The Anthropology of Sola Fide

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

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.

The Anthropology of Sola Fide

Protestant Reformation: The Day After

Two days ago was Reformation Day (and Halloween, of course, but that’s less interesting), and I never did get around to writing anything or throwing in my token of celebration. So I’m taking up a different topic on this later day: the aftermath of the Reformation. I want to offer a few thoughts on the way the Reformation has turned out and what lies ahead. Specifically, I want to highlight some of what I see as the good, the bad, and the hopeful.

The Good

  • Yay for the abolishment of indulgence sales! Many Catholics took Luther’s critiques to heart. Indulgences still exist, but as more of a formal relic than they did, and they are no longer sold for money and don’t exploit the poor. And of course this whole nonsense has never been a part of the Protestant churches which sprung from the Reformation. By Biblical standards, this was clearly one of the worst and most reprehensible problems with the medieval Catholic church.
  • Yay for the rejection of advanced Mariology! I’m not going to say that the official Catholic dogma technically transgresses into idolatry, but in any case I think the fixation on Mary in Catholic theology goes far beyond what is Biblically warranted. The accumulations of doctrines like her immaculate conception and assumption are painful for me to even contemplate. Mary was certainly a good example and should be remembered as such, and she was certainly blessed with a very unique role in redemptive history, but I’m happy that Protestantism is not concerned with thoughts of how Mary could stay a virgin forever, be taken body and soul to heaven, and be preserved from sin through the entirety of her life.
  • Yay for the rejection of independent, created grace and human righteousness! While I disagree with many of my Protestant brethren on the precise way that Catholicism went wrong on these issues and the exact way of a Biblical response, the Catholic system, especially in its medieval days, did have serious problems. We depend on Christ alone at every step. Grace is not created into us in some way of generated habits of righteousness. We do not have any hold over God’s grace; it is not an object which can be put in us and which we can then manipulate for better or worse by our wills. The union we share with Christ, by which we are righteous, is personal and alien and Spirit-ually connected at every moment by nature.
  • Yay for the rejection of papal and magisterial authority! Whatever role Scripture ought rightly to play in relation to tradition, reason, and experience, the idea that any infallible doctrinal authority might be placed in the hands of a vicar of Christ of a single body of scholars is simply foreign to the Kingdom of God in Christ. In addition to the formal problem of whether such authority is legitimate, much of the doctrine they have propagated from that authority is problematic.
  • Yay for the collapse of church/state unity! While the original Reformers continued to unite church and state, it was nonetheless the overall movements begun with the Reformation which eventually toppled this destructive practice. We now (particularly in Baptist circles) strongly resist the idea the Church should make such use of the powers of this age, and even the Catholic Church has come to understand this.

The Bad

  • Boo for the divisions in Christ’s body! While I am glad for the Reformation, and I don’t think we can or should pursue institutional unity between Catholic and Protestant churches at this point in history, I hate the way so many people on each side (especially ours) condemn those on the other. We have serious disagreements that make full unity impossible, but it is to our shame if we refuse to at least be united in love, good works, and our witness to the world and so divide Christ’s Body. (Because, as I have written on multiple occasions before, I don’t believe Catholics are heretics.)
  • Boo for the reintroduction of created grace in Protestant theology! After the Reformers rejected so forcefully the idea that God actually creates an independently operating grace in the believer which he can use and manage on his own, modern theologies of regeneration tend to reproduce precisely this error.
  • Boo for replacement of magisterium with confessions! Confessions are important, even vital, to establishing certain doctrinal standards and maintaining boundaries of unity. But they are not infallible, and there is not one single confession from the Reformation or any other context which has no errors, no shortcomings, or no room for reformulation (maybe reformation!) as the Church marches on. Yet in many circles, primarily Reformed ones, the classic confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) are treated as absolutely authoritative. Sure, the people who do this admit they are subservient to Scripture, but they act naively as though any confession repeats univocally the truth of God revealed through Scripture, and thus they create a de facto replacement for the Holy Tradition which so repels them from Catholicism.

The Hopeful

  • So much work has been done on the topic of justification in the past century (or centuries) that I truly believe a unified doctrine could be worked out, given sufficient effort, in the next century. That will depend on willingness and cooperation, but I believe the theological and exegetical work necessary to do this has already been accomplished. A unified doctrine of justification accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a goal visible on the horizon of the Church’s future, if we just reach out and take it.
  • Despite the many advances since the Reformation, it is not truly over. Much work still needs to be done, both in places where the Reformation never really took root (like Italy and many South American regions) and in places where people are as Reformed as can be. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei: “the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The Reformation will, in a certain sense, never be finished even if we one day reach some glorious reunification of a purified Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Church. Until Christ comes, we will always need to reevaluate, criticize, destroy, rebuild, repackage, rediscover, and relearn how to respond, both theologically and practically, to the truth of the Word of God spoken by the Spirit. Fortunately, I see great evidence that this work is ongoing and will be quite fruitful.
  • In the near future, I have hope we may see more interdenominational cooperation between conservative Christians of all traditions as the West becomes increasingly hostile in culture and law to orthodox Christian values and ways of life. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will all need to work together to do the work of the Kingdom and sustain our Christian witness in the coming dark ages, and I am convinced that many, if not all, will rise to the challenge and make the Church appear more united that it has in a long time.
Protestant Reformation: The Day After

