Friday, December 16, 2011

Five Views on Justification

Today the meaning and significance of the pet protestant doctrine of justification is “contested at virtually every turn.” James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy’s, Justification: Five Views presents a thoughtful introduction to the debate. The book is the most recent installment from IVP in the “Spectrum Multiview” series. As usual, the format consists of each contributor stating his case followed by a series of short responses from each of the others. The editors of the volume (Beilby and Eddy) have served in the same capacity for other Spectrum Multiview volumes, most recently on The Historical Jesus. In Justification: Five Views the contributing authors and perspectives are as follows:
  • Traditional Reformed – Michael S. Horton
  • Progressive Reformed – Michael F. Bird
  • New Perspective – James D. G. Dunn
  • Deification (Theosis) – Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen 
  • Roman Catholic – Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty

I am particularly looking forward to the chapters by Dunn and Bird, NT scholars who will contribute most in the NT aspect of the debate. However, I’m also interested in the Eastern perspective of Kärkkäinen and the Roman Catholic response to this seemingly very protestant squabble.

So, what exactly is the dispute? After all, justification has been the central feature of protestant doctrine since Protestantism carved out its place in the landscape of western Christendom. Martin Luther claimed, “If we lose the doctrine of justification we lose everything” (Lectures on Galatians, cited on pg 24). Similarly, John Calvin described justification as, “the primary article of the Christian religion” (Institutes 3.2.1; cited on pg 26). Justification is at the heart of protestant theology, yet recent developments in NT studies have fractured fault-lines of debate in the once firm foundational doctrine.

Beilby and Eddy provide a comprehensive yet surprisingly succinct introduction to the debate in two chapters. The first chapter spans from Origen to contemporary feminists and places the recent discussion in the context of historical theology. The highlights include sections on Augustine (19-21), Luther (24-26), Tillich and Bultmann (34-37). The introductory material is fairly derivative, but it seemed to me that these sections were the most familiar territory to the editors. The difficulty of this broad introduction is the numerous sub-debates of historical theology. For example, Augustine’s view of justification is as much contested as Paul’s. Thus, it is difficult to provide a sufficient introduction without getting lost in the intricacies of sub-debates. Beilby and Eddy have managed a fine attempt, if occasionally erring on the side of generality rather than intricacy.

The second chapter frames debate in terms of the “New Perspective.” For the uninitiated, the New Perspective (NP) is really not all that “new.” Spearheaded by E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (in 1977), the fundamental axiom of the NP is that the reformers were wrong about Second Temple Judaism. NP folks argue that the portrait of Judaism as a “works-based” religion whereby Jews earned salvation through meritorious acts of righteousness is fundamentally flawed and not the object of attack in Romans and Galatians. The most representative figures of this diverse group are E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright. Agree with it or not, the NP debate has set the theological agenda for Pauline studies in the last forty years. It’s ramifications for justification are significant because it requires rethinking what Paul means when he talks about being justified by faith apart from works (esp. Rom 3.21-26; Gal 2.15-21). The exegetical issues of the discussion revolve around Paul’s relationship to Judaism, the role of works in final judgment, the OT background of justification and the meaning of the phrase “faith of Jesus.” Both introductory chapters are necessary to appreciate the significance of the debate and what is truly at stake.

The introductory material alone is worth making the book assigned reading for an undergraduate course in Pauline theology. For only $ 15.35 at Amazon, and even less in the Kindle version $ 9.99, it is a steal. All in all, it is a solid introduction to a NT debate and the significant theological implications that result. Students will be well served by such an introduction.

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