Friday, October 19, 2007

Making sense of 'justified by faith'

In the last couple of months various things have challenged me as to whether the particular nuances of my thoughts about 'justification by faith' are correct.

So I thought I'd sit down and start from what I'm sure of beyond doubt and work toward what I'm totally unsure of.
1. Every single description of the final eternal judgment of God in the undisputed Paulines is a judgment whose criteria is whether a person is good or evil. (This is in line with standard Jewish and early Christian beliefs)
2. The word Dikaiosune itself in Greek means primarily morality or virtue and is essentially moral rather than forensic.
3. Paul firmly believes in the moral transformation of the Christian. He believes that God provides the Spirit which works in Christians to transform them.
4. Paul's theology about what happens to Christians after conversion is therefore fairly straightforward. They receive the spirit, are sanctified, gain real moral righteousness, and achieve a positive final judgment as a result. (It is his theology of conversion, 'justified by faith' etc, that is the tricky part.)

5. The verb form Dikaioo seems to usually mean "to consider/declare/deem righteous", rather than to "make righteous" and so could be said to be forensic.
6. The word Pistis can mean a variety of things, but the ones most relevant to the NT are 'belief' in an idea, 'faithfulness' to a person, and 'perseverance'.
7. Pistis is most commonly used by Paul without an explicit object. When it has one it is most commonly God, and secondarily the controversial pistis christou passages.
8. According to Paul it is definitely good for Christians themselves to have 'faith'. (even the pistis-chrisou-is-subjective crowd thinks it's not just Christ who has faith)
9. Chronologically in a Christian's life we see the flow:
Hear the gospel -> faith -> sanctification -> final judgment
10. Paul suggests that the Galatians received the Spirit after hearing the message and coming to faith.
11. Perhaps the simplest theoretical framework to construct from all of this then is that people come to God in faith and he provides them with the Spirit which empowers their sanctification and leads to a positive final judgment.

The trouble is that while all this doesn't pin down the meaning of the phrase 'justified by faith'. Is it something that happens at the moment of conversion? Or does it mean "we are eventually justified, at the final judgment, as a result of processes that occur that begin with our faith and end with our justification"? That is really quite key to pinning down justification - is it a conversion event, an ongoing process, or an event at the final judgment? I have typically taken the second view, but now I wonder.

As far as 'faith' goes, I have tended to understand it as meaning 'faithfulness to Jesus' and interpret this as meaning means we faithfully follow Jesus' teachings and thus become righteous (ie justified through faithfulness). In support of this view is that sanctification and justification are linguistically synonymous in meaning, and we read in Acts that Christ told Paul to teach that Gentiles are "sanctified by faith in me" (implying that justified and sanctified can be swapped in that phrase). However equating 'faithful' to Jesus to mean 'the faithful following of Jesus' teachings' I have found to be a bit of a stretch. It's possible, but when talking to people about it, I've increasingly found that other people are not very happy to accept it as a natural reading.

Random thoughts...
I think it is not often enough thought about where Paul gets the very idea of 'faith' from. Why on earth does he (apparently arbitrarily) think 'faith' (whatever it is) is so important? From his vision of the risen Jesus? From the Abraham passage? A clear answer to that question would help in understanding what Paul thinks 'faith' means.

'Justified by faith' is not a particularly common phrase in the NT, residing mainly in just two of Paul's epistles. Unless we want to posit a massive split within early Christianity, we need to believe that whatever Paul was on about with his 'justified by faith' terminology was (if it was at all important) held by other NT writers and second century Christians who do not use such terms - and thus that the doctrine is translatable in to phrases and concepts that speak of neither justification nor faith.

Does 'justified' connect with forgiveness of sins? Or repentance? Why does Paul so rarely speak of the concept of 'repentance and forgiveness' so common in Judaism and elsewhere in the NT? Is justification by faith synonymous with that, or something different?


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Aha, Andrew! If I read this with my conservative evangelical spectacles, I might conclude that there is hope yet that you will find a good enough faith that you will be justified. Problem is, like you I don't really believe what some evangelicals seem to believe, that the faith Paul is talking about is believing the correct theological presuppositions. But I do see you as inching towards a position closer to mine, which is also getting a little nearer to that evangelical one.

Blogger Benjamin said...

I like your conclusion in point 11. I think it's correct.

justification and the synonymous "reckoned righteous" seem to me to be tied directly to the necessity for reliance upon God's grace rather than one's own moral works under the law or prior to the law, for this change of moral state or orientation.

