Justification: on rightly aligning St Paul

Outside a relatively narrow theological circle, talk of justification is more likely to be about text alignment –a question about an entirely different sort of font! Within the church, and most especially within evangelical churches (except when reading Paul it is more often absent outside them), it refers to particular understandings of salvation: namely that, as the article has it:

XI. Of the justification of Man
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

One of the problems in discussing Reformation debates such as that entered into by the eleventh of the 39 articles, is that modern biblical studies is engaged in ever more complex disputes about what Paul – the primary user of the language of justification in the Bible – means by such a phrase. For every evangelical Christian to whom the language is a vital component of the gospel, there are non-evangelical Christians who are barely aware of it, and for those outside the church it is even more abstruse. I shall get to an explanation shortly for those who need it.

Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it. - Martin Luther
Until the late 70s, there was an (often unexamined) assumption that Paul meant something like the Reformers. The disputes were more about how central this idea was to his theology. Since the late 70s, however, a so-called new perspective (in fact a range of perspective with a family resemblance) has challenged that identification, and in my view, challenged it decisively enough to refute it, without establishing agreement over what replaces it.

This means that one of the key planks of the Reformation, justification by faith alone, as articulated in the article under discussion, can no longer be presented as a simple reading of scripture. The debate about whether justification is central to Paul continues: what is new is a discussion of what it means. What follows is a brief over-simplification, before coming back to the article.

In the late medieval period, among other things, the church, or at least some theologians, seemed to develop an unhealthy concentration on the question: “How may I be saved / inherit eternal life.” I say unhealthy, because it seems to me that an obsession with our own souls is something that Jesus discouraged, in favour of a broader concern for God’s work with others. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is the clearest example of that: those who are obsessed with their own safety and salvation, the priest and the Levite, are those who are most like the lawyer who poses two questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbour?” (The latter question is equivalent to: “How much must I do to keep the law and gain eternal life?) The one who is careless of his own safety and salvation is the Samaritan, who knew the same Law concerning ritual purity, and the same dangers of bandits, yet still stopped to put another first. The parable is an effective expansion of Jesus’ saying: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24 – the word for life is the same as the word for soul!)

This obsession led to complicated theories involving a treasury of merits: the sense that God treated all his people as one family, and that there was an accounting of good works and bad. In theory Christ’s good work was central, but it was supplemented by the good deeds of the saints especially, as his faithful followers. As happens in a family or community with scarce resources, good deeds could be shared by those who needed their merit most. In this case those were repentant sinners only too aware of their bad deeds, and especially those souls caught up in purgatory, not good enough to have made it straight to heaven, but baptized into the same family of the Church and penitent enough not to deserve final condemnation. In the best theology, Christ was still the fountain spring of all goodness, and the one who brought people that grace by which they could do good works in the first place. But in common practice and thinking Christ could be woefully obscured.

Against this the Reformers weighed in: they never actually abolish the idea of merit, but simply insist that Christ’s merit is infinite, and in no need of supplementing. There is no good deed that is independent of his merit, and which carries its own discrete merit. His merits suffice for all, and underwrite all other apparent merit. So equally, there is no laborious process of accounting through purgatory. Those who are Christ’s, who put their trust in him and his merits, have more than sufficient for their salvation. Christ was put into centre place again, but in the process the Reformers opened a wider space for the roots for individualism to gain ground. The question was now even more about me and my soul, and becoming divorced from the community of faith.

In the process of working through these questions, a fresh reading of Paul took centre stage. Luther, followed by other Reformers, appropriated Paul for the cause: his challenge to accepted teaching. Wherever he came across the phrase “works of the Law” he universalized it to “good works.” Then he equated the Judaisers and Jewish opponents of Paul to his “catholic” (at this point they were all, Luther included, Catholic) opponents. Finally (still in accounting terms) he read the whole of Paul’s language about justification as discussing that late mediaeval question: “How can I be saved from death and sin?” In doing so, he argued essentially that good works could not make us righteous and so acceptable to God: they could not change our sinful nature and status. But Christ’s sacrificial death was of such infinite goodness and merit, that it was sufficient to more than outweigh every human sin in the accounting scales. Therefore, if we put our faith in Christ as the one whose merit was sufficient, and as God’s gift to us, God would account us righteous even when we were not. This, he believed, was what Paul meant by justification. (Although in many respects the Reformers follow Anselm’s idea of satisfaction, by transposing it from its feudal setting to a law-court judgement of deeds, they lost the relational framework in favour of a juridical one).

That view, so baldly (and no doubt badly) summarized here, became, among the churches of the Reformation, and so also in the rising field of Biblical scholarship, the default reading of Paul. Jews were dependent on seeking to please God by doing good deeds, Pelagians before Pelagius, and bad, merit-seeking, mediaeval Catholics to the last person. Christians were evangelicals: those who depended on God for salvation, and received God’s favour through grace, entirely derived from Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice alone, and Protestantism was Pauline Christianity. There were, more recently, in non-evangelical circles, debates about whether Paul’s concept of justification by faith was the centre of his thought, or a more (very?) peripheral aspect of it. But no-one seriously questioned that what Luther said about justification was what Paul had said.

To be continued!

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)