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Thomas Schreiner reviews “Justification: Five Views”

Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.

Edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. With contributions by Michael S. Horton, Michael F. Bird, James D. G. Dunn, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Gerald O’Collins S.J. and Oliver P. Rafferty. (Intervarsity Press).

With the rise of the ecumenical movement and the new perspective on Paul the meaning of justification continues to be debated intensely. Books representing multiple views on controversial subjects are quite popular, and hence it is quite fitting to add one on justification. It is difficult to review multi-perspective books in which the authors interact with one another, for many issues are  broached briefly and compactly. Readers who are not familiar with a topic must also beware, for they may fall into the error of thinking they know more than is warranted about the subject debated after reading one book on the issue at hand. On the other hand, books like these are a good entrée into the discussion and prime the pump for further work.

What I found most helpful in this book was not the presentation of the five different views (though that was interesting as well), but the historical survey on justification in the first two chapters composed by the editors along with Steven Enderlein. Naturally, a brief appraisal can’t include all that needs to be said about justification, and yet the survey nicely fills in for readers the historical landscape on justification from the earliest fathers to the present day. The editors sketch in the contribution of luminaries like Origen, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and many others. Readers are informed about both the Council of Trent and the new perspective. The survey was clear, fair, and a helpful prelude to the various views presented. In my mind the historical sketch of justification alone makes the book worth buying.

One has to be happy with the contributors as well. Michael Horton represents well the traditional Lutheran and Reformed view of justification. One can hardly think of a better choice to represent the new perspective than James Dunn. Similarly, Michael Bird occupies a space between the new perspective and traditional Protestant perspective, and has contributed often to the discussion. The new Finnish view of Luther has generated much discussion, and Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen explains how such a perspective fits well with the Eastern doctrine of deificiation, suggesting that the East and West are not as far apart as many think. Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty represent the Roman Catholic view well, and it is surely helpful for Protestants to hear the Catholic perspective directly from Roman Catholics.

Perhaps it will be helpful to share a general comment about the book. It is both enriching and frustrating to have both biblical scholars and systematicians dialogue in the same book. On the one hand, it is enriching to have scholars from different disciplines interact with one another. Too often biblical studies scholars work in one corner and systematics professors in another and never does the twain meet! It is helpful, therefore, to see them interact with one another. On the other hand, since they are in different disciplines, it occasionally feels as if they are talking past one another. For instance, Kärkkäinen presents his view via the lens of the new Finnish view of Luther and in conversation with the Joint Declaration on justification (a Lutheran and Roman Catholic declaration from 1999), and hence his view is not grounded exegetically. Horton engages in more exegesis than Kärkkäinen, but he emphasizes the Reformation tradition and confessions both in his presentation and in his responses to others. The Catholic view is unfolded in a historical sketch by Rafferty and in an interesting autobiographical narrative by O’Collins. Dunn and Bird, on the other hand, set forth their views exegetically. All the authors are not attempting to do the same thing, and hence assessing how well they succeeded is not simple. For instance, Protestants and Roman Catholics even appeal to different authorities, since tradition plays a central role for Roman Catholics, and thus the debate on justification cannot be restricted to scriptural interpretation.

Kärkkäinen articulates the Finnish view of Luther, showing how it provides leverage for a rapprochement between the East and West. Both Dunn and Bird rightly question, however, whether Kärkkäinen’s view is biblically feasible. For instance, his definition of justification is quite broad and amorphous, and the respondents convincingly call into question the definition offered.  It is difficult to know how Kärkkäinen would respond to such criticisms since he doesn’t present an exegetical basis for his view in the first place.

One understands why Kärkkäinen is fascinated with Luther, for if the Finnish view of Luther is correct, then Eastern and Western Christendom may draw closer together. Remarkably, the Joint Declaration (1999) finds common ground in terms of the definition of justification. Both Lutherans and Catholics agree that the term is both forensic and transformative. Agreement on the definition must not be overlooked. And yet the devil is in the details. A number of Lutherans in Germany objected to the Joint Declaration, and many Lutherans in the United States do not concur as well. Horton rightly remarks that the definition buys into the Catholic view since it says that justification is not only forensic but also means to make righteous. I am not a scholar in all things Luther, but I also suspect Rafferty is correct in suggesting that the Finnish view is mistaken. As Rafferty notes, it seems unlikely that Luther’s view would have caused such tumult if he agreed with the Finnish interpretation.

James Dunn is famous, of course, for his work on the new perspective over the years. Certainly Dunn is right in emphasizing the inclusion of Gentiles in Pauline theology and in calling attention to the role that the boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath), played in the first century. Dunn has moderated his language regarding the old perspective, so that his reading now seems to be “both-and” instead of “either-or.” The polemical language against the old perspective, which was quite common with the inauguration of the new perspective, is largely gone. Dunn seems to say that the old perspective is not so much wrong as incomplete, claiming that the new perspective supplements issues that were ignored by the old perspective. I still think Dunn puts the emphasis in the wrong place, but we do see a movement where old perspective interpreters see virtues in the new perspective and vice-versa. Bird rightly responds that there would not have been as much fuss when the new perspective first came out if the issues are framed as they are by Dunn here.

Dunn’s moderation of his view means that he and Bird are not very far apart. There is still a difference between them. Bird is closer to the Reformed view than Dunn, but it is telling that Dunn says that his disagreements with Bird are minor. And Bird’s response to Dunn breathes the same spirit. They do part ways on some matters. Bird rightly notes that Dunn underemphasizes the nomistic stream in Judaism, though I think Dunn has it right on “faith in Jesus Christ” over against Bird. Dunn argues that the call for good works and perseverance indicates that salvation can be lost, but Bird takes such texts seriously without endorsing such a conclusion.

I am a Reformation Protestant and thus it is not surprising that I am most sympathetic with Michael Horton’s read of the evidence, though I wish he would explain in more detail the role of good works in the final judgment. Horton doesn’t do much exegesis here, and there are more texts on the matter than Romans 2. Even if Romans 2 is “an empty set” (with which I disagree), many other texts must be accounted for in Paul, and Horton doesn’t comment on these texts. When it comes to imputation, it seems that Bird and Horton aren’t that far apart. They use different terminology, but both of them see imputation in terms of union with or incorporation into Christ. Bird worries about scholasticism and crude accounting. Horton counters that Bird misunderstands the tradition. In any case, this is a place where further conversations between systematic and biblical scholars could be most fruitful. There is no virtue in talking past one another, and it seems to me that Horton and Bird concur that the believer’s righteousness is theirs in Jesus Christ.

Including the Roman Catholic view in the book is quite helpful, but at the end of the day it seems that the divide between Roman Catholics and those who are traditional Protestants persists, at least for those who are in the Reformed tradition. It is quite clear that the Roman Catholic position is premised upon human cooperation and the freedom of the will. Such a view stands at variance with the Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin). They rightly saw that such a perspective undermined the grace of God in Jesus Christ, seeing a close link between divine election and justification by grace.

I would judge this book as a success, though most, I imagine, will leave the book still finding their own view most convincing. Still, thanks to the fine work of the editors and the contributors, readers will be challenged to rethink justification biblically and theologically.

Thomas R. Schreiner

James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation; Associate Dean, Scripture and Interpretation. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


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