Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 6, The Unholy Alliance of Justification Theory and Modernity

To recap, in Part 2 of The Deliverance of God Campbell works to create some distance between readers of Paul and Justification Theory. Justification Theory has been so dominant that it's difficult to approach Paul for a fresh reading. Some of this has to do with the fact that Justification Theory has played such a large role in church history, the Protestant Reformation in particular. Thus, for many people turning one's back on Justification Theory is tantamount to turning one's back on the Reformation. This raises the stakes considerably. So in my last post I reviewed how Campbell attempts to show that both Calvin and Luther leave us with a mixed legacy when it comes to Justification Theory. No doubt they both strongly endorsed the key tenets of the theory. However, as discussed in my last post, Calvin and Luther also articulated theological positions that significantly undermine the theological and exegetical integrity of Justification Theory. In short, in reevaluating and potentially jettisoning Justification Theory we are not turning our backs on the Reformation. We are, rather, simply working to reconcile the contradictions the Reformation passed onto us.

Having discussed the church-historical issues that complicate the debates surrounding Justification Theory, Campbell goes on to consider the way Justification Theory has also been propped up by aspects of modernity. This part of The Deliverance of God was very interesting to me.

Campbell's argument is that Justification Theory is hard to dislodge because it is, in many different ways, a product of modernity. That is, Justification Theory embodies the values and ideas of modernity. This close alliance with modernity makes Justification Theory "feel right" to us given our modern sensibilities. This is deeply problematic because it makes it difficult for modern readers of Paul to criticize Justification Theory. Because if we criticize the theory we end up challenging some of the deepest values and prejudices of the modern spirit. To challenge Justification Theory, then, is to challenge the modern worldview. As with the Reformation, this raises the stakes considerably.

Let me briefly summarize the way Campbell describes the unholy alliance between Justification Theory and modernity. Specifically, we'll discuss the way Justification Theory shares modern notions of selfhood, epistemology, politics and economics.

Modern Notions of Selfhood and Epistemology
In the very first post of this series I reviewed some of the basic features of Justification Theory. Specifically, we described the introverted and epistemological nature of the journey of faith. This inward turn to find certainty should be familiar to many. It is, at root, the same path René Descartes took when he turned inward with his method of methodological doubt. You'll recall, if you forgot your Philosophy 101 class, that Descartes famously decided to deny the truth of all things--doubt it all!--to start from the ground up from first principles. This drove Descartes inward and as he contemplated this own mind he stumbled upon his first incontrovertible and undeniable truth: Cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").

Without going too much into detail, there is a general consensus that many of the problematic features within modernity started with Descartes' turn inward. Some of these problems have to do with modern notions of the self, the severe introversion of the modern psyche, what Charles Taylor has called the punctual or buffered self. This notion of the introverted and isolated self sits behind the modern fetishization of The Individual and cult of self (e.g., self-improvement).

Descartes inward turn also began some problematic trends in epistemology. For our purposes we only need to note how Descartes arrived at truth by turning inward.

Justification Theory sits very comfortably with these modern notions. Justification Theory supports the modern view of the autonomous ego. The journey to faith is undertaken by individuals. Further, it is undertaken by individuals turning inward. Faith, like Descartes cogito ergo sum, is an epistemological truth discovered in the privacy of your own heart.

Modern Politics
One of the most interesting parts of The Deliverance of God is when Campbell shows the close connections between Justification Theory and the foundational ideas behind the establishment of the modern liberal democracy. A great deal of the credit for laying the philosophical foundation for liberalism was John Locke, whose ideas fueled both the American and French Revolutions. Interestingly, as Campbell shows, Justification Theory is deeply Lockean in both form and function.

The basic form of Locke's vision of government is that of free individuals who are able to enter into agreements and contracts with other free individuals. Further, these free individuals may choose to form a government to assist in the management of the larger social contract. Importantly, the legitimacy of the government is given by the general consent of the people. Working behind all this is the notion of certain natural or God-given "rights."

According to Campbell, Justification Theory fits this political vision "like a glove." Mainly because Justification Theory is focused on individuals entering into a new contractual relationship with God. And, similar to the way the people give their consent to the government, God's rule over the believer is, essentially, one of consent/agreement, what we call "faith." In all of this, the actions of the believer (the consenting individual at the core of liberal democracies) are the focus. In this, Justification Theory is anthropocentric (human-centered) rather than Christocentric (Christ-centered).

Further, in liberal democracies, where faith is a matter of "belief," faith becomes privatized and separated from political realities. Faith, in liberal democracies, has no political implications at all. Faith is just your religious preference. Religion is a private thing you do between you and God. Keep it out of the public sphere.

Scandalously, Justification Theory, due to it's inward, individualized and epistemological nature, goes right along with this separation of faith from politics. This is deeply problematic because Justification Theory is promoting the modern view of faith--individual and private--that is one of the biggest problems in Christianity today, the notion that faith is a private transaction between you and God that has nothing to do with issues such as justice, peace or environmental stewardship.

The final way Justification Theory supports modernity is in how it embraces the centrality of the marketplace. It is difficult to separate capitalism from liberal democracy. The two go hand in hand. Consequently, the values of the marketplace have seeped into just about every facet of modern living and identity. Somewhat shockingly, by making marketplace exchange the mechanism of salvation (i.e., Jesus pays for sin), Justification Theory has made the modern market the foundation of the salvation event.

To conclude, the reason Campbell finds all this problematic, and I strongly agree with him, is that Justification Theory is crippled when it comes to critiquing the sins, errors or overindulgences of modernity. Why? Because Justification Theory, at just about every turn, supports the modern project. Justification Theory can't get ethical leverage on modernity because, well, Justification Theory is in bed with modernity. It's an unholy alliance.

Next post we move into Part 3 of the book.

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8 thoughts on “Notes on The Deliverance of God: Part 6, The Unholy Alliance of Justification Theory and Modernity”

  1. Your premise or beginning is "faith". I digress. I do not believe that it is inappropriate for humans to use reason. Reason and analysis in making choices are what defines us from the animal kingdom. We do not have to behave as animals. This is why liberal democracies are important to affirm because they affirm reasonable behavior toward difference and rational choice as to social contract.

    When one undermines rational choice, then one affirms scripture's testimony of Christ's passion, but was Christ's passion what one wants for individuals in the form of government and society? Was the situation just? And does it further justice in a real sense, when he dies, as he does? Then do we want to affirm that the costs to an individual is worth the "sacrifice" of that individual and his life's liberty?

    I don't believe that adhering to one particular "form" is any closer to "righteousness" than another "form", or understanding. This is the problem with literalizing scripture.

    This book seems to be trying to re-write theology after the Reformation. And theology is about the transcendent. Woe be to those under "spiritual leadership" who think they know how to implement spiritual discipline and bring about a right outcome! One must desire and choose to discipline oneself.

    Relationship to God is still the evangelical/fundamental rant that never fails to try to define itself 'respectfully'.

  2. To challenge justification theory, then, is to challenge the modern worldview.

    I guess I could be called a disillusioned Gen-X'er who believes he's been sold a bill of goods by the Baby Boomers, and that I don't come to this debate particularly fair-minded. Even so, I find the sentiment of this statement the most attractive reason to be skeptical of JT (at least), or to junk it altogether. Just like I no longer buy into the modern assumptions, I no longer accept the premises of JT. It doesn't make sense.

    My question then is always the same: what is the answer? I'm sure you will be getting to that, Dr. Beck. :)


  3. Jumping on Justin's bandwagon, I wonder if an individual (ironically through an internalized Lockean contemplative process) reaches a point of realizing the profound flaws of modernity itself. Then piggy-back that onto that individual's profile of "faith" and suddenly, that individual has "eyes" to question Justification Theory.

    In my case, I never knew of the phrase "Justification Theory" per se, but my recent spiritual journey (crisis-of-faith to Ex-Christian to 70% UR) has been fueled by a deep resentment and rebellion of such, particularly a seemingly inequitable distribution of justice/mercy presented in today's dominant Eternal Torment / Partial Salvation paradigm.

    Gary Y.

  4. Let's be fair here... individualism in the church doesn't sound all bad to me. The reformation and then the democratic revolution resulted in decentralizing authority in protestant churches, so that individuals could read the Bible and come to their own conclusions instead of just being handed down what to believe from the church hierarchy. Remember some of the Catholic parishes that were instructing their parishioners to vote for Bush because he was against abortion? Or the prohibition on birth control? anti-egaltarianism? I'll keep my individualism, thanks.

    Taking the authority away from a (often crazy) privileged few was probably just as good for the church as it was for government.

  5. so much to say,and i don't write well enough to elaborate, or elucidate what i would say,although this is to me rich a fun topic.
    on the one hand the concept man on the other the man of the dynamic methodology,of the reformation.Luther and Calvin.
    setting the stage in the darkness of a great idea gone wrong,Christianity,plunged into the corruption of the autonomy of the self similarity of the tradition of "we know and will see to it"go with it or be flogged... Roman catholic papacy.
    it is one thing to come to the proverbial fork in the road quite another to do what is needed to be done.set in a history long gone and cultural ethic we can't hope to in any way empathize with. even our lord ask the father for another is one thing to have a plan even a perfect plan,and quite another to overcome the theological cultural hermeneutics based in a deep seeded psychological archetype inherent in the traditionalism of any age on the brink of an identity crises.
    the focus of Christ is giving glory and honor to the father through doing his will.which he accomplished.

    now was Jesus righteous by Torah law or was that by the promise of the father apart from law...can't have it both ways.

    when we all come to the conclusion that Paul makes in Romans. maybe we will all more clearly see the the freedom of a mind set to the work of god in Christ and the new creation created in the likeness of him.
    morel and ethically flawed,but because of Christ's faith in god and the faithfulness to his father's word,we have opportunity to walk in the light.rom.12:1,2,3...

    blessings all rich constant

  6. (This is actually Douglas wearing the prosopon of Rachel.)

    I don't know if this came across in the book sufficiently strongly but a critical feature of modernity, along with its reading of the Reformation, is the propensity to "think forward" or prospectively--at least, this is how modernity narrates its approach to truth, however untruthfully. Sanders' made the observation some time ago that Paul's interpretation is riven by the two opposing dynamics of thinking forward and thinking backward, but without relating those to modern epistemological debates or important theological distinctions (e.g., Barth's opposition to natural theology as opposed to christological revelation as the correct starting point for Christian knowledge). I mention these related points only because it is going to be very important once we get to the Pauline text and try to start solving our difficulties there. The prevailing reading of the key text is largely oblivious to both the distinctions and their important implications.

    Nice job on the posts. I'm enjoying them.

  7. Douglas,
    Thanks for pointing that out. The distinction between the prospective/retrospective reading was revelation to me. One of those "I'd never heard that before, but now that you mention it, yes, I see it." moments.

  8. Richard
    on john mark hicks blog,his new post,shows how this new/shoulda coulda played out,just because we have the FAITH of CHRIST and the ethic of true faithfulness,centered in him....Kinda eliminates the need to ATTEMPT to legislate fundamental ethics.and in a world as over the top in individual rights as ours is,of course we find no fundamental center,to base intrinsic characteristics
    funny thing just one little word shifted the whole move of the world,

    blessings rich constant

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