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite? (Continued)

Continuing from my last post, here are my responses to the other 4 reasons why Catholics and Protestants supposedly cannot at all reunite. I think type A unity, explained in the last post, is a minimum requirement to fulfill the commands of Scripture for a Church of one mind and one love, so I want to deal with as many of these obstacles as possible.

Reason #3: The Sufficiency of Christ’s Mediation

The next charge leveled against Rome is that they deny that Christ is the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5):

By setting up Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix with Christ, Rome explicitly denies the sufficiency of Christ’s mediation on His people’s behalf. As the Scripture says in 1 Tim. 2:5, there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Thus neither Mary nor any other besides Jesus Christ can be a mediator between God and men. Rome also sets up saints as mediators, hence they pray to saints, that the saints might make appeals to God for them…Rome’s doctrine of the mediation of saints is nothing but a dressing up of pagan superstition with pseudo-Christian terminology.

The largest problem with this accusation is that Catholics quite explicitly deny that anyone else can be considered a mediator in the sense that Christ is called “Mediator.” But in truth, we all accept at least one thing that might loosely be called “mediation” from people besides Christ: prayer requests.

We Protestants all ask for other people to pray for us, and this is perfectly Biblical. Yet it is also possible to label prayer for others under the word “mediation.” This doesn’t endanger us, though, because we know that our prayers for each other are radically different from and inferior to Christ’s unique mediation. No problem here.

This is, however, more or less what Catholics are attempting to do in invoking the saints. Like other things I’ve mentioned, this is an oversimplification and not perfectly accurate, but shows the gist. In Catholic theology, what’s basically going on is asking people who are in heaven with Christ to pray for you, and since the prayer of a righteous man is very effective, the prayers of saints who are done with sin must be especially so. If we are going to have a problem with this Biblically, we can argue that it’s not possible to talk to dead Christians, but that’s a far less serious matter than challenging Christ’s sole role as Mediator.

Of course, the application of titles like Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix to Mary bring their own host of problems, and these matters are actually a source of debate within Catholicism. Catholic theologians tend to be quite careful in elaborating what each of these do and do not mean, making sure that they do not impinge on Christ’s sufficent, once-for-all person and work. Are these terms problematic? Probably. Should they be abandoned? I tend to think so. But when they are specifically articulated so as to preserve the centrality of Christ, I don’t think they have to constitute heresy.

Reason #4: The Glory of God vs. Images

Another serious criticism:

The Second Commandment states,  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thingthat is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6). Thus, worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word, is forbidden and is equated with hating God…However, against the precepts of Scripture and the reason of a sane mind, Rome multiplies images of God and saints to be worshipped…To simply observe the gross idolatry and worship of images in Roman worship ought to make any biblically informed conscience cringe. All the justifications of images and the evasions futile; they are simply nullifying the precepts of God so that their traditions can be maintained (Mk. 7:9).

Basically, this criticism comes down to the Reformed view that any and all pictures of Jesus Christ, but especially, those which might be used in any worship context, are necessarily idolatrous. This view even includes, say, the painting of Jesus on your grandmother’s wall or the artwork in a children’s Bible.

The problem is, I don’t think the first part of this, that making images of Jesus is always idolatry, has a solid Biblical foundation. While it is true that the divine nature itself, the Godhead, cannot be imaged in any way, and that the person of the Father must never be imaged, the Son has taken a human body into His person and made it Himself. An image of the human body of Jesus Christ is not an image of the divine essence, even if it is an image of the Second Person of the Trinity. If Jesus had a body, then the body could be seen by men, and if it could be seen by men, it could imaged by them. Even a mental image in memory, say by the aging John while writing his Gospel, should be idolatry according the logic of this criticism.

It is not only Catholics who disagree with the Reformed on pictures of Jesus, but Lutherans, the Orthodox, and (de facto) most Baptists. The precise details vary between them, and it must be admitted that such images are given a possibly uncomfortable prominence in Catholicism, but the point remains that Christ alone is worshipped, and that the 2nd Commandment isn’t necessarily transgressed. This issue I definitely think precludes type C unity, and possibly B, but not A at all, in my opinion.

Reasons #5 and #6: The Pope and Catholic Church as Antichrist and Whore of Babylon

So they charge:

The Scripture prophesies of a time of great apostasy from within the Christian Church, led by the Man of Sin (2 Thes. 2). This Man of Sin can be none other than the Pope of Rome.3 “Question: Who is the Antichrist?  Answer: With all Protestants we reply: the Pope of Rome. The papists deny this strongly.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel,The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, p. 44).

