Justification is Western

Justification is Western March 15, 2012

Many theologians observe today that justification, as traditionally understood, has fallen on hard times. Only these hard times can explain the attraction of so many to a revision of our understanding of justification, and that revision began with EP Sanders and continued in the work of Jimmy Dunn, Tom Wright, and many others. Alan J. Spence, a minister in the United Reformed Church in London, has taken as his task to address the hard times and reconstruct a traditional (Reformed) understanding of justification (Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed).

Spence argues the Eastern Church frames the “plight” of humans in terms of spiritual blindness, bondage to the forces of evil, and moral/physical corruption, and hence the “ransom” theory emerges as its way of framing salvation. The Western Church, however, focused on the “ubiquitous and recalcitrant nature of human sin and the alienation from a holy God and prospect of divine judgment” (3). More importantly, Spence argues that “it is only in a world-view shaped by these concepts that a doctrine of justification makes sense.” In other words, the framing narrative is sin and accountability before God the Judge.

Spence makes me wonder if justification, or the Reformation theory of justification, is Roman, Western and medieval.

How biblical is what I am calling here the “justification worldview”?

The issue, though, is not what the West thinks; the issue is what the New Testament teaches, and we’ll get to that in a later post. But for the rest of today we observe that Spence takes some representative cultural icons in the West to show that they operated with such a justification worldview.

He begins with Augustine’s Confessions. Our free-will has been imprisoned through sin and we must be liberated if we are to turn willingly to God. The Confessions, as Spence sketches them, are a “moral audit in the presence of God” and a “wholehearted coming clean” (6). Confession was liberating; and without that perception of sin, salvation doesn’t work. [This is at the heart of the NeoPuritan movement today.]

Spence then turns to Dante’s Divine Comedy to observe that whole thing is shaped by judgment as proportional to sin, hell as a divine creation, and the need to affirm divine judgment as good (a kind of divine command theory).

He then examines two works of art, showing a massive contrast: Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and Rodin’s The Gates of Hell (1880), with the one driven by that justification worldview and the other clearly softening that worldview, leading Spence to observe that the 20th Century undid that justification worldview and makes justification increasingly difficult in a postmodern world.

The approach of Spence, and there is still much ground to cover to be fair to his book, is soterian through and through. Perhaps his focus on justification creates the need to describe this justification worldview that makes justification work well, but my own scan of the rest of his book makes me think that he sees the gospel as justification. I will depart from him on that score alone (The King Jesus Gospel), but that won’t stop his view of justification being a viable and important way of framing soteriology, and soteriology is the powerful impact of the gospel. The issues are twofold:

Does the NT assume this justification worldview?

Is this view of justification sufficiently credible in a 1st Century Jewish world and letters of Paul significantly concerned with the inclusion of Gentiles? Those are questions that will have to be addressed as we go along.

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  • Peter

    Scot – it’s been a while since I read A Community Called Atonement, but did you not cover some of the difference between East and West there? It seems to me that some light was shone on each and then discussion led to the conclusion that they were not mutually exclusive but different facets of a complex issue. I see support for an Eastern view of the Problem and its appropriate Solution all through scripture; it also fits my experience.

  • Courtroom language and the language of the lawsuit by God is common to the Hebrew Bible, especially Isaiah. I think it is valid to see a desire of Second Temple Jewish people to be found “in the right” by God. As Peter said, and props to your Community Called Atonement book, it could be both-and and not just either-or.

  • Tracy Harms

    On the topic of justification in Western thought, a major work is _The Retreat to Commitment_ by Bartley. Bartley’s work indicates that justification affected European perspective so deeply that even most rejections of it have been framed under its basic assumptions.

  • Billyv

    “Justification is a metaphor of our acceptance with God that is drawn from the world of law and jurisprudence. The dilemma people find themselves in before God is that they are guilty because they have transgressed God’s law and commandments. Their desire and only hope is that God, perceived in this metaphor as Judge, will somehow forgive them, make things right and eliminate their guilt.”
    NIV Application Commentary: Galatians, page 119.

  • I like what Derek Leman said. It surely is a case of and-both. There is no way one can not take seriously insights of the new perspective, because they seem evident both in the light of the text of scripture itself, as well as in light of writings extant accessible to us.

  • Richard

    Justification is biblical but what we have done with it in the west since then is not, in my humble opinion, “clearly taught in scripture.” I think we have made adjustments and changes in our reading based on philosophical decisions.

    One area I think this plays out is our emphasis on the “P” in PSA. I don’t think that’s as clearly taught in Scripture as many think. Subsitutionary Atonement absolutely is, it’s the “Penal” aspect that I think it read back into the text.

    Another is in our emphasis on the individual person making a conscious decision. Justification in the bible seems to be very centered on what God has done, period.

    A third is this notion that the sinner is alienated from God’s presence. This one doesn’t make sense in the biblical account (Jesus in intimate fellowship with sinners; epiphanies in the OT not killing people even though they feared it) or philosophically (he’s omnipresent but just not in the presence of sin…). If sin has corrupted the creation as thoroughly as many of us believe it has, where could God be without destroying the creation? Unless he’s not alienated objectively from sin and the sinner…

    It’s also interesting to me that the ‘breakdown’ occurs during modernity and the author still takes a jab at post-modernity… Seems to me that it was highly shaped by modernity and that’s why it isn’t holding up and doesn’t reflect the historic language of the atonement as well as other theories describing atonement.

  • CGC

    Okay, 3 quick points:
    1. The reformation made justification the focal point. This was not true of the early church fathers.

    2. The concept of justification has many different images and starting points within the NT. No one image or concept does full justice to the multi-perspective of the NT teachings. Justification is like a prism with different lights or streams flowing from it.

    3. We need to listen to theology, including atonement or justification from the full spectrum of global christianity. Looking at shaping forces among eastern church, Western church, and global christianity may be a fruitful enterprise in understanding this issue in a deeper way.


  • Greg C

    Garry Wills’s treatment of Augustine would make more difficult the way Spence is reported to use him here. The Confessions is only secondarily “confession”; it is primarily “Testimony.”

  • I think you’re right, Scot, to speak of a “justification worldview.” As CGC (#7) says, justification isn’t just one metaphor among others to speak of salvation. Justification itself is somewhat multi-valent (cf. all the debates over “righteousness” in Pauline studies), and Western juridical notions don’t really fit naturally into any of them. While law-court imagery may indeed be in play to a large extent with this language, Paul isn’t drawing on Western law-court imagery.

    But a justification-oriented does assume and reinforce an entire worldview (view of God, the human, the world, the problem, the solution, etc.).

    In Acts the apostles proclaim the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, not justification. The worldview that this proclamation assumes and reinforces is that of the biblical narrative.

    When the apostles proclaim the resurrection and ascension, their Jewish audience “gets” what they’re saying–that the events of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension form the appropriate climax to the story of Israel and fulfill its hopes.

    Paul’s summary of the biblical narrative in Acts 17 in a pagan context, by contrast, is more mystifying to his audience. They don’t get it, because they don’t have the appropriate worldview.

    I just wonder if the “gospel of justification” makes more sense to us as Westerners because it fits a Western worldview, whereas a gospel that is more organic to Scripture requires more work on our part.

  • John W Frye

    A New Testament/Jesus scholar once told me to just read the Bible. We see divine/fallen human interaction on almost every page. The Bible does not assume the bondage of the human will that Augustine and Luther delineated. The Bible presents God encountering sinners and sinners responding quite well to God. Perhaps the Reformation justification world-view did shape Western law and now we’re reading centuries of Western law back into Romans and Galatians, rather than back into the Reformation era from which it came.

  • Joe Canner

    “Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:29) This sounds more like the Eastern view (bondage to sin, ransom, etc.).

    “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25) If Jesus’ resurrection was responsible for our justification then justification must be about victory over sin and death, Jesus as Messiah and King, etc.

    This is not to say that there aren’t other connotations of justification in Scripture, just that justification doesn’t need to be rescued from the Eastern take on it.

  • PaulE

    John Frye,

    Which stories do you have in mind when you write, “The Bible presents God encountering sinners and sinners responding quite well to God?” Or what do you mean by “responding quite well?” I know you say they’re on almost every page, but maybe some examples would help me understand what you mean. Thanks.

  • MatthewS

    In “Iustitia Dei” McGrath sketches the development of Justification in the Western context with Augustine as the fountainhead. It is interwoven with Western thinking and was developed within the Western context which is not necessarily a bad thing.

    My brothers and I are so different from each other, yet each one of us is “just like” our dad.

    Likewise, I think one can say, Western and Eastern theology are both so different from each other in many ways yet both have much about them that represent faithful development of the theology that was passed on, within their respective cultural contexts. The early church did not exactly resemble either Western or Eastern theology as presently developed, and yet both bear a strong family resemblance to the early church’s theology. I’m pretty pleased with this metaphor – I hope it is a good one!

