Several weekends ago I received from IVP to review the much anticipated and recently talked about Justification: Five Views. This is a highly significant book and comes at a highly significant point in Christian theological discourse. For the past decade a conversation has been raging, one that actually had begun several decades beforehand—or several centuries in some ways (i.e. Reformation!). It has to do with the question “How do we become right with God,” which is also about the doctrine of justification. More particularly, though for Protestants and especially evangelicals, it’s a conversation about the so-called New Perspective on Paul. (you can read more on this HERE.) While the book is a great introduction to the major (especially contemporary) views of the doctrine, it also did something I did not expect: reveals points of consensus as much as diversion.

I wanted to do a more extensive several-post book review, but this will have to suffice as I’ve been bogged down with ThM thesis work and wanted to get this out there, because I think this book would make a fantastic beginning-of-the-year purchase for those who got amazon or Barnes & Noble gift cards for Christmas.(It’s a fairly long review, because there are a lot of issues going on here. Sorry!)

What I love about this book is that it goes beyond simply the NPP conversation, which sometimes I think is a bit tired at this point. Instead, it really is about perspectives on justification (though Michael Horton doesn’t seem to think so, judging by his chapter which, curiously and annoyingly, was more a response to NT Wright than simply a defense of the Reformed doctrine of justification!) Yes there is the traditional Reformed perspective by Michael Horton and the “progressive” reformed perspective by Michael Bird and then the NPP voice instantiated in James Dunn (what a catch for this title!). You also have, though, a description and defense of  what is called the “deification” and “theosis” views by the Finish theologian Veli-Matti Karkkainen and then the Roman Catholic view of justification by Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty. This book, then, is a very contemporary interaction with the doctrine of justification without being bogged down in simply that contemporary conversation (i.e. NPP).

The preface states why such a book is necessary: “Stimulated by various ecumenical conversations and vigorous debates over the ‘new perspective’ on Paul, the debate over the nature and implications of justification language in Scripture has reached a fevered pitch. And, for most Christians, a lot is riding on this conversation; at stake is nothing less than the understanding of the nature of sin, the atonement, conversion, and salvation itself.” (9) Throughout, the book sets the bar high and well for such a conversation using a solid line-up of representative voices. And like most view books, each perspective has a 3-4 page response from the others, the likes of which have been honest, yet irenic.

The first chapter gives a wonderful retrospective on the justification issue, stretching from the early church through the middle ages to the Reformation and then modern theological perspectives from liberals, pietists, and “voices from the margins,” like anabaptists, feminist and liberation theologies. This historical theology student was thankful (and impressed!) with a thorough, cogent overview of the historical development of Justification grammar. After this overview, the editors pick up the conversation with a chapter on the contemporary debate, which is the so-called New Perspective on Paul debate. As the editors explain, this new perspective has come not simply to challenge the Reformation interpretation of Paul’s concept of justification itself, but their understanding of the nature of first-century Judaism. (53) From here they give a solid introduction to the history of the perspective and the key exegetical flash points in the debate. Both chapters set the stage well for the conversation that follows.

Michael Horton leads the conversation with the traditional Reformed view. His stated purpose for his chapter is “to argue that [the Reformation confessions and catechisms] view of justification is even more firmly established by recent investigations.” (83) Horton believes that for Paul the doctrine of justification is central, and spends several pages explaining the history behind the Reformation confrontation of the Catholic view, which views justification as “a processes of becoming actually and intrinsically righteous.” (85) In contrast, “All the magisterial Reformers were at one in concluding that justification is a judicial verdict consisting in the gift of an ‘alien righteousness’ through faith alone because of Christ alone.” (86) Rather than a process of transformation from the state of sinfulness to that of justice, justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness whereby the believer is both simultaneously sinner and justified. (87)

From here, Horton spends the rest of his chapter defining justification exegetically, and in the process he goes head-to-head against NT Wright. I found this to be a curiously odd rhetorical strategy. I understand that Wright is a major voice for the New Calvinist’s current foil (i.e. NPP) and for the Reformers the single boogieman (à la Piper’s book), but why build your argument in response to someone else? Though I have my own issues with Wright’s perspective, why not simply argue your position and let the chips fall where they may? Furthermore, why not instead directly argue against the Catholic position, which is much more contrasted with the Reformed position than Wrights, anyway (though I think his position is more Catholic than he cares to admit…)? Though Horton represents well the traditional Reformed perspective, his constant use of Wright as sparing partner was distracting and unnecessary for what I thought this book was trying to accomplish, mainly each perspective establishing and defending their position.

