Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 4, The Empirical Problems of Justification Theory

In the last two posts I reviewed some of the intrinsic (theoretical) and systematic (textual) problems with Justification Theory discussed by Douglas Campbell in his book The Deliverance of God. In this post we will examine the empirical difficulties of Justification Theory wrapping up my summary of Part 1 of The Deliverance of God.

As a biblical and theological theory Justification Theory is not, generally speaking, a theory that can be falsified with historical or empirical data. For the most part, Justification Theory will stand or fall depending upon how well it explains the soteriology of Paul given what he wrote in his letters. However, Campbell notes two locations where Justification Theory makes contact with empirical reality making claims that can be assessed sociologically and historically. That is, there is some hard(er) data we might consider in assessing the viability of Justification Theory.

Empirical Claim #1: The Experience of Second Temple Judaism
As noted in earlier posts, Justification Theory--salvation by grace through faith--is seen as the solution to a problem that was inherent in Judaism. Specifically, Judaism is characterized by a "works-based righteousness." More, the Jews were legalists, struggling under a perfectionistic criterion. 100% Torah obedience was the mark of righteousness. This, according to Justification Theory, was a dead end, a trap, a moral impossibility. Given this situation, the gift of grace was a way out of the perfectionistic trap of legalism.

This characterization of the Jews made by Justification Theory is, at root, an empirical claim. It is a description of the theology and experience of Second Temple Judaism. So, it seems reasonable to ask, is this description accurate? Were the Jews struggling under a legalistic and perfectionistic system?

The short answer is no, they were not. The historical picture, filling in more every year, of Second Temple Judaism presents a picture at odds with the characterizations made by Justification Theory. A lot of this work has suggested that the Jews were not working with a legalistic model but were, rather, working within a covenantial model. More importantly for Campbell is what we have learned about the emotional experience of life in Second Temple Judaism. According to Justification Theory the Jews would have been in either one of two emotional states. First, an emotional despair at failing to live up to the perfectionistic criterion. Or, second, a (delusional) pride for being "blameless" under the Law. But there is little in the historical record to suggest that this is how the Jews experienced life under the Law or Covenant. Life during Second Temple Judaism was all over the place, with pockets of very different emotional experiences and performance expectations. No doubt there were Jews with tortured consciences (the Second Temple Jewish equivalent of Martin Luther) and Jews who were prideful hypocrites. But most Jews, well, were kind of like us. Trying to do good but with a somewhat realistic stance about what humans might achieve, morally speaking. Further, when the Jews experienced moral failure the Temple had its rituals of sacrifice and absolution, providing the Jews a regular means to handle their sin and disobedience. Jews went to the temple like Catholics go to confession. There was no hypocritical pride, no legalistic expectation, no angst at being damned. The Jewish soteriological system, in short, was working just fine, thank you very much. Thus, why would the Jews need to be rescued by the message of grace?

In short, Justification Theory, to make sense, needs to specify the theology and experience of Second Temple Judaism (i.e., they were tortured or prideful legalists). But, as we have seen, this specification is false. It's a straw man. In this sense, Justification Theory is an "answer" or a "gift" to a non-existent "question" or "trap." And if the trap never existed in the first place it's hard to see why Justification Theory is needed at all.

Empirical Claim #2: The Experience of Conversion
As noted in earlier posts, Justification Theory suggests that conversion occurs in a very particular way. Essentially it is a tortured, private, introverted, epistemological journey. You reach certain realizations that make your situation clear ("I am a sinner and stand condemned, justly, before God."). Having reached this place you accept, through faith, the offer of grace.

As Campbell points out, this view of conversion is an empirical prediction. Justification Theory makes the claim that, generally speaking, conversation will look a certain way. So the question becomes, does conversion in the real world look like the conversion described by Justification Theory?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is no, it does not. Few Christians are ever converted in this manner. Campbell reviews the sociological literature that suggests that conversion is more relational than intellectual. Although people might report spiritual journeys that seem to follow the path of Justification Theory, in empirical fact the "response" to the gospel occurs over time as a person becomes more and more affiliated with a particular faith community. That is, there is less a moment of moral crisis than a gradual identification with and participation in the life of a faith community. Conversion happens when we become more and more dislocated with the people on the "outside" and more and more affiliated with the people on the "inside." The final shift might be sudden and emotional, but the movement began well ahead of the final altar call.

The point of all this is that Justification Theory has a hard time explaining the inherently communal and participatory nature of real-life conversions. Few conversions look like the tortured inward journey posited by Justification Theory.

But it should be noted that the apocalyptic soteriology described in the last post does fit very well with how actual conversions work: The soteriological notion of ethical and liturgical participation in the life of a new, inherently communal, Kingdom. In short, there are readings of Paul that make more theological, textual and empirical sense than Justification Theory.

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12 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 4, The Empirical Problems of Justification Theory”

  1. Fascinating. Not disagreeing at all, but how, then, should/could we read Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees, especially with regard to the 7x sons of hell, tithing mint and cumin, heaping burdens on widows, corban, righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, etc...? I've always understood that at the depiction of the legalism of Judaism.

  2. Hi Justin,
    If you read Jesus carefully you'll find that he's more of a "legalist" than the Pharisees. Look at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus's ethic is more strict and exacting. Cut out your eye and all that.

    In short, Jesus isn't upset with their Torah obedience. He's upset with their hypocrisy, that they follow only a part of the law and ignore the "weightier matters." Jesus is basically saying that the Pharisees are not legalistic enough.

  3. Jesus would never be unhappy about his father's word
    although what is the purpose of the living word of god.
    my brother in my humble opinion it is religion steeped in tradition again buying in to the trap of a dead hand
    the static law the principles of regulations at the expense of poor blind deaf.etc.WHAT DOES PAUL SAY PURE RELIGON IS...was that ah don't miss sunday worship service and what do you mean that the song leader use a pitch what-u-call-it
    and the look at me i am religious... the whole pride of works....not the despair.
    but non the less the covenant law was valid and working and all Jews were cursed. thus ROM 10....
    and Jeremiah chapter 31

    queston is WHO IS THE ISREAL OF GOD...better watch out for that one. your religon might bite you in the law
    blessings rich constant

  4. hey richard
    this is an interesing way to look at it... the attempt to separate out the empirical and non-empirical claims of an espoused theological system, and then determining at least part of the truth by its empirical accuracy.

    i like this, as I often have a hard time knowing how we know whether a theological statement is 'true' or not


  5. A comment on commenting and a meta-question.

    John Rawls' distinction between being reasonable and being rational plays out for me when I consider whether to make a point here.

    Rawls' "reasonable" means effectively balancing competing considerations. We should all keep in mind that Richard is giving us an overview of a very long and involved argument, which requires him to make choices about what is suitable and what is not suitable for sharing with us. That makes it unreasonable for us to expect answers to all the questions we would like answered. And it makes me feel foolish for having a question that I would really like to ask...

    On the other hand, there is a competing value of being rational, which is single-minded: it wants the truth, and may well sacrifice being reasonable to get it. Now on a small point it would be foolish not to be reasonable. But in the case of a really big point--overthrowing Justification Theory, for instance--one becomes very tempted, or at least I do, to be unreasonable in pursuit of truth. Choosing my analogy carefully here, one does not want to be led down the garden path.

    Here's the question that's bothering my tortured soul. As science tells us that our ordinary human perspectives are not reliable guides to how things really are--the earth isn't the center of the universe, "solid" objects are mostly empty space, etc.--so theology preceded science in making that point, via "negative theology." But on that level, we ought to expect any point of view that addresses the frame of reference in which we live to fail when put to learned examination. Pushed far enough, nothing we know is systematic. From that perspective, Dr. Campbell's impressive marshaling of points vs. JT might lose a lot of their force.

    It's a question of perspective, and beyond that, wouldn't it be great if a truly systematic insight were attained--theology's version of a unified theory? Using that ultra criterion, might this book be historic?

    If so, I definitely need to shut up, get a copy, and be taken to school. Come to think of it, either way I'll shut up and be taken to school--and hope that Richard doesn't bill me for his tutoring, which wouold be altogether reasonable.

  6. Tracey,
    Interesting. I think the Founders tried to be reasonable and rational in the political views concerning religion in their "Enlightned" world view, just as Paul tried to be reasonable and rational in his "Greek" worldview.

  7. Hi Angie,

    I'm ambivalent about commenting here so much. "When in doubt, don't." would be a good rule for me. I'm going to start taking that advice :-)

  8. Tracy,

    Science tells us that without pushing against and testing our ordinary human perspectives, we will continue in wrong perspectives. Nothing, not Justification Theory, not even Biblical Truth lays outside of our perspectives. The goal with theological dialogue is to push on our perspectives about God. As Angie said, Paul and Luther did this as well as Augustine and all other theological thinkers.

    What Douglas Campbell is doing in ‘The Deliverance of God’ and what Richard is doing in his posts would be similar to what science did to our earth centric perspective. I don’t think that either of these men expects that others will not push against their perspective. After all, iron sharpens iron.

    Finally, your comments about commenting seems odd to me. I think most reasonable people realize that they are not going to get all the answers to question that are raised. Sure there are and always will be those who are unreasonable or rude and should restrain themselves from flaming blogs. Also, those who insert a question or a point and who have no plan of entering into the dialogue should also restrain from commenting in the first place, at the very least they shouldn’t respond with a comment saying they are not going to respond. ;)

  9. Hi Barry,

    I do not doubt that your comments to me deserve a response, so I will give one. My question left this unstated: I assume the biblical writers addressed their intended readers' in their ordinary human frame of reference. (What else would they have done?) Science has shown us that, though we can't get along without our ordinary frame, that as a matter of fact it is inconsistent in important ways with wider scientific frames of reference. In that way, science gives us a "negative" critique of ordinary human experience, similar to what classical Christian theology has been telling us for a very long time with its "negative theology." But if we can't expect ordinary frames of refererence to hold up under specialized scrutiny, and if we understand the need to keep the ordinary frames of reference for the utility they provide, then what do we make of the critique Campbell gives us of JT? This is just a fancy way of saying, are the implicit expectations in his critique fair? And I think that's a fair and good question.

    As to the oddity of my comment on commenting, I think it would go away for you if you ever gave an introductory presentation on a complex subject to novices and had an expert in the room who continually pulled the conversation away from the intended audience by asking questions that are not suitable for beginners. You would experience that "expert" as a jerk. A reasonable person would choose not to be a jerk, in that context. Now assume a mixed audience, such as Richard clearly has. It gets complicated, when you have a fair and good question. Will the question be suitable for Richard's purposes, generally and in the particular post? I don't want to withhold a great question, and I don't want to be a jerk. In the past the desire for truth has usually won with me--I've been weighted toward interpreting the jerk/great-question dilemma in favor of asking the question, and implied, then, is my leaving myself open to being a jerk. My new "When in doubt, dont." advice is just reversing that weightedness, so that I don't leave myself open to that possibility. Since Angie is another bright person who comments here a lot, I thought she might like to hear my advice. I certainly mean no offense.

    But perhaps you'll agree, at this point, with the old correlary of the Socratic dictum, that an over-examined life is nothing to write home about either. On the other hand--:-)--the dilemma I note is very real since all of the non-verbals that guide us in face-to-face conversation are absent on line. In short, I'm trying to be nice, as Richard enjoined us to be, but am genuinely confused about it.

  10. I appreciate that you are trying to be nice. That is my desire as well.

    I am not sure what you mean by “science gives us a ‘negative’ critique”. It seems that in the case of the earth being the center of the universe, science gave us positive evidence to critique the common perspective and the theologians gave negative critique of this evidence. Please expand on what you mean.

    Regardless on what we are looking into, our perspective needs to be taken into account. Sure, we need to have a sober take on our perspective, and if need be our perspective changes. The argument I see being laid out before us is that the Justification Theory is a perspective not necessarily held by Paul and his readers, but one developed to conform to the ideology of another time. Obviously, I can’t say I buy into Douglas Campbell’s thesis based solely on a review by a third party (as good as this review is), so your input would be much appreciated by me to help hash out the Truth.

    You pose the question, “are the implicit expectations in Douglas’ critique fair?” I guess this is a fair question, but could you expand on what you mean specifically? I for one am grateful for input from multiple perspectives and would welcome yours here. The fact that you are self aware of the dangers of being a ‘jerk’ hopefully means that any comments you make will be done in a helpful manner as opposed to a confrontational manner. That would make your comments valuable to this community, I would think.

    If you continue commenting, please layout some specifics for me as I am not sure I am following your line of thinking. Though I read Richard’s posts regularly, I rarely feed the compulsion to comment, perhaps for the same reasons .

  11. New Covenant,

    As perspectives available through science require us to qualify our understanding of ordinary perceptions, so theologians have claimed--at least since Augustine--that our ordinary points of view cannot be applied to God without qualification. If you grant the assumption that I left unstated at first, that it seems scripture was written using the ordinary point of view, the question I posed follows: Are Campbell's implicit expectations fair?

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