Monday, September 28, 2009

Justification has vertical and horizontal aspects

I've noticed recently how a growing number of commentators maintain that justification has both vertical and horizontal aspects. By that, I think they mean that justification includes, firstly, a verdict of acquittal and vindication by faith in Christ/being in-Christ. Secondly, it establishes the legitimacy of their membership in the people of God. In other words, God justifies the ungodly by faith not works and you don't have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Paul is interested in the inclusion of the Gentiles into God's saving purposes and the basis of their inclusion! Consider the following quotes:

"This point advocates of the new perspective are quick to emphasize, and rightly so. But since the justification of which we have been speaking has dealt with both the radical, vertical problem of a relationship with God and the horizontal problem of Jew-Gentile relationships, rather than simply the latter (which is the particular focus on the new perspective), then the solution is more properly based and the assurance is made 'more doubly sure'" (Peter T. O'Brien, "Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?", 291.

"If, as one strand of Luther’s legacy understood it, the phrase 'the righteousness of God' matters most and is defined as the forensic status of 'righteous' that gives people irrespective on their behaviour, then this locus and the letter into which it leads is all about the vertical relationship between an individual and God. Romans becomes a road to salvation for individuals and no more. But if 'to the Jew first and to the Greek' is still emphasized within the locus, a window is left open to consider God’s righteousness as concerned with humanity as a whole and therefore to be both vertically and horizontally understood. For centuries, based on one understanding of how Luther read Augustine, we have been led to believe that the righteousness of God as described in Romans is in the first place about an individual believer’s legal status before God and does not primarily concern how God’s people live out God’s righteousness – or justice – on the earth" (Mark Reasoner, Romans in Full Circle: A History of Interpretation [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005], 5).

"A holistic reading of Romans and Galatians should tie together the covenantal and forensic dimensions of God’s righteousness. The vertical and horizontal aspects of justification need to be appropriately described and weighted in order to provide a comprehensive picture of justification in Paul’s letters. According to Paul, faith alone in Jesus is the basis of vindication; and faith alone marks out the people of God" (Michael Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God, 153).

"Essentially, it is a matter of giving Romans 3:29-30 equal status with 3:27-28: the God who justifies is as such the God of Jews and Gentiles alike. At this point in Paul’s argument, the presence of a 'horizontal' or social dimension alongside the 'vertical' or theological one is unambiguously clear – although it is still routinely missed by the New Perspective’s critics" (Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, 6).

Note now Dunn and Wright's appropriation of this:

Dunn:"Evidently [from Gal 2.16] the two dimensions are inextricably interlocked - the vertical and the horizontal, acceptance by God with acceptance of others to de-prioritize the horizontal emphasis, as 'sociological' and distinct from 'theological', is to miss and to mistake the high priority which Paul placed upon it, as his later writings confirm" (James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 489).

Wright: "Here the normal caricatures of the new perspective (which are sometimes of course richly deserved) simply break down. It is not either 'rescue from sin' or 'easy entry, without circumcision, into God's people.' Nor are these, as is sometimes suggested, merely to be thought of as 'vertical' and 'horizontal' dimensions, soteriology on the one hand and sociology on the other [footnote to Michael Bird saying he's wrong on this!!!]. Part of the point is that soteriology itself, for Paul, is in that sense 'horizontal,' having to do with the ongoing purposes of God within history, while sociology, for Paul, is 'vertical,' because the single multiethnic family, constituted in the Messiah and indwelt by the Spirit, is designed as God's powerfl sign to the pagan world that Israel's God, Abraham's God, is its Creator, Lord, and Judge. In fact, what appear to Western eyes as two separate issues - salvation from sin on the one hand, a united people of God on the other - seem to have appeared to Paul as part and parcel of the same thing. That single same thing included God's dealing with humanity's idolatry, failure to reflect God's image, rebellion andsin, and not least fracturing into different nations and ethnic groups. As we shall see in the next chapter, they are all different ways of saying, ultimatley, the same thing" (N.T. Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, 126-27).

A few issues:

1. I think some theologians just don't have a grammar or framework for attributing any social, covenantal, or horizonal sense to justification. Here the NPP is a genuine corrective, esp. Dunn's later works, in showing you don't have to abandon Luther if you give Sanders a fair hearing.

