Well, well. A significant breakthrough on justification?

Well, well. A significant breakthrough on justification?

This fourth edition thus represents a complete reappraisal of every aspect of previous editions, including their structure and format. Those using this work for teaching purposes should thus ensure that they familiarise themselves with these structural and scholarly changes. My continuing engagement with both primary and secondary sources in this field convinced me of the need to rewrite the book, retaining what was clearly sound, reliable and useful to its readers, while correcting or modifying whatever was open to justified criticism.

McGrath, Iustitia Dei, x

• • •

At The Sacred Page, Michael P. Barber reports that one of the main proponents of the traditional Reformed Protestant understanding of justification, Alister McGrath, has made a major change in his perspective.  This change is reflected in the fourth edition of his magisterial work, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification.

In brief, McGrath has come to see that a key point in the Protestant historical argument no longer holds water.

That point is this: Protestants have long held that the Catholic understanding of justification as “infused righteousness” — that is, God actually makes the believer righteous — is the result of misunderstanding the meaning of the original Greek language when it was translated into Latin. When the Reformers restored the study of the original Greek NT, they pointed out that the Greek word δικαιοῦν meant “to reckon (or count as) righteous, whereas Catholics like St. Augustine interpreted the Latin iustificare as iustum facere (‘to make righteous’).

The Protestant tradition therefore has taught that there is no transformative element in justification (although we have emphasized here that the early Luther seems to have believed differently). Justification involves our sins being imputed to Christ’s account and, in exchange, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer’s account. Through justification, we have a righteous standing before God, but we have not in any sense been made righteous.

In the earlier editions of his work, McGrath promulgated this understanding, giving Protestants ongoing ammunition in their animus toward a Catholic teaching that they perceived as threatening the very foundations of the gospel, and therefore the Church. If justification is “the article by which the Church stands or falls,” then the Catholic Church, following the Council of Trent rather than the teachings of the Reformers, got it wrong and should be judged heretical at the very heart of the gospel.

Apparently, however, Alister McGrath did something remarkable. He read the Greek Fathers. And when he did, he realized that they themselves interpreted the Greek language of justification in a surprisingly non-Protestant fashion. For example, he quotes Chrysostom:

It is like the declaration of God’s riches, not only in that God is rich, but also in that God makes others rich; or in the same way about [the declaration of God’s] life, not only in that God is living, but also in that God makes the dead to live; and of [the declaration of God’s] power, not only in that God is powerful, but also in that God makes the weak powerful. So the declaration of God’s righteousness is not only that God is righteous, but also that God makes those that are corrupted by sin immediately righteous.

• cited in McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 37

McGrath’s conclusion?

…the Greek Christian preoccupation with the strongly transformative soteriological metaphor of deification appears to have led to justification being treated in a factitive sense. This is not, however, to be seen as a conceptual imposition on Pauline thought, but rather a discernment of this aspect of his soteriological narrative.

• McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 36-37

In other words, not only did the Greek Fathers interpret justification in this fashion on their own, but they were offering a faithful reading of Paul himself as he discusses it in the New Testament. For me, nothing has ever said it much clearer than 2 Corinthians 5:21 — “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Perhaps another brick in the wall that has divided Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers through the centuries has come loose?

75 thoughts on “Well, well. A significant breakthrough on justification?

  1. That’s why, even if he worked out the particulars in a bad way, Luther got the theological core right, even if he “misinterpreted” Paul. God is more gracious than we can think or imagine, and when I say we I’m including the writers of the Bible/New Testament, the Church Fathers, and all the iterations of the Church done through the centuries.


  2. MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

    • Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude” 1958


  3. I once had a drug-induced vision of both God and Satan. Satan was first. He was so terrifying and magnificent in his evilness and intensity that I was literally paralyzed on a bed. I was lying on my back, fully conscious and unable to move. All I could do was pray to God and hold my breath in hopeless anticipation that he might help. Suddenly he did. The air cleared for a moment so that I could breath again. Then an even worse fate fell upon me. The presence of the being who possessed the power to dispel the first one. That lasted for probably 20 minutes before my friend Joanne, whose house and party I was attending, came into the bedroom and saw the state I was in. We were smoking pot but somebody must have slipped me some acid or something. Regardless, the vision had all the trademarks of reality. The fierce ancientness and simultaneous timelessness of both beings, particularly of God, lacked anything trite or expected. I thought God would comfort me but He scared the hell out of me. Anyway, the whole point of this thing, when I had sufficiently gotten my wits about me, still lying in the bed, the sounds of the party reemerged in my ears. I could hear everyone talking and laughing. Suddenly I was awash in mercy and deep compassion for everyone I could hear and then for all of humanity. We are all so tiny in light of the whole big thing. Sorry for going on here but something you said reminded me of that experience. That’s right – it was Ransom’s change to pity and respect.


  4. Thank you for your reply. There is much here to think about; I’m sure that it is beyond my ability to do all the thinking necessary, and I’m not sure that, even if I could, I would come to a correct conclusion. As the young protagonist priest says just before he dies at the end of Georges Bernanos novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, “All is grace.”


  5. Mike, interesting book. And, in a sense, all the more in the midst of the Bates/McKnight and Gilbert recent debates (though that isn’t specifically on justification).

    I’m sure you know, but someone like NT Wright would argue 2 Cor 5:21 is about Paul and his team rather than an abstract statement about all God’s people. What are your thoughts on that?


  6. “I’m with you and Capon (and Barth, I might add!), Tom. If my salvation relies on any specific degree of achieved sanctification — on my performance — to be realized for me, I’m doomed.”

    I stand shoulder to shoulder with you on that R.F.


  7. Different, yes, but not at odds with – simply a different point of reference. The goal the writings present, toward which they lead, is found in different places in the works. In the Synoptics, the point is the Cross and Resurrection, and the writing builds up to it with a different “flavor” in each. In John, the point is right there in chapter 1: Jesus is God incarnate. Everything else in John is an explication of that, up to and through the Cross and Resurrection.



  8. I think a lot of that went into the formation of the canon. The question is: Which has interpretative primacy, the authorial intent of the writers, or the editorial intent of the latter Church. Another way of asking it would be: Which is more inspired?


  9. There’s what you might call “editorial intent” as well – the books of the Bible appear in the canon because of what the church understood them to mean and used them for, not because of what the author may have himself intended.


  10. Perhaps another brick in the wall that has divided Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers through the centuries has come loose?

    Nothing to worry about that folks, a new brick will soon be invented to replace it. After all “Good fences make good neighbors.” 🙂


  11. As always, translations tend to be tendatious according to the translator’s particular theological bent. As far as I can see from struggling with a Greek dictionary there’s no real basis for saying “avenge our blood on” those on Earth, or at least it’s a bit off-center. The Greek word means “avenge” in the sense of “do justice concerning” and does not necessarily simply mean “retaliate” as such. You could equally read it as “do justice for our blood over” those on earth. This might, if that was your idea of justice, mean spilling their blood in return, or it might not.


  12. “On that day the LORD will defend the residents of Jerusalem, so that the weakest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them.”


  13. If one cannot meet the standard of recognizable ability to love, should the modern Church exclude one from fellowship or communion the way the early Church excluded some — perhaps many? — for not making the grade? Remember that the early Church had a pretty high set of standards for continued inclusion in communion; it even held that if one failed in some of those standards after baptism, it would require a lifelong imposed rigorous repentance for one to be restored to full communion, with no third chance after that (counting baptism as the first chance). Is that what we want the Church to be restored to, if we use the early Church as the model, and its understanding of grace as requiring adequate performance in response as the guide?


  14. Well said, Iain. A big problem I see is that the Greek for those words translated with the Latinate “justi-” and also for the words translated as the Germanic “right-” all have the same root – “dik-” Translating them with two different English words tends to make English speakers think they are separate ideas/things, when they’re not.

    Several years ago I had a discussion with a very knowledgeable Orthodox parish priest (including significant knowledge of languages and theology). I told him I had come to the conclusion, between hearing Orthodox hymnography for several years and a lifetime of reading Scripture and thinking about it, that those “dik-” words in Greek had a meaning something like “the ability to have the kind of relationship with God that God wants us to have”, and that God is the one who has instilled that in us. He told me I was right 🙂 Further, I believe that that capacity is fully “switched on”, if you will, at Baptism; it’s always there because God created us as human beings with it (which is one reason why non-Christians can act “righteously”). And in the Orthodox Church, Baptism and Chrismation (anointing for the reception of the Holy Spirit) go together. (Of course, the Sacraments aren’t Magick; you have to live into, and live out, your Baptism.)

    In the baptismal liturgy in EO, after the anointing, the person just baptized is declared to be “justified… illumined… sanctified… washed, in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God.” This is just about the only time the word “justified” is ever used in an EO service, and clearly it is God who is making it so within that person, not imputing anything. It is our union with Christ in sacramental death that fully effects it. God has done it all; we receive, we say “let it be”, with gratitude.

    As N.T. Wright has said, we aren’t “justified” by believing in “justification by faith”.



  15. Yeah, I’m not down with a Church that can exclude me — or anyone — from fellowship and/or sacraments and/or can excommunicate me because I don’t make the behavioral passing grade. In that case, if that’s what Paul really meant and means, then I disagree with Paul, and you can just count me among the liberal Quaker theists.


  16. I would say that “love” makes more sense than “behavioral changes.” If grace is being loved, then it seems to me impossible to be loved by God and not love in return. What that looks like in practice will differ, I suppose, but it will recognizably be love.


  17. I’d agree with you. But I would also argue that God’s transforming grace imbues all of creation, whether one realizes it or not. Yes, you can call me a universalist. I’m ok with that.


  18. Sean, I agree with Barclay that our modern (even back to the Reformation) ideas of grace as ‘pure gift’ have distorted our understanding of Paul, and doctrines like justification (and sanctification). The kind of ‘cheap grace’ often sold at fire-sale prices would probably draw rebukes from Paul.


  19. I’d argue that an arrival at that very conclusion is itself evidence of God’s transforming grace. That’s where I want to live, and the place from which I want to follow Jesus.


  20. Robert, I think the order matters a lot here. I don’t think Bates is at all saying that our behaviors qualify us as having allegiance to Jesus. I think he is making a case that the grace of God does the work of qualitatively transforming us, to some degree, in making us more like Jesus.

    My own way of saying it: I don’t believe that God brings us just slightly across the threshold of faith, only to let us rot and take us no further, should we not care to participate. Even for the most Robert Capon-y among us (and I’m a fan), I believe that God actually does a transforming work. Even if we don’t feel it or recognize it, something is happening for those who trust Jesus. Perhaps for the majority of us, the evidence is simple humility, an emptying of performative religion.


  21. Total aside – The Blue Angels just flew over. They are going around the country doing flyovers in honor of our healthcare workers and first responders. I think it’s a fabulous use of this resource by our Navy. It brings encouragement in a time of stress and uncertainty. Thank you U.S. Navy!


  22. Greg, the passage I quoted above from Bates directly follows his own exposition of Barclay’s 6 meanings of grace!


  23. Yep. Same tune, Sin Management and Try Harder, just in a different key. Robert, you were dead on when you wrote above, “If my salvation relies on any specific degree of achieved sanctification — on my performance — to be realized for me, I’m doomed.”


  24. I just finished John M. G. Barclay’s fine book ‘Paul and the Gift’. He explores the notion of ‘gifts’ in the ancient world (the words for gift/grace are related and often interchangeable – ‘charis’ is grace or gift). Gifts were never given without expectation of reciprocity, but always involved establishing or promoting a relationship, with obligations, of some sort. The idea of a ‘pure’, gratuitous gift with no strings attached, Barclay says, is a modern, Western invention unknown in the ancient world, even to Paul.

    Barclay outlines 6 ‘perfections’ of grace. These are 1) superabundance (gift is extravagant or out of proportion to the recipient or action that motivated it); 2) singularity (nature of the giver – e.g. God is always gracious, to all, and without conditions); 3) priority (timing – giver is motivated before any act by the recipient); 4) incongruity (gift is given without regard to the worth or actions of the recipient); 5) efficacy (gift brings about a desired effect, such as a change in the recipient, such as loyalty); 6) non-circularity (gift is given without any expectation of a reciprocal response).

    He then goes on to survey theologians throughout history who emphasized different perfections over others. He also surveys first-century Jewish ideas of grace, noting which perfections they emphasize.

    Paul, Barclay argues, emphasizes one particular perfection over all others – incongruity. it is the fact that God gives grace to the undeserving that distinguishes him from other first-century Jews, and from Greco-Roman society as a whole. Paul does presume (according to Barclay) circularity (reciprocity and expectations), priority (God acts first), and even efficacy (he assumes that grace brings a change in the recipient, though he does not emphasize this as much as the ‘Augustinian tradition’ supposes), and superabundance. The one perfection he does not embrace is singularity (as Barclay says, God’s grace is predicated on his judgment of sin).

    But the major aspect of grace Paul emphasizes consistently is incongruity – God gives grace to undeserving sinners. The other aspect that’s big in Paul is circularity – expectations of loyalty (faithfulness – ‘pistis’).

    As Barclay notes (and many of his reviewers attest) ‘grace’ is a much-talked-about word but little has been done to explore what that really means/meant to the early Christians. Like so much of our faith, our modern ideas give words meanings that were never intended by the biblical authors (grace and faith being two big ones).


  25. A couple of weeks ago, I lamented that, since the coming of Christ, it was no longer possible to bury an axe in someone’s spine, pull it out of his still-twitching body, and feel absolutely righteous about it. So, I understand the saints under the altar.

    I remember a passage in Lewis’ Space Trilogy in which Ransom in Perelandra battled the Unman. The Bent Oyarsa of Earth (read Satan) possessed the physicist Weston whose personal diabolical bent had prepared the way, as it were, for the Bent Oyarsa’s takeover. When Ransom contended with the Unman, he felt an exhilarating liberation, as if he had discovered the proper target for which the emotion of hatred had been created in the first place.

    Later on, when the Bent Oyarsa allows some of the ruined physicist’s spent psychological energy to emerge from underneath, Ransom’s attitude immediately changes to one of pity and respect.

    In the Apocalypse, we are already in the outskirts of Eternity. The trajectories are set and the friction of time and physicality are falling away. Tread carefully.


  26. I think in this John’s Gospel is communicating something fundamentally different from, and at odds with, the Synoptic Gospels. I know if that’s true it breaks up the unity of the apostolic witness in the New Testament, but I still think it’s true. His was a far more mystical and spiritual (some would say spiritualized) setting forth of the character of the Christ-event. Ironically, his is in certain ways the most human depiction of Christ, including his tears at Lazarus’ tomb.


  27. Re: that revenge passage: The Church was being persecuted, and its members — or some of them — wanted revenge, if not in the here then in the hereafter. A human reaction, certainly not Christ-like — or even Gandhi-like — and certainly not saintly. It is passages like these that Nietzsche was thinking of when he called Christianity a religion of ressentiment.


  28. I’m not even so sure about that. I keep coming back to that troubling passage in Rev. (6:9-10): When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

    These saints, in God’s very presence, don’t seem to be very Christ-like. Asking God to avenge their blood doesn’t sound much like loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. Revelation is a strange book.


  29. Good works don’t make you righteous like paying your debts makes you solvent.
    Good works make you righteous like exercise makes you strong.


  30. “— so much seems to ride on somebody somewhere somehow teasing apart incredibly arcane linguistic knots.”

    “. . . The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”
    ( Chesterton, ‘The Convert’)


  31. I dunno about you, but I fade in and out on “accepting Jesus”.

    PS – God doesn’t have any problem with sin in His presence, any more than the Sun has a ‘problem’ with an asteroid caught in its gravitational well. Sin doesn’t rain on His parade, or reduce His felicity one iota.

    The problem is being a sinner in God’s presence.