In the book of Revelation, the Church of Rome is called the Whore of Babylon, as the Jewish Church was often called a whore when she veered off into idolatry. The Church of Rome is the second of Beast of Revelation 13. Whereas the first Beast was the pagan Roman empire, the second is the Papal Roman empire.  And I beheld, another beast coming out of the earth, which had two horns like the Lamb, but he spake like the dragon. (Rev. 13:11, 1599 GNV)

To be blunt, this is just ridiculous fantasy. The Reformers fell prey to the great temptation in every age to identify the Antichrist and his kingdom with our own enemies, and the enemy of the Reformers was the Catholic Church under the Pope. There are no legitimate grounds for this entirely nonsensical assertion.

Honestly, I don’t feel the need to go into much depth on these two points. Let it suffice to say that the enemies of Revelation are mostly likely intended to be understood either as Rome (the empire) or Jerusalem. Both of those are possible, though Rome seems more so, and the position that the Roman Catholic Church is in view is obviously anachronistic eisegesis. Whatever happened to the sola Scriptura defended in the first point of the article?

Obviously, if this charge were true, all forms of unity with Catholicism would be unacceptable. But it’s not.

Conclusion

These six reasons for why Catholics and Protestants can never are mostly off-base. While many of them can be granted as reasons for ruling out type C unity, none of them are good reasons for preventing type A unity. With enough work in the future, with revisions and compromises in unswerving commitment to Scripture truth on both sides, improvements can be made, and certaintly greater unity within the whole Body of Christ is possible. Will Protestants and Catholics ever be one Church again? It’s impossible for now, and probably for a very long time to come, though in the distant future we should recall that with God all things are possible. But in the mean time, there room to work together and embrace each other as truly following our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite? (Continued)

Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)

Unity. This word frequently presses on my mind in relation to the Church. There appears to be little unity these days. We’ve splintered into thousands of denominations. Even the large denominations and groups are internally divided in many ways. Churches split from churches for stupid reasons. Churches fall apart because of horrible, divisive people. So many groups make their distinctives as though they were the Gospel itself. Baptists condemn those who baptize infants, conservative Protestants in general condemn those who don’t follow sola fide, Pentecostals accuse other groups of lacking the Spirit, Catholics anathemize anyone who doesn’t follow the Pope, Calvinists accuse all others of compromising God’s sovereignty or even works-righteousness, many evangelicals (or more fundamentalist ones) condemn everyone who doesn’t subscribe to strict Biblical inerrancy, progressives accuse conservatives of bigotry, etc.

This is to our shame. Do we have the right to divide Christ? Of course we must stand up for truth, and rebuke and correct fellow believers when they go wrong, and rally around the Gospel of Christ as opposed to all false Gospels, but where is the line? I believe wholeheartedly that the line is Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God and Lord of All. Those who trust in Him are all bound in a way that condemns and transcends their divisions.

I, alas, do not have all of the experience and eloquence to make the case I want to make, so I want to highlight an amazing series of blog posts by Alastair Roberts. I deeply agree with and resonate with almost everything he says in these posts about church unity and denominations. I’m just going to link to his posts on this and provide an excerpt from each.

#1: The Denominational Church

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

#2: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

#3: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

#4: Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 3

Theology is the Church’s task of narrating the itinerary that will lead us to God. Theology must retain both the simplicity and the complexity of the gospel. Theology should not lose us in the back alleys, but must always keep us directed towards our destination. Theology, when done well, will help us to see the finest details of the varied sights along our path, all the while identifying the path itself with the most wonderful simplicity and clarity.

The theologian should always recognize that the path is so much greater than his itinerary can ever be. Other guides might have noticed things that he has missed. Furthermore, the fact that another guide does not mention some of his favourite sights does not necessarily mean that they are directing people along different paths.

Jesus Prayed, “May They Be One as We Are One” (My Growing Passion for Church Unity)

Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

Tradition.

Such an interesting word for Christians. It seems innocent enough, but as it turns out there are very many ways it can be used, few of which are entirely free of controversy. Take, for example, the following statements:

“You’re just follow human tradition instead of the Bible!”

“Tradition tells us that John died on the isle of Patmos under house arrest.”

“Our youth Christmas carolling is an important tradition in our church.”

“The traditional view of marriage is increasingly under fire in the popular media.”

These four statements all use “tradition” very differently, and each of these could be controversial, though not all to the same extent. But this just goes to show how not straightforward understanding the proper role of tradition in the Church can be.

What Do We Mean by “Tradition?”

First off, let’s break down a few basic kinds of tradition. These aren’t technical names, just convenient labels to explain my points. Here are the broad categories:

  • There are local traditions, which are basically unique things that a congregation does and has done for some time. These may or may not come from the Bible in any meaningful sense. But someone started doing it in the past, and now people continue. This kind of tradition can be useful and pleasant, but since it is uniquely local and not tied to fundamental beliefs, they can be removed when necessary or desirable. They should not be debated to the point of remotely serious division.
  • Next are confessional traditions. These are a step above local traditions that come from common denominational ties. They consist of a group of shared beliefs and practices more sharply refined, and are usually outlined in confessional documents (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith) or other large written statements (e.g. The Baptist Faith and Message). These traditions determine the differences between denominations, so if you want to change or challenge these traditions, you may find yourself seeking a new church.
  • Historic traditions make up the next group. These are beliefs and practices that have always been common or dominant in the Church, but aren’t spelled out in most creeds or confessions, and were never very controversial in the past. The “traditional view of marriage” falls into this category, as does the belief in the future, physical new earth. When these are challenged, the waters are always a little more murky. Some are more important than others, and it takes serious debate to sort out how to handle what.
  • Finally, there are orthodox traditions or creedal traditions. These are essential beliefs shared by all Christianity, and are mostly written down in some of the early creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athansian Creed, among some other documents. The Trinity, the relationship between Jesus’ two natures, and similar matters are examples. This kind of a tradition tends to define the boundaries of the Christian faith. Within these boundaries, we assume people to be true followers of Jesus. Outside these boundaries are heresy and false religion.

Now, we as Christians all agree that Scripture is in some way an authority over what we believe. But how does that relate to things in these kinds of traditions, especially the last group? There are three major approaches within Christianity. I want to lay these out simply with the analogy of streams of water.

Sola Scriptura: A Protestant View

One of the most divisive points in the Protestant Reformation, as well as the major wall separating Catholics and Protestants on many issues, is the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine states that God speaks His final authoritative word in Scripture and nowhere else. (Technically, this word appears first in God’s words and deeds in history, climaxing in Jesus, and from that point fills Scripture, but I digress.)

This does not mean that it’s impossible to find God’s truth outside of the Bible’s pages. If I read the Bible and then tell you what I read, you would still be getting God’s truth, only through my words. Of course, that’s only the case if I tell you accurately what I read. If I forgot, misinterpreted, or otherwise corrupted something I passed on to you you’d need to go back to Scripture yourself to fix it.

So for my first stream analogy, imagine there is a single stream running down a mountain. This stream is Scripture, and the water source in the mountain is God’s revelation of Himself. The water itself is truth. If you need some water, you can go to the stream and find it.

But suppose that I fill a bucket up with water from this stream and bring it back to my village. Now we all have access to the water from my bucket. This represents the role of tradition. Truth from Scripture is collected into small “buckets” of tradition so that we can get it it more easily.

This bucket, though, has limitations. It’s not at all impossible that it could get polluted or corrupted after some time. We might get some water out of it one day and realize that it’s contaminated. Or after a while it might simply not be as fresh and cool, making it less satisfying for the thirsty man. In either of these cases we’d need to go back to the stream to get fresh, pure water to replace the contaminated water in our bucket. Likewise, sometimes we might find that our traditions of different kinds have gone astray, or at least lost some of their original power due to familiarity and changing cultures or languages. In this case we need to dig back into Scripture to refresh our knowledge of God.

Dei Verbum: A Catholic View

The Catholic view of Scripture and tradition was laid out most clearly in a document entitled Dei Verbum (Latin for “Word of God”) during the Second Vatican Council. While it has existed for much, much longer than that, this is the most up-to-date and definitive explanation. According to Catholic theology, both Scripture and “sacred Tradition” come from God’s same self-revelation to the prophets and apostles. God gave His word to them as a large body of inspired truth, some of which came down to us in the Bible and some of which came down to us by teaching and preaching ministries of the Church.

To adapt the stream analogy for the Catholic view, imagine two streams, for Scripture and sacred Tradition, going down a mountain. Both of them have their head in the same water source, God’s revelation. But the streams take different paths and are different sizes. By the time they reach the bottom of the mountain, they flow into the same lake, the full teaching of the Church.

If anyone wants a drink of water, where should he go? He can go to either of the streams, or the lake they both flow into. Either way he will be getting the same water of God’s truth. But the stream of Tradition is larger, and the combined lake larger still. This is where it is simplest and preferred to get your water.

It’s important to note that in this view, Scripture and sacred Tradition aren’t two totally different things. They both flow from the same word from God and flow into the same body of Church teaching. Therefore to Catholics, if something isn’t in one stream, such as Scripture, but it is in the other, you are still completely justified in believing it and indeed should. This is very much the case with certain doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary (that Mary was taken body and soul to heaven either just before or just after death) or the practice of praying to the saints, both of which come out of the Tradition and not (despite people occasionally saying otherwise) from Scripture itself. 

Regula Fidei: An Orthodox View

Technically, regula fidei, “rule of faith,” is not a phrase unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church. But it seems the easiest way to sum them up. For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of a larger Holy Tradition. This Holy Tradition includes Scripture along with the early creeds and ecumenical councils, the received liturgy, and to some degree the writings of the early church fathers.

In Orthodoxy, this makes Scripture and the other parts of Tradition in an interdependent relationship. They all work together and complement other to make of the whole teaching of the Apostles passed down within the Church. Whereas Protestants put Scripture above tradition, and Catholics tend to put Scripture beneath Tradition, Orthodoxy places Scripture within Tradition. Of course, there is a spectrum like with everything else. Some versions of sola Scriptura, those which are also called prima Scriptura, are basically the same as some looser versions of the Orthodox view.

For the streams analogy, imagine again God’s revelation as the water source on top of the mountain. In this case there is a large stream flowing out from it, which is the Holy Tradition. This stream has many smaller branches coming in and out, including Scripture as a major branch, but also branches for Eucharist liturgies, creeds, etc. Yet these all come together again and again as one stream full of the water of truth.

Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

An Experimental Framework for Justification

Justified. So we are as believers. We stand before God in some kind of right relationship. We know that this is done because of Jesus’ work for us. But the Bible can be a bit unclear on the details. As I mentioned in a recent post, both Catholic and Protestant views have strengths and weaknesses (though I obviously do land notably more Protestant myself), and I think the popular understandings of justification all miss at least a little something. My best insight was that justification does not have to have a completely uniform meaning. So I went to work trying to sort out what the Bible actually says about justification for my personal study, only to decide that what I came up with should become a blog post. Here, then, are the notes I made:

For now, I’m experimenting with a 3/4 distinction framework for understanding justification. At its most basic and common, justification involves rightness, a good standing in relation to God. This broader concept encompasses four subpoints, labeled J0-J3, all of which are to some degree bound up together. I do not expect to see all Scripture references to justification as falling neatly into these categories, for they necessarily will overlap, especially J0 and J1. The broad concepts are as follows:

J0: Ground zero justification. This is the finished work of Christ on our behalf as humanity. He lived, died, rose, and ascended to accomplish our rightness with God dramatically, forensically, and ontologically. He fulfilled the covenant for man so that man could be united with God. This justification is accomplished by Christ alone. It is a work of unilateral grace for our forgiveness and reconciliation, done once for all on behalf of all. By this justification we are saved.

J1: Initiation. This is the first subjective event of justification. It refers to the one event at which point an individual is reconciled to God through Christ, becoming righteous in Him before God and man. J1 can be subdivided into two moments.

J1.1: Union. The first moment of J1 justification is union with Christ, as the Spirit works to bring His life into us and make us one with Him. This ontological union is the fount of all our goodness, whether in the form of faith or works. It comes from the life of Christ we receive in union with Him. United with Christ also means that we share in His personal justification, appropriating the reality of J0.

J1.2: Declaration. The second moment of J1 justification is declaration, specifically God’s declaration that we are among His righteous ones (or in His righteous One). This declaration is made on the basis of faith, which is the firstfruits of J1.1 justification. Our faith becomes the first mark that we have become God’s children through Christ, and so we are declared as righteous.

J2: Identification. The second part of subjective justification, which continues throughout the life of the believer on earth, is identification. This is how God identifies who are His righteous ones (believers in Christ) before men, especially for the other righteous. Unlike in the OT, they are not identified by faithfulness to the Law, but by their faith and (unlike the prior dimensions of justification) their good deeds of love. Faith, however, remains the firstfruits, and both the believer’s faith and good works are still remembered to be the result of union with Christ, the personalized actualization of His life of faith/works.

J3: Final vindication. The third and final subjective part of justification, which occurs at final judgment, is our final vindication. This is the act whereby God gives His public verdict: righteous. This judgment is made in reference to the entire post-J1 life, though it is guaranteed by the J1 event. Because Christ grounds all of our faith and works through the Spirit, we will come out justified. This sentence is the last word on our eternal destiny, though it remains infallibly in accordance with the word God declares in J1.2.

 Following are my more in depth explanations of each point.

J0 Justification

J0 justification is the first and primary dimension of justification, though not necessarily the most discussed by the Biblical authors. Instead, it lies behind all parts of justification as their base and ground.

The essence of J0 justification is the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It is a work of free grace for our redemption (Rom. 3:24), causing our life by His own faithfulness to God (Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16) which counts also on our behalf, both anhypostatically an enhypostatically.

J0 justification is a work God began and indeed finished while we were yet ungodly sinners (Rom. 4:5, 5:8-10), before we had anything to offer God. It is completely gratuitous (Tit. 3:7), brought about solely by God’s salvific will toward mankind (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:10). We bring nothing to the table when it comes to this justifying righteousness, only God through Christ (Phil. 3:9).

While all of Christ’s person and life was directed towards our salvation, J0 justification centers primarily on the expiation of the Cross (Rom. 5:9) and the vindication of the Resurrection (Rom. 4:25). Because of what Jesus accomplished once-for-all as the high priest for all mankind (Heb. 9:28, 10:10), we are justified before God.

This justification consists of God’s stern, uncompromising judgment of human sin (Rom. 8:3) along with His gracious, saving acquittal of human sinners (Rom. 5:6-8, Zech. 3:4) in Jesus Himself. In this God saves the unrighteous through the vindication of His own righteousness (Rom. 3:4, cf Ps. 51:4).

J1 Justification

J1 justification refers to the initial salvation event in the believer’s life, when he goes from an unjustified sinner to a justified saint. This is considered the beginning of the life of faith, the conversion and spiritual birth. “Justification” is not, in fact, applicable to all the dimensions of this event, but only to two of them. These two dimensions are the component moments of the J1 justification event. (Moments, in this case, are meant to be taken in relation to logical, not temporal, order. The two moments of J1 justification are considered chronologically simultaneous but logically sequential.)

J1.1: Union

The first moment of J1 justification is union with Christ. When we hear the Gospel word in the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5), God make us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). The emphasis here is on with Christ, for at this moment we are incorporated into Christ and become one with Him through the Spirit. This event itself is not J1.1 justification, but what Paul refers to as our “call” (1 Cor. 1:26, Eph. 1:18, Eph. 4:4, 2 Tim. 1:9, 2 Pet. 1:10) and John as being “born again/from above” (John 3).

At our call/new birth when we become “in Christ,” we receive all of the spiritual benefits (Eph. 1:3) He has accomplished for us, including His J0 justification. What He achieved through His death and resurrection, we receive as well (Rom. 6:3-4). We become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). In this way we participate in J0 justification, for as Christ has been justified (1 Tim. 3:16) in God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17) we are justified by Him (Gal. 2:16-17).

J1.2: Declaration

The second moment of J1 justification I call “declaration,” in reference to God’s word of justification that we are righteous (or among His righteous, or in His righteous One). The very first effect of the union with Christ at the time of J1.1 justification is faith (1 Cor. 12:9, Gal. 5:22 KJV, Eph. 2:8, Phil. 1:29). When the Spirit gives us new life, part of which includes J1.1 justification, we exhibit faith as the firstfruits. Thus we believe, which the NT writers usually assume is the beginning of our personal salvation.

On the basis of this faith (as opposed to works of the Law, Rom. 3:20), publicly recognizing our new righteousness from Christ, God justifies us, that is, He declares us as righteous, which we now are indeed (Rom. 3:28, 3:30,4:5, 5:1, Gal. 2:16-17). Faith alone is the basis for this justification, because it is the initial result of J1.1 union. Once we go from being one of the sinners to being one of the righteous (1 Cor. 6:11, transfered from the power of darkness to the kingdom of the Son, cf. Col. 1:13), we exhibit faith as proof and so God justifies us (declares us to be those who are right with Him).

This declaration is itself somewhat paradoxical, for in declaring us as righteous in Christ God also exposes us all as utterly sinful in ourselves (Rom. 3:9-19). For only is we are bankrupt in ourselves do we have any need of transition, any need of atonement. Only the sick need a doctor (Luke 5:31). So in Christ we are made righteous along with the exposure of our utter sinfulness.

As an important qualifier, faith in this case does not merit justification of any kind; it is not a requirement of goodness which we must meet for God to reward us with a right standing with Himself. We are justified (declared as righteous) because faith demonstrates that we have been united with Christ.

J2 Justification

After J1 justification and until J3 justification, we experience J2 justification, which is primarily from God and before other people. J2 justification is not a making or setting right, as some other aspects of justification involve, but a recognition of righteousness. J2 follows from J1.1 in that it is God’s continual work of identifying us as righteous people in Christ.

For the Jews of Paul’s time, J2 justification occurred by faithfully adhering to the Jewish Law, especially in the defining rite of circumcision. How do you know who God’s people are? According to the Jews, you look to their circumcision and their faithfulness to the Law in general (this theme as a major target of Paul’s polemics can be seen throughout Romans and Galatians, see Rom. 2). This is justification by works of Law/Torah: God’s righteous people are identified by doing the Law.

Scripture teaches clearly that we cannot be justified in any way by doing the Law (Rom. 3:20, 3:28, 9:32, Gal. 2:16, 3:10). Whether we trust in the Law as the basis or as the proof of our righteous standing with God, we are left hopeless, because when the Law is our measure “everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed” (see Deut. 27:26). Therefore, as we said before, no one can be justified in any of these senses by Law (Gal. 3:11).

On the other hand, while faith is clearly the primary mark of God’s people (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 3:28, Rom. 4:5, 2 Cor. 8:7), the righteous do also show visible signs of their identity, namely good deeds of love (John 13:35, 1 Cor. 13:13,2 Cor. 8:7, Gal. 5:6, 22-23, Eph. 3:17, Col. 1:4, 1 Thess. 1:3, 1 Jn. 3:14), especially caring for those in need (Matt. 25:35-36, Luke 3:11, Jas. 2:15-16, 1 Jn. 3:17-18). These good deeds identify us as righteous (again, remembering that we are only righteous in union with Christ, and not on our own, see John 15:5, Gal. 2:20) before all people, both for the unity of believers (enabling us to fulfill injunctions such as Gal. 6:10) and for God’s glory among unbelievers (Matt. 5:16). In this way we are J2 justified, that is, our status as just before God is made known.

James clearly speaks the most strongly on this matter, for he says that any faith we claim to have is dead and useless, unable to save (even perform its role in J1.1 justification), without the accompanying good deeds (Jas. 2:14, 17, 20). A bare belief in the facts of the Gospel doesn’t prove we are in Christ any more than it proves demons are (Jas. 2:19). SinceJ2 justification deals with this-wordly identification of the righteous, James can proclaim that we are justified by faith and works (Jas. 2:21-26) without impinging on the unique and complete work of Christ for our J0 and J1 justification, and without contradicting Paul.

J3 Justification

On the day of judgment we receive J3 justification, our final vindication. Having been made right with God on the basis of Jesus’ objective work for mankind in J0 justification, having appropriated this subjectively in J1 justification, and having been identified throughout our lives as God’s people in J2 justification, we finally receive our public verdict from God and before all people: righteous.

Now, there are two points to make about J3 justification. Firstly, our justified verdict at final judgment is guaranteed at our J1 justification event (Rom. 14:4, 1 Cor. 1:8, Phil. 1:6, 2 Tim. 1:12). When God declares us as righteous, as His righteous people, in J1 justification, He promises that His last day verdict will match. Therefore we are eternally secure from the first (John 6:39-40, John 17:12, Rom. 8:29-39, 2 Cor. 4:14, Jude 1:24).

Secondly and almost paradoxically, the declaration of righteousness we receive at J3 justification is made with reference to (or, to use NT language, “according to”) our works (Matt. 16:27, 2 Cor. 11:15, 2 Tim. 4:14, 1 Pet. 1:17,Rev. 2:23, 20:12-13). While, again, it is clearly maintained that our works flow from Christ’s life in us and not any goodness we achieve on our own (Gal. 2:20, esp. KJV), it remains the case that God will give us a verdict recognizing what we do and say (Ps. 62:12, Ezek. 18:30, Matt. 12:37, Rom. 2:5-10, 2 Cor. 5:10). In a way, we could say that at the final judgment will be be judged not for our own deeds but for those of Jesus living in us!

The connection between the two points made here about J3 justification is found in the Holy Spirit bringing Christ’s own life into the believer. All believers have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 1 Cor. 3:16, Gal. 4:6, Eph. 1:13, 2 Tim. 1:14), and He is the one by whom we are united to Christ, for He is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Spirit, bringing Christ’s faithfulness into our lives personally, produces the fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) which fulfills the law of love (Rom. 13:10) to our vindication on judgment day (John 10:29, Rom. 14:4, Jude 1:24). So we can reiterate that our J3 justification is (1) assured at J1, (2) done according to our works, and (3) ultimately grounded in Christ’s life and work for us in J0.

[As an end note, I have drawn these thoughts from several disparate sources, namely classic Reformed theology, popular level Protestant apologetics, Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, N. T. Wright, and some really cool blog which I don’t remember the name of. All working together seem to make better sense of the actual text of the Scriptures than anything I had heard before.]

An Experimental Framework for Justification

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight

The Fight

A Catholic bishop and a Presbyterian preacher walk into a bar. Seeing that they were both teachers of Scripture, they began talking theology over drinks. The discussion soon got heated when they got to the topic of justification by faith. Before anyone knew what had happened, both men lay dead on the floor, beaten and bruised.

In an instant they found themselves before God. They were told by an angel to be patient while God prepares to declare their destinies. But they couldn’t control themselves and blurted out, “Who was right, Lord? Are we justified instantly by faith alone or progressively by faith and works?”

Immediately God responded, “Neither of you are justified by either faith or works, for in your dispute you’ve both proven not to be my children! Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you.”

Just-As-If-I’d Never Sinned

What is the point of this little story? Well, it doesn’t have much of one, I just wanted to start with a story, especially if I could use the classic bar setup. But it is related to the topic of this post, namely the relationship between faith, works, and justification.

From an average Protestant perspective, we have the doctrine of sola fide, aka justification by faith alone. In this account, while we start legally on the hook for our sin and guilty in God’s court, when we put our faith in Christ God immediately declares us righteous, giving us a not-guilty verdict and acquitting us of the charges against us. Thus we are saved from God’s wrath. From that point on our faith naturally produces works through the Spirit.

From a Catholic perspective (which I hope I am presenting accurately), justification is a state bound up with sanctification (becoming holy). When we become Christians, we start becoming sanctified and so also justified because God infuses us with grace that creates faith and works if we are willing to make use of it. As we make use of God’s grace provided through the Holy Spirit, we become more holy and therefore find ourselves increasingly in right standing before God. In most people, though, death comes before we are completely holy and completely justified, so we must undergo cleansing in Purgatory until the process is complete.

