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Barrett's Justification Book

The Pedigree of Justification in the Pentateuch

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has edited a new book with Crossway titled, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. Many factors contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but one of the most significant was the debate over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, Martin Luther argued that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. This comprehensive volume of 26 essays from a host of scholars explores the doctrine of justification from the lenses of history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology.

Today we are highlighting Stephen Dempster’s chapter “The Pedigree of Justification in the Pentateuch.” Here is an excerpt to get you started:

He Believed the Lord

It is indisputable that the Pauline doctrine of justification is grounded in a reading of the Old Testament. The apostle did not create the doctrine ex nihilo. As with other doctrines formulated by New Testament authors, they have their start in Genesis if not in other parts of Israel’s Scriptures. These sacred writings gave Paul common ground with his theological opponents. They never argued over the fact of their authority or their extent, but they did argue over their interpretation.

Paul uses a number of texts in seeking to prove his doctrine that God justifies the wicked through faith in Christ. But the most important for him is Genesis 15:6, where we read these words: “He [Abram] believed in the LORD, and he reckoned/credited it to him for righteousness.” Paul cites this verse three times (Rom. 4:3, 22; Gal. 3:6; cf. Rom. 4:9), and it provides the conceptual substructure for his discussion of faith, grace, works, and law. In fact, one commentator’s statement could be viewed as representative of man: “For Paul this Old Testament verse is the classic passage for justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law.” And another is not far off the same mark: “Genesis 15:6 is the hermeneutical key for Paul’s reading of Abraham’s story, and the one act of Abraham that Paul ever emphasizes is Abraham’s faith.” Still another scholar in no way understates the significance of this verse: “No other Old Testament text has exercised such a compelling influence on the New Testament.” Paul uses a number of texts in seeking to prove his doctrine that God justifies the wicked through faith in Christ. But the most important for him is Genesis 15:6. Click To Tweet

It is often mentioned in this discussion that James uses the same text to prove that with God justification is by works, not by faith (James 2:23), a distinctive early Christian perspective that seems to directly contradict Paul’s view. A significant number of modern scholars would agree that Paul has essentially distorted the meaning of Genesis 15:6 in the interest of his view of justification by faith. Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann write in their magisterial God of the Living, “Neither does God make Abraham just, nor does Abraham effect anything for other people through his faith.” Another commentator states explicitly, “The verse [Gen. 15:6] has no relation to the dogma of ‘justification by faith.'” Paul thus reads this verse “through Christian glasses.” James Barr, ever the contrarian argues that

the most prominent example of Christianizing [the Old Testament] . . . lies in the conception of justification by faith . . . Justification by faith is, among the convictions that Christian Old Testament theologians have most often held, the one where they have been most reluctant to give up the “Christianizing” of the Hebrew Bible.

Part of Barr’s argument is that the entire document may be based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew of Genesis 15:6 and that another “correct” translation has developed somewhat of a following and provides “a new perspective” on this Old Testament text. . . . In light of these concerns, this essay seeks to examine the evidence afresh and explore this influential text to determine its meaning and significance within the Pentateuch.

The Significance of Genesis 15

Genesis 15 is a pivotal text in the Abraham story, and of course, the Abraham narrative is crucial for the book of Genesis and the Torah as a whole, because it is the first of the so-called patriarchal narratives, which describe the beginning of the nation of Israel. This chapter contains the first account that formalizes the divine-human relationship between Abram and God in the form of a covenant, it is the first major dialogue that takes place between these two “partners,” and it is in this text that Abram for the first time speaks directly with God. Before this time, he has heard the word of God and simply obeyed, but now for the first time he actually addresses God.

From a narrative point of view, the first time that a speaker talks in a story is often considered revelatory of the person and his or her state of mind and is extremely significant for the events as they unfold. God is the first speaker in Genesis, and his words are “Let there be light!” (1:3). The serpent’s first words are “Has God really said . . . ?” (3:1). Cain’s first words are “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9). In this text, Abram, the prospective father of the nation of Israel, speaks his first words to God, and they reveal an anxious state of mind that has been bothering him for some time (15:2-3), and his second word to God, a year before Isaac will be born, amplifies this anxiety (17:17-18). So, obviously, this text is a critical one in the Abraham story.


Read Stephen Dempster’s entire chapter in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.

Stephen G. Dempster

Stephen Dempster (PhD, University of Toronto) is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall in New Brunswick, Canada. From 2011 to 2016, Dr. Dempster served as Chair of the Biblical Theology Section for the Evangelical Theological Society. He is the author of Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible and Micah: A Theological Commentary (The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary).

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