What Does the Future Hold? (6 of 6)

In the previous essay I said that Orthodoxy missed the opportunity to deal with the Protestant problem 500 years ago when the problem was far more solvable. (Of course there were huge barriers to dialog back then that no longer exist today, so that period had barriers all its own.) Doing something about it today will require a bit more divinely inspired creativity. What sort of creativity? Let me begin by saying I don’t know. But I do believe that there are historic precedents that the church can look back upon as it moves forward.

I’ll return to my original contention that the fundamental description of salvation for St. Paul (and also St. John and the rest of the New Testament) is to be in Christ, in the Spirit, or filled with the Spirit (or as it is described in Acts, the Spirit was poured out). One cannot understand what salvation is nor what being part of the Church – the Body of Christ – is, nor what the Kingdom of God and the renewal of all things is, if one doesn’t begin with the fundamental assertion that if we are in Christ we are being saved, and conversely the only way to be saved is to be in Christ.

Now this formulation is admittedly difficult to define. What does being in Christ mean? Exactly how is it accomplished? What does it look like when it happens? We humans (and especially we post-Enlightenment humans) demand answers to this sort of thing. But God’s ways are notoriously vague. His mighty works are best described as a burning bush, a cloud that is black in the day and fiery at night, a storm, silence …

All these things are impossible to quantify.

This is why the Jewish believers were scandalized when Gentile believers tried being Christians on terms other than the Jewish believers had set. The Jewish believers had centuries to quantify the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, and the Gentile attempt at being Christian didn’t fit into that formula. In response, Paul was led to a new description of our life together that went beyond salvation motif of being “in Christ”. While salvation is being “in Christ,” that salvation implies a leveling of the playing field within the Body of Christ. That, according to St. Paul is our justification by faith and not by works of the Torah. This was a creative solution that allowed everyone to reconceptualize the effects of salvation without changing the fundamental meaning and description.

A similar thing happened in the 12th century. Latin Christians were scandalized by what was going on in Greece. Early Christianity had a few centuries to quantify the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, and now, Pascha and Pentecost, and the practices on the Holy Mountain in Greece didn’t fit into that formula. In response, St. Gregory of Palamas fleshed out a new description of salvation as theosis. This was a creative solution that allowed everyone to reconceptualize salvation without changing the fundamental meaning and description.

One could also mention the concilliar period and the insights of the Cappadocian fathers, the desert fathers, and others.

I propose that we reached another such juncture several decades ago. Along with the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, Pascha, Pentecost, the divine light/theosis, Orthodoxy has now quantified the reality that salvation occurs within the church. But is being “in Christ” precisely the same thing as being “in the church”? If “the church” is properly understood, I suspect it does indeed mean precisely the same thing. But “the church” in question now in the 21st is a narrowly defined church: the Eastern Orthodox Church, or more specifically, the canonical Eastern Orthodox Church, which is only the SCOBA jurisdictions here in North America.

Given the character of the internecine battles, there is a sense that “church” and “Orthodox” have become arbitrary and a bit club-ish in the modern context. The typical solution is to make Orthodoxy more open and friendly to the needs of converts. But this misses the point. In the end, the conversion to Orthodoxy is as much conversion to ancient Byzantium as it is to Christ. Converts are required to take up the yoke of Byzantium – leaders and their courtiers, who dress up and act like Oriental despots, making divine liturgy look and feel like an Oriental throne room, complete with ancient Oriental sensibilities and actions, etc. And if one doesn’t put on this yoke of ancient Oriental serfdom, then one isn’t going to become a Christian in the fullest sense of the word.

There have been protests to this despotic system, such as the Western Rite (WR). But it is tolerated at best and more commonly despised among proper Orthodox. (I have personal experience with this. I prefer WR but have learned to keep my mouth shut among real Orthodox people. Many of them tend to growl, snap, and froth like a Chihuahua protecting a bone when someone mentions their preference for Western Rite.)

Of course the blame isn’t one sided. From experience I can say that WR parishes can be stand-offish and independent in a particularly unhelpful manner. But a full discussion of why the Western Rite hasn’t worked well is far beyond the limits of this essay.

In short, to date, the Spirit has not yet raised up a new Peter and Paul to speak to both the old guard and the new about a different way to understand our life together beyond the bush, the cloud, and the church that is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Maybe the first step is to understand that for Protestants to take on the yoke of Orthodoxy and its subsequent “works of the Tradition” is to “nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:21) which God has poured out upon them without the permission of hierarchs and despots.

Then again, it’s probably not the case, and this interpretation of justification by faith, this “new perspective on justification” is probably just another Protestant fad. The Orthodox Church mistaken? What was I thinking!


Imagine, if you will … (5 of 6)

Imagine a world in which the Orthodox Church suddenly embraced my proposed application of the “new perspective” on the doctrine of justification (that is, what I’ve been writing about for the last several essays, starting here). Now this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The folks in charge of Orthodoxy for the last few decades appear far more intent on turf than truth (hopefully, such appearances are deceiving) and any embrace of Protestants as Protestants would certainly cut into their beloved and all-important turf. So this is a strictly imaginary exercise. A thought experiment, if you will.

Well, as soon as one imagines it, in the ecclesiastical world as it exists now, one realizes that not only can’t it happen on the Orthodox side (as noted above), neither can it happen on the Protestant side.

The first problem is that “Protestantism” as a generalization is meaningless. There are Protestants who are very orthodox, yet there are others who reject the Holy Trinity (whether Unitarians or Jesus only charismatics and certain branches of the Church of Christ). There are those who reject wholesale the social teachings of scripture and the church. These also come in multiple flavors. There are the liberal kind who are for abortion and homosexuality and against hierarchy and there are the conservative kind who turn their “Christianity” into a help-yourself-and-everyone-else-be-damned celebration of guns, gold, and compounds. And there’s everything in between. The result of this variety is that one has to talk of Protestants individually rather than as a group, which makes communion to communion relationships next to impossible.

The second problem is that Protestants have no external authority. Even scripture, the final Protestant authority, is internalized as an authority because the Spirit leads each Protestant Christian to one’s own understanding. Relying on someone else’s interpretation without searching the scripture on one’s own is very bad Protestant form. This potentially makes scripture only as authoritative as yesterday’s new insight: as changeable as the weather.

It is true that historic Protestant groups are “confessional.” That is, they have interpretive structures that give them authoritative guidance in matters of scriptural interpretation, doctrine, and polity. But just as the principle of the Spirit guiding each individual believer in the matter of scripture undermines any definitive meaning for the community, so this principle of the “priesthood of all believers” undermines any real authority that the confessions might have.

These are flaws that have only revealed themselves over centuries. The original Reformers had a strong sense of both the corporate church and the historic church which the confessional system fit into. But the emphasis on individualism eventually trumped that larger perspective.

It is therefore impossible to point to any group of Protestants and say they have it figured out because within that group the seeds of individualism are already undermining the external divine authority that might be present.

So in the end the Protestant communions are not churches in the biblical sense but rather amalgams of individual believers who come together, then separate in a different grouping, only to come together again. Like the ancient Pangaea, the original single continent on earth, that has separated into pieces, bumped back together, and separated again into the current continents which continue to break apart and move together, the Protestant sense of church as a visible Body is driven by the tectonic forces of culture, society, and this year’s opinion of the implications of scripture on contemporary promises and problems.

The fact that Eastern Orthodoxy has refused serious discussion with Protestants makes sense. It nearly always takes Orthodoxy decades to make a decision; more often than not it takes centuries. By that time the Protestant group in question would almost certainly have changed its stripes.

So there are good reasons to avoid ecumenical dialog as it has been conceived in the last couple of centuries. But this doesn’t change the possibility that the Eastern Orthodoxy that we know today has developed the sort of covenantal nomism gone inward rather than Godward that St. Paul is railing against in Galatians and Romans. And if this is the case, then, as hopelessly adrift as Protestantism is, converting to the sort of Orthodoxy we have today (Orthodoxy plus centuries of layers of walls designed to keep the malevolent world at bay) would be an equally hopeless conversion into legalism (that is, “the works of the Tradition,” to paraphrase Paul) that fundamentally contradicts the gospel.

Orthodoxy missed the opportunity to solve this problem 500 years ago when it was far more solvable. Doing something about it today will require a bit more divine creativity. I’ll explore that in the next (and final) essay of this series.

Caveats, 4 of 6

In the previous essays of this series I made the following parallel: Early Gentile Christianity’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish believers is parallel to Protestantism’s relationship to contemporary Orthodoxy.

Allow me to make clear that this parallel is far from exact and is also problematic. Where Orthodoxy and Protestantism are the same (both Christian), Judaism and Christianity are different (the promise of Christ and fulfillment). From my Orthodox perspective I ought therefore to say that the parallelism is not valid since it compares apples and oranges.

But when considering covenantal nomism, there is a remarkable parallelism between Second Temple Judaism and contemporary Orthodoxy. It is very convenient for the Orthodoxy to emphasize the problematic character of the parallelism. It means that we can go on with business as usual. We are thankful that God’s Spirit was poured out on the Protestants and we therefore encourage them to take the next logical step in their salvation by entering the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

But this assumption ignores an important question: Was God’s Spirit involved in calling forth the Reformers? If so, is it not enough that God’s Spirit is poured out? (This was both Peter’s and Paul’s defense of the Gentile Christians: the Spirit had been poured out upon them. And this brings us back to the debate between Peter and Paul, the Jerusalem Church and the Antioch Church, the Gentile Christians and the Judaizers.

So this proposal involves a word of caution to those who like the proposal: There is a sense that it is an “apples and oranges” comparison. But there is also a word of caution to the Orthodox sensibility: Requiring more than the Gospel requires contradicts the Gospel, according to Paul.

