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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