We are all acquainted with the saying attributed to Martin Luther: “Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.” Although this saying does not appear in Luther’s extant writings, it accurately states his understanding of the matter. As Luther wrote to Johannes Brenz: “For this article is the head and cornerstone that alone begets, nurtures, builds, preserves, and defends the Church of God. Without it, the Church cannot remain standing for a single hour.” It’s an odd assertion on the face of it, because the Reformation formulation of justification is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the writings of the Church Fathers. St Augustine employed the language of justification, but he clearly understood it in transformative terms: grace is imparted, not imputed. And at the Council of Trent the Latin Church basically reaffirmed the Augustinian position. As Alistair McGrath writes: “In brief, then, Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process—the event of being declared to be righteous through the work of Christ and the process of being made righteous through the internal work of the Holy Spirit” (Reformation Thought, p. 115). The key notes of alien righteousness and imputation are absent in the Latin tradition. McGrath was finally forced to conclude that the Reformation doctrine represents something new in the history of Western theology:
The medieval theological tradition was unanimous in its understanding of justification as both an act and a process, by which both the status of humans coram Deo and their essential nature underwent alteration. Although Luther regarded justification as an essentially unitary process, he nevertheless introduced a decisive break with the western theological tradition as a whole by insisting that, through their justification, humans are intrinsically sinful yet extrinsically righteous. … The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustificatio and regeneratio is that a fundamental intellectual discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition through the recognition of a difference, where none had previously been acknowledged to exist. There is no doubt that a small number of medieval writers, such as Duns Scotus, explored the conceptual possibilities of separating these notions; yet despite such notional analysis, justification was not conceptually detached from the process of regeneration. Despite the astonishing theological diversity of the late medieval period, a consensus relating to the nature of justification was maintained throughout. The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum, whereas its understanding of its mode does not. (Iustita Dei, 3rd ed., pp. 213, 215)
And the Eastern tradition fares no better for the 16th century Reformers. One can search far and wide in the writings of the Eastern Fathers for discussion of justification by faith, and the few times one finds it discussed (as in the homilies of St John Chrysostom) it is clear that the divine justifying act is understood as effective and transformative. What one does not find in the Eastern Fathers is a forensic imputation of righteousness. The Orthodox Church is consumed by theosis. Ask an Orthodox priest about justification by faith alone, and you will most likely receive a quizzical look, if not a shake of the head. When one reads the correspondence between Patriarch Jeremiah II and the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen, for example, it’s clear that the Patriarch could only hear the Lutheran formulations as asserting the non-necessity of repentance and good works. “The Church demands a living faith, which is made evident by good works,” he pointedly writes; “for as James says, faith without works is dead [Jas 2:17]. … If then, we have sinned in some thing, let us approach the Sinless One through sincere repentance and confession, and let us demonstrate complete abstinence from evil things. Let us openly come to repentance in order to receive mercy and anything else we ask. There is no sin which has overcome God’s love for mankind” (Augsburg and Constantinople, p. 37). Everything Jeremiah writes is true, yet he misses the point of the Reformation doctrine … yet if he misses the point, it must be said that a lot of people have missed the point over the past five hundred years, including a lot of Protestants.
If the forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ is the article on which the Church stands or falls, why is it absent in the tradition of the Church?
N. T. Wright argues that the doctrine of justification as historically elaborated in the Western Church has little to do with the doctrine of justification as taught by the Apostle Paul. Since Augustine, Western theologians, with the intent of warding off the self-help heresy of Pelagius, have employed the language of justification to address the question of what the sinner must do to enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ and thus appropriate the salvation of God. But this, says Wright, was not what Paul was up to. “Paul does indeed discuss the subject-matter which the church has referred to as ‘justification,'” he writes, “but he does not use ‘justification’ language for it. … Paul may or may not agree with Augustine, Luther or anyone else about how people come to a personal knowledge of God in Christ; but he does not use the language of ‘justification’ to denote this event or process” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 117). Wright’s own covenantal interpretation of justification has not met with universal approbation; but he is probably correct in his diagnosis: the questions Paul is asking and answering are not identical to the questions posed and answered by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and all the others (see “The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification“). So what were the questions?
In his book Unbaptized God Robert W. Jenson identifies three loci of reflection that have gone under the label “justification.”
First, there is the teaching of St Paul himself: How is God’s righteousness established amongst us? We’ll leave this question for the biblical exegetes and commentators.
Second, there is the effort of Western theology, beginning with St Augustine and continued in the work of Latin and Protestant scholasticism, “to describe the process of individual salvation, to lay out the factors and steps of the soul’s movement from the state of sin to the state of justice” (p. 22). How do sinners become righteous? How do divine and human agency interact in the process of salvation? Theologians who attempt to describe the process inevitably produce schemas of the ordo salutis. If one studies the Protestant/Catholic and Protestant/Protestant debates on justification, one will be excused for thinking that theologians have believed and continue to believe that if only we could get the ordo right, all would be well with the Church. They love to identify and debate the precise steps in the process of salvation. No doubt such reflection is important; but it’s hard to accept the claim that the Church stands or falls upon it. When did the the kingdom become an ordo?
Finally, there is the reforming doctrine of justification. In modern Lutheran theology this reforming doctrine goes under the names hermeneutic (Ebeling), metatheological (Lindbeck), and metalinguistic (Jenson). How does one proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it will be heard as gospel? “This doctrine,” explains Jenson, “describes nothing at all, neither God’s justice nor the process of our becoming just. It is instead an instruction to those who would audibly or visibly speak the gospel, a rule for preachers, teachers, liturgists, and confessors. This instruction may be formulated: So speak of Christ and of hearers’ actual and promised righteousness, whether in audible or visible words, whether by discourse or practice, that what you say solicits no lesser response than faith—or offense” (pp. 22-23). What the Reformers were struggling to formulate was a hermeneutical norm: preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that it produces faith in the hearer, rather than works directed toward self-justification.
George Lindbeck describes the reforming doctrine as a grammatical rule. Justification is not a matter of formulating a superior description of the process of salvation. It is akin to a rule of grammar: it tutors the Church on how to properly speak gospel.
It is the rule that all church teachings and practices should function to promote reliance or trust in the God of Jesus Christ alone for salvation. This rule, taken by itself, does not contain any theories or affirmation about justification. It does not even assert that justification is sola fide, but rather ‘for Christ’s sake alone (propter Christum solum‘, although it may be hard to see how any theology which adhered to the rule could deny the sola fide. As is characteristic of statements in the imperative mood, it does not make affirmations about what is true or false, but simply prescribes: and what it prescribes is a certain form of human behaviour (which includes attitudes and ways of thinking). We should not trust anything for justification except God’s unconditional promises in Jesus Christ, not even the faith, virtues and merits, if there be any, which God works in us sola gratia. (“Article IV and Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue,” The Church in a Postliberal Age, p. 42)
If the reforming doctrine of justification is appropriately described as the article upon which the Church stands or falls, it is not because it is a doctrine superior, say, to the Nicene dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Chalcedonian dogma of the two natures of Christ. As metalinguistic rule it “does not stipulate subject matters or propositions about subject matters; it stipulates how the church must speak, about whatever. Just, and only, so its critical work is unique. The reforming doctrine of justification does not stipulate ‘say such-and-such about justification.’ It stipulates, ‘If your subject is, for example, oppression, so speak of Christ and of your hearers’ oppression that the only response opened is faith in Christ, or offense'” (Jenson, p. 24). But what kind of discourse provokes faith or offense? Unconditional promise! The gospel is proclamation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, in the performative mode of promise. “The whole point of the Reformation,” declares Jenson, “was that the gospel promise is unconditional; ‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (Lutheranism, p. 37).
Thus understood, the 16th century debates on justification by faith are of profound relevance to every ecclesial community—be it Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant—that seeks to preach, enact, celebrate, and live the gospel of Christ Jesus. Only when proclaimed as unconditional promise does the gospel become good, transformative, redeeming news.
Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.