James White (in The God Who Justifies )issues this important caution in his treatment of the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek word-groups for justification and righteousness: “there are obvious instances in which the biblical term speaks of a moral or ethical quality when it speaks of someone being righteous. Protestants do not by any stretch of the imagination assert that the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification,’ always, and in every instance, refer solely and completely to a divine act of God whereby He makes a legal declaration regarding the relationship of the believer to himself. Every word, including ‘justification,’ has to be defined as it is used by an author in its own context. And remember, an author may use a word one way in one context, and with another nuance or meaning in a different context. That is why one cannot sit down with Strong’s Concordance, assign a single meaning to a word, and then read that meaning into every passage from Genesis to Revelation.”
Having admitted that “righteousness” language is used in both moral and legal senses in Scripture, he says that the question is “which is the primary meaning? When we come to the actual doctrine of justification in the New Testament, which meaning predominates?” This is flawed on a number of levels. First, is it possible that there are uses that do not fit neatly into either the “moral” or the “legal”? Where did these two categories come from, and why are they the only two? Second, this comment about “primary meaning” conflicts with his earlier insistence that each use has to be understood in its context. While he admits that there is a variety of meanings in Scripture, he seems to revert to the idea that there is one PREDOMINANT meaning that can be employed REGARDLESS OF CONTEXT. Third, why is our formulation of the “doctrine of justification” confined to the New Testament?
My suspicions about White’s method are confirmed by the fact that he examines only a half-dozen passages from the Old Testament: Exodus 23:7; Dt 25:1; Pr 17:15; Is 5:23; Is 53; Gen 15:6. Other OT references are scattered through his book, but these passages form the basis of his treatment of “Justification in the Old Testament.” (I’m not picking on White in particular; these are the same passages used in countless systematic theologies.) Remarkably, there is nothing here about the startling “righteousness” terminology of Isaiah 51, which is not in White’s Scripture index at all. Perhaps he would say that this passage is not part of the “doctrine of justification,” but that kind of response only raises with greater intensity the problems of his methodology.
On page 82, further suspicions are aroused. How can Protestants be sure that “justification” in Paul has a purely legal sense? (Of course, that begs the question of why we should be seeking our doctrine of justification purely from Paul.) He answers: “The answer depends very much upon whether we believe that Paul is consistent with himself in his teaching and theology (i.e., that his writings are supernatural in their origin and substance, an assumption not shared by many who comment upon the subject today). If so, then it follows that we can in fact identify a consistent usage of the term in the specific contexts that teach justification by grace through faith.” Well, I for one share the assumption that Paul’s writing are from God, and I believe that in the strong inerrantist sense. But what White says “follows” from this does not at all follow. If the conclusion he draws in the final sentence really does follow from the divine origin of the Bible, then his earlier comments about variations of meanings is not true – for the whole Bible, not just Paul, has a supernatural origin and substance. White believes that James and Paul BOTH wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, and BOTH deal with justification, yet he claims that James’ use of “justify” must “be allowed to stand on its own” and to mean “shown to be righteous,” rather than “declared righteous.”
Let’s assume that Paul uses “justification” with three different nuances of meaning, which we will call J1, J2, and J3. These senses are closely connected, but are distinguishable by context. In one passage, he might say “J1 is by faith and not by the works of the law,” but in other passages he could make the same assertion about J2 and J3. This is in no way an attack on the divine character of the text, or an attack on Paul’s consistency, nor does it undermine justification by faith alone. It would be perfectly logical for Paul to teach justification by faith alone, and yet use “justification” with various nuances in different contexts. I am not claiming that this is the case, only pointing to methodological inconsistencies in White’s work.
Page 83 shows where this is leading: “Genesis 15:6 is not, in its original setting, placed in a forensic or legal context. But keeping in mind the consistency of Paul’s presentation and the centrality of this passage to his own understanding and preaching, it follows inevitably that if Paul places ‘righteousness’ in contexts that are inarguably legal without giving any indication that he is making a shift in meaning in Genesis 15:6, then this is his understanding here as well.” White has not yet proven that Paul uses this language in a legal sense in the passage, but even if he is successful, notice the problems here. First, how can Genesis 15:6 be Paul’s exegetical basis for a legal doctrine of justification if Genesis 15:6 does not actually occur in a legal setting? If Paul is shifting from the original meaning of the text, then the text no longer supports Paul’s argument; rather, Paul has a pre-conceived legal understanding of justification that he brings to Genesis 15:6. Second, White relies explicitly on an appeal to Paul’s consistency, which I have critiqued above. Third, I admire White’s honesty in saying that Genesis 15:6 is not forensic in its original setting. But this leaves the suspicion that White has a preconceived theology of justification, and that he reads that into the texts (much as he imples that Paul himself does).
None of this is a brief for a Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. But if I can see the holes in White’s argument, Catholics are not going to fail to see them. Precisely in the interests of defending a Protestant doctrine of justification, we need to avoid the kind of methodological contradictions that White’s work betrays.