One of the most common claims Catholic and Orthodox critics make of Protestant theology is that the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone amounts to a legal fiction. God calls us righteous, but we really aren’t righteous. God cooks the books, and the whole atonement is a clever gambit by which God uses Christ’s death to pull the wool over His own eyes.
This objection appears to have some force at face value. After all, if God just counts (“imputes”) Jesus’ righteous life to for us, and in fact nothing has changed about us personally, how is this not a legal fiction? (Sadly, some Protestant theologians have actually bit the bullet and granted this point.) How, then, is the atonement anything other than a divine self-con? Most importantly, how can the God who justifies by fiction really be just?
This is a problem that Peter Leithart addresses in his book, Delivered from the Elements of the World. He answers it with an appeal to a genuinely Protestant anthropology. The problem, he argues, arises from an anthropological dualism between the true inner man and the outward status. On both sides, people tend to assume that there is a hard and fast line between who someone really is (on the “inside”) and how they relate to the persons and societies outside of them. I have relations to the parties with whom I interact, but my own inner being is hermetically sealed from these, and they cannot affect who I am.
This anthropology naturally leads to the problem mentioned above. If this view of human nature is applied to justification as a forensic declaration based on faith, then we have the awkward situation of someone having an artificial external relation of right-ness toward God which is in fact fundamentally disjoined from the actually real reality that I am still a sinner on the inside.
Leithart claims, however, that the solution to this is neither to bite the bullet (confessing justification as a legal fiction) nor to hang the declaration of righteousness on the infusion of virtuous habits into the real, inner self (the Catholic error), but rather to correct the anthropology. We must remove the dualism between inner and outward human existence, allowing the two to interpentrate and mutually define each other. For Leithart, then, a truly Protestant anthropology means that a change of outward status in relation to a person, especially if that person is the first and foremost Other, namely God Himself, goes all the way down. To quote:
[I]ndividuals are what they are not because of what they are in themselves but by virtue of God’s regard for them…If this is the case, then justification—which by strict Protestant definition is a change in my status before God—changes me in the profoundest way possible. If I am what God judges me to be, then justification marks a transition and change in my identity, a change in my being and person—not in addition to a change of status but precisely because it is a change of status. It can even be said that the verdict changes the answer to the question of essence: if a thing is what God names it to be, if it is what it is in relation to God, then when God names me as “righteous” and counts me as righteous, I am essentially different. When God says “this sinner is just,” I am no longer the same man I was before that declaration. I continue to sin; but I now sin as one who has been redefined as a righteous man, and so remade. Once God declares me righteous, I simply am righteous…Protestant soteriology supposes a radically decentered self, a self whose real, factual existence is determined by the free and gracious word of God.[1. Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), pg. 326.]
The claim works like this: for a Protestant anthropology, to be a “righteous man” is not fundamentally to be a man with a certain level of internal moral character. It is to be a man whom God favors, to have a right standing with Him. This is something that comes sheerly as a gift of gratuitous forgiveness, and it turns the “sinner” into a “righteous one.” God simply has to say, “With you I am well pleased,” and it is so. Since, according to Leithart, the inner man and the outward status are inextricably intertwined, this reaches down into the roots of our being and redefines us.
Marriage, Leithart explains, can be an analogy of this. The declaration “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is pure declaration and does not involve a magical ability to tinker with someone’s soul. Nonetheless, it changes the people involved. Five minutes ago, they were simply a man and a woman. Now they are husband and wife. Nothing on the “inside” seems to have changed, and yet their whole identities and moral characters have been radically transfigured. They have new obligations, new privileges, new titles, new public significance, and a new future, all because they have, simply by a declaration of authority, been given a new relational status. The night before, if they had slept together or slept with anyone else, it would have been fornication. Tonight, if they sleep together, it is chaste, and if they sleep with anyone else, it is adultery. Even the moral quality of the very same actions has been changed by what seems to be a “merely external” change of status.
Moreover, if a man cheats on his wife, it is not because he is, somewhere deep within, still “really” an unmarried man. If the woman turns out to hate her husband, it does not mean that their marriage is only a legal fiction. The reality of the marriage is a public and objective relationship, with which the parties involved can either act appropriately or inappropriately, faithfully or unfaithfully.
Getting this is the key to Leithart’s proposal for the anthropology of sola fide. When God declares us righteous by faith alone, that is enough for us to simply be righteous. It is a fact: this man is justified, on right terms with God, because he has been baptized by faith into God’s righteous Son. If the justified man goes on to sin, it is not because his real self inside is an unjustified sinner, but rather because the justified man is misbehaving as though he were still an unjustified man. He still lives in the flesh until his resurrection, and so he still capitulates to fleshly behavior, but by virtue of his relationship to God in Christ he is a justified, righteous man.
Basically, it’s a relational anthropology. We are who and what we are in relation to others, and God is the ultimate Other, so He ultimately defines who and what we are by His free declaration that we are His righteous people in Christ.