  32. And if we don’t want to speak in terms of excommunication — though I’m not sure why we shouldn’t, if we are speaking in terms of meeting behavioral standards; the early church certainly spoke of church membership and meeting and sustaining behavioral standards as intrinsically connected — then should we be barred from the sacraments, or excluded from fellowship, until we meet the requirements?


  33. I have no current denomination . I was raised in a evangelical home but not too involved in going to church. I do not know if I am a none or a done, but I go to about any church that believes in Jesus if visiting. We enjoy about any church as it it the people who are the joy. . My sister is a SBC Baptist, go with her, go with my Mom in law , old timey traditional Catholic we go to Mass with her. I appreciate what CM wrote and agree. I just cannot wrap my head around the nuance being discussed. However I do not worry or dwell on it as I can reconcile my belief in my mind, heart and soul and am fine with it. I am not worried. Is my wonderful Mother in law sinless in God s eyes, I believe so, is my Sister sinless in God s eyes , I think so. Do I know for sure , No , that is why it is called faith. However for those who can follow the dialogue and think it is important I can certainly understand the searching for answers. However if you follow Jesus you have found the answer, that is as deep as I get.


  34. What are those required behavioral changes? How much do we have to realize them to qualify as having allegiance to King Jesus? If we don’t realize them to a sufficient degree to qualify, are we then on the outs with Jesus, and should we be excommunicated by the Church?


  35. The problem may be rather the whole notion of “justification” at all, or rather the (largely Protestant) distinction between “sanctification” and “justification” (to use the Protestant terminology). The problem arises where you introduce a distinction between being / becoming holy and avoiding punishment for sin. What Protestants protest against the notion that one must become holy / righteous in order to avoid God punishing you for your sins, relegating sanctification to a sort of bonus side effect of being “imputed” righteous through faith.
    From what I know of the thought of the early church fathers (which is admittedly mostly second hand from eastern Orthodox sources) this distinction isn’t there – they conceived of the punishment for sin being the corruption, dissolution and death that sin itself causes, not some separate consigning to hell added to it as punishment by God, so that justification / sanctification were the same thing – the removal and curing of sin being an end in itself by which its consequent corruption, dissolution and death are avoided.
    “Justification by faith” (in the Protestant sense) I think is a bit of a red herring. It creates a whole theological scheme out of several different things, which in my view really isn’t there in Paul.
    Firstly, Paul says putting one’s faith in God is, of itself, an act of righteousness: not “imputed” righteousness but actually a righteous thing to do.
    Secondly, in disputes with those who were saying that non-Jewish Christians should be circumcised and follow Jewish religious practices and observances, Paul said that non-Jewish Christians’ faith *demonstrated* their righteousness without them, making their following these observances (“works”) unnecessary for them to be accepted by Jewish Christians as properly part of the faith.
    Finally, Paul argues, putting one’s faith and trust in Jesus and following him is the means by which one receives the Spirit, is cured of sin and grows in righteousness and love of God.
    The issue of whether and how one is “justified” in the theological sense of qualifying as one of the elect and being saved from punishment in hell is not something even addressed by Paul, that I can see.


  36. Pertinent to this conversation, I literally just read the following from Matthew Bates’ ‘Salvation By Allegiance Alone.’ If you don’t know Bates, he is worth a follow. Him and Scot McKnight currently have a good series of interactions about the Gospel with some TGC people right now.

    Here is Bates on grace and becoming righteous:

    “Contemporary Christian notions of grace also frequently fail to take into account the *effective* (emphasis his) nature of grace. That is, the aim of God’s gift of the Christ is to set us free from our slavery to sin, the law, and evil powers and to transform us so that we become new creatures, righteous in the Messiah (Rom. 5:21; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Gal 1:1-6; 6:15; Titus 2:11-14). In the Christ, we are ruled by grace, ‘grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life’ (Rom. 5:21; cf. Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:10). It is inappropriate, then, to suggest that God’s gift of the Messiah, if the gift is accepted and subsequently held, would be ineffective in bringing about God’s transformative aims. So we should not set grace at odds with the required behavioral changes (good deeds) associated with allegiant union to Jesus the King.”


