[This series has been revised and republished. It can be found here.]
Where is justification by faith in Eastern soteriological reflection? It’s a curious omission, given that justification is a critical theme in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. How does one preach on the Epistle to the Romans without speaking of justification? If the Apostle’s understanding of justification is governed exclusively by the question “Are the works of Torah binding on the (Gentile) Church?” then I suppose it’s understandable why justification has ceased to have any homiletical or theological function within Orthodoxy. By the 4th and 5th centuries the Church had become a Gentile community and deification had established itself as the preferred way in the Eastern Church to speak of salvation in Christ.
Yet I still find it a curious omission. I am well aware that St Paul’s understanding of justification is identical neither to the Reformation nor the Tridentine understanding of justification; but one might think that with all the recent converts into Orthodoxy from Protestantism, as well as growing awareness by Orthodox priests and scholars of the large body of Pauline scholarship, someone would have attempted a constructive integration of justification into the Orthodox understanding of salvation. But that does not appear to have happened. Justification simply does not exist in Orthodox theology as a topic of serious reflection, and even when it does appear, it is immediately dismissed as a Western problematic (see, e.g., Valerie Karras, “Beyond Justification“; also see Carmen Fragapane, “Salvation by Christ” for a somewhat more sympathetic presentation). Does justification matter?
Orthodox theologian Lucian Turcescu believes that it does matter. In his essay “Soteriological Issues in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification,” Turcescu argues that Orthodoxy should explicitly integrate justification as the first step in its ordo salutis, with deification being the second and final step. Turcescu complains that Orthodox theologians jump too hastily to the second step: before deification there must be justification, the reconciliation of the sinner with his former enemy, God.
Turcescu begins with the Gospel of John. Jesus speaks of the reconciliation between God and humanity as occurring in two steps. First, Jesus calls his hearers out of their bondage to sin and makes them his friends. Second, having become his friends, they become, with him, children of the Father:
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus spoke of two steps toward the full restoration of the broken relationship between humans and God. In their fallen state, humans find themselves in bondage to sin, and Jesus calls humans slaves or servants at this point; then, humans become Jesus’ friends; last, they are said to be adopted by God the “Father” as children. There is thus a progression from a state of bondage, ignorance, and fear that characterizes the master-slave relationship to the state of discipleship that characterizes the friendship state to that of filial knowledge and love that characterizes the parent-child relationship. The passage from bondage to friendship occurs because of reconciliation, as an enemy cannot become one’s friend unless the two have been reconciled. The passage from friendship to adoption occurs by divine initiative and human cooperation. (Journal of Ecumenical Studies [Winter 2001], p. 69)
Turcescu suggests that the Apostle Paul also sees salvation as a two-step process, correlated with justification and adoption: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:14-15).
I suspect that those who are well read in Johannine and Pauline studies will find the above analysis seriously flawed. Is it really accurate to speak of a two-step process, as if one first is reconciled to God (justification) and then one becomes a son of God in Christ (adoption)? Though I have been away from biblical scholarship a long time, this just does not sound right to me. Part of the problem is that Turcescu is thinking in terms of “process,” which is unavoidable when one wants to speak of synergistic cooperation with grace (always the preferred Orthodox way of looking at these matters), rather than as divinely-effected translation into an eschatological mode of existence. I note the striking absence of Holy Baptism in Turcescu’s analysis. For the Apostle Paul baptism marks the decisive act in and by which the sinner is incorporated into Christ and his Church and thus justified, sanctified, reborn in the Spirit, and adopted as a son of God (see Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul). When I was preaching, one of my favorite texts was Galatians 3:21-4:7:
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.
Holy Baptism represents the decisive event in which the convert to Christ is initiated into the Church and the trinitarian life of God. It’s not as if one is first justified and then subsequently adopted as a child of God and made heir to the kingdom. It all happens at the same time! As the Apostle tells his congregation in Corinth: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). The Spirit breaks into our fallen world and appropriates us to the life and worship of the messianic kingdom. Only on this basis does our liturgical prayer and ascetical practices make proper sense.
But back to Turcescu:
The Greek patristic tradition and Orthodox theology have referred to human participation in the divine nature as deification (theosis), and that has become the fundamental metaphor expressing salvation in the Orthodox Church. The passage from bondage to sin to friendship with God necessitates a reconciliation between humans and God. One cannot become a friend with a former enemy unless the two have been reconciled. It is at this point that I see justification taking place, that is, the declaration by God of the sinful human person as a righteous person because of the faith a human has in Jesus and his work of redemption done freely on behalf of all humanity. (p. 70)
Perhaps Turcescu presupposes baptism as that moment when God declares justification—I presume that he does. Justification thus signifies the beginning of the deification process; but after that, does it have any other function? We are still stuck with preaching the Epistle to the Romans. Might justification be more than a two-step dance?
(Go to “Justifying Justification by Faith“)