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Michael Horton is nothing if not honest. In the very first paragraph of his defense of the Traditional Reformed View of justification, Horton tells the reader that his goal “is not simply to repeat relevant paragraphs in our confessions and catechisms,” (although he does do that), but to argue that their view (italics mine) of justification is even more firmly established by recent investigations.” In other words, what Horton intends to do is not primarily investigate the exegetical evidence for the traditional Reformed review, but to defend the views of Luther and Calvin.
Horton is at his best at the beginning of the essay when he is simply stating his case. There is no question in the reader’s mind that Horton defines justification as a primarily forensic (legal) transaction in which a verdict “declares sinners to be righteous even while they remain inherently unrighteous.” This righteousness, according to Horton, is imputed to the sinner solely on the basis of Christ’s obedience and is achieved through faith alone. In no way, according to Horton, does the believer actually become righteous. Justification is a change in status, not nature.
The problem is that while Horton provides ample scriptural evidence for his views, his commitment seems to be less to what Paul said than to what the “magisterial Reformers” agreed upon. In other words, Luther said it. I believe it. That settles it. And true to his Reformer’s heritage, Horton’s first priority is to make sure that the reader understands how his view of justification differs from Roman Catholicism.
I admit to being of two minds about Horton’s obsession with Catholicism. Since my familiarity with it is limited, I appreciate Horton’s commitment to making sure that I understand the difference between the two theologies. (Reformers consider justification distinct from sanctification, while Catholicism regards justification and sanctification as stages in the single process of becoming “actually and intrinsically righteous.”) On the other hand, Horton’s fixation on Roman Catholicism has an almost anachronistic quality, especially when he quotes at length from the 16th century Council of Trