Justification (or not): Can ‘classical’ views be unbiblical?

All of the fall-out from the ETS Atlanta meeting last week was a great clinic for me on new and old perspectives on Justification.  My blog reading since Friday includes numerous posts by Marc Cortez, especially his final reflections.  Also the thoughts of Collin Hansen.  And N.T. Wright checked in with clarifying comments at Denny Burk’s site.

Meanwhile I’m reading Paul again, and Wright’s 2006 paper, ‘Redemption from the new perspective?’, but am still far from answering a question that intrigues me in all this discussion – Do Evangelicals have an unwillingness to address the complexity of all the Biblical evidence for justification?  If such selectivity exists, I am inclined to suspect it may be explained as the result of a close association in the evangelical’s mind between a particular theory of justification and the alleged ‘facts’ of his own conversion experience.  It’s common enough in the sciences that an interpretation of one’s own experience can (temporarily) prevent one from seeing contradictory evidence.

I find that, 130 years ago, some similar and allegedly ‘classical’ Protestant interpretations of justification were called out by Albrecht Ritschl as ‘unbiblical’ assumptions:

It is unbiblical to assume that between God’s grace or love and His righteousness there is an opposition, which in its bearing upon the sinful race of men would lead to a contradiction, only to be solved through the interference of Christ.  The righteousness of inexorable retribution is not in itself a religious conception, nor is it the meaning of the righteousness which in the Old and New Testaments is ascribed to God.  God’s righteousness is His self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of His community; in essence it is identical with His grace.  Between the two, therefore, there is no contradiction needing to be solved.

It is unbiblical to assume that any one of the Old Testament sacrifices, after the analogy of which Christ’s death is judged, is meant to move God from wrath to grace.  On the contrary, these sacrifices rely implicitly upon the reality of God’s grace toward the covenant people, and merely define certain positive conditions which the members of the covenant people must fulfill in order to enjoy the nearness of the God of grace.

It is unbiblical to assume that the sacrificial offering includes in itself a penal act, executed not upon the guilty person, but upon the victim who takes his place.  Representation by priest and sacrament is meant not in any exclusive, but in an inclusive sense.  From the fact that the priest draws near to God when he brings near the gift it is not meant that because the priest and the sacrifice come near to God, the others may remain at a distance from God…

Lastly, it is unbiblical to assume that a sacrifice has its significance directly for God, and only under certain other conditions also for men.  On the contrary, the sacrificial act is just what combines these two relations.”

Justification and Reconciliation, Vol. III (1874; 3rd 1888, ET 1900), p.473-74


4 thoughts on “Justification (or not): Can ‘classical’ views be unbiblical?

  1. Brilliant, John. I have only recently begun to notice how well established the tradition is that, like myself, rejects justification as a suspension or circumvention of, rather than the quintessential instantiation of, divine justice. Thanks!

    • Steve, I wonder how many variations in soteriology revolve around varieties of conversion experience (and the unique aspects of everyone’s post-conversion life)! And yet experience is the basis of genuine theology I think.

      I hope the recognition that these kinds of experiences may differ and still be genuine offers a key to broadening the discussion to include the reflections of all who by grace can give thanks for faith in God.

  2. Most of this is probably over my head, but I can’t get away from the idea that so much of this justification business is simply much ado about nothing. More words have been written on Romans I suspect than just about any book of the bible. What did Paul mean? How Jewish was he? How converted was he? I read NT Wright’s latest on Justification, and I frankly am no less confused than before. Why isn’t it enough to say that God by covenant is ever gracious to his created, and gifts purely out of love salvation by faith alone. We in our creature-liness express our faith by living a life in keeping with that faith. Jesus to me was the ultimate teacher in how to do just that. But I guess I’m not so big on traditional justification theory. lol

    • Sherry, not much really gets over your head, from what I’ve seen.

      But rather than much ado about nothing, I am beginning to think that I can see paths of teaching emanating from this point of grace and justification which enter into every corner of Systematic Theology.

      In his Preface to the volume I quoted, Ritschl writes, “In order to make what is the central doctrine of Christianity intelligible as such, I have been compelled to give an almost complete outline of Systematic Theology, the remaining parts of which could easily be suppplied.”

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