A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Paul, justification, the Grand Narrative, and word usage

Good ole Chris Tilling wrote a post addressing justification in the context of the NT Wright/John Piper debate, in which he writes:

If words like ‘righteousness’, ‘Law’, ‘justification’, ‘promise’, ‘righteousness of God’ etc. are put in the context of Luther’s question about how to find a gracious God, they will tend to mean one thing. But if these words are placed within a story which is about God’s covenant promises to Israel, her purpose through God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to the clans of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3), her exile, the Prophetic promises in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel of return from exile, the vindication of God’s faithfulness and his covenant people, the gift of the Spirit, the universal acknowledgement of YHWH and the renewal of the covenant etc., those words will potentially mean something different, something bigger which includes that beat of God’s gracious and redeeming love, which Luther so poignantly grasped.

Let it be said that I neither agree with Piper or Wright fully on the issue of justification. Let is also be said that I think Wright’s work is brilliant in analyzing the big picture of Second-Temple Judaism and its relationship to Christianity. Matter of fact, he is the one author I have read enough of that I agree with the most (hopefully Wright will believe I am not trying to defame him!). Yes, even more so than John Wesley.

But one of my criticisms of Wright is that while he does a great job of seeing the big picture, he assumes that such a grand narrative is at the conscious forefront in its entirety (or at least the majority of it) in writings such as Paul’s. But that grand narrative is ‘authored’ by God (or for skeptics, the purposeful or accidental authoring of person or persons), whereas Paul and others are writing on a different level. The grand narrative is the belief in the historical past and direction of Gods’ creation as display through the passing of time and witnessed to by the Bible. As such, it is a great organizing schema for understanding the different smaller narratives, letters, exhortations, etc. written by people. Furthermore, it is probable that the persons themselves recognized the grand themes of exile, vindication, covenant, the Spirit, etc., or were at least subconsciously influenced by it.

However, seeing as the grand narrative is a more abstract generalization, it is problematic to state that Paul’s letters as such are direct expressions of that storyline. The problem is that word usage is derived more from the context of the other words and their immediate referents (and all their usages in other contexts), and only secondarily influenced by the larger context. But even then, the usage within the larger context reflects a purposeful usage of the author. To attribute to Paul a certain definition of dikaiow and dikaisunH based upon an abstract idea that is unlikely to be at the conscious level is problematic. The burden falls upon those who think the abstract grand narrative is being expressed consciously to show that within the texts in such a way that it can not be seen as merely a subconscious, or scripted, expression. If it is not a conscious expression, then it is unlikely a direct influence upon word usage.

As a result, I find the story about the grand narrative to be too distant to be helpful in exegeting at the micro-level. I do not think “righteousness of God”, “justification”, etc. should be understood along the lines of the grand narrative and covenant faithfulness as Wright would have it. Nor do I think that Piper’s and classic Protestantism’s emphasis upon the forensic ideas and forgiveness are correct, as I think they fail to fit within the whole of Romans (Luther’s emphasis of grace, while derived from the text, is not the only theme within Romans). Rather, I think it is more ethical in its nature, referring to the behavior (or future behavior in the context of Romans 4:6) of persons who place their trust in God in the manner that Jesus did, culminating in belief in resurrection. This fits within the constant theme of obedience leading to blessing and sin leading to cursing within the Torah, and are expressed on the textual level. It also fits within the ethical emphasis of Hellenic philosophy (Romans takes upon the character of a philosophical treatise). It has its forensic implications, and it fits within the grand narrative by illustrating part of the means of the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness. However, in my opinion it neither suffers from too narrow a focus (Luther and grace) or too abstract and broad a focus (Wright and the grand narrative).

Now if anyone can understand what I just wrote, I will buy you a cookie. 🙂


February 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Romans, justification, and faith

“Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” – Romans 4:4-5

This passage is often viewed as the contrast of polar opposites, where the first is those who do not trust in the gospel but rely upon their works, whereas the second only trust in God. Such a view presents an almost antinomian view, where justification is only had in the absence of works.

I would contend, however, that neither are not justified in the eyes of God, but it displays the difference in the moment of their Christian lives. The person who works as God calls is justified because that is what is due to them. It is declaration of reality. They do what is righteous, so they are in fact called righteous.

The latter represents Luther’s simul iustus et peccator (“At Once Justified and Sinner”). But it is not the descriptor of all those who place their trust in God. Rather, it is the trust of the convert, one could say. One humbled by their own offensiveness to God, and comes to God realizing their own reliance upon God with nothing of their own to stand upon. This person too is also justified.

But these two seem to contradict each other at first blush. Why would God justify the ungodly if He also justifies those who do what is right? Because at the heart of this is a confidence of God that those who do not work but trust (and rely upon) Him will become like those who work. God is calling this particular sinner righteous because he will become righteous because of his trust. It is a recognition of the soon to be realized potential of the current sinner.

Chapter 3 centers upon the idea that in Jesus Christ, there is a revealing of God’s righteous nature through the faith/trust that Jesus had (“faith of Christ”, not “faith in Christ”) for those who have faith (3:21-22). Justification is said to be had because of grace, through the “redemption of Jesus Christ” (3:24), which could be undersood as “the freedom that comes by way of Jesus Christ.”

As we move forward to chapter 6, Paul expresses the freedom from service to sin to service to righteousness (6:15-23). Why? Because of the trust that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead (6:1-11), drawing the conclusion that we should not let sin reign as we live in our bodies that will inevitably die (6:12-14). Later in Romans 10:9-10, Paul expresses that faith in the resurrection of Jesus leads to righteousness.

For Paul, faith in the power of God as revealed in Jesus is the grounds of hope for freedom from sin. But Jesus also reveals the way to live righteously based upon trust in God, giving tangible direction (instead of a list of laws) to fellow human beings who trust in God. So for the sinner who trusts in God, there is a foundation for hope that while they are still so greiviously prone to sin, because of their trust, they will become free from their offensive ways and begin to do what pleases God. This human potential, made possible only by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the sinner’s trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the grounds for the declaration of righteousness. God sees what the person will become. It is not a covering of one’s sinfulness, nor is it really a judicial fiction, nor is it a forgiveness per se (forgiveness, as Paul goes on to talk about in 4:6-8, is grounded upon the justification), but it is a realization of who the person will become (or already is).

It isn’t a Catholic justification either, where it entails both the declaration of righteousness and making righteous. For Paul, such an idea would become needlessly redundant, as trust in God for him is the grounds for the righteous life. The sinner is made righteous by faith in God’s power, not by some other process that justification for Catholic theology would entail (this is not to exclude any important role of the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification).

This makes faith’s importance not as a sufficent condition for salvation, but rather a necessary means of salvation (faith/trust alone not being enough, but conviction and repentance of sin being necessary on the part the person). Faith is no longer detached from salvation and justification as the tendency has been to do in Christian theology (especially in Protestant circles), but rather faith is intimitately bound up with salvation and justification. Justification also isn’t taken in a sense that is detached from its natural understanding of uprightness. It doesn’t  lead to an antinomian view of justification either, where a person need not mature as a Christian. Nor must another concept be crammed into the word that is foreign to its basic meaning, as a Catholic interpretation does.

In the end, God is graceful because he calls a person righteous before they are in actions. God credits to them what will be a future reality, but not a present one. One might even say that God reciprocates the trust the sinner has in God.

January 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment