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
…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?