Justification as Adoption into the Trinitarian Life of God

It is time to move beyond the old and new perspectives. I find myself nodding in hearty agreement to Dr Tilling’s arguments and commend it for your consideration. But as I was listening to the lecture I kept experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. I’ve heard this before. In fact, this is how I have preached Paul for well over twenty years, with a few minor differences. So where did I learn this? How did I pull it together into an unscholarly understanding that sounds very much like Tilling’s interpretation of Paul. I think I learned this from a synthetic reading of Robert W. Jenson, Thomas F. Torrance, and John Henry Newman. From these theologians I learned that at the heart of justification is our incorporation into Christ, rebirth in the Spirit, and participation in the trinitarian life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ultimately, I suspect I learned this from the Holy Eucharist.

Curiously, though I have read gobs and gobs of N. T. Wright over the past two decades or so, his reading of Paul regarding justification has not been as formative for me. I simply have not found persuasive his construal of justification as “covenant membership.” It’s that, of course, but also so much more. Back in my old Pontificator days, when I was wrestling with Roman Catholic presentations of grace and justification, I wrote on justification by Christ more than any other topic. I took a glance at those articles this morning. It’s interesting to see myself going back and forth on various points. But two things remained constant—justification as hermeneutical instruction for the preaching of the gospel and justification as incorporation into the body of Christ and thus into the Trinity.

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8 Responses to Justification as Adoption into the Trinitarian Life of God

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    This lecture was good; tying in Paul’s justification language with his adoption language. But I think more powerful is the connection between Paul’s justification/righteousness “dikaio” language and its close alignment with Hebrew justification “tzedakah” language (cf. Kalomaros). I think this is more useful in explaining important related doctrines such as early Christian atonement theory of “Christus Victor/Ransom/Recapitulation” versus the later Latin “Satisfaction” or Protestant “Penal Substitution” models.

    I think Isaac of Nineveh, 7th century ascetic and mystic, best illustrates the difference between Paul’s “dikaiosyne theou“/Hebrew (tzedakah) sense of God’s justice, as opposed to the Western Latin forensic sense of “justice”, being identical to pagan Roman retributive justice, or “Iustitia“.

    “How can you call God just when you read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard and their wages? ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong… I choose to give to this last as I give to you… do you begrudge my generosity?’ Likewise how can you call God just when you read the parable of the prodigal son who squanders his father’s wealth in riotous living, and the moment he displays some nostalgia his father runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and gives him complete power over all his riches? It is not someone else who has told us this about God, so that we might have doubts. It is his own Son himself. He bore this witness to God. Where is God’s justice? Here, in the fact that we were sinners and Christ died for us…” ~ Ascetic Treatises, 60


    • The forensic model of justice in our modern sense is greatly flawed. We think of justice as something that is owed to us for a wrong committed against us. From what I’ve read of the Gospels, it seems the only time Jesus advocates for cruel and unusual punishment (which seems to be punishment in general for him) is Matt. 18:6 where he declares that it’s not those who stumble who are going to be punished but rather those who cause to stumble (enticement to sin) that it’s going to be worse for them than to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown to the bottom of the sea. The second instance is Matt. 18:23-35. This time, it’s those who don’t forgive who become punished severely.

      The only thing that our modern sense of justice gets right is the notion that enticement to sin is punishable. Only it fails because enticement to sin is not as severely punished as the sin itself. Our sense of justice just simply does not match God’s sense of justice.

      I know that concepts of penal substitutionary atonement actually revolve around this sense of justice. God demands the death of something otherwise, he’s going to come after you. It sounds more like the Gospel is a horror movie and humanity is the victim under this doctrine. Not that there’s anything wrong with horror as a genre but God is not the monster, Satan is. Reading N.T. Wright’s interpretation of Paul, this is the major issue I have–Wright does not seem to be able to let go of the idea that God does needs to punish before he can forgive. Forgiveness seems to me to run kind of contrary though to punishment.


      • Dante Aligheri says:

        Regarding N.T. Wright, I would like to qualify how “punishment” is being used in his scheme and what divine punishment means. Even Athanasius does not merely say God will or perhaps can, by fiat, reconstitute what has been marred by sin (which is different, I suppose, than “forgiving” in a legal sense, but then it seems that biblical-covenantal justice is not legal but restorative): “It was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back on His Word regarding Death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself…Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature…Men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.” (Incarnation, 7). In a way, this knowledge is strictly theoretical as we, and all of human history, exists in a state of theodicy. In the Latin West, theologians would not be as glib to say God could not sanctify in some other way, as Isaac of Nineveh had apparently also said (as I saw from Fr. Kimel’s quote earlier in the blog – which I hadn’t known about), and so have to say that, in some sense, God preserved the current state of affairs without acting immediately. One cannot explain why but only knows that, within this history, God has freely elected to respect the “deep magic” and work out salvation in this particular way. We also know it has never come to pass in another way and haven’t known any other reality, therefore, we know intuitively this problem of ontological undoing exists. We are under the power of death, sin, and the devil as a state of fact.