In the next essay I will deal directly with the Protestant side of this divide. In the remainder of this essay I want to flesh out the historic parallel between contemporary Orthodoxy and Second Temple Judaism.

At a theological level the Eastern Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church spoken of in the Creed. But at an everyday level its “covenantal nomism” has gone through a series of developmental stages. The Tradition was in its most dynamic form when the new believers were spreading across the Roman Empire proclaiming hope to a world caught up in the despair of a dying empire. But eventually the Christians settled down, came into power, and the Christian Tradition was put into the service of a new Christian empire; the Tradition now explained, along with salvation, how we ought to relate to Christian kings and queens. (Is this story beginning to sound familiar?)

Eventually the Tradition became the all-embracing definition of who Christians were as a people. When the world turned against the Christians, the covenantal nomism turned into an all-embracing self-definition of Christian cultures and sub-cultures. The now mature Christian Tradition became the wall of separation that kept outside forces (usually considered malevolent) at bay.

In short any Protestant can recognize that when one converts to Orthodoxy, one is not only converting to historic Christianity, one is also required to embrace and practice “the works of the Tradition” (to paraphrase St. Paul in Galatians). And in light of Paul’s argument begun in Galatians and fleshed out in Romans, is this really a conversion to Christ at all? Or is it a reversion to enslavement of the elemental spirits of this world? Is it an embracing of God’s grace or is it an embracing of “the works of the Tradition?”

I am neither smart enough nor schooled enough to answer that question. But that is the Orthodox question that is raised by N.T. Wright’s “new perspective on the doctrine of justification by faith.”

After viewing the world from within the Orthodox Church for a few years, I’m somewhat inclined to believe that St. Paul is talking just as much to the latter day “Orthodoxizers” as he is the early day “Judaizers.” Now this is admittedly a huge about-face for me and several possible implications need to be clarified:

  1. Have I become disenchanted with Orthodoxy? No. I still believe, as I have for years, that it is the original, authentic Christian Church. What Wright has done is not caused me to redefine Orthodoxy, but rather to redefine what “the people of God” or “the Chosen People” might mean in this age.
  2. Did I decide to write this now because of the absolutely scandalous activities going on within my own Orthodox jurisdiction (the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America)? No. In fact one of the reasons I have waited to publish these essays is the scandal. I came to these conclusions before the extent of the scandal became clear. I’ve been sitting on them precisely because of how they might be perceived in light of the scandal. Things have settled down, so I have decided to go ahead with this project.
  3. Am I planning on becoming Protestant again? No. I’m not studying this because I’m disgruntled and looking for options. To recycle an old George Carlin joke, I’m perfectly gruntled in the Orthodox Church. This is neither a complaint against Orthodoxy nor a defense of Protestantism; it is simply my observations on what I believe are the implications of St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.

In the two final essays in this series I want to make clear that this proposal is in no way simple. Assuming that my interpretation is correct, what is the meaning of Protestantism and how should Orthodoxy relate to it? That is an unbelievably complex question made even more complex by years of pretending that it wasn’t a legitimate question. But that’s the next essay.

Comparing Orthodoxy to Judaism, 3 of 6

In the last essay I ended by saying that the church, being a new creation, was not obligated to the Mosaic Law (the Torah), but to a new law of love (Gal. 5:14). This is not to imply that this new church was antinomian. Even a cursory reading of Paul’s letters indicates that he assumed there would be many rules, disciplines, requirements, or whatever you want to call them. The new Christian freedom was neither a freedom to do whatever Christians wanted nor a freedom to just make it up as they went along their merry way, but rather freedom to serve God as God revealed.

It is therefore clear that Paul, once Jewish Rabbi and now Christian evangelist, conceived the church (as he did his Judaism) in terms of covenantal nomism. And in many ways this new church (which was neither Jew nor Gentile) looked like Judaism. Their liturgies were similar. The vestments for their priests were similar. Their disciplines were similar although the Christian disciplines followed a logic specific to the life of Christ.

The biggest difference (aside from Christianity’s Christocentrism) was that Judaism had become burdened by the cares and dangers of this world and therefore felt it necessary (over a period of several centuries) to wall itself off from the world. Christianity, with its lively sense of the imminent return of Christ, was far more willing to engage the world. The Christian disciplines created no wall of separation as the Jewish law did. Christianity was an evangelistic religion that functioned very well in the world, yet with an ascetic dimension that always allowed it to be not of the world.

If we move forward 2,000 years we find Eastern Orthodoxy in a similar social position as Second Temple Judaism. Its attitude toward its relationship to the Tradition has evolved dramatically over the centuries. Today Orthodoxy is a religion that tends toward using its Tradition and traditions as a wall against a dangerous outside culture. And let me be clear that I’m not using the word “dangerous” in its comfortable American sense (ie, television is dangerous for our young people). In much of the world throughout much of history, Orthodox Christians were and are killed for being Orthodox. Even now, under the “benign” watchfulness of their American and U.N. overlords, Muslims are cleansing historically Christian countries/regions such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Palestine of Christians, forcing them to move to other parts of the world or suffer terrible persecution and death.