Michael Bird represents the “progressive” view of justification, progressive in that he wants to be “always reforming” traditions in the face of exegetical and theologica challenges, Bird challenges to the Reformed “theological straightjacket” that reads Paul through a presupposed ordo salutis, and he accuses the Reformed tradition of ignoring “social realism” by glossing over the social and historical context of Paul. (131-132) As an advocate of a “progressive” position on justification, Bird defines it thusly: “it is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as part of the first installment of the new age.”(132) He goes on to say that justification is “Paul’s contingent judicial expression of how deliverance is wrought in Jesus Christ, the Righeous One, who’s atoning death and powerful resurrection avails for the salvation of the covenant family.” (132)

In so definining justification in these manners, Bird takes large, obvious cues from both Dunn and Wright. After suggesting better exegesis of the justification passages in Galatians and Romans than traditional Reformed exegesis, rejecting imputation in favor participatory and incorpratory language, and contending the necessity of works for salvation, Bird concludes his chapter with the appeal that justification is multifaceted: it is forensic, in that it denotes a person’s status not moral state; it is eschatological, in that the final verdict “not guilty” is declared in the present and is assured by Christ’s and the Spirit’s continuing work; it is covenantal, in that it confirms the Abrahamic covenant and envelopes all people in one people of God; it is effective, in that moral sanctificant and transformation along with justification are rooted in the same reality of union with Christ; and it is trinitarian, in that the Father gave over the Son to die and rise for our justification, we are united with Christ and interceded for before the Father, and justification is activated by the Spirit who creates and supplies the faith necessary for justification. (156) Though I appreciate much of what Bird is doing here, I do have one large reservation, which also happens to coincide with my reservation of the next chapter. Most of Bird’s thoughts are revised and extended by the primary NPP voice of Dunn in the “New Perspective” chapter.

The opening salvo of James Dunn’s chapter sets the course for much of the NPP debate in general, doing so in a way that’s a bit brash: “The ‘new perspective’ on Paul’s teaching on justification by faith is not really ‘new.’ It is a perspective that Paul himself defended…” (176) One of the key foundations to his and other NPPer’s arguments is that NPP isn’t new because it is simply reaches back into history to emphasis the historical aspects of Paul’s day that gave rise to his formulation of his doctrine. In the words of NT Wright from the 2010 ETS conference on this very subject, NPP is a “demythologization” effort along the lines of the Historic Jesus Quests, in that they are looking to reconstruct the history surrounding Pauline theology generally and justification specifically.

In so doing, Dunn says that NPP simply asks whether all the factors that made up Paul’s doctrine have been adequately appreciated in their historical context as articulated in the traditional (read: Reformed) reformulations of the doctrine. (177) There are four aspects that Dunn emphasizes throughout his chapter: 1) NPP arises from a new perspective on Judaism,  á la E.P. Sanders; 2) the significance of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in light of the covenant-expanded gospel is the context for his letters that include discourse on justification; 3) justification by faith in Christ Jesus over against works of the law, where NPP argues Paul didn’t have the type of view of the Law we often give to him (i.e. faith good, law bad); and an emphasis on the “whole gospel of Paul must be taken into account.” (177)

While I mostly appreciate these course-corrective exegetical considerations by both Bird and Dunn to a centrally important Christian doctrine, I think it’s remarkable that they and others—like, and especially, NT Wright—direct their missives at “the Reformed tradition,” when the Christian tradition itself has not seem to have joined them in viewing justification in the manner in which NPP proponents propose, especially their 1st century Jewish context push. A glance through early church commentary on key disputed passages (i.e. Rom 3:21-28, 4:6; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 2:15-16) reveal a remarkable lack of continuity between the type of ideas NPPers say are embedded in Pauline theology—mostly and especially the absolute 1st century Jewish connection, especially regarding covenantal nomism and the faith/works antithesis. Then there is a whole other conversation about Medieval scholastics like Aquinas who have zero connection to the type of meaning NPPers want to give to justification, much less Pauline exegesis. And these early church perspectives on justification—including gospel, faith, imputation of righteousness, repudiation of law—are found in the Reformation writers precisely because they sought to return to the early church fathers.

Granted, there is a historical context surrounding the Reformation that gave rise to their understanding of justification by faith apart from the law by nature of their reaction to the Catholic practice of indulgences and an emphasis on works to make people right with God. I’m not so sure, though, that totally invalidates the Reformers “traditional” understanding of justification, much less their view of Paul. I wish NPPers would account for the incredible lack of connection between their own special 1st century reading of Paul and the rest of Christian tradition, spanning the 2nd century all the way up to the 2oth. I don’t believe I’ve heard of any account by the likes of Wright and Dunn for this lack of historical continuity, which is a major, debilitating problem for their arguments, me thinks.

After this short interlude, we return to our regularly scheduled review…

Three chapters after heavy Protestant considerations of justification, we make the turn East (with the [mostly] Orthodox deification view, or theosis) and then West again (with the Roman Catholic view). Veli-Matti Kärkkäien, a Finish professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, presents a fascination chapter on the deification view, which has usually been associated with the Eastern Orthodox view of justification, but also has resonance with the Catholic view by nature of its “making righteous” understanding of justification. Largely, however, Kärkkäien reveals recent attempts to reconcile the theosis view of justification with Luther’s theology, as spearheaded by the so-called Mannermaa School at the University of Helsinki. This New Perspective on Luther, as it could be called, has three claims: 1) Luther’s understanding of salvation can be expressed not only as justification but also theosis; 2) his main understanding of justification is Christ present in faith, which means a “real-ontic” participation in God through the indwelling Christ in believers; 3) he doesn’t make a distinction between forensic and effective justification, insisting justification includes both (unlike the Lutheran confession); and 4) justification not only means sanctification but food works, since Christ present in faith makes the believer a “christ” to the world. (221-222)