  • John W Frye

    Paul E,
    Well, let takes a walk– Noah, Abram, Jephtheh, Nebuchadnezzer, Jacob, just to *name* a few…a multitude of sinners across the O.T…. N.T., Cornelius, every sinner Jesus directly had conversation with, etc. You see, the bondage of the will, folks, have to “read into” the texts some sort of theological wiring to make these responses possible. But a face value, God talks to humans and they talk back…after the Fall.

  • One thing that I’d think would be important in interpreting Paul is that in NT Jewish thinking, Gentiles as a whole are sinners and enemies of God, and Israel is saved because of its covenant with God. There’s no way for a Gentile to be acceptable before God without becoming a part of his people, Israel.

    The issue of justification to Paul seems to be more about the separation of the Gentiles from God as a whole, rather than each person’s sinful nature.

    Of course there are discussions between Jews about who is a true “son of Abraham” – who among them is in and who is out the covenant. But Paul’s shocking assertion is that Gentiles can be “sons of Abraham,” apart from taking on the covenant of Israel (Galatians 3).

    Paul’s desire is to prove that Gentiles can be acceptable by God because of their Abraham-like faith in God, rather than their observance of Israel’s laws.

  • John W Frye

    Paul E, sorry for the sloppy typing in comment #14. I *must* learn to proof-read.

  • Dana Ames

    Well, I suppose is a reasonable start. I wish there had been more nuance. But yes, it’s good that Scot is wondering if the justification theory is “Roman, Western and Medieval” – because it is… That’s exactly why it is soterian.

    As much as I would like there to be more commonality, the differences began even before Augustine and were widened by the influence of more factors than simply Dante and Aquinas. Unfortunately, they are at a point now where they cannot be reconciled without a seismic shift in soteriology and ecclesiology on the part of one or the other; sorry Matthew.

    Yes, ransom looms large – and everything flows from Christus Victor, so they have to be connected. And it has to be understood what Christ was victorious *over*. The moral/physical corruption piece is broader and deeper than simply not being able to keep the rules/laws; corruption in the Eastern sense is like what CSLewis and NTWright describe as the dis-integration of the person.

    The Eastern church actually does take sin very seriously. There is a strong sense of God as judge. There’s an even stronger sense, particularly in the services now that we’re in Lent, that God is going to do something about all that, and at Pascha there is an explosion of joy and gratitude and light as to how it’s been accomplished.

    Here’s a summary that might be useful:

    This is also why I keep yammering about having one English word/short phrase that we can use for the dik- words. “Righteousness” and “justification” have become two different concepts in the West. They aren’t in the East; there are some shadings, yes, but not the outright difference the two words connote. In the East, there’s more the idea of how a faithful human being “looks” and lives, and I think that’s very much connected with Wright’s view of who constitutes the People of God, as well as Jesus as the Truly Human Being.

    Too much for a blog comment, and I’m tired today. Sorry if this is disjointed or sounds testy. “What the New Testament teaches” is indeed the crux of the matter.


  • Cal

    We’re all looking at the major traditions, of Rome, Constantinople, Luther and Calvin. When I look at the little ‘heretics’ outside the institution, they seemed to have it right.

    The Anabaptists and their spiritual forbearers carried on in living in paradigm of 2 Kingdoms, of Heaven and of the world. Freedom from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light meant being an obedient disciple, living in fellowship with eachother and in covenant with the Lord.

    They were Kingdom oriented before Kingdom oriented was a term! Back then it was an ugly german word ‘nachfolge’ 😉 .

    Justification, Sanctification, Liberation, all of these come from the shed blood of Messiah on the cross and His resurrection.

    The problem is when the West focuses on justification or the East on theosis, or any group on anything other than Christ. We’re too busy looking for a problem for the answer to solve instead of seeing Life and how it effects every problem of the human condition (guilt, slavery, death etc).


  • CGC

    Hi Cal,
    I believe you make a valid point about the focus being on Christ rather than periphrial doctrines. After saying that, justification is not the focus in the Roman Catholic church and theosis is all about being more Christ-like in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I too love the Anabaptist tradition but it seems modern Anabaptists are all over the map as most Protestants are in looking for answers in many places other than their life in Christ. What’s worse, I find myself ministering in an age to people who are making Christ into their own image rather than the other way around. Lord have mercy on us all!

  • It has been said that three results of sin are fear, guilt and shame, and different cultures major on different of these results of sin. The Western modern world hass majored on guilt with a natural implication being that the gospel is about justification. With post-modernism bringing a change in focus away from guilt to a more shame-based culture, good news is going to look more like a release from shame than guilt.