Living in this environment, the covenantal nomism of Eastern Orthodoxy has necessarily taken on social functions that go far beyond the basic interplay of grace and gratitude. In this sense Eastern Orthodox history is remarkably similar to Jewish history leading up to the end of the Second Temple period.

Meanwhile something completely unthinkable to the writers of the New Testament had occurred. Well over a millennium ago the church in east and west was divided by lack of communication and profound cultural differences. (The official split occurred in 1054, but the separation was developing long before that.) If we follow the Orthodox understanding of history (which I think is the correct understanding), the western church (ie, the Roman Catholic Church) drifted and eventually fell into heresy, and toward the end of the medieval period, even debauchery. In that context the Protestant Reformation was certainly necessary and almost inevitable.

Protestantism is far from perfect, but one could argue (and I will argue) that it is not unlike the believers in Caesarea (Acts 10), who did not follow any of the assumed rules in the process of becoming believers. Or maybe I should say the Holy Spirit felt it unnecessary to work within the very tight strictures of eastern Christian sensibility when drawing these new Christians unto God. As Peter observed of the Caesarean believers, “But the Spirit fell upon them and Peter said, ‘Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?'” (Acts 10:47).

The existence of Protestantism can be interpreted, as it normally is in the history of theology, as a sort of dialectical inevitability of history. On the other hand, it can be viewed as an amazing and surprising gift of God: just when things looked their bleakest in the Christian West, God poured out his Spirit and believers were born who found no home in the Roman church. The result was a group of authentic and divinely called believers that had no home within the old “wineskins” of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

The first time this occurred (that is, the first Gentile Christians) the church in Antioch spurred on the mother church in Jerusalem to reform its thinking. Because of the firm leadership of the apostles there was neither a lasting church split between Jewish and Gentile factions nor between Jerusalem and Antioch. Similarly the new Protestant church spurred the Roman Catholic Church into a counter-Reformation. But along the way there was a blood-bath between Roman Catholic and Protestant making the prospect of reunion far more difficult. Of course it never did occur. Furthermore, because of the geographic and political realities of the 16th century, Eastern Orthodoxy was a world away and encumbered with its own theological problems. It was therefore excluded from the conversation. The result was three distinct streams of Christianity that each kept to themselves.

Geographic and political realities are very different 500 years later. The three groups now live side by side nearly everywhere and conversation is necessary. And the rules of engagement between Orthodox and Protestant are clear (from an Orthodox perspective): Orthodoxy is the original church. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it has remained true to the Gospel and continues to be the trunk of the tree and thus the one authentic Christian communion. Protestants must therefore “convert” – submit to all the rules and regulations of Eastern Orthodoxy – in order to be properly and fully Christian. This is the only path to being one in Christ.

But could it be that St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, especially when it is considered in its original context of Galatians, tells a different story?

The Law (Torah) and the Gospel, 2 of 6

In the previous essay I observed that, according to N.T. Wright, the significance of the doctrine of justification by faith has to do with the basic requirements for Christian table fellowship. Wright’s claim is based on a particular understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ and St. Paul’s day. Within Protestant circles Judaism was historically considered a works religion. It didn’t matter to Protestant scholars that Jewish rabbis and scholars disputed this claim. The claim fit within the Protestant theological presuppositions and the Protestant version of salvation, so this particular interpretation of Judaism was (and continues to be) very persistent.

But in the 70s E.P. Sanders proposed – with extensive evidence – that “Second Temple Judaism” (that is, the Judaism during the period of Herod’s temple, the Judaism of Jesus and the first Christians) believed that salvation came as purely a divine gift and the Mosaic Law (that is, the covenant) was a thankful response to this divine gift of salvation. Sanders coined the term “covenantal nomism” to describe this view of Judaism. Far from believing that the Law could save them, the Rabbis (and certainly Jewish scripture) taught that God graciously chose Israel and that not only had they done nothing to deserve it, they repeatedly and consistently broke the covenant that God made with them. In spite of Israel’s failure, God continued forgiving and continued to graciously draw his people back to himself. (In other words, salvation, even in its Old Testament and Second Temple context, is by pure grace.) The Mosaic Law was not the means of salvation, but rather the people’s response to God’s grace.

This ought to sound very familiar. Both the Orthodox and the Reformed Protestants have the same stance toward what Christians would call the Old Testament Law. Presbyterians often refer to this as the dynamic of “grace and gratitude.” It is this sensibility that underlies both the Orthodox sense of “the Tradition” and what has come to be known in the West as the “Protestant work ethic” (which grew specifically out of the Reformed churches – it might be more accurately described as the Presbyterian work ethic). Lutherans (and Roman Catholics) have a darker view of the Law; it is a taskmaster. Orthodox and Presbyterian/Reformed have a much more positive view of the Law, as a happy (or in Latin “felix”) response to God’s grace.

But the Mosaic Law in relation to Judaism isn’t quite that simple. While it is God-given (and it is certainly God-given), over time it became organic and specific to the Jewish people. The Law has passed through major developmental stages. The first stage was the Mosaic Law given to the wandering herdsmen fleeing Egypt and looking for the Promised Land. This was the Law in its most dynamic form. In gratitude the people responded to God’s grace by following this new way of life to which God had called them. In this synergistic effort, the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, was born.

Eventually these wanderers settled down, rejected God’s leadership style, demanded a king, and got down to the business of being a nation like all the other nations around them. In this Davidic period the Law adapted nicely to this new circumstance, but the emphasis shifted toward the support of the bureaucracy. The Law entered its social phase, where it not only shaped the people’s response to God, but began to govern every aspect of their life, especially in relation to their king.

Of course the nation fell away from God to the point that the officials apparently forgot the very existence of the Law. But in Josiah’s reign the scrolls were found and there was a great spiritual reform. The actual history is far more complicated than this, but this deuteronomic (literally “second law”) period, this second discovery of the Law, resulted in many more social developments which provided the foundation for the unique Jewish self-understanding they took into captivity.

By the time the Jews had returned from their exile, the Law had become the all-embracing definition of who they were as a people. Originally the Law was understood to be a God-given set of disciplines and requirements through which the people could both demonstrate their gratitude and transform their lives into what God desired. But when we get into this Second Temple phase of Judaism (from Ezra to the destruction of the Temple in the Christian era) the Law became far more than a response to God. It is what gave the Jewish people their identity and kept them distinct from all other people. While observing the Law continued to be a response of gratitude to God, it also became a wall of separation that kept outside forces (usually considered malevolent) at bay.

In Galatians it is this secondary characteristic of the Law, or Torah, which had become the primary characteristic – this Torah-as-wall-of-separation – that Paul is reacting to. The first Christians were all Jews (and in their self-understanding, God’s chosen people), and it seemed obvious to them that anyone wanting to become Christian would also become one of God’s chosen, that is, a Jew. But God gave Peter a vision about clean and unclean, informing him that this distinction – even though seemingly rooted in the Mosaic Law – was not the divine intent (Acts 10). God also revealed directly to Paul his gospel, distinct from the Torah, which emphasized God’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles (Gal. 1).

Of course this seemed a radical change to the Jews and it took many years for the full implications of all this to sink in. The Jerusalem church, under the leadership of James the brother of Jesus, was the slowest to change (which makes sense, they were an overwhelmingly Jewish church) and most of the problems (the Judaizers) emanated from that church. The church in Antioch, on the other hand, was the first to embrace the full implications of life in Christ as demonstrated by God’s gracious gift of the Spirit.

To Paul, who understood the radical-ness of grace, this “Jerusalem” effort to put Gentiles under the yoke of Torah-as-wall-of-separation undermined the very grace that God was offering. These “works of the law” (a phrase used by Paul four times in Galatians and again in Romans) were not intrinsic to the grace offered in a Gentile context. Requiring the “works of the law” implied that God’s grace was inadequate and that this grace was only available to those who went to the effort to get inside the wall of separation. It got the cart before the horse.

So it is that the church ultimately became a separate community, neither Gentile nor Jew, but a new reality that reflected life in Christ as experienced by those who had received the Spirit. Nothing more was required. This new community was under obligation, not to the old Mosaic Law, but to a new law of love (Gal. 5:14).

The “New Perspective” and Orthodoxy, 1 of 6

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.

St. Paul, Prof. Dunn, Dr. Waters, and Bultmann (the theologian, not the schnauzer)

Alongside listening to and reading James Dunn (see here and here), in an attempt at balance I have been reading Guy Prentiss Waters’ Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (and have John Piper’s The Future of Justification in line after I’m done with Waters). The difference in analytical style is so striking that I couldn’t help but report on it with an essay.

Who are these two authors? Both are Reformed Protestants (although Dunn is now a Methodist, but his intellectual framework is clearly Reformed). Dunn is a British Evangelical in the mainstream of intellectual thought. (This involvement with the mainstream draws the ire of most American Evangelicals and leads many of them to question his Evangelical credentials.) Waters is an up and coming theologian who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary, a bastion of very conservative Presbyterianism in the U.S. Just as Dunn is considered to be on the left fringe of Evangelicalism by many, so Waters would be considered to be on the right fringe by many.

Waters’ method of approaching history is the method I learned in Bible College; Dunn’s is the method I learned in seminary. In his analysis, Waters appears to stand outside history as both a neutral observer and impartial judge. Dunn appears to work within history, wrestling with the ideas and theologians of the past, and certainly not observing events, but doing his part to shape them.

