"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Justification: Six Passages, Two Interpretive Paradigms
In his Systematic Theology, Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof claims that there are six passages in the New Testament in which the term δικαιόω, translated throughout as some variation of the English word 'justify', "can bear no other sense" than the forensic sense. (p. 510) That's quite a strong claim to make, because it implies that Catholics and Orthodox must either ignore these verses or be unaware of them, or blatantly twist them to mean something other than what they most obviously mean. But Berkhof has to make such a strong claim, because the forensic conception of justification is central to what still divides Protestants and Catholics. Anything weaker would severely undermine the grounds for Protestants separating from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and remaining separated to this day. Therefore, insofar as we can resolve the Protestant-Catholic disagreement regarding the nature of justification, we clear the way for the reconciliation of Protestants and Catholics.
So here in this post I look at each of these six New Testament passages, and determine whether they can be understood according to a different paradigm, i.e. one that goes beyond the forensic paradigm viz-a-viz justification. I am not here seeking to demonstrate that these verses necessarily mean what the Catholic Church teaches about justification. My intention is simply to see whether these verses can be understood within a Catholic paradigm. If in these verses justification can be understood in a way that goes beyond the forensic sense, then we need a means of determining whether St. Paul meant the term in the forensic sense or in this stronger sense.
In my post on St. Thomas Aquinas on penance, I discussed Aquinas's claim that human grace (as in "he was in her good graces") cannot safely be assumed to be equivalent in all other respects to God's grace, on account of the Creator / creature distinction. According to Aquinas, while human grace is a response to good in the other person, God's grace *causally effects* the good in the other. Similarly, we might take that same line of reasoning and apply it to the question of the nature of justification. When a human judge declares a defendant "not guilty", this verdict effects only the legal standing of the person before the State, not the heart of the person, at least not directly. The human judge cannot see or weigh the human heart; he can see only the evidence presented by the prosecution. But God looks at the heart. "For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7) And, moreover, God cannot lie. (cf. Heb 6:18; Titus 1:2) Therefore, when God declares us justified, we should not assume that He must do so as mere human judges do. Rather, we must consider the possibility that He does so in quite a different, and more powerful way. More specifically, we should consider whether when God declares us justified, He does so because He has in fact, by the grace that flows from Christ's side and is received by faith through the waters of baptism, made us actually just.
For each of the six passages, I will be asking whether the term δικαιόω must be taken forensically (i.e. declared righteous, and being cleared of punishment, though remaining internally unrighteous), or whether it could mean that the justified persons in question were actually made righteous internally by having received within themselves sanctifying grace and the righteousness of Christ through faith and the waters of the sacrament of baptism.
The first passage is Romans 3:20-28:
"because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
If St. Paul is speaking here in Romans 3 of the justification by which we are translated from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, then this passage is fully compatible with justification in that sense. There is nothing here that precludes the possibility that we are actually made righteous with the righteousness of God, not that by which He Himself is righteous, but that by which He makes us righteous, that by which He renews us in the spirit of our mind such that not only are we reputed righteous but we are truly called and are actually righteous, having received His righteousness within us as a free gift. In other words, if St. Paul is talking about what the Church has always taught takes place at baptism, then this passage seems to be fully compatible with that. And we have good reason to believe that baptism is in view here, because St. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 6, which is almost entirely about what has happened to us in baptism.
The second passage is Romans 4:5-7:
"But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered."
If believing in Christ involves, through baptism, receiving His righteousness within us, then the reason our faith is credited as righteousness, is that through faith in Christ (which is expressed in the reception of the sacrament of baptism), we receive the righteousness of Christ and are thereby made actually and truly righteous. This righteousness we receive through baptism is not the result of our works; it is a gift of God. The 'covering' of our sins need not mean that they remain in us. They remain in our past as actual events in our personal history, for God does not change or erase the past. But through the righteousness of Christ they no longer remain in us as privations of the light and life and love of Christ. Protestants read "justifies the ungodly" and tend to assume that the person is simultaneously both justified and ungodly. But it is no less possible to read "justifies the ungodly" as meaning that by the infusion of sanctifying grace, through faith in Christ, and not by human efforts, God, at the moment of baptism, supernaturally transforms the ungodly by making them actually righteous. Hence, when the Protestant quotes this verse as evidence that justification is forensic, this is, from the Catholic point of view, question-begging, i.e. assuming precisely what is in question.
