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.
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.