In regards to justification itself, Kärkkäien insists several grammatical features: it is one of many “metaphors” for salvation, insisting it shouldn’t be considered  the normative metaphor; it includes union and participation in Christ including actual theosis; and justification isn’t simply a declaration, but an act and process of making righteous, resulting in good deeds which are the fruit of becoming righteous. (232) He roots this definition of justification in Luther’s own theology along side the Eastern Orthodox view, insisting there is a need for a revised, ecumenical understanding of justification that brings together the thoughts from this Protestant reformer, Catholics, and Orthodox. And he along with this Finish movement insist that justification goes far beyond declaring in the right forensically, but also includes making righteous in the theosis sense by nature of the strong participatory language of Paul.

Though I appreciate recapturing such language, which I think has been lost on Protestants, I’m not convinced of the connection between deification and Luther’s own writings. It seems like his famous simul iustus et peccator (at once just and sinner) would rule out such a reading. Kärkkäien himself even challenges the Mannermaa school to do more extensive research on this connection by nature of the scarce mention of theosis in Luther’s extensive works. The most troubling aspect of this chapter, however, comes at the end, where the “doctrine of divination” and this ecumenical discussion of justification and theosis has implications “in light of the relation of Christian faith to other religions.” He goes on to say, “What if the doctrine of divination were a viable candidate for all Christians to talk about salvation in relation to other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism and, say, African spiritualities?” where he then suggests that such discussion could be helpful in situations where other cultures come at “questions of ‘salvation'” from “another angle.” This final offering is both vague and disturbing, and seems to smack of religious pluralism in the same vein of recent attempts to reconcile the Trinity with modern day polytheism. This was an odd ending to an interesting chapter!

Our fine justification discussion ends with the Roman Catholic view, given by Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty. Though I’ve done quite a bit of work in Thomistic studies on justification itself and some ancillary issues—whose theology played a significant role in the Council of Trent—reading through this chapter reminded me of how often Protestants misunderstand the Catholic understanding of salvation generally and justification specifically. Rafferty begins this section with an introduction to the Catholic view, which came by way of the Council of Trent in 1547. After making brief historical commentary on Trent and its reception, he gives the Catholic view, emphasizing: God and God alone justifies the sinner through the merits of Jesus Christ; the image of God in the human person was not obliterated, thus allowing for the will to freely move toward God; the believer can fulfill the moral imperative to live righteously, knowing Christ will come to judge everyone’s deeds; and, again, the capacity for men and women to cooperate with God’s grace in freedom. (267-268)

Rafferty goes on to explain Augustine’s contribution–one aspect of which (his insistence not that righteousness is imputed but that it is inherent/intrinsic to redeemed humanity) would later distress Luther; the early Medieval sacramental view of justification, though there really wasn’t a doctrine of justification; and how the late Medieval scholastic view (driven by Aquinas’ emphasis on the possession of righteousness as our own as a gift of God) would culminate in the Council of Trent. Rafferty explains that Trent had 2 goals: 1) to present the Catholic understanding over against the Lutheran errors; and 2) uphold the view that justification involved not only the remission of sins but also the sanctification of the individual. (279) Likewise, the final form of Trent emphasized the full cooperation of the human will in freedom with the process of justification, though the will is prepared by God’s grace for that process; humans are not passive in the process. (280) This ends a good overview of the historical and current Catholic teachings regarding justification, though curiously only one verse of Scripture is referenced in such an overview.

The chapter ends with O’Collin’s personal journey with the issue and begins with what he was taught regarding justification: “justification is the faithful and saving action of God or the covenant faithfulness and liberating presence of God in making repentant sinners righteous through the merits of Jesus Christ appropriated in faith…Justification came through the obedience of Jesus Christ in shedding his blood on the cross.” (281) Notice a few things Protestants: God is the saving agent, though humans freely appropriate it through faith; the merits of Jesus Christ afford sinners salvation by nature of his obedience and suffering death (read that again!); faith is the (initial) means of entering the justification “process,” though that process is upheld cyclically through human merit. Also, note the difference between Catholic and Protestant understanding with one word: make. Here we see how the consensus Kärkkäien spoke of between Catholics and Orthodox could form by nature of the righteous-making effect of justification. O’Collins also highlights the participatory and unification language NPPers and Eastern Christians use to speak of believers Trinitarian life. (282) After more personal travelogue through the justification issue, O’Collins recounts his involvement in signing the “Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification” in 1999, which is an apt ending of a chapter that sheds incredible, much needed light on the common Justification grammar Catholics share with Protestants (and even with the East).

In the end, IVP and this book’s editors, James Beilby and Paul Eddy, have provided the academy and pastors a great service in producing a well-crafted, well-moderated theological dialogue forum-in-print. While I have reservations about several specific views in this book, the book itself not only is a fabulous resource for understanding the major views on justification by some of the best voices in their respective camps, while modeling the manner in which disagreement and discourse should characterize the Christian academy, not to mention the Church. This resource is a 5/5 star resource for sure!