Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 5, Justification Theory in the Refromation

I finished reading Part 2 of The Deliverance of God and I'd like to use two posts to summarize the points I think are important and/or interesting in this section of the book.

Before turning to the Pauline texts in Part 3 Campbell asks us to step back in Part 2 to examine our hermeneutical situation. Campbell is keen to do this because if we jump too quickly into a reading Paul we'll just read into Paul all of our preconceptions and assumptions. That is, we'll find in Paul exactly what we expect to find.

A large portion of Part 2 is devoted to understanding how Justification Theory fits into church history. Further, Campbell also discusses how Justification Theory is deeply implicated in the modern project (e.g., liberalism, democracy, capitalism). The links between Justification Theory and modernity are particularly important to note because, as Campbell observes, modern readers, steeped in the values and assumptions of modernity, might be unable to criticize Justification Theory properly. Like a fish that doesn't know it lives in water, modern readers might not be able to objectively criticize Justification Theory as being a tool of modernity. Being "in" the water of modernity we can't see its influence upon us or our theology, Justification Theory in particular.

In sum, Campbell wants us to trace the history of Justification Theory in the life of the church and how the theory partnered with various developments during the Enlightenment and beyond. According to Campbell, this analysis will help place some distance between us and Justification Theory, helping us to resist the temptation to read Jusification Theory into the Pauline texts.

In this post I'll try to summarize how Campbell places Justification Theory within the context of church history. In the next post I'll summarize how Justification Theory is implicated in modernity.

As noted in the earlier posts, Justification Theory is often called the "Lutheran Reading" of Paul. Most certainly, Luther was the first to articulate Justification Theory as we know it today. This formulation was later elaborated by other Reformers, John Calvin in particular.

Given this history we can make a couple of observations. First, the arguments about Justification Theory are largely "in house" Protestant debates. Catholics and the Orthodox don't have a lot of dogs in this hunt. Second, given the importance of these issues for Protestants appeals to Luther or Calvin carry a lot of weight in these debates. That is, a reading of Paul might be deemed more correct because Luther read Paul a certian way. In short, appeals to Luther or Calvin can function as appeals to authority in the justification debates. As Campbell observes, these are illegitimate arguments. At the end of the day, Luther might have been wrong. The proper reading of Paul should be judged on exegetical, not church-historical, grounds.

We could just leave it at that, but Luther and Calvin are towering figures. It is hard for Protestants to discount or dismiss their interpretations. So Campbell goes a bit further, suggesting that while both Luther and Calvin endorse Justification Theory at many points in their writing they also articulate positions that sit in conflict with Justification Theory. Campbell's claim is that Luther and Calvin were complex and that their thought cannot be easily or consistently read as supportive of Justification Theory. In many places Luther and Calvin seem to support the apocalyptic reading we considered in an earlier post.

Let me focus on the prime example of this tension within Luther and Calvin. Although Luther and Calvin each espoused Justification Theory they both, in many places, articulated a very pessimistic view of human agency. So much so, as witnessed in Luther's exchange with Erasmus, that Luther would deny that humans could do anything that might prove helpful in saving themselves from damnation. This includes faith itself, the necessary saving criterion. We tend to call this anthropological stance, in Calvin at least, the doctrine of "total depravity." And in light of total depravity how are humans to exercise faith? Both Luther and Calvin appeal to the action and grace of God. Faith itself becomes a gift. Calvin formalized this notion as the doctrine of election.

The point that Campbell makes is that the doctrine of election sits in tension with Justification Theory. Recall, for Justification Theory to work the human person must complete a tortured inward journey culminating in the realization that he stands condemned before God. But if the doctrine of election is operative this introspective and epistemological journey seems to be a bit irrelevant. Further, given the condition of total depravity how could humans even begin or complete the journey?

And here's the deal. Most of us are well aware of these problems. Justification Theory is, at root, a rhetorical device for evangelism. Through bible study or preaching you lead the listener through the critical realizations:

  1. I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And this includes you! "All" means all.
  2. The wages of sin is death.
  3. In light of the aforementioned realizations, you're screwed.
  4. But you can have grace if you accept, through faith, Jesus as your Savior.
But if faith is a matter of election it seems that evangelism is problematized. Evangelism presupposes a clear head and a clear heart. It presupposes the ability to volitionally respond. But if faith is a matter of election is any of this necessary? And if total depravity is in play is any of this even possible? Depravity and election throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of Justification Theory, rendering most of the theory irrelevant.

