For those of you who love theological detective novels, you’ll be happy to know that in this post the plot begins to thicken.
I’d been wrestling for some years with the suspicion that there was something not quite right about the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. Something not exactly right. It didn’t seem to fit the pattern I saw in Scripture of how God relates to his people. It forced me into “explaining” passage after passage in the New Testament that appeared clear enough on their own and wouldn’t require explaining at all if not for the fact that what they said didn’t fit Luther’s view of justification. And then…
ONE LITTLE CASSETTE TAPE
Fast-forward. I learned that an old friend from seminary days has become Catholic.
Now, Catholicism was not in my mind and had never been much in my mind. Seriously, I’d thought more about becoming an astronaut than about becoming a Catholic. In fact, if it were not for the vivid memory I still had of Scott Hahn as being one of the brightest and most energetic students of biblical theology I’d ever met, I might have gone about my business without giving it a thought.
Instead I was startled by the news. And curious as to how and why. I went home and listened to his conversion story, wearing headphones so that Tina wouldn’t have a stroke, and was intrigued enough by what I heard to race to church the next day, barricade myself in my office, and track him down at Franciscan University. We hadn’t spoken in (I’m guessing) maybe nine or ten years.
He and I began to talk. And one of the subjects we talked about was Luther and his doctrine of justification.
Scott insisted that the tension I was experiencing in my reading of the New Testament was real, and that it was irresolvable — so long as I was committed to the classic Protestant view of justification. He also commented that within Catholicism all of those passages that were troubling me were not a problem. They were read and understood in a straightforward manner.
He said it seemed that the view I had been coming to for years was essentially the Catholic view. Yikes! I thought.
ONE MASSIVE THEOLOGICAL TOME
Flip a few pages forward. Scott and I talked a lot. But at a certain point I decided I needed to rethink my Christian worldview from the ground floor up. I wanted to go back and look again at the entire history of Christian thought on this subject of justification. In terms of the detective analogy, what I wanted to do was open the evidence files, dump everything on my desk and start over as though examining the case from scratch. I wanted to look at the whole issue with fresh eyes.
So I drove to Pasadena and went to the Fuller Theological Seminary bookstore and began browsing the shelves.
My eyes landed on a two-volume work, titled Iustitia Dei (Latin for “the justice” or “righteousness of God”) A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. It was described by one commentator as the most comprehensive scholarly treatment of the subject yet written. And (bonus!) the author was not a Catholic but a Protestant. In fact, the author was one of the most respected Protestant theologians around, Oxford professor of theology Alister McGrath.
A detailed history — exactly what I wanted! I sat in the coffee shop at Fuller and began to read.
Justification in the First Five Centuries
Although McGrath began with the Patristic period, he pointed out that in those very early centuries of Christianity there really is no development of what we might call a “theology of justification.” When the Fathers speak about salvation, he explained, what you find them doing is mainly repeating or paraphrasing statements from the New Testament, but with no interpretation.
We need to come to the fifth century and St Augustine, McGrath said, for our first real formulation of a theology of justification. And when we do, we find that his view is the Catholic view.
Man’s righteousness, effected in justification, is regarded by Augustine as inherent rather than imputed…. Justification includes both the beginnings of man’s righteousness before God and its subsequent perfection, the event and the process….
Luther, Calvin and Protestants since have insisted, of course, that justification is not about making us “inherently” righteous and that it is not a “process.” Rather, it is a matter of Christ’s own personal righteousness being legally credited to us, and it happens all at once the moment we believe. In fact, Luther used the image of a dunghill covered with snow to illustrate. He said that in justification God doesn’t change us but covers us in the righteousness of Jesus Christ as snow covers a dunghill.
In Augustine, McGrath was saying, justification is taken to refer to the entire process by which you and I are made righteous and fit for heaven. It includes the forgiveness of our sins as well as our renewal in the image of Christ.
But of course I already knew that Augustine was Catholic. So I read on…
Justification in the Next Ten
In the next section of his work, McGrath described the development of the doctrine during the medieval period. We’re talking now about the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, and what he said was that “during this long millennium” what we see in the history of Christian theology with respect to justification is really not much more than an “elaboration” of Augustine’s “framework.”
Justification [during these centuries] is universally understood to involve a real change in its object…. the renovation as well as the forgiveness of the sinner.
Justification with Luther
Finally, McGrath came to the time of the Reformation. He began his discussion with an interesting admission:
If can be shown that the central teaching of the Lutheran Reformation, the fulcrum about which the early Reformation turned, the article upon which the church stands or falls, constituted a theological novum, unknown within the previous fifteen centuries of theological thought, it will be clear that the Reformers claim to catholicity would be seriously prejudiced.
He then proceeded to layout the view of justification that Luther and Melanchthon and Calvin and the Reformation came to, which we’ve already explained a number of times.
And then… I read the following words and sat in stunned silence.
Despite the astonishing theological diversity of the late medieval period, a consensus relating to the nature of justification was maintained throughout…. It continued to be understood as the process by which a man is made righteous, subsuming the concepts of sanctification and regeneration…. The essential feature of the Reformation doctrine of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification and regeneration… where none had been acknowledged before in the history of the Christian doctrine. A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum (emphasis added).
In other words, Luther’s doctrine of justification was brand. Spanking. New.
It insisted on a distinction between justification and sanctification that had never “existed” before that had never even been “contemplated” before. In fifteen hundred years of theological reflection, McGrath was saying, justification had never been understood as Luther and the other Reformers following Luther came to understand it. Never.
ONE INTERESTING QUESTION
Now, I don’t want to overstate it, but this struck me as being important.
After all, Luther had said that his doctrine of justification was “the article upon which the Church stands of falls.” He had said, “I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.” John Calvin had said that the Reformation doctrine of justification was “the hinge upon which the door of all true religion swings.” Dr John Gerstner of Gordon Conwell Seminary had said that Scott Hahn must not have been a real Christian.
For nearly five centuries serious Reformation-minded Protestants have insisted that a correct understanding of justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone is so crucial that it’s at least questionable whether anyone who doesn’t believe it (for instance, a Catholic) could be a true Christian.
And now I learn that the idea was brand new with Luther?
Now I learn that the view of justification every Christian I knew held — and assumed to be the only view any right-thinking Christian could hold — was unknown to the first fifteen centuries of Church history?
Not impossible. It could still be what Scripture teaches. But it raises an interesting question: If Luther’s doctrine is simply the clear teaching of St Paul, why did no one see it before Luther? Put the other way around: if it took fifteen centuries for someone to see that this is what St Paul was teaching, how clear could it be that this is what St Paul was teaching?
The obvious next question was: what exactly are the New Testament evidences to support Luther’s view?