        But, in biblical times, this would be construed as “punishment” either by commission or omission: “I make Peace and create [Calamity].” Either God’s wrath manifests divine energies and overwhelms the created nature unfortified by grace and spirit – not sin per se (as in the case of Uriah or apocryphal Enoch who must given a pre-emptive theosis) or created agents like the Destroyer, either by divine consent or at least forbearance/permission, afflict human beings (like Job, the Egyptian firstborn, the seraphs counter-acted by the Bronze Serpent). Elsewhere, God’s absence is a punishment or a result of covenantal breach (the original shattering of the cosmic covenant in Gen. 6 which resulted in the ultimate un-creation of the flood, undoing of creation in Isaiah, the Shekinah leaving Eden and the immortal garments of Adam/Eve and returning to the heavens after the Fall as well as leaving the Temple before the Exile). In all these cases, the covenantal “curse” is enacted – i.e., the wages of sin. This can be read as punishment, but then punishment can be read as a disorder or breach in the state of justice. If I can remember Wright’s view of justice, he also does not advocate a Ciceronian style interpretation but rather that God’s justice is his vindication of the holy ones, human and angelic, despite and through current injustice based on his Self-sworn promises. It is not out of Roman justice but rather the Mosaic covenantal curses which conflict with that vindication.

        But Wright’s point is that the infection of death and sin for all must be borne out by all in the Messiah. Critically, though, it’s not as if this is a legal fiction as if God is venting anger. Rather, in a Lewisian “deep magic” sort of way, the Messiah as corporate Adam can enact and participate in the corporate death and rebirth of all Israel and humanity – putting the broken Torah covenant, “the flesh,” and sin all under the authority of death and the devil/dominions/principalities away with the Cross and raising up/reaping an Image-restored, divine Body of Christ invested with the Spirit who has dominion over all powers and principalities.

        If one focuses the narrative around Satan, and the enslavement of humanity to fallen powers acting through idolatry and other means, then one is still left with Anselm’s quandary about why God would respect the rights of the devil or death over humanity (which I don’t mean literally but merely use the traditional language to express the idea of our unresolved slavery within the drama of salvation that there must be an inhibiting reason as to why God hasn’t acted except in this way). Gregory the Great still had to invoke some kind of Ciceronian justice to explain this more traditional ransom theory (McGrath, Iustitia Dei, pg. 79). For the Jewish worldview, this can be explained as the catastrophic fallout of the cosmic covenant which loosed the disobedient powers and the fall which subjected nations to these errant principalities and to life without knowledge of the One God, with violence and death. But even this was portrayed as the combined “fallout”/”punishment” from covenantal breaching. N.T. Wright is very careful in his book (“Paul and the Faithfulness of God”; I haven’t gotten around to his others) – at least in my opinion – to frame the passion within the larger context of God’s vindication of his holy ones and the creation as the controlling narrative.

        As a side note, I agree that “covenant membership” can sound kind of bland as far as justification is concerned. What really could have helped Wright, I think, is an emphasis on how theosis is really rooted in Second Temple Judaism, and how Jewish throne mysticism stands as one influence behind Christian monasticism and theoria. Philo called Israel as having the transformative privilege to see God face to face (cf. Andrea Lieber, ‘Paradise Now’). The covenant is the blood tie of sonship between God and the restored Adam in one family, the promise of an astral inheritance with the angels as rulers with God in heaven per the sonship of Adam and Christ. Israel, and the Gentiles brought into Israel, are the people brought out of death and idolatry into life and participation in the angelic banquet feasting on the direct glory of the Shekinah (cf. ‘Joseph and Aseneth’ and ‘Apocalypse of Abraham’), sometimes associated with the seven angels of the presence foremost in the angelic chorus and the Spirit.

        Thanks for the links. I really enjoyed Robert Jenson’s, and I intend to finish Newman’s when I have time.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dallas, can you recommend an accessible discussion of tzedakah language. I just don’t trust Kalomiros.


      • Dante Aligheri says:

        I did find that Alister McGrath has a fairly extensive discussion of tzedakah (though for some reason he spells it ‘sedaqa’) on pgs. 8-32 in “Iustitia Dei.” I was able to find it as a PDF online through Google.


        • “tzedakah (though for some reason he spells it ‘sedaqa’)”
          It’s a Hebrew phonetic translation into English grammar. It’s spelled in Hebrew letters, tsade-dalet-qof-hey. So a more grammatically correct phonetic translation would technically be tsedaqah.


  2. I think of justification, salvation, theosis, and sainthood as the same thing. These are all processes that end up ultimately uniting us intimately with the divine. Catholics and Orthodox speak of the sacraments as conferring deifying grace upon the individual and the Church. Protestants typically don’t because they view that if God made anything other than himself divine, it would be blasphemous. But this is all a process. It involves constantly receiving the body and blood of Jesus. Constant prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Maybe I’m wrong…


  3. Charles Twombly says:

    This is great. Thanks!


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