My last post on the anthropology of justification, much to my pleasure, received some noteworthy criticisms. There were basically two objections:
- The proposed anthropology seems to solve the anthropological dualism in a technical, pedantic sense, but the solution is purely nominal. Now there is simply an alternative dualism, between the newly-conceived ontological self and the moral self, and justification still seems to be unrelated to the lived life.
- Closely related to this, Leithart’s account seems to express an undesirable theological voluntarism/nominalism. God’s will alone determines who and what things are without any particular controls of nature or reality. Seems like a high price to pay.
These two issues are very closely related, so I will not try to address them individually but will rather, hopefully, solve them together by unpacking Leithart’s wider account of anthropology and atonement.
How does Leithart’s account of anthropology avoid being purely formal or nominal? What prevents is from replacing a legal fiction with what basically amounts to a trick of ontological wordplay? In large part, the key here is to realize that Leithart does not allow for the existence of a “pure status” or a merely nominal relationship. If his ontology is relational, it is also realistic and enfleshed. It is impossible to have a relationship or status, either legal or personal, which does not have a concrete effect on the real-world life of the subject, both externally and internally. Indeed, the “external” application of a status pushes the “internal” self organically into a new shape and direction.
Another Leithart book, The Baptized Body, provides the President of the United States as an example. When a man is sworn into the presidency, nothing magically shifts in his inner “stuff.” Yet there is a definite change which cuts messily across the inner/outer, status/action distinctions. To quote (excuse the political anachronism):
William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated President, and what makes this rite of passage real is that thereafter everyone treats Mr. Clinton differently. Everyone defers to him, calls him by his new name—”Mr. President”—cozies up to him seeking support for legislation or urging him to ignore human rights abuses in Indonesia or China. Each of these is a reaffirmation of his new status, and each affirmation reminds Bill Clinton of his status and the obligations it places on him. He is constantly challenged to make what the Westminster Larger Catechism might have called an “improvement” on his inauguration, to live up to the obligations imposed by the rite of inauguration.1
Immediately upon inauguration, starting from the outside, the new President’s life changes. People treat him differently in concrete ways, which in turn changes his own concrete existence. His thoughts, feelings, and behaviors begin to adapt themselves to his new relationship to everyone else, even when they do so badly. Instead of skimming past news about international political developments, he begins to think of them as relevant to his life, to feel anxious or excited or concerned, and to take actual steps toward addressing them (writing speeches, calling White House staff members, setting up meetings with foreign leaders) from his official position. Even just the shift of awareness, the self-knowledge of a new identity, physically changes what’s going in their brains and eventually forms new neural pathways if the identity is reinforced inside and out.
For Leithart, then, justification works similarly. The ontological change which is involved in the transition from an unjustified man to a justified man is not purely nominal, not just a semantic game, but affects his actual existence. Now aware of Christ’s sacrifice, God’s mercy, and his membership within the community of the righteous, his mind, heart, and practice immediately start to shift. The proper, natural, and organic direction of this change is toward the image of Christ. The newly justified man may not change in this way (either by refusing to change or by changing in a wrong direction), but this is a perversion and an absurdity. It is like a man who, after his wedding, moves off by himself and continues dating other women. And like such a man, the justified man is essentially different, and worse, if he behaves in such a way as a justified man than he would be if he were an unjustified man. Either way, he is changed in the concrete, lived life. For his patterns of thought, feeling, and action have shifted permanently in a new shape and direction, whether in faithfulness or unfaithfulness. And though both routes are possible, the “natural” direction of the essential change wrought by justification is sanctification.
If it seems like a stretch that justification conceived of in these terms should lead organically to sanctification, it must be understood that the mere consciousness of justification alone does not, in Leithart’s account, bear the full weight of transformation. Rather, the Spirit employs several effective means to cultivate fruit in the justified, all of which hinge on the accomplishment of justification in history. The mechanics of this are bound up with Leithart’s view of atonement. Any discussion here would be incomplete without this atonement framework, but this post will run far too long if I provide such help, so I will have to reserve it for a third and (probably) final post.
- Peter J. Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007), pg. 128. ↩