p.ost

how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Justification with reference to Wright, Gorman and Campbell

We approach the problem of the meaning of “justification” in the New Testament much as many hopeful rescuers approached Sleeping Beauty’s castle. We know the story of how the fair Princess Dikaiōsis, deceived by a wicked fairy, pricked her finger on the spindle of a Reformation spinning wheel. We know that as a result she and her whole kingdom fell into a deep sleep, and that an impenetrable forest of tangled theological briars grew up around the castle.

We know, too, that those who have come here before us have either turned back in despair or died in the attempt to hack their way through—and if you don’t know what I mean, have a look at a quite widely noted essay by Andy Johnson from the Nazarene Theological Seminary, in which he examines the positions of N.T. Wright, Michael Gorman and Douglas Campbell on justification and considers how they differ from the traditional Protestant view. It’s a good, sensible essay and brings some clarity to the debate, but you have to ask yourself, “Why is this all so difficult?” Why is “justification” such an intractable problem and not a life-giving solution? Campbell spent 900 pages bulldozing a way through the forest, and in the end may only have succeeded in knocking down the castle with the princess in it.

Fortunately, a consistently applied narrative-historical hermeneutic has the power, I think, to open up a clear and broad pathway through this dark and largely unnecessary forest, which will lead us directly to the side of the sleeping princess so that we may awaken her with a kiss. What is a “narrative-historical hermeneutic”? Simply the practice of reading scripture from within the story that, directly or indirectly, is being told—rather than retrospectively, with the dubious benefit of post-Christendom hindsight.

A (relatively) simple way through the forest

In scripture “justification” is a very simple notion. It has to do with whether a person is right or—more importantly—will be shown to be right in some concrete respect, regarding what they think or believe or do. It takes on a particular theological character because in scripture the concrete context in which a person thinks or believes or acts is for the most part subject to theological interpretation. For example, Jesus’ death on a cross is not merely the execution of a messianic pretender by the occupying forces; it is an act of atonement for the sins of Israel.

The question of whether a person—or for that matter, God himself—is right or justified arises critically in the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel in relation to the nations. That is a theological narrative, so “justification” becomes a theological concept. But we should not allow ourselves to be bamboozled into thinking that it must therefore be extremely difficult to understand. Much of the theological interpretation that has grown up around it is just rampant obscurantism. At the heart of the matter are some very practical and pressing questions. Will Jesus’ disciples be shown to be right for having broken ranks with mainstream Judaism? Will the Gentiles who convert be shown to be right for having abandoned worship of the gods of the empire? These are not abstract questions.

The basic issue that we have to address is this: What is the concrete context in which the question of whether a person is “right” or “righteous” becomes important? For the traditional view, associated particularly with Reformation theologies, the conceptual context for justification is a person’s relationship to God as judge: justification is the means by which a guilty sinner is acquitted—not on the basis of works done but on the basis of Christ’s atoning death.

The rightness of God in the court of public opinion

What the New Perspective has done is relocate this argument from the personal to a covenantal and therefore corporate context. Justification lies at the heart of a set of questions regarding redemption of Israel and the fulfilment of God’s covenantal promises. Wright and Gorman, as Johnson shows, represent this change of perspective; Campbell, however, having concluded that justification is a work of devil, has no great need of the covenantal narrative.

In my view, however, none of the positions outlined by Johnson takes proper account of the historical structure and outlook of Paul’s thought. The justification of the individual needs to be placed inside the box of covenant, which in turn needs to be packed inside the box of history.

The arguments about justification in the New Testament presuppose not just a covenant framework but a narrative of historical controversy that has a decisive historical climax in view. The controversy arises because the one true God of Israel has been discredited in the eyes of the nations by the wretched condition of his people. Why has he tolerated their sins for so long? Why is he seemingly so helpless before the pagan gods? Why has his glory not been acknowledged by the nations? The rightness or righteousness of Israel’s God has been impugned in the court of public opinion. What will he do in order to vindicate himself? The argument about justification proceeds from this point.

Paul is firmly convinced that the fundamental rightness of God has been revealed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is the good news that he proclaims to the peoples of the Greek-Roman world. It will be the means of “salvation” both for the Jew and for the Greek (Rom. 1:16-17), but salvation is required by the fact that both the Jew and the Greek face a day of wrath (Rom. 1:18; 2:1-11)—the sort of historical crisis by which a nation or an empire or a culture is overthrown—which will be the climax to a long story of conflict between the God of Israel and the gods of the nations.

The distinction between the Jew and the Greek is important. If God is to show himself to be right or righteous with respect to the nations, he must first show himself to be right or righteous with respect to his own people. The Jews must first be held accountable for their own idolatry and wickedness because they should have provided a benchmark of right worship and behaviour in the midst of the nations (Rom. 3:6, 19).

But wrath means destruction: the Jews have become “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22); in effect, though with hindsight, it means the destruction of AD 70. And this brings into focus the particular problem of the rightness of Israel. During this period of conflict and controversy what will it take for the people of God to be shown to be in the right?

In the first place, the Jews stand condemned because it has become clear that they will not be shown to be right before the nations. Why? Because their “works” do not meet the requirements prescribed in the Law. They cannot expect to be “justified” by their works—not because “justification by works” is in principle wrong but because their works are evil; they are no better than the rest of humanity. Indeed, on this day of wrath they will be put to shame by some Gentiles whose works are righteous (Rom. 2:15-16). We should keep in mind that this is not a final judgment: it is a socio-political crisis or transformation through which YHWH will be shown to be sovereign over the nations of the ancient world. Public outcomes, public opinions, matter.

But an alternative outcome is also envisaged. The God of Israel has put forward Christ Jesus as evidence, as a reason to believe—under the actual conditions of the failure of Israel—that sooner or later he will be shown to be right, he will be vindicated, in his controversy with the gods of the nations. That eschatological vindication—the victory of YHWH over the nations—will be realized through the witness of communities of those who have believed in and proclaim this “good news” of the coming reign of God. These communities will be justified, as this narrative of wrath plays itself out, only by virtue of the fact that they have trusted in the “evidence” of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which means, practically speaking, through their participation in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. These communities will be the means by which the God of Israel is vindicated amongst the nations, but only if they are willing to suffer as Jesus suffered in hope of being vindicated as Jesus was vindicated.

Wright, Gorman and Campbell

So I agree with N.T. Wright that this whole thing is essentially about how God remains true to himself, which means how he remains true to the promises made to Abraham and in particular to the promise that his descendants would inherit the world. But I think that the question that drives the argument about the justification of those who have faith is not “How is membership of the covenant people to be defined?” but “How will the covenant people survive the coming day of wrath?” Only that community which puts its trust exclusively in the prior faithfulness of Jesus as defining a way of salvation will not be condemned along with Israel, first, and then with the pagan world.

I have not read Michael Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God, but on the basis of Johnson’s summary I would say that I agree strongly with his close association of faith and participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus: faith is christologically determined, it is a Christlike fidelity to God, and for that reason the ground of justification. But I would argue, again, that what is at issue here is the eventual (but not final) vindication of the community that is called (Wright is correct in emphasizing this aspect) to emulate Jesus in his suffering for the sake of the future of the people of God (hence the title of my book). Christlike faithfulness is called for because the communities are called to Christlike self-offering.

Finally, I agree with Douglas Campbell that “justification”—if the term retains any value at all—denotes something that is intrinsically liberative and ethically transformative. But I would argue that even in this transformative aspect the justification of the churches that Paul speaks about has to be seen as a concrete anticipation of the coming historical transformation of the status of the people God amongst the nations. On the one hand, participation in the precedent of Jesus’ suffering and vindication determines the means by which this transformation will be brought about. On the other, these renewed communities, liberated by the power of the Spirit from an endless rebellion against God, will embody the standard of righteousness against which the pagan world will be judged.

Justification today

Paul’s argument about justification makes best sense when we set it in the context of a narrative about the transformation of the status of the people of God in the ancient world, culminating in the confession by the nations of the oikoumenē that Jesus and not Caesar is Lord. That was the outcome that finally demonstrated the rightness of the course pursued by those communities which faithfully participated in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The eschatological constraint—the box of history—does not make the matter irrelevant for the church today. We are all still confronted as believers—personally, existentially, culturally, intellectually, politically—with the question of whether we are right to live in accordance with the biblical narrative of the Creator God. There are many ways in which we may seek to justify ourselves: by superiority of moral character, by good works, by rational argument, by force of numbers, by appeal to tradition, by the denigration of non-believers, and so on. But in the end, we will only ever be justified by our perseverance in the belief that the God who created all things, raised Jesus from the dead as the beginning of new creation, and will finally make all things new.

Comments

Andrew,

Great post. This deserves wide readership. I will be linking to this on my blog.

 

Very nicely put, Andrew, with your skill at presenting the argument in graphics, as well as disarming us by fairy-tale analogies, knowing no bounds. (I still think there’s mileage in the Alice in Wonderland comparison, but it would depend on who you thought was being disadvantaged by the similarities).

Anyway, you say, and I can’t get the blockquote feature to work, no matter how hard I try:

“But I think that the question that drives the argument about the justification of those who have faith is not “How is membership of the covenant people to be defined?” but “How will the covenant people survive the coming day of wrath?” Only that community which puts its trust exclusively in the prior faithfulness of Jesus as defining a way of salvation will not be condemned along with Israel, first, and then with the pagan world.”

In response: first, there is a semantic range to the use of the word “justify” in the NT which makes the New Perspective generalisation about its meaning difficult, and all generalisations context-dependent. For instance, in Acts 13:39, English translations of all kinds reflect the Greek accurately when they say: “Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.” This is clearly talking about justification as forgiveness, and not simply identification of the community which has been forgiven, either on a day of wrath which has already occurred or is yet to come. 

Next, I can’t read Romans 3:21-31 and come to Wright’s or your conclusions about the ‘future’ sense of justification brought forward into the ‘now’, whether future to the disciples only (AD 70 or whatever), or future to us (day of final  judgement). It all seems very much in the ‘now’, rather than the future brought forward, eg “But now a/the righteousness from/of God has been made known” - v. 21; “He did it to demonstrate his justice/righteousness at the present time” - v.26, and so on. Tell me if I’ve missed the point.

The particular problem with your version of the meaning of justification as community redemption from the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as I see it, is that the destruction of Jerusalem, and the retribution on Judea which followed, were local events, in the context of a worldwide diaspora of Jews (reckoned at 10% of the total population of the Roman Empire at that time). The judgement would likewise have affected only a proportion of those who might have become Christians but failed to do so. They can’t all have been caught up in the siege of Jerusalem, or the retribution which followed - even taking Joesphus’s figures at face value, which few do. I imagine many Jews would continue to do very well in the various enterprises across the Empire with which they were preoccupied, not least Josephus himself, who was far from following the narrow way of suffering which you feel the NT prescribes as the route to life of the age to come after AD 70.

But crucially, the weakness I find with your proposed narrative reading is that the church’s destiny is narrowed down to “How will the covenant people survive the coming day of wrath?” - that day of wrath being certainly 1st century (Jerusalem), and maybe also fourth centuryish (Rome), according to your reading. So there is no enduring life of the Spirit which actually benefited from persecution (the church grew under these conditions). There is no Spirit empowered transformation of life and lifestyle, both within and through the transformed people of God. Or if there is, there has been no reference to it, since survival through judgement seems to be the overriding preoccupation.

And also crucially, if the original generation of Israel were the direct beneficiaries of the actions of Jesus, including justification in particular, but not the rest of the church in history, how is the church to obtain the same benefits without appropriating the actions which entitle the beneficiaries? That’s assuming that the church is just as much in need of forgiveness of sins, cleansing, empowerment by the Spirit, as Israel had been. Where else is this to be obtained, except through the actions of Jesus? All I can see from your account is that we are baptised into a narrative about Jesus - not Jesus himself. But it wasn’t the narrative that remade Israel; it was the actions directly appropriated from Jesus, who unlocked the narrative by facilitating personal transformation, through faith in him.

Each time I follow your argument, I’m left with these perplexing questions. Maybe I’m just being Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Definitely Grumpy.

 

Each time I follow your argument, I’m left with these perplexing questions.

I’m left wondering why you keep following it!

To get the blockquote to work, put the cursor in the paragraph and click on the quotation mark button above.

So, if as a sinner, I believe in Christ, am I still made righteous in God’s sight, like Abraham was?

Or what?

Al, my point is not that the question of justification no longer has relevance for us now. It is that Paul constructs his argument about justification to deal with a particular, historically framed eschatological crisis—and that we have so much difficulty with his argument because we exclude this contingent dimension.

An argument for justification becomes necessary whenever the “rightness” (righteousness, integrity, credibility) of either God or his people is brought into question. That is exactly the situation that we find ourselves in today: the rightness of our story about God is widely impugned, therefore we have a problem of justification.

Abraham was counted righteous not simply because he had faith but because he believed in the particular promise that he would be the father of a great nation even though humanly speaking this looked unlikely. Being counted righteous, being justified, is contextualized. We have been taught to expect these core theological notions to function as absolutes: justification is the same yesterday, today and forever—and that is not entirely wrong. But it misses the historical dynamic of Paul’s argument, and my view is that by recovering this dynamic, we will gain a much clearer sense of our own situatedness and of the crisis that the modern church faces.

The church still has to ask: What is the basis for its sense of rightness?

Good post surely your first flaw is to be seen to be right a person is righteous with God or not, if they are still a sinner thy cannot be righteous before God. Jesus became man so that man may be god this basic theotic notion is at the heart of the Justification debate in my view. As Wright notes in his writings much of Protestant views see that Jesus restores Mankind prior to the Adamic status, this misunderstands the notion of the Ascension Humanity is now living within the Trinity. Jesus` humanity is transcended and we are now theotic. This is what it means to be a son or daughter of God.

Andrew,

Great post. I’ll be linking to it as well.

Brian

Justification = the forgiveness of sins; Not complicated. Easy peasy.

God is free to personally forgive those who offend him (as we all are) but as judge of all the land (and this is where it gets complicated) he is obligated to do the right thing, which is to avenge *others* who have been wronged:

Rom 12:19

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but

rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

 By saying that vengeance is his obligation, he shows that he is not free to forgive Hitler for what he did to the Jews. He *must* punish.

But he chose to “wink at” many sins, such as David’s. This created a problem. So, he made a public gesture:

Rom 3:25

Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;

Rom 3:26

 

To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

See… Paul says that the public gesture *justified God*.

Google: “Governmental Theory”

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Andrew -

Great article. I will also put some of these thoughts on my blog.

This might have answered my question on your latest post. Consider my question answered unless you have more to add.

Andrew, you concluded with, “But in the end, we will only ever be justified by our perseverance in the belief that the God who created all things, raised Jesus from the dead as the beginning of new creation, and will finally make all things new.”

Would you say “perseverance in the belief that the God who created all things, raised Jesus from the dead as the beginning of new creation, and will finally make all things new” will cause people to be justified when they stand before Christ for final judgment. Or will it be righteous living?

In other words, do you think the Bible holds open the possibility that someone who never heard the story of Christ could still be declared justified on that day?

That’s a good question. Thanks.

