Tuesday, August 09, 2005

My journey through ‘justification’

When I first starting reading about Paul and justification I devoured books by R.C. Sproul, Wayne Grudem, James White and other reformed authors who affirmed the great Protestant creed of sola fide or justification by faith alone. (In hindsight, I wish that Systematic Theologians would learn a lot more about second-temple Jewish backgrounds, Jewish sectarianism, and diversity in earliest Christianity rather than resorting to atemporal theological categories and fancy Latin words straight up).

In seminary I had to write a paper on Romans 4:25 – ‘He was handed over for our sins and raised for our justification’. Here I was faced with the question, how on earth does the resurrection of Christ relate to justification? In the paper I rambled a few things I got mainly from John Murray but was intrigued by the topic all the more, to the point that I wrote my honours thesis on ‘The Relationship Between Justification and Resurrection in Paul with Special Reference to Romans’.

I was always taught that justification is largely a function of the cross (i.e. justified by his blood, Rom. 5.9) and that the resurrection was merely the proof that we had been justified. But as I read Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption, Mark Seifrid’s Christ our Righteousness and read through the Pauline letters more carefully, I came to see that God’s justifying verdict is more intimately bound up with the resurrection of Christ. I began to see Jesus’ resurrection as his justification and believers are ‘justified’ in so far as they participate in the justification of the Messiah. Passages such as Rom. 4.25; 1 Cor. 15.17 and 1 Tim. 3.16 (obliquely Rom. 5.18-21; 8.10-11) I think affirmed that point. That led to the question as to where does imputation fit in? I didn’t know. And like Calvin and Gaffin I was quite content to hold justification through union with Christ and justification through imputation side by side without understanding how they relate together. The conclusions of this study were published in my article in Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.

Then I began to be vexed by some entity called the New Perspective on Paul. I had already decided to leave Paul for Jesus to do historical Jesus studies – so it wasn’t a priority. Yet I found myself drawn to the NPP esp. its attention to historical context and exegetical detail – however, I was disappointed by what appeared to me to be a somewhat reductionist approach to justification, namely, making justification out to be something like covenant status or identity legitimation. The idea works quite well in Gal. 2.11-14 and Rom. 3.27-31, but it does not hold in Romans 5 or James 2 – so I never quite caught the NPP bug in its entirety although I remain an admirer from a distance.

Around this time I read Gundry’s article on imputation in Books and Culture and I had to concede that Gundry was mostly right. There is no explicit text in the NT that says that believers are justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. I also attended some lecturers by D.A. Carson on the NPP at the Sydney Presbyterian college in 2001 where he espoused a view of different domains of discourse (i.e. exegesis and theology) whereby imputation still held sway at the theological level – a view I find convincing. Soon after John Piper’s book Counted Righteous in Christ came out and, as much as I love Piper, I was not convinced that he had refuted the arguments of Gundry. With that in tow I wrote my JETS piece arguing that at the exegetical level Paul speaks of justification in terms of union with Christ not of imputation. However, imputation could be said to implicit in the representative roles of Adam and Christ and the language of the NT e.g. logizomai does move towards that direction. If someone were to ask Paul how is the believer justified, a question he addresses, he would reply ‘through union with Christ’. If someone were to ask Paul how does union with Christ justify, a question he never directly addresses, I think something along the lines of imputation would be close to his mind. During the final stages of writing the article I was amazed to find on the internet a draft paper by Don Garlington which was basically arguing the same point I was – union with Christ not imputation holds at the exegetical level. I differ from Garlington on several points (e.g. I don’t think justification is transformative) but it confirmed to me that I (or we) were on the right line.

Where I am at now. I see myself firmly within the Reformed tradition, however, I like 1 Thess. 5.21 and I believe we should ‘test all things and hold onto that which is good' so I am open to appropriating the many good and keen insights gained from the NPP and elsewhere. I see justification as:

1. Eschatological: the verdict of judgment day has been declared in the present
2. Forensic: it refers to our status, not to our moral state
3. Effective: although moral sanctification cannot be subsumed under justification, neither can they be absolutely separated since justification remains a far more holistic term in relating to the whole of salvation than many realize (cf. Seifrid)
4. Covenantal: justification is the nexus through which one enters the messianic cosmopolitan community (cf. Kruse)

In sum, in justification God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant as a foretaste of the new age!

1 comment:

Ted Gossard said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I too have been enamored with much of what New Perspective has taught- especially (and for me basically exclusively) with N.T. Wright, but have not been able to buy into everything. It is good to run across student/scholars like yourself who have read and can articulate this same sense further.