The third passage is Romans 5:1:
"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,"
Having been made righteous by faith through the sacrament of baptism, with the righteousness of Christ infused into our soul by His sanctifying grace, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Understood in this way, any Catholic can affirm this verse. This verse is fully compatible with a conception of justification that transcends the merely forensic.
The fourth passage is Galatians 2:16
"nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified."
This verse too can be understood as referring to a forensic-transcending justification. We are actually made righteous (translated from the state of sin to the state of infused grace and adoption), not through the works of the law, but through faith, by the grace of Christ given to us in the sacrament of baptism.
The fifth passage is Galatians 3:11:
"Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "The righteous man shall live by faith."
Again, Catholics can affirm that no one is made actually righteous (not just forensically declared righteous) by the law. We can affirm that the [actually] righteous man shall live (i.e. be made alive, and remain alive) by faith in Christ.
And the sixth passage is Galatians 5:4
"You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace"
The person who thinks that by following the law he can be translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, or that by following the law he can be made actually righteous, has fallen from grace. He doesn't understand that no one can be made actually righteous by law-keeping, because without grace man is infinitely removed from God, no matter how many good works man does. Apart from grace, man cannot acquire the life and righteousness of God, or have fellowship with God. Only by the grace of Christ can man be made righteous and have fellowship with God. This was taught formally by the Second Council of Orange (529 AD).
Having examined each of these six passages, it seems to me that the term δικαιόω, in each of the six passages, can quite easily be understood in a way that goes beyond the merely forensic. If so, then what does this mean? Some Protestants claim that they are rightly separated from the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church "abandoned the gospel", i.e. abandoned [forensic] justification by faith alone through grace alone on account of Christ alone. Their evidence that forensic justification is the essence of the gospel is not drawn from the fathers, because in the fathers we do not find the gospel defined in terms of forensic justification. Rather, their evidence is these passages in the New Testament, drawn mostly from Romans and Galatians, as well as the lexical studies showing how contemporaries of the New Testament authors used this term in a forensic sense.
But there are certain theological presuppositions implicit in the assumption that the best way for us in the third millennium to know what a New Testament term meant is by looking to the manner in which the Greeks (or Diaspora Jews) used the term. One such assumption is that the Church fathers did not necessarily preserve the meaning of terms as handed down by the Apostles. Another assumption is that the Apostles used these terms in mostly the same way that the pagans used them. But the very reason why we cannot work our way to heaven is the very reason why unaided human reason cannot attain to the truths of divine revelation. Such truths must be revealed, or we cannot know them. They transcend the natural, human capacity. Likewise, the concepts communicated in the gospel, concepts such as justification, should not therefore be assumed to be equivalent to the concepts commonly associated with those terms as they were used in the pagan world. God's ways are higher than man's ways. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Therefore God's mode of justifying cannot safely be assumed to be equivalent to man's external/forensic mode of justifying.
How then can we determine whether justification should be understood as actual or merely forensic? If these passages can be understood according to either paradigm, then why shouldn't the Catholic Church, which Protestants (of the non-biblicist sort) generally believe stood firm against all heresy for the first 1500 years of her existence, receive the benefit of the doubt? If the question of whether justification is forensic or actual is reduced to a 50/50 toss-up, why then wouldn't the decision of the Council of Trent regarding the nature of justification be authoritative and binding? A schism cannot be justified by a hermeneutical coin-flip, nor would Christ leave us in such a predicament, as Tertullian understood.
God our Father, in your infinite mercy, through the grace of Your only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the illumination of your Holy Spirit, please teach us and lead us into the truth regarding this doctrine of justification, so that Catholics and Protestants may be reconciled after all these years of separation. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.