New/Old Perspective on Justification 1

Nothing has rocked the theological world of evangelicals and the Reformed more than the “new perspective on Paul.” In contrast to the “new” perspective is the “old” perspective, but it ought to be observed here that this is mostly an evangelical intramural debate and not a widespread scholarly debate. Ed Sanders got this going way back in the late 70s and he was a liberal Methodist, and Jimmy Dunn was next and he’s a Methodist, and then Tom Wright’s stuff came along, and he’s an Anglican. But it was the conservative evangelicals of the USA who mostly got upset about this new perspective stuff, and they asserted the “old” perspective, which mostly means Reformation/Augustinian theology either in a Reformed or Lutheran key. So let’s not think “New Testament” when we think “old” because both the “new” and the “old” think they are most faithful to the New Testament.

Thanks to the fine efforts of James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, we now have a new volume that gets major thinkers to interact over the new perspective vs. old perspective on justification. The book is called Justification: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books). I’m really glad the first piece is by Michael Horton because I haven’t received his book “For Calvinism” yet and so the blog has tipped toward Roger Olson’s book “Against Calvinism.” But at least we can begin this series on a Reformed note, even if not today. Today we look at the big picture in the history of the church: How has justification been understood? (Next post will examine just the “new” perspective.)

The various authors who define justification and then interact with other views are Michael Horton (traditional Reformed), Michael Bird (progressive Reformed), James Dunn (new perspective), Veli-Matt Kärkkäinen (deification view), and Gerald O’Collins/Oliver Rafferty (Roman Catholic). Well, this is a dream team.

If justification is so central to the gospel, and it surely is for the Reformation, why does it not come up in 1 Cor 15 and only once in the sermons in Acts, and hardly at all in the Gospels? Or, does it come up in those texts? How important is justification by faith to the gospel?

And the editors provide a wonderful sketch of the history of justification theology in the church. Origen, who against Marcion did not separate faith and works as many have done. The earlier Augustine didn’t either, but later in his life Augustine (392, 396 and later) did develop a much more grace-shaped justification. But, Augustine saw justification as transformative and not just forensic. Medieval justification theory is Augustinian. So Aquinas: infusion of grace, movement of free will toward God through faith, movement of free will aginst sin, and remission of sin. Thus, justification is both forensic and transformative process.

The Reformation, which is what most mean by “old” perspective, shows a powerful “newness” when it comes to justification. For Luther, justification is the heart and soul and the article by which the church stands or falls. Here ar three major ideas about justification for the Reformation, and this is what “old” perspective basically believes: it is a forensic declaration about status, it is not the same as either regeneration or sanctification (so transformation is not a part of justification), and it is an alien righteousness (imputed righteousness). (McGrath famously argued that Luther was himself more Augustinian in seeing transformation while it was later Lutherans that developed the forensic stuff so thoroughly.)

Wesley: forensic but not emphatic on imputed righteousness; sanctification differs from justification. John Henry Newman: both declarative and transformative. Trent: declarative and transformative.  Same in modern Catholic Catechism: “… not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”

Pietism worried about separating the forensic from the transformative, though most were traditional Protestants in this issue. Schleiermacher, a Pietist and a Lutheran, resisted an purely forensic view. Ritschl found a way to move form a Reformation view into a Kantian view, in that justification is a means to an end: communal striving for the kingdom of God. Tillich moved between sin and doubt as conditions of justification. Bultmann sees justification as a forensic judgment by God in the present time, but he emphasizes the confrontation through preaching of the human in order to make a decision (and here Bultmann has a curious likeness to much of contemporary evangelicalism). Karl Barth makes justification profoundly christocentric. Both declarative and “a making righteous.”

Anabaptists have struggled with the prospects of a too-forensic imputed righteousness for it can undo the moral vision they had/have. But JC Wenger’s view is essentially that of the Reformation. Justification has not been central to either liberation or feminist theology. Among the Pentecostals the same wariness about too much forensic is clear enough. It becomes more Trinitarian and Spirit-shaped for Pentecostals and thus leads to transformation. And Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen explores justification through Spirit and the Eastern idea of deification/theosis.

And there has been serious dialogue between Catholics and Protestants about justification.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jerry Sather

    This promises to be interesting! There has been a tendency to collapse too much into justfication–I’m not sure it can bear the weight. Perhaps “saved” is a good term because it can include not merely justification but regeneration, sanctification, theosis, etc as well.

    Justification flows from the Gospel–but it is not the Gospel. Justification is great and glorious–but Jesus accomplished this and much more! I’m looking forward to seeing where this conversation goes and how it ties into the King Jesus Gospel.

  • Rick

    Did they mention the EO view?

  • Scot McKnight

    Rick, the “deification” view is on the table.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    “Medieval justification theory is Augustinian.”

    Perhaps better, Western medieval justification theory is Augustinian. Eastern medieval theologians certainly weren’t. I’m not sure they had even read Augustine.

  • http://www.iconicklast.wordpress.com Nick Mackison

    Is there such a thing as “Christian book greed”? Or is there a way for me to put a spiritual label on my cravings?

  • Alan

    Good grief! How much more complicated can theologians make The Bible? Reminds me of being in college and all my Christianity professors sat around and spouted all this mess just to hear themselves seem wise.

  • Kenneth Harrell

    Perhaps we should take more seriously the Johannine language of the “New Birth” as found in the fourth gospel. That way we can emphasize a holistic and comprehensive view of salvation rather than isolating justification in ways scripture never intended. To me, too much emphasis on Pauline language undercuts the unity of the scriptures by not allowing the other witnesses to be heard.

  • Paul St. aubyn

    Just a quick thought.

    It seems like the Jews that Paul was fighting against in Galatians would have agreed with Paul’s definition/framing of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. The disagreement was over the meaning of “forgiveness of sins.” But the disagreement over the meaning of “forgiveness of sins” was enough to make Paul say that they preach a different gospel.

    What do you think?

  • Wayne Detzler

    Justification is appearing as the “hot topic” issue just now, including the very provocative work of Steve Chalke. In my current study of emerging church leadership I have been amazed at the strongly traditional view sustained by such preachers as Justin Kendrick. In fact, he is probably the most pietistic that I have encountered. He reminds me of some of the early Zinzendorf statements.

  • PaulE

    Justification through faith is absolutely vital to the gospel because the gospel promises were given to Abraham and to his seed. By nature then, Gentiles are excluded. If the Gentiles are not heirs by faith, we are “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” In other words, without justification through faith the gospel is not good news for the Gentiles (cf. Gal. 3:8, Romans 4:6-10, Col. 1:12-13).

    I do think justification is present in the texts you mention. I won’t survey the Gospels for the sake of space; but it seems to me Acts 2:38, 3:19, 10:43, 13:38-39, and 26:18 are all about justification. I think too in 1 Cor. 15:17, the phrase “you are still in your sins” must have to do with justification, since otherwise Paul would point to the transformed lives of the Corinthian believers as evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

  • http://www.spirithome.com/bible-trust.html Bob Longman

    IIRC, Kärkkäinen has written at length about some substantial contact points between Martin Luther and Eastern Orthodox theosis. Though I really don’t think Luther would have accepted the use of the English word ‘deification’ to translate what he spoke of, because of his sense of what human beings in their current state would do with the term.

    Kärkkäinen caused quite a stir. I’m still trying to grasp what he was writing about Luther. But at the very least, it should give someone pause before anyone simply lines Luther up with Calvin on matters of justification, salvation, sanctification, or life in the Kingdom.

  • Scot McKnight

    Paul St Aubyn, the issue then in Galatians is the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God on the basis of faith, not on the basis of “works of the law,” and I’m new perspective there: so it isn’t about trying or earning but about being Jewish.

  • ao

    Alan (#6),

    I suppose that on the surface the justification debate may seem esoteric, but I really think your criticism of the debate is unfair. Here are some very practical, very serious implications this debate has for Christianity:

    1. Many evangelicals like me were taught the view that in the Old Covenant, Jews were saved by works-righteousness, whereas in the New Testament, we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works. Consequently, we were taught caricatures like: “The OT is about the external, while the NT is about the internal.” This perspective profoundly misrepresents the story of the Bible and the relationship between the two covenants.

    2. When many non-Christians and Christians come to realize that #1 is a false representation of Judaism, they begin to question whether Paul really even understood Judaism, or whether he just hijacked it for his new “Christian” purposes. The debate about justification, in part, tries to determine what Paul really thought about Judaism.

    3. Many Christians I’ve met are profoundly confused about the role that a person’s works play in a person’s final justification. Some think that works were necessary for salvation in the OT, but not in the NT. Some say that those in the OT are saved the same way those in the NT are–by faith and not by works. This confusion causes many Christians to wonder what their own works have to do with their justification–they lack a strong sense of purpose for their good works (or lack thereof).

    4. Many Christians are confused about how much one has to even know about justification by faith and not by works in order to be saved. Is justification the core of the gospel? If two people disagree on the relationship between justification-faith-works, must they part ways? Is one a heretic? Why or why not? If the Bible is so simple and clear on this, then why do so many thoughtful Christians over millennia disagree?

    These are just a few of the reasons why I’m very interested in the justification debate, and why I would unreservedly say that the nuances of the debate are important for Christianity today. I’m sure many others can explain in much better words and give much better reasons for why this debate matters, but my points are really just from my day-to-day interactions with brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t care at all for what Bible scholars are saying these days.

  • ao

    Just thought of one more:

    5. Many Christians have adopted a view of justification that essentially boils the concept down to me-and-my-sin-problem and God’s solution for it, and then they argue from Romans and Galatians that this is what justification is all about. The other side questions this perspective, making justification also, if not moreso, about the inclusion of outsiders into the One True People of God. These differing approaches cause many of us rethink the extent to which we should think of our justification in individualistic or corporate terms. This will impact how we think about God and how we communicate the gospel message to others.

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    I wonder if we could avoid using words like “reduced” and “boiled” down in these discussions. Inevitably what follows those words is a caricature of the view that does the boiling or reducing. Just a thought.

  • Robert

    I dislike the word ‘saved’ in this context. It’s a perfect tense, referring to a past action which has been completed. It tends to be used consistently, by people who see salvation as nothing more than justification, recieving Christ, however they want to put it. To them, it just seems to be a forensic event. But surely it’s an ongoing process, which starts with forgiveness, and continues through sanctification? If so, we need to take a hard look at some of the language we use.

  • Paul St. aubyn

    Scot-
    Regardless of whether or not one belongs to the NPP camp, the Gospel is at stake in Galatians. One of the major issues is justificiation, whether one defines justificiation by NPP or otherwise.

    That’s not to say that the justification is the Gospel…Simply that for Paul, it seemed to be a part of the Gospel that if lost, distorted the Gospel in a big way.

    That’s my last question/comment. Input is welcome!

  • scotmcknight

    Paul, yes, the gospel is at stake if they don’t accept Gentiles on the basis of faith. Justification is connected to the inclusion of Gentiles in a big way for Pauline theology. The gospel creates a world in which both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith.

  • ao

    Peter G. (#15), I appreciate the call for precise wording, but I stand by my use of the phrase “boil down.” As I was writing my thoughts, I was careful to make sure I was representing justification the way church leaders and many, many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have communicated it. They’ve told me what they think justification boils down to in their own words. The caricature views I discussed are the views that my church leaders have taught me.

  • Andreas

    I am really looking foreward to reading this book!

    Just two thoughts:
    1.) I think McGrath ist correct. Luther was able to see justification as a) forensic/ declarativ (and this is the basic and primary aspect) and b) therefore also transformativ (because God’s Word is active and does what it says). The importance lay in the sequence and in what is basic, we are pronounced righteous once and for all and therefore God also makes us righteous, and also in what is complete, God’s once and for all verdict, an what is still in the process of becoming, our transformation. Just read the chapter on the topic in The Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus (German 1st edition 1962, so not a totaly new idea). This is also the reason why Luther can place almost all of Christian life under the rubric of justification, because for him sanctification and new life are part of the parcel.
    2.) On 1Kor.: If I remeber rightly, Adolf Schlatter, who also thought of justification as being forensic as well as transformative, was able to find a lot of justification thinking at the basis of much of what Paul says in this letter. Today, Peter Stuhlmacher is probably holding a similar position(?).

  • http://in-fraction.blogspot.com/2005/05/calvin-on-sabbath-day.html Thom

    I have to agree with Andreas in that the forensic and transformative elements may have been logically separated in Luther, but were never formally separated. One has to only read the marriage metaphor at the center of his “Freedom of a Christian Man” to see that.


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