The Part Where I Define Stuff

What both of these positions have in common is underlying grace. For the usual Protestant view of sola fide, we can only be acquitted because Jesus takes our condemnation for us out of sheer, undeserved grace. We can’t earn His sacrifice, but merely say “yes” to it. Likewise for the Catholic, we can only be sanctified and justified by grace. All of our faith and works which justify us can be traced back to God’s grace provided through the Spirit.

Of course, it is important to consider what faith and works are to discuss this issue. We can’t think of faith as just plain belief, thinking something is true. After all, even the demons have that kind of faith, and they are doomed. Saving faith, according to James especially, is an active thing which demands to be made real through works. Without works, we are taught, faith is dead and useless, totally incapable of justifying anyone.

What are works, though? That depends what we’re talking about. Works can usually refer to three things: actions which are done in order to fulfill the Law, anything good anyone does at all, or the good things we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. The first kind is the mostly blatantly ruled out as having anything to do with justification. Paul goes on and on about how following the Law can’t fix anything. All Christians must categorically deny the possibility of being justified by keeping the Law to avoid falling under Paul’s stern condemnation of the Judaizers.

The other two kinds of works are where things get less clear cut. There is a difference between works we manufacture on our own to be good and works the Spirit creates in us. The former is clearly excluded from justification when Paul rules out all boasting in our own righteousness. If we are saved, we do not get credit. No one can say that he earned or performed his own way into a right standing with God, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

On the other hand, there are the good deeds done because of the Holy Spirit living in us. Most Protestants would still deny that these have any role in our justification, even though they come solely by God’s grace. Proponents of something called the New Perspective on Paul would generally argue that these works do play into our final justification, but that even then we are promised this end when we believe. Catholics would include all these good works in the process of becoming holy, which is what carries our justification.

Speaking Different Languages

Much of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, but not all of it, on justification can be traced back to miscommunication regarding these three kinds of works. When the average Protestant hears the Catholic say we are justified by both faith and works, he assumes the first and/or second kind of works, so they hear “We are justified by faith and keeping the Law” or “we are justified by faith and our own efforts to do good.” When Catholics hear us claim that justification comes apart from works, many hear that people who live fruitless lives of clearly dead faith will be saved as long as they agree with the facts of the Gospel.

So when we understand faith as a living, active, life-changing kind of belief, the kind of trust in Jesus which bears fruit through the Holy Spirit, there are indeed many Catholics who would more or less agree that this faith alone justifies. Likewise, if we understand the works Catholics say contribute to justification as the good we do because of the Holy Spirit in us, caused entirely by grace, then while not all Protestants would agree, most would drop the charge of a “work your way to heaven” heresy.

Neither position is without its weaknesses, though. Sola fide will never quite feel snuffly fitting with James 2 (especially verse 24), and it actually does lead and has led many people to think that fruitless “Christians” are assured of salvation, or that believing facts and praying a prayer are enough. The Catholic view I think sometimes stumbles through Paul and lends itself to many abuses, such as legalism, self-righteousness, performance-based spirituality, and even superstition in combination with any ambiguous form of their sacramental theology.

Resetting the Focus: Grace is a Person, Not a Thing

I, personally, take a step back from the standard Protestant and Catholic views to focus on what—actually who—they have in common. We all agree that Jesus is the true cause of our salvation and that we owe it all to Him. When it comes to the issue of justification, Jesus already lived a life of perfect faith and perfect works in our place. He trusted the Father, did good deeds, kept the Law, and made all around flawless performance on our behalf. When we meet Him in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, all we do is nothing. By simply not resisting Him, we are spiritually united to Him, with His own faith coming into our hearts and His own works flowing out through our hands. Christ Himself is the grace behind all faith and works we do. Jesus’ life flows into us through faith and out of us through works.

In this way, we receive both justification and sanctification from Jesus’ own innocent status and perfect holiness. In one moment we are united to Christ in faith and so become right with God and set apart for Him, while we spend the rest of our lives being transformed to live Christ’s right life before God and become purely holy all the way through.

I think if we keep Jesus the main thing, looking at it all through the light of His own person and work instead of impersonal versions of grace, faith, justification, and holiness, then we’re in good shape. While I do think sola fide, when given proper nuance and focus, is a superior way to speak of our right standing before God over the Catholic articulation, that is secondary to saying our salvation is all of Christ. In the end what matters is if we agree that we are accepted not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done and still does for us, in us, and through us. Amen?

All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24

(I am aware, my more theologically minded readers, that I did not really interact with at least one other important view on justification, namely the New Perspective on Paul, especially as proposed by N. T. Wright. But this post is long enough as it is, and the NPP, while certainly important to this discussion, would not greatly affect what I have to say.)

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight