Cover Image: Justification

What's at stake in the Current Debates (ed. Mark Husbands & D. Trier)

Leicester: Apollos, 2004

Blurb Review by Dr Rohintan Mody

Review by Dr Rohintan Mody

Justification is once more at the centre of theological debate. The New Perspective on Paul, continuing debate on the Reformers' views on justification, and current ecumenical initiatives on justification with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, make this new book timely. The book is divided into four parts with essays on different aspects of justification from evangelical scholars in different theological disciplines (Biblical studies, church history, and systematic theology).

Part 1 focuses upon justification in Biblical Theology. This part consists of an essay by Robert Gundry on the nonimputation of Christ's righteousness and a defense of the imputation of Christ's righteousness by Don Carson. Gundry argues that the traditional Protestant understanding that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer is exegetically unfounded. Gundry argues that while our guilt is borne by Christ on the cross, Paul in fact treats faith as righteousness. For Gundry, nowhere does Paul argue that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer. Paul, rather, talks about the righteousness of God (not Christ), and faith in Christ.

Gundry's challenge is powerful, but Don Carson's response is thoughtful and cogent. For Carson, while explicit statements of the imputation of Christ's righteousness are absent in Paul, he finds the idea present. For Carson, Paul sees righteousness in legal categories, and considers faith as if it is righteousness, that is, faith is the instrument for receiving something else that is righteousness. The righteousness received though is the righteousness of Christ.

Part 2 focuses upon Justification and the crisis of Protestantism. This section treats issues in systematic theology. This part contains a thoughtful piece by Bruce McCormack on the Reformers' doctrine. For McCormack, the Reformers rightly insist that justification is a legal act but confusingly also argue that the believer's union with Christ is based upon an ontological change (regeneration). Hence, there is in a danger in the Reformers' thought of a form of inherent righteousness, (as in medieval Catholicism). McCormack's solution to this dilemma is that imputation is in itself transformative.

Part 3 concentrates upon justification in Protestant traditions from the perspective of historical theology. It includes to my mind the best essay in the book, a piece by the American evangelical and Biblical scholar, Mark Seifrid. Seifrid excellently ties exegesis and historical theology together, by looking at the Luther-Melanchthon debate on justification.

Melanchthon's mature position on justification stressed that justification was a mere pronouncement, and implied that Christian living was a matter of good works. Luther on the other hand saw justification as a new and creative act of God. In faith, Christ himself is present and imputation is the reception of the whole Christ through faith. Seifrid finds Luther closer to Paul, than Melanchthon (and later Protestant tradition which emphasized the imputation of Christ's righteousness in an abstract manner). Seifrid's essay is a model of how exegesis, church history and doctrinal concerns can be combined. For Seifrid, Protestantism has missed something important in its emphasis on the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and that is that faith itself is God's great new creative act in the gospel. Seifrid's essay is a fresh proposal as to how the debate between Gundry and Carson on the imputation of Christ's righteousness can move forward.

Part 4 focuses on justification and ecumenical endeavour. It includes a fine essay by the church historian, Tony Lane, on the attempt by Protestants and Catholics to reach agreement at Regensburg in 1541. Agreement was reached on justification but the project foundered on disagreement on the sacraments. The agreement on justification at Regensburg defines justification of having both imputed and inherent aspects. Righteousness is two-fold. Before God, the believer is imputed righteous on account of Christ. Yet the reception of the Holy Spirit means we have an inherent righteousness as well. For Lane, the Regensburg agreement may point the way forward in current ecumenical concerns, and caters for both Protestant and Catholic concerns.

My concern with Lane's proposal lies with the concept of inherent righteousness. In Scripture should the work of the Holy Spirit and the exhortations to right living be seen as 'inherent righteousness'? It may be better to say that in Scripture the work of the Holy Spirit is to unite us to Christ and in Christ righteousness is found. This righteousness in Christ means both our vindication before God and our ability to live righteously.

This book does ably summarize some of the current debates on justification. All the essays are by first-rate scholars, and all are interesting. However, unless you are involved in ecumenical dialogue, the concerns of part 4 on ecumenical endeavour are rather foreign to the average pastor. Yet, a great failing of this book lies in its lack of explicit interaction with the New Perspective. The book would have benefited by essays commending and critiquing the New Perspective. It is rather puzzling that the New Perspective, which is at the heart of the current debate of justification, is not given full essay-length treatment.

From the concerns of Biblical Theology, the book is disappointing as well. Despite Part 1 being titled "Justification in Biblical Theology", neither Gundry's nor Carson essay is truly Biblical Theological in the sense of exploring justification from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. What we urgently need today is not more books on Paul and justification, or ecumenical dialogue on justification, or the Reformers and justification, but a Biblical Theological treatment on justification. A Biblical Theology of justification would set out where justification belongs within the unfolding narrative of the Biblical history, observing how the great events of salvation history contribute towards a holistic Biblical understanding of justification. A Biblical Theological treatment would seek to unify Paul's treatment of justification with that of the Old Testament, the gospels, and James. A Biblical Theology of justification, I believe, has more potential to point the way forward in our current debates than any other approach.

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