These are very old debates. Witness the tensions between the Calvinistic and Arminian attempts to resolve these questions. The point is, Luther and Calvin were no simple and consistent advocates of Justification Theory. Important aspects of their theology (e.g., their anthropology, the role of God in granting faith) greatly complicated their espousal of Justification Theory, so much so that the children of the Reformation are still debating the issues. The tension between evangelism and election is still very much with us. Consequently, it would be silly to assume that Justification Theory has been handed to us by Luther and Calvin as anything other than a partial and incomplete soteriology.

And, interestingly, Luther and Calvin got their notions about election from passages such as Romans 5-8 and 9-11 where we find the apocalyptic soteriology within Paul. And isn't it curious that the conflict within Luther and Calvin's thought emerges from the same conflict we observed earlier, the tensions between Romans 1-4 and the rest of the book? In short, although both Luther and Calvin read Romans 1-4 as supportive of Justification Theory, other aspects of their soteriology (informed by texts such as Romans 5-8 and Romans 9-11) create tensions with that reading that remain unresolved to this day.

So the sum of the matter is this. Any appeal to Luther and Calvin doesn't resolve anything in the justification debates. Not only would this be an illegitimate appeal to authority it is, more importantly, simply a restatement of the problem we noted earlier: The conflict between Romans 1-4 and the rest of the book.

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3 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 5, Justification Theory in the Refromation”

  1. I on the other hand would break at 1-3:20,the but now becomes the hinge 3:21-31.
    then the explanation how why,to the then present believers,Jews in Rome and also the Greek.
    speaks of promised blessing to ALL nations....
    by grace
    speaks of deviation from gods good and death
    one righteous act.... :-)
    which the law missed, the thought and intent of the act of the righteous one
    and called the flesh cursed of god
    so life
    speaks of the righteous life that lives through death
    seven speaks of the law, freedom through death.
    and the inability to escape the deviation from gods good and live.
    as deviation is now inherent the Jews also because of the law and the deceitfulness of sin.
    puts creation back together again in hope (made new)because of the spirit of life.
    not by Law but by grace through faithfulness to the will of god
    ROM 3:4 thus god is faithful to his very good word
    blessings rich ... rich constant

  2. There are so many logical inconsistencies in justification theory that I can't believe I believed it for so many years.

    We are saved by grace, not works. But isn't accepting Jesus an effort on our part? The old "someone handing you a watch" explanation still is a dodge because you have to take the watch, and that is you, not God.

    If we are made in the image of God, how can we be irredemably bad?

    If God loves us, how can he torture us forever? I have kids, they sometimes make me angry and disobey me, but I would never want them to suffer. If I did punish them harshly for disobediance, then how could I say I loved them?

    Why did Jesus preach ethical behavior if salavation had nothing to do with it? Wasn't that dishonest to the people listening to him who thought that God would forgive them if they forgave others (but as it turns out they had to believe that Jesus died for their sins)?

    I could go on and on.

    Thanks for the series.


  3. irresistiable grace demeans gods work in the christ,to a point that i cannot express properly with my limmited vocabulary.other than to say this...
    "thats a bunch of crap"
    and then to even say...
    "faith in Christ unto all and upon all them that believe for there is no differance"
    ...that sounds like the N.I.V. trans lation of Gal.2:16-21
    which is complete geberish.
    it is all about the faithful promised seed(the true vine) that brought THE LIVING FAITH
    of redempshion,was justifyed by / IN THE SPIRIT and vindicated by THE SOVERN FATHER,now the one who started the mess gets to die,along with those that don't believe{(YOU KNOW THE FENCE SITTERS)THROW A ROCK INTO A PACK of dogs and the one that barks the loudest probibly got hit}
    the GOSPLE of god and when you read you might understand the power of god unto salvation (ya know the gospel)

    thanks again rich blessings all
    rich constant

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