emphasizes union with Christ, and, in his words, the legal is grounded upon the real.

  5. I think that a Reformed conversation on Theosis is always going to be hampered by two things: (1) a legalistic, and crucicentric attutidue to Christianity as a whole, inherited largely from Calvin’s propositional, small-s systematic thinking; and (2) a seeming inability to move beyond the classical Calvinistic understanding of Predesdination. Those traditions that stand directly (Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, etc.) and indirectly (Anglicanism, Evangelicalism, etc.) in the Reformed inheritance are, I think, too often held back on the question of justification by those unspoken hurdles.

    Even in my own Anglican tradition, which is supposed to be so incarnicentric, an unspoken assumption of substitutionary atonement seems to pervade, such that talk of other models of salvation is always couched in the frame of ecumenism. And while most Anglicans are no longer taught Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination, scientific determinism, the greatest friend Double Predestination ever had, has yet to be abandoned in the face of all the evidence (or proof really) to the contrary.

    While those hurdles can certainly be overcome, and have been in some places (Edwards and Barth come immediately to mind), my concern would be that even in an internal Reformed conversation on the issue, the influences of the mystical traditions would pervade, and we would end up split into two camps: pseudo-Orthodox and traditional. I think that a concept of theosis that will be finally acceptable to the Reformed tradition would have to emphasise Scripture (for which we can look to Mannermaa as our guide, even engaging Calvin and Zwingli in the same kind of conversation with which Mannermaa engages Luther), but would also have to be acceptable to a rationalistic mindset.

    It’s that rationalism criterion that I think presents the biggest problem. Theosis as it stands just isn’t something we can all wrap our heads around because we can’t dissect it. It doesn’t present itself in clear, propositional form, and even in an era which has re-awakened to the narrative character of salvation history, which does not always answer to human reason, we still demand propositional statements of faith. Attempting to force the biblical narrative into a propositional faith is what got us into the Double Predestination trap in the first place.

    Is there an answer? I think that would be the Incarnation, but then I am an Anglican ; ). I think that if we can reason God becoming human, then we can reason our own way to entering into the inter-relationship of God. How exactly? I’ll get back to you on that in around say, 2015, when I finish my doctoral dissertation.

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