2. Does the vertical/horizontal divide go far enough? No doubt these elements are identifiable in Paul's thought (e.g. Rom. 3.21-26 and 27-30). But many will want to insist that vertical is the basis/content of justification while the horizontal is merely the scope/context of justification. Does that downplay the social/horizontal elements? I've struggled with this myself insofar as I've referred to the social side of justification as something that is both an implicate of and yet intrinsic to the justifying verdict.

3. Is Wright's objection to this vertical/horiztonal divide legitimate?


Anonymous said...

Wright's objections seem to make sense. (Though I really benefitted from your book, more so than from Wright's "Justification.")

It would seem that in the act of declaring one righteous God is concurrently creating the church community and bringing individual persons back into fellowship with himself. One cannot happen without the other. So, I think his objection is incredibly helpful in the sense that he is trying to keep us from imagining that justification exists apart from the community of Jews and Gentiles that confess that believe in Jesus.

I think if we keep that divide it might let us continue to preach Paul in a way relating only to our right relationship to God and foster our continued bizarre evangelical idea that "it's just me an Jesus."

The Johannine idea, John 11:44-56, seems to be helpful, Jesus' death will call the people of God from abroad. In Paul, God creates his community of justified persons by justifying them. That seems redundant, but I don't think one is the result of the other, both are the result of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Mich said...

In a word YES--Wright as usual is Right On.

Andrew Cowan said...

Dr. Bird,

Thanks for these reflections and questions. Personally, I don't think that Wright's objection at this point is persuasive, nor do I think that insisting on the vertical dimension as the essence of justification and the horizontal as the application of justification inappropriately minimizes the social/horizontal elements.

The reason I think this way is that Paul at times appears to speak of justification in terms of its vertical significance without reference to the horizontal dimensions, but never does he point out the horizontal significance of justification without explaining the vertical. Thus, in parts of Romans and Galatians, these things come together, but in 1 Corinthians 6:11, it is simply the standing of the formerly unrighteous before God that is in view. You find a similar non-horizontal exposition of justification in Titus 3:3-7, but I'm not sure if Wright would admit that passage as Pauline or not.

Given that the vertical interpretation appears without the horizontal but not the opposite, I am inclined to say that justification in its essence is a vertical doctrine, but that when Paul encountered division in the churches of the Jew/Gentile type, justification was the doctrine along which he trained the church to look in order to see the folly of insistence upon obedience to the law for membership in the people of God (if you hear echoes of Vanhoozer's Drama of Doctrine in that sentence, your ears are well-tuned).

I think that Wright is absolutely correct that both salvation from personal sin and the abolition of the divisions brought about at Babel are important to Paul and figure prominently within his letters, but to claim that they are both at the core of justification seems to me to be a collapsing together of the doctrine and its particular application within a very specific situation.

Loren Rosson III said...


I think you have precisely the right idea, but I'm not wild about applying the terms "forensic" and "covenantal" to these vertical and horizontal dimensions to righteousness, as you do in your citation. See my blogpost on Paul's Use of "Righteousness" for reasons pertaining to the cultural milieu of the ancient Mediterranean. Basically dikaiosyne meant privileged or blessed identity -- or acceptability -- and that's it. And yes, for Paul that acceptability had "vertical" and "horizontal" components, if you will.

Wright's response is subterfuge, because these dimensions aren't necessarily "different ways of saying the same thing", as he claims, and I can't say I'm surprised by the way he makes soteriology horizontal and sociology vertical -- it's his typical way of playing double-speak.

I've reached the point where it's almost a no-brainer to recognize both vertical and horizontal aspects to righteousness. As you say, giving Sanders a fair hearing doesn't require a complete abandonment of Lutheran theology, only some. The tougher questions (questions I'm grappling with in my book) are "Which came first?", "Which was more important?", and "If not for one, would the other have even followed?" I think Paul's view of righteousness originated in the Gentile mission and that he was almost dragged against his will into a horizontal reapplication of the term. That usage became subsumed within a peculiar Christology (already in place long before Paul went to bat for his Gentile converts) which suddenly demanded an even more shocking vertical reapplication of the term.

What's fascinating is that if not for the Gentile problem, the "Lutheran" dimension would have probably never emerged in Paul, even though the two have little to do with each other per se.

Doug said...

I'm not sure if this is as much an argument about definitions as substance. On the whole, however, I think Tom has a point in emphasising that God's action is about creating a people (which is how I read him). But now I feel a need to revise my bluffer's guide.

Mick Porter said...

Better a footnote in Wright's book than a thousand elsewhere.