1. This is merely a detail, but I don’t think it will be Christ who will be the final judge. It is God who is seated on the “great white throne” (presumably); Jesus is judge at the parousia, which I think has reference to the beginning of his reign over the nations. Coincidentally, I came across this statement in Schweitzer’s The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, differentiating, as I do, between the messianic kingdom and the final kingdom of God, when God becomes all in all. I wouldn’t use “kingdom” for the latter state, and it’s a little convoluted, but I think that Schweitzer is roughly right:

This eschatology recognises therefore two blessednesses (the Messianic and the eternal); and two Judgments (the judgment of the Messiah at the beginning of the Messianic Kingdom upon the survivors of the last generation of mankind, and the final judgment of God upon the whole of risen humanity after the Messianic Kingdom); and two Kingdoms (the temporary Messianic and the eternal theocracy). Jesus expects one blessedness only (the Messianic, which is also eternal); one Judgment (the Judgment of the Son-of-Man Messiah and the beginning of the Kingdom of God, which includes both the survivors of the last generation and also the whole of risen manldnd); and one Kingdom (the Kingdom of the Son-of-Man Messiah, which is also the eternal Kingdom of God).

2. I don’t know the answer to your question about the justification of the “righteous living”. Revelation 20:13 says that at the final judgment all the dead will be judged “according to what they had done”. Is that all there is to it? But I do think it’s helpful to make “justification” a more concrete phenomenon. It’s a basic question that we all face as believers in an aggressively secular culture: are we / will we be justified for believing our defining narrative about Jesus and the creator God? 

3. I am, however, rather more confident that Paul believed righteous non-Christian Gentiles would be found to be in the right, justified, when Israel’s God judged the idolatrous pagan world. See “Righteous Gentiles and their justification by works”, and my book on Romans. I think that reflects the sociological realism of his eschatology, but the passage is much debated.

So it seems you would say that Jesus’ role as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42) already happened at the parousia (70AD). Is this correct? If so, in what way did he judge the dead?

I read “Righteous Gentiles and their justification by works.” I’m guessing you would say the judgement in Romans 2:16 was carried out by Jesus in 70AD, is this right? You wrote about Cornelius, but do you see Romans 2 as holding out a possibility that a Gentile who knew nothing of Yahweh could be saved? If so, would you say the same principal might apply to people throughout history, i.e. people who lived lives in accordance with Yahweh’s commands (imperfectly of course), although they perhaps worshiped gods of their own design, might spend eternity with God after the final judgment?

I’m guessing you would say the judgement in Romans 2:16 was carried out by Jesus in 70 AD, is this right?

Evangelical scholars have usually assumed that the New Testament has one judgment in view, which has the admitted advantage of simplicity. I wrote yesterday about Schweitzer’s distinction between the coming of the Messianic Kingdom and the final judgment. But this still doesn’t get the historical perspective right. I think we need to differentiate between a judgment on Israel and a judgment on the pagan nations, according to a well-established Old Testament and Jewish-apocalyptic pattern. For Paul the latter meant primarily judgment of an idolatrous and immoral culture. For John, the author of Revelation, it meant ultimately judgment of Rome as an oppressive, blasphemous, persecuting, satanic imperial power.

You wrote about Cornelius, but do you see Romans 2 as holding out a possibility that a Gentile who knew nothing of Yahweh could be saved? 

Cornelius is the type of the righteous Gentile who, Peter learns, fears God, does what is right, and is therefore acceptable to God—he has been “justified”, we might say, by his works (Acts 10:34-35). He is a Gentile who does not have the Law, but does what the Law requires, and will probably be found in the right, or “excused”, on the day when God judges the pagan world by Christ Jesus (Rom. 2:15-16). However, because he subsequently believes Peter’s story about the resurrection of Jesus and his appointment as judge, Cornelius receives the Spirit and becomes a member—by faith—of the saved community.

If so, would you say the same principal might apply to people throughout history, i.e. people who lived lives in accordance with Yahweh’s commands (imperfectly of course), although they perhaps worshiped gods of their own design, might spend eternity with God after the final judgment?

This is more speculative, and I’m not sure we have a direct “biblical” answer for it. At the final judgment all people will be judged according to what they have done (Rev. 20:13), but I suspect that for Peter and Paul fearing the living creator God would be a basic criterion, a necessary “good work”, even if a person has not believed that God raised his Son from the dead and become part of the covenant community.

I’ll address the “judge of the living and the dead” question next week. Thanks for the questions.