I think this was obscured by your understanding of faith as moral faithfulness like Jesus'. I don't think Jesus uses the term pistis that way, nor does the NT in general. The Pistis Christu debate helps make things more muddy still. It makes it too easy to theorize that Paul is only speaking of imitating Christ's moral character, instead of having faith in Him and something He accomplishes, or IS for us.

It seems to me that NT focuses on the idea of faith as being not moral faithfulness first and foremost, but rather an unfailing reliance upon God instead of oneself which includes moral conformity to this goal.

Your overal line of reasoning is in keeping with your understanding that union and participation in Christ is simply imitative, as undergirded by an application of Platonic form theory for an explanation of why Paul speaks of imitation as union. I question whether this understanding of participation in Christ as grounded in Platonic assumptions is adequate. I feel there's an ontological or atleast "spiritual" union going on there which involves but transcendes mere imitation.

And I think this type of emphasis is also in keeping with your tendency towards something like an Arian Christology.

If Christ's humanity is emphasized, then His moral example is automatically emphasized above all else. If Christ's divinity is emphasized, the theories like recapitulation and theosis become possibly more prominent. Arius and Athanasius seem to have been into this very issue in their debates.

One thing I've always appreciated about you is how honest you are, and how consistent. All those elements are moving together in your thought process.

My take is that justification is directly tied to our ultimate moral orientation before God. God declares us righteous in Christ, through faith, because through faith we are reoriented in that direction through baptism and the faith that corresponds with it.

That is, through baptism and faith we "reckon ourselves dead to sin." At the same time God reckons this faith as "righteousness". I think the two reckonings(logizomai), ours and Gods, are connected directly and are interdependent of eachother. Both are related only to our moral orientiation before God and not directly to the final judgment by deeds.

And also, neither would be fundamentally true reckonings apart from a real spiritual or ontological union between us and Christ around the issue of the cross, which in our existence causes the outflow of real righteous living, a fulfillment of the law's moral demands through love, and in the end a positive judgment according to our deeds.

I think you are correct to reconsider your understanding of faith as moral faithfulness, and to consider whether there is some warrant to the idea that justification is declarative. I've had to reckon with both issues head on in the last few months and I hope I'm becoming more and more balanced, since like you, I am utterly and completely convinced of most of all of the central points you laid out above.

Just because justification may be declarative, doesn't mean that it's a fake declaration with no reality behind it! God doesn't lie.

I've learned a lot from you and I hope you find my feedback helpful.

Blogger Reuben said...

One thing I just thought of that you haven't mentioned here is the use of pistis in the context of the Favour System. Paul seems to use his 'justified by faith' paradigm as a contrast with the 'justified by works of the Torah' paradigm. Justification according to the Torah was, if I understand Judaism correctly, something that was essentially contractual (covenantal), and fulfilled by abiding by the laws of that covenant. Jesus' ministry makes no sense in the paradigm of the Mosaic covenant though, because God works not according to the Covenant System but the Favour System, in sending the gracious gift of Jesus as a favour to people. Thus God acts seems to act well outside the rhelms of the Mosaic Covenant to restore the people.

Perhaps then, this might explain why when Paul makes such a big deal about the 'justified by faith' paradigm of God coming and actively helping people to become righteous, it is almost always contrasted with the covenental system of remaining righteous before God.

Just a thought.

Blogger AndrewE said...

Hi Andrew,

Just found your blog. I, too, have struggled with issues like this. I have been helped by seeing that there are passages in the Scriptures where God's judgment on us being one the one hand a matter of simple decision, and on the other a matter of complex description of our lives, are held together. In John 3:16-21, salvation is a matter of "believing in Jesus", but those who believe are also "those who do what is true", and indeed this is why they come to the light. Also, in Revelation 20:11-15, the dead are judged "according to their works", and the consequence is that those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. I have heard this expounded as meaning all are found guilty, but those who believe are forgiven through Christ; but I suspect a better way of understanding this is that John is saying there will be an ultimate correspondence between faith and goodness. Judgment is a question of both simplicity of decision and complex description.


Blogger graham old said...

I find *part* of Wright's understanding of justification helpful here, in explaining the "is it now or future" question.

I think that it is future on the basis of works, but that the presence of faith now means that it can brought forward.

I also wonder if a more anthropocentric and communal reading of justification would help with some of your tensions?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home