Justification Theory

Justification Theory September 8, 2014

My initial reaction to Douglas Campbell’s analysis of “Justification theory” (Deliverance of God, 11-95) was quite positive. I still think Campbell scores some points against the individualism and implicit contractualism of some Protestant work on justification. But on a more careful reading of his argument, I’ve come to a much more negative judgment about it.

Campbell chose to describe Justification theory in systematic, propositional, rather than historical terms. There are advantages to this approach, since he is able to isolate what he claims is the essence of the Justification theory and avoid getting bogged down in niceties and nuances. The disadvantage, though, is obvious: He seems to be talking about Protestant soteriology, perhaps of a pop-evangelical or “Lutheran” cast, but it’s never clear whom Campbell is refuting. He doesn’t cite any particular theologian who has laid out the position as he describes it. In all likelihood, no one has laid it out in this fashion. And that means, as much as Campbell might want to avoid straw-manning, he tends to fall into it. As a result, he doesn’t bring up fairly obvious rejoinders to his criticisms. On the whole, his methodological decision, understandable as it may be, was a mistake.

The problems start with Campbell’s characterization of the theory as “the Justification theory of salvation.” But no soteriology is about justification alone. It’s misleading to describe the reception of justification by faith as “the appropriation of salvation,” because salvation involves not only the rectification of the sinner’s legal standing but the repair of his character and life. Campbell’s alternative, which he first sketches through an analysis of Romans 5-8, shows that salvation is “fundamentally transformation” (64). Much of Protestantism has always said as much; they have merely insisted that this is not what Paul is talking about when he talks about justification. 

He argues too that Justification theory offers “two radically different conceptions of knowledge,” one a universal epistemology that claims that everyone knows certain things from nature and a particularist one that has to do with the revelation to Israel and in Scripture. The first phase of Justification theory, in which all are condemned, relies on the universal epistemology; the second phase, of salvation, relies on the particularist one (38-41). There is certainly complexity here, but no incoherence. And the complexity comes from Paul himself, who declares both that since creation God’s power has been clearly seen in creation (Romans 1) and that “salvation is of the Jews.”

His charge that the ethics of Justification theory is incoherent is also unconvincing. The incoherence comes from having “two different sets of ethical instructions from God” (42), one for Israel and the other for everyone else. “As a matter of strict justice,” he writes, “a prohibition (or a positive commandment) cannot be valid for one group but simultaneously invalid for another. Such a dual system is incoherent in terms of content. There is really no such thing as an optional right action prescribed by God” (42). But this runs up against the rather massive evidence of the Bible, which indicates precisely that God gives different commands to different groups. Priests are under stricter rules than the rest of Israel, and Israel under stricter rules than the nations. A Gentile could worship Yahweh and yet remain uncircumcised; Jewish parents who neglected to circumcise their male children, however, were cut off from the covenant. Rules differed depending on how near someone was to the house of God, depending on his priestly status. This may not be easy to explain, but it is not incoherence, unless there is a divine incoherence.

Campbell argues that Justification theory cannot account for its own privileging of faith (56). There’s nothing in the theory’s account of human nature and human sin that requires faith as the appropriate human path to salvation. But that isn’t true. Sinners have no ability to save themselves, and thus must rely, in faith, on God’s provision. Campbell’s charge holds good only if faith is defined strictly in terms of consent or belief, which is not all that faith has meant in classic Protestantism. 

Many of the problems Campbell labels as “incoherences” are really “complexities,” and complexities for which there is sound exegetical justification. Protestant soteriology does stand in need of some course-correction, and Campbell’s positive program might provide some help in that task. As a critical assessment of the problems of Protestant soteriology, it fails.

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