In a recent essay I mentioned that in my opinion “the new perspective” on justification by faith had implications for Orthodoxy, if we would take it seriously. At the time I was asked to expand that thought but I’ve been hesitant because Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to take kindly to critiques from outsiders, especially Protestants. The “new perspective” is a Protestant endeavor, so I wanted to get my ducks all in a row in order to make it more convenient for my Orthodox readers to shoot them down. 🙂
As a reminder, the new perspective is an interpretation of justification by faith defended by N.T. Wright especially and also his colleague at Durham University, James Dunn. The new perspective on justification was called for because of the radical changes in assumptions brought about by “the new perspective on Second Temple Judaism” (that is the Judaism in the day of Jesus and the early church) that was proposed back in the 70s by E.P. Sanders.
I generally wouldn’t get too excited about the latest Protestant theological proposal, except that Sanders’ new perspective on Second Temple Judaism argues for what Orthodoxy has claimed all along. And in turn, the Protestant claim that the doctrine of justification by faith is the cornerstone and primary lens through which the whole doctrine of salvation has to be viewed is one of its most significant departures from classical Christian theology, and thus, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to ecumenical dialog.
But Wright’s careful historical and exegetical work on the doctrine of justification not only critiques Protestant assumptions, it also speaks to Orthodox assumptions (although Wright seems serenely unaware of Orthodoxy in his work). One of the things I’ve been working on since the initial essay is reading Wright’s and Dunn’s critics (sadly insubstantial and rather predictable) as well as studying up on what Orthodox writers have to say about justification. What has become clear is that Orthodoxy doesn’t have a well developed doctrine of justification by faith. It is treated thoroughly as one of the several descriptors of salvation. In contemporary writings it tends to be treated dismissively as a Protestant innovation. The fathers’ exegesis is something that would warm the hearts of most Reformed theologians, although they would give the Lutherans some heart burn. But beyond these basics, very little thought has been given to the doctrine of justification by faith within Orthodoxy.
In a similar vein, Wright argues that the doctrine of justification by faith should take a back seat to St. Paul’s broader and more fundamental description of salvation. Paul’s core doctrine of salvation, according to Wright, is really no different than the Johannine approach (this is essentially the Roman Catholic and Orthodox view, but a significant departure for a Protestant). He observes that when Paul talks about salvation, he talks far more about being “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” or “filled with the Spirit” than he does about justification by faith, which is in the context of a more specialized discussion, not about salvation in general, but about how different “saved” people ought to relate. Furthermore, the “in Christ” motif appears in every Pauline work where justification is a far more limited doctrine. Thus, if you want to understand Paul’s soteriology, you have to focus on the “in Christ” motif.
Justification by faith, on the other hand, is “the great ecumenical doctrine,” according to Wright. Paul uses the justification motif in Galatians (and later in Romans) to deal with the Gentile problem. Jews were the people of God, and Jewish Christians continued to follow the requirements of the Jewish Law, because they assumed that this is how one remained faithful to God. This included following the cleanliness laws, which required separation from unclean things. The Gentile problem occured at this intersection. Gentile Christians, who didn’t follow the works of the Law (ie, becoming people of the covenant through circumcision, dietary restrictions, and cleanliness rituals) remained unclean. Therefore, the natural instinct of Jewish Christians was to separate from them, including when they were at table.
Paul argued that this separation was antithetical to the meaning of fellowship. He also argued that requiring Gentile Christians to practice the works of the Law was antithetical to the Gospel itself. In other words, “the Gentile problem” was not a problem with the Gentiles but rather a problem with the Jewish understanding of salvation. So it is at this intersection that Paul offers the doctrine of justification by faith as a means of explaining why Jewish Christians ought to accept Gentile Christians at table as they are. Paul argued that the only criteria for table fellowship was that all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, was receiving God’s grace (that is, justification) by faith. Any other rules to determine table fellowship contradicted the gospel, according to Paul.
Wright observes that this line of argument says far more about ecumenical relationships among Christians than it says about how salvation is accomplished. Justification is not a description of how salvation occurs; it is rather a statement that salvation is God’s decision, and not ours to make. The significance of the doctrine is not, therefore, in what salvation means, but rather, what the basic requirements for table fellowship are.
Now that question is an interesting can of worms that requires more than just a simple answer. Because of that, I will continue this subject in the next several essays.