  37. Is acceptance of Jesus a one-time, good forever choice/action? That hasn’t been my experience. I have had to choose to believe and trust him again and again; and then there were and are times I don’t trust or believe him, even now.


  38. Dan, welcome to the history of Christian doctrine, a long and winding road.

    People have fought and died over this stuff. Many, many people, for thousands of years.


  39. ” I think maybe ‘Jesus’ is the final word. ?”

    “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” 🙂 🙂
    (Rev. 22:13)


  40. Please help me out here. My understanding is that when a person accepts Jesus as Savior , the person’s sins past, present and future are placed upon Jesus and they “died” with him. That person is now sinless in the eyes of God who cannot let sin enter his presence. So I do not get the “debate” and it seems like a needless examination of semantics when either way Christ came to wash away your sins. To forgive is to forget , so your sin placed upon Jesus is forgotten. Or as Fred Astaire sang , you say potato, I say potatoe. I am laboring to understand why four books on this and then a revelation in the fourth book. Thanks.


  41. The Orthodox Church has very, very few, comparatively speaking, ‘crucial points of doctrine’, and most of them are proscriptive in nature. For example, you are not forbidden to believe that Christ’s death on the Cross paid for sin in some transactional sense, but you not allowed to confess He is a created being. Universal reconciliation, for example, is not and will probably never be a dogma in the Orthodox Church, but it has never lacked its defenders and protagonists.

    What I appreciate most about the Orthodox Church is her teaching that there is nothing more God needs to do, neither after our death or at the end of the age. Fr. John Strickland, in his (incomplete) podcast Paradise and Utopia, claims that the ‘original sin’ of the Western Church was not the adoption of a transactional model for the Atonement, but in what he refers to as ‘anthropological pessimism’ that postpones the benefits of the Kingdom of God to the Eschaton, whether personal in death or universal at the Second Coming. In Fr. Strickland’s view, this led to the whole salvation-as-fire-insurance scheme, primarily avoiding Hell and its torments.

    When I was a child, there was a deeply bitter and grumpy old man on my block who hated everyone and everything. He hated women, Democrats, Catholics, Jews “holy rollers and Bible thumpers”, Irish, Italians, English, children. There was no one and nothing he didn’t have a foul word for. When he passed away, the neighborhood breathed a collective sigh of relief. My stepfather, in his cups, remarked that ‘he died and went to hell and probably never noticed the difference’.

    I imagine the saints experience something similar, except that maybe some of their bodily ailments cease. But the joy they experience in their communion with Jesus does not falter. They die and go to heaven and never notice the difference.


  42. I think your overview and evaluation is excellent, and already takes into account the concerns expressed in my reply to an earlier comment of yours. Most of all I agree that “God MUST be far more generous with his grace than most of us think he is….”


  43. But what if inspiration goes beyond authorial intent? What if a later generation of the Church discovers new meanings in the word of, say, St. Paul, the way later interpreters of a poem discover meanings the author did not intend. Is scripture more like a poem where the meaning of words and phrases is open ended and open to new discoveries not available to the author, or more like a formula with one, or only a few, valid meanings? In this way certain scriptural interpretations of the later Church — including the Reformation churches — may still be creatively inspired, even though they were not available to the original authors.

    Having said that — or rather asked those questions — I do agree that it’s important, as much as possible, to understand the original authorial intent. I, however, think that we are far more limited in our inability to do that than we like to think, even with all our modern and postmodern tools of research and evaluation.


  44. I’m with you and Capon (and Barth, I might add!), Tom. If my salvation relies on any specific degree of achieved sanctification — on my performance — to be realized for me, I’m doomed.

    On the other hand, if my salvation does not change me, what use is it? But that change may be very subtle, observable only by those are in a position to see it, and can come in the most infinitesimal degrees. And it is made possible by being in a position to see who God is and who I am before God, and to trust that even if I mess up royally, he’s got me.

    Both/and in this case, not either/or.


  45. I agree with your overall point. Unfortunately, the Bible is an ancient document, written to ancient people, with ancient ideas about science, government (monarchy is always assumed), social relationships (slavery and patriarchy are assumed), etc. And the biblical authors are writing to, and within, that ancient culture. If we are to understand it, somebody must tease out all those arcane knots, linguistic and otherwise.

    The other option would seem to be a know-nothing pietism, and that is quite popular in Evangelical circles. The Bible becomes a ‘magic book’ (‘Holy Spirit-powered ouija board’ is my favorite description) where God simply tells each person what he wants to say to them at any moment, whether it has anything to do with what the original author intended or not.

    Personally, I have come to the point where I believe this:

    First, understanding the Bible in its ancient context is essential to properly interpret it (application is another matter). It is the work of specialists, and for most of Christian history has been, though that certainly doesn’t guarantee a correct interpretation (obviously). It has always been that way. Even Paul says God gave teachers to equip the church, and the Reformers would probably be appalled at the popular biblicism rampant in Evangelical churches.

    Second, for most of the church’s history, including its earliest history, Christians didn’t read the Bible for themselves, and the earliest Christians didn’t even have a Bible, and they seemed to do pretty well. Personal Bible reading, or ‘personal devotions’ is a recent innovation, no matter how many verses someone can quote to show how it is absolutely essential.

    Third, I don’t know that ‘so much depends on it’. The New Testament is literally the story of the early Christians trying to ‘work out’ what this new thing means. The story certainly didn’t end with the closing of the New Testament (whenever that actually happened). All the questions certainly weren’t answered by the New Testament authors, as the history of the church demonstrates. This means there never was really a ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’, at least not one with all the answers. I think the New Testament is the foundation, the beginning of the story, but certainly not the complete story (contrary to those who believe in the ‘sufficiency of Scripture’). Trying to ‘get back the to Bible’, some mythical ‘pure’ New Testament church is not only impossible, there never was a ‘pure’ church to get back to. God has continued to reveal truth beyond that included in the New Testament (e.g. slavery).

    Given these things, I think that if there is a theology test at the pearly gates we’re all screwed. I have come to the view that God MUST be far more generous with his grace than most of us think he is (and certainly more that I thought for many, many years). Understanding the Bible is important, but understanding it reveals that it isn’t the final word. I think maybe ‘Jesus’ is the final word. 🙂


  46. This is why I’ve always distrusted Erasmus’ Textus Receptus; whenever he couldn’t find an original Greek manuscript for his translation, he merely went and translated Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version into Greek. That and his Johannine Comma have always made me shake my head.


  47. But what does it say, to make a general point, that so much depends on the ability to hash out the nuances of long ago languages to establish crucial points of doctrine – on whatever topic? Whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox – or other religions for that matter — so much seems to ride on somebody somewhere somehow teasing apart incredibly arcane linguistic knots.

    From the perspective of purely academic scholarship, one expects understanding ancient documents to be hard work. And it is. But should so much depend on it? The opposite tendency to just throw up one’s hands and adopt a know-nothing pietism is easy enough to understand, if not endorse, but I for one can’t shake the feeling that it shouldn’t be this hard to get at something we’re told is so important as these major doctrines.

    Am I alone?


  48. But, it assume scripture is the all-in-all. But, what if is is only one small part. The larger part is liturgy and 2000+ years of history,

    A very imperfect comparison is the U.S. consitutiaton. I don’t worry primarily about author’s original intent. I am more concerned constitution as interpreted through 200+ years of legislation and court decisions as well as histrocical events such as the Civil War, Depression, and World Wars (and now a pandemic)


  49. No, actually it is necessary to get to authorial intent. If you don’t understand the original language, its idioms, as well as sociology, trying to understand what someone actually meant to say is impossible. Without that it simply becomes reader-response interpretation – ‘whatever it happens to mean to me’. And it would seem to make sense that the original authors intended to say something specific to their audience, a sense shared by even the most liberal of scholars.


  50. “meaning of the original Greek language when it was translated into Latin.”

    Ugh, still obsessed with meaning of original Greek. A very protestant/fundamentalist obsession.


  51. The purpose of religion, spiritual practices and disciplines, philosophy, systematic theology, etc., is to bring a person to the realization of What Is, what I’ve asserted above.

    ALL mystics of all stripes end up there. Sooner or later each of us will end up there. Perhaps it will be in the moment before we expire into death–enlightenment at gun-point, so to speak. It needn’t be as late as that if we trust that Christ is present to all and all rise in his presence.


  52. I’ll take the view that both sides got it wrong. Here’s why I say that and here’s what sounds to me like reallyreally Good News;

    From The Parables of Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon, 1993

    . . . In all likelihood, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were reared either as Pharisees or under the influence of Pharisaic teaching – as was Jesus himself perhaps. In any case, when Martha responds to Jesus in the very next verse (John 11:24), she sound as if she is repeating a lesson learned in Pharisee Sunday School: “Oh yes,” she says, “I know that. I know he will rise again at the last day.” (The notion of a general resurrection at some future date was standard Pharisaic teaching. Not all Jews of the time ascribed to it: the Sadducees, notably, denied the idea outright – see, for example, Mark 12:18-28. At any rate, it is clear from Martha’s reply that she for one has bought the idea lock, stock, and barrel.)

    What Jesus says next to her, though, goes far beyond anything she of the Pharisees had in mind. “No!” he says to her in effect; “your brother will not rise at the last day, he will rise now, because I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” But then he asks her, “Do you believe this?” As I said, he is challenging her to trust in him rather than to rely on her own credence of theological propositions. And Martha comes through: “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

    F.D. Maurice once said that this exchange between Jesus and Martha depressed him. How sad it is, he observed, that after two thousand years, the church has gotten most Christians only to the point to which the Pharisees got Martha: resurrection in the future, resurrection a week from some Tuesday. Only a handful have ever gotten past that point and made the leap of faith that Jesus got Martha to make: the leap to resurrection now – to resurrection as the fundamental mystery of creation finally manifest in his own flesh. And yet that mystery is all over the pages of the New Testament. Not only is it in such epistles as Ephesians and Colossians (see Eph. 2:5-6, for example, or Colossians 3:1-4). It is also perfectly plain in the Gospels: Jesus never meets a corpse that doesn’t sit up right on the spot. Consider. There is the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17); there is Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-56); and there is Lazarus himself. They all rise not because Jesus does a number on them, not because he puts some magical resurrection machinery into gear, but simply because he has that effect on the dead. They rise because he himself is the Resurrection even before he himself rises – because, in other words, he is the grand sacrament, the real presence, of the mystery of a kingdom in which everybody rises.

    And, here is the Pauline insight that Capon is riffing on–and I use Peterson’s translation to get us out of our ruts;

    It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

    Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

    Is it “infused?” Is it “imputed?” At issue in those terms is the time-line and process and what role we play. As Capon asserts the only “role” for us is to “trust” that it is.

    I’d rather call it “The Done Deal.”


  53. The more I read and study the thought of the early Fathers, the more I have come to understand that some Protestant thought has been influenced by a poor understanding of Greek. Augustine’s weakness seems to have been Greek. The Vulgate itself has its shortcomings when it comes to Greek interpretation. These weaknesses were passed through various translations of the New Testament and in many cases were revisions rather than a new translation.

    If I had more time this morning I’d point to some sources for what I am coming to believe. Normally (the New Normal of social distancing) would give me hours of time to pursue whatever course I want, but today I am going to visit the hospital to get an epidural steroid injection for worsening spinal stenosis. My pain specialist has given me new hope that this has an outstanding chance of working in my case.

    I’m anxious to read what the responses will be to this piece today. I hope those who are Orthodox or Orthodox leaning will contribute.


  54. So justification and sanctification are intertwined. There needs no ghost come from the grave, my Lord, to tell us this. 😉


  55. ‘transformative’, ‘becoming’ . . .

    “some lines from ‘A Litany’ by John Donne

    ” … come
    And re-create me. . . . .
    that new-fashioned,
    I may rise up from death
    before I’m dead. “


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