New/Old Perspective on Justification 1

New/Old Perspective on Justification 1 October 19, 2011

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.

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