Central to Waters’ method is what I will dub “the received Litany of Woes of Protestant theological history.” I’m not sure who wrote this Litany of Woes, but Waters’ litany is pretty much the same litany I memorized in Bible College, the same litany of history that no doubt every Bible College student across the land memorized. Waters doesn’t repeat the whole litany, but rather the high points that serve his purpose in this book. In his words,

“We jump now from 1564, the year of Calvin’s death, to 1826, the year that F. C. Baur began to teach at Tübingen. … European philosophy had now radically embraced doubt as its epistemological starting point.” (p. 3)

Why Bauer? He is a towering figure in New Testament studies, generally credited for being the first higher critic. From Calvin and Luther until the mid-19th century, pretty much everything was copacetic in Protestant theology; then Protestantism began it’s slow decent into exegetical decadence. Bauer is the figurehead of this decent.

So according to the litany, Bauer introduces dialectical materialism to theology (p. 4), which leads to the Classical Liberalism of Holtzmann, et. al. (p. 8). In response to those excesses we have the rise of the History of Religions school of thought (p. 9)on the one hand and another sort of primitivism in Albert Schweitzer’s “Participationism” (p. 11) on the other. (For the sake of clarity, Schweitzer never called his theology “participationism” but rather “Christ-mysticism.” Participationism was coined by either Dunn or Wright and Waters is reading Dunn’s late 20th century interpretation of Paul back into 18th century Schweitzer.)

And this sets the stage for the next towering figure after Bauer: Rudolph Bultmann. Waters observes that while Bultmann was formally a Lutheran he was materially an existentialist in the mold of Martin Heidegger (p. 17). Furthermore, he observes that his interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification is far more Existentialist than Lutheran.

“For Bultmann, the ‘individual’ was central, and justification (a ‘forensic concept’) was central to Pauline theology. Justification, then, was not an inward or mystical ‘change’; rather, it is an ‘eschatological reality’ made present to the believer, a ‘pure gift of God’s grace,’ not attained or attainable by the works of the law” (p. 17).


Well certainly this is an existential reading of Paul, but before anybody had even heard of Existentialism it was also a very Lutheran reading of Paul, straight out of old Martin’s playbook, except possibly for the phrase “eschatological reality” which Martin Luther never uttered, but is oh-so 19th century in quality. But “a forensic rather than mystical change,” and “justification as a pure gift of God’s grace” is about as Lutheran as it is possible to get.

So it is at this point that Waters’ standard Litany of Woes begins to break down. Bultmann was, if not formally, at least materially a heretic of the first order. (On that point I agree wholeheartedly with Waters. I named my dog after him after all! – Bultmann, that is, not Waters.) And Bultmann’s heresy (the theologian and not the schnauzer) was in no small part due to precisely what Waters describes above, but that inherent weakness did not come from Heidegger, it came from Martin Luther himself.

In fact one could argue (an argument that is far beyond the scope of this essay) that Heidegger’s existentialism is simply a secularized version of Lutheranism. The Heidegger we all love to hate could never have developed as a philosopher anywhere on the planet other than utterly Lutheran Germany (or possibly equally Lutheran Scandinavia, the home – not accidently – of the premier Christian existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard).

But that particular insight is not part of the Litany of Woes that I learned in Bible College and that Waters repeats here. Is it possible that since the connection between religious Lutheranism and secular Existentialism isn’t part of the canonical Litany of Woes, the fact that Waters got the Existential cart in front of the Lutheran horse never occurred to Waters?

From Bultmann, Waters continues his Litany of Woes through W.D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, Krister Stendahl, and E.P. Sanders. But a litany is a litany, and we will not learn a great deal more to continue through this list of bad (from Waters’ perspective) Biblical scholarship. (Nearly all Lutheran, by the way, a likely significant point that the Reformed Waters curiously doesn’t explore. But again, the fact that 18th to 20th century Biblical scholarship was absolutely dominated by Continental Lutherans is not part of the received Litany of Woes, and the remarkable significance of that fact to Reformed theologians simply doesn’t occur to Waters without the nudging of the Litany. So Waters remains remarkably uncurious about this trend.)

Dunn sees the significance of this same history in a remarkably different manner. In his paper, “The Justice of God” (reprinted as ch. 7 in the revised The New Perspective on Paul), Dunn observes that due to Luther’s insistent emphasis on the individual (in stark contrast to the Reformed emphasis on the Covenant of Grace – a very corporate understanding of God’s work in the world), there has always been a strongly individualist (which is the very point of Existentialism) flavor to the Protestant understanding of justification.

“There were attempts, earlier in this century, to shift the focus of the traditional teaching on justification” ie, “the understanding of justification by faith in distinctively individualistic terms” [italics in original]) p. 196.

And here, Dunn observes the overwhelming influence of Bultmann, but Dunn’s observation is far more sweeping – and equally as damning – to the evangelicals as to the liberals. Dunn continues:

“But such protests were swamped by the tremendous influence of Bultmann’s existentialist interpretation of Paul, reinforcing as it did the more traditional, individualistic reading, and giving rise to powerful restatements of the classical Lutheran doctrine within the Bultmann School” (ibid).

Dunn recognizes that Protestants are all – liberal and evangelical, Lutheran and Reformed – children of Bultmann to the extent that they (and he has in mind especially, the Reformed or Presbyterian who should know better, given their Covenantal theology) are blinded to the corporate and covenantal nature of salvation because of the nearly exclusive emphasis on “the more traditional, individualistic reading” of salvation which is based in Luther at the expense of Calvin.”

The Litany of Woes leads us (and here I’m thinking of “us” as those of us who cut our teeth on conservative Reformed evangelicalism in places like Bible Colleges and Reformed campus ministries) to think we can stand outside of the history of theology to observe and judge it: In the beginning was Luther and Calvin, but then came Bauer, and Wellhausen, and Schweitzer, and Bultmann … Woe to them! But we believe in the Bible, so ultimately they are of no concern to us.

Dunn, on the other hand,

  • although he is an Evangelical,
  • although he believes in the Bible in the same manner that American Evangelicals believe in the Bible,
  • although he fundamentally disagrees with and distances himself from the higher critical method that the Litany of Woes condemns

sees the “problem” as much deeper and more pervasive. Bultmann, rather than just being a heretic and a liberal, “one of them,” as it were … Bultmann, in his excess, expresses something common to all Protestantism, but less visible in all Protestantism because it isn’t so excessive. And Dunn sees no room for a holier-than-thou attitude because he embraces the Continental Protestant tradition as in some sense his own. Rather than trying to stand above and outside of history, he perceives in Bultmann and his ilk, a blind spot and failure in Protestantism as a whole. Bultmann unveils a Protestant problem (Dunn’s view) rather than a liberal problem (Waters’ view).

My point is not that Dunn is right and Waters is wrong. It is rather, that in his supposed critique of Dunn, Waters completely misses the point. Dunn says that amidst all the strengths and insights of the classic Protestant doctrine of salvation (of which Dunn believes there are many), Protestantism has had a blind spot that grew out of a misunderstanding of the Judaism that existed in the time of Jesus and Paul.

Rather than addressing whether there is a blind spot or not, Waters attacks Dunn’s conclusions using the standard, centuries-old line of argument (the Litany of Woes) that, if Dunn is correct, includes the very blind spot that Dunn is critiquing.

So, Dr. Waters, set aside the Litany and pay attention to Prof. Dunn’s insights into the history of Protestantism. Maybe then you can figure out what Dunn is talking about and offer an intelligent critique of Dunn instead of the canonical critique of the Litany of Woes that decidedly misses the point.

Justification by Faith and Sacramentalism

I just ran across this summary of the Protestant doctrine of justification from Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei in a footnote (#335) in James Dunn’s The New Perspective on Paul, rev. ed., p. 80f:

Justification is defined as the forensic declaration that the believer is righteous, rather than the process by which he is, made righteous, involving a change in his status rather than his nature. 2. A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification (the external act by which God declares a sinner to be righteous and sanctification or regeneration (the internal process of renewal within man). … 3.Justifying righteousness … is defined as the alien righteousness of Christ, external to man and imputed to him, rather than a righteousness which is inherent to him, located within him, or which in any sense may be said to belong to him (Iustitia Dei 189).

For a number of years I have been trying to put my finger on the critical difference between the Orthodox and Protestant (particularly Reformed) perspectives of the doctrine. The problem is that there is no single Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. Some Reformed explanations are essentially Orthodox, while others focus so exclusively on the forensic and so completely ignore Paul’s participationist theology that one would hardly recognize them as Christian, much less Reformed. Others (most North American versions of justification) focus nearly exclusively on an intellectual understanding of faith with no connection to obedience (bordering on antinomianism). This antinomian version of “faith alone” seemingly ignores the Apostles’ insistence that at the judgment seat of Christ, we will be “seen for what we are” … “matched to whatever we have done, good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10, NJB), nor on his warning that a mind (lit. nous) not set on the Spirit is hostile God and doesn’t submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7). How does one sort through the variety in order to distill the core of Reformed thought on this contentious subject? It seems McGrath has clarified the question and, in the process, helped me put my finger on what I believe to be the core issue.

I want to consider the McGrath quote above, especially that first point, in light of the Orthodox understanding of justification. But I want to enter into the issue through the lens of another contentious subject within Protestantism: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Are the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, or are they pointers that remind us of the Body and Blood of Christ? When Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life,” was he speaking literally or metaphorically? This question is terribly complicated in the Christian West so there is no simple yes or no. Let me provide a quick summary:

Historically, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have all affirmed that it is really and truly the Body and Blood that we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table (thus, they all call it a “sacrament”). Anabaptists (Mennonites, Baptists, American Evangelicals, etc.), on the other hand, say it is metaphorical and the Lord’s Table rather than being sacramental, is a memorial of the Last Supper. (I know, the Anglicans/Episcopalians are missing from this list. High Anglicans are pretty much like Roman Catholics; low Anglicans are pretty much like Presbyterians. They are both sacramental, but fall into different branches of the three main categories above. Methodists are a branch of Anglicanism, so they are also sacramental.)

Among the first group (the sacramentalists), two of them want to explicitly define what happens while one refuses to define it. The Roman Catholics define it with the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Lutherans define it with the doctrine of consubstantiation. The Presbyterians, on the other hand, say that while it really happens it is indefinable and we have no business trying to define it. They just call it the Real Presence of Christ, and leave it at that. (Except when they’re preaching, in that venue they can’t help themselves; they make clear that it can’t be defined and we have no business defining it, and then they go ahead and try to do it anyway.)

Sacramentalism, then, is the doctrine that while the incarnation (ie, that Jesus was fully human and fully God) is a completely unique and unrepeatable event, but at the same time it is not unique. The bread is fully bread and fully body of Christ just as Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. Sacramentalism is the doctrine that as a result of the incarnation, God can fully indwell and transform creation without causing any fundamental change to the creation itself. It’s a both/and understanding of God and creation.

And this brings us to the doctrine of imputation (what McGrath is talking about in his first point, without using the term). The English term “impute” is used by the King James Version (and several subsequent English versions to translate the Greek term logidzoumai. (Remember that word; you’re going to see it several more times in the next couple of paragraphs.) Paul liked that word a lot in his letter to the Romans (4:3, 8, 11, 22, 23, 24, 5:13). It has to do with God’s righteousness, human sin, and how God relates to humans. The Revised Standard Version uses the term “reckon” instead, and that’s a more familiar term. The normative Protestant interpretation of these verses is that God “reckoned” that we were righteous even though we weren’t; God treated us as if we were righteous. To use McGrath’s words from the above quotation, God didn’t make us righteous; he declared us righteous. It isn’t a change in nature, it’s a change in status. That’s the heart of the Protestant interpretation of imputation.

But, in light of the story about the Lord’s Supper, we can now understand McGrath’s words in a brand new way. The Protestant doctrine of the imputation of sin described by McGrath is not sacramental. (In other words, it’s more in line with Anabaptist theology than Lutheran/Reformed theologies.) Sacramentalism is the belief that God can fully indwell and transform a human without causing any fundamental change to him or her. God’s righteousness cannot be an “alien righteousness” nor can justification be just a declaration rather than a substantive change in a sacramental view.

If we were to change McGrath’s description into a sacramental understanding of imputed righteousness, when God did that logidzoumai thing that Paul talked about in Romans 4 and 5, he didn’t merely declare us righteous, he changed us, he made us capable of becoming righteous, not with an “alien” righteousness that isn’t really our own, that merely covers over our sin, but capable of actually making God’s righteousness our own righteousness. He not only changed our status, he changed our status by changing our nature (or more technically, by renewing and enlivening the nature he created in us) so that we could progress toward the true likeness of God.

Consider the text, “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due, But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3ff NRSV).

The question is, “Who was different after Abraham believed?” Was Abraham still the same old reprobate with nothing happening inside him except a decision to believe God while God changed and decided to treat Abraham differently even though there was no substantial change in Abraham other than a decision? Or, did God stay the same, while Abraham’s belief changed him and created the possibility of divine transformation, a possibility that was an impossibility before Abraham believed?

The former view (that God changed) is the standard, non-sacramental doctrine of imputed righteousness that McGrath identifies as the bedrock of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. The latter is a sacramental view that is far more consistent with the whole body of Reformed and Lutheran theology.

I first became uncomfortable with the standard interpretation of imputed righteousness in seminary when I started reading Karl Barth. In his study of scripture, Barth was led to the inevitable conclusion that Covenant Theology (ie, Reformed theology which claims that both the Law and the Gospel are facets of the Covenant of Grace, which is specifically in disagreement with the Lutheran theology that puts Law and Gospel at odds) inevitably and necessarily led to a participationist rather than forensic view of salvation (see next paragraph for an explanation). If Barth was right (and he was, imho) it strikes the death knell over the traditional doctrine of imputed righteousness.

While the forensic metaphor is an important metaphor, when used as Paul used it, it is not descriptive of the primary reality. God is not a judge at a distance, never coming in contact, but only changing our legal status (ie, forensic status) so that we can get out of jail free because of our belief (this is the essence of the forensic view as expressed in Protestantism). Rather, God comes to us – in Christ – participates in our life – in Christ – and when we believe, something substantial happens to us that makes it possible for us to enter into God – in Christ – and participate in the life of God – in Christ (this is the essence of the participationist view).

This participationist view perfectly describes the Covenant of Grace that God has made with man. God comes to us. It’s no mere “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” spoken from a distance, it is life together, originally as Israel, and then in the fullness of time, in Christ. And that life together (here’s the sacramental part that is so necessary in order to be consistent with the incarnation) is actually transformative. Just as Jesus is the Bread of Life, not just metaphorically, but in reality, so we are the Body of Christ, not just metaphorically, but in reality, that is being made holy and pure and entering into the likeness of God, not just as a promise for future consideration when we get to heaven, but here and now, and day by day.

In other words, we can have real righteousness now just as we can have the real body and blood of Christ now, just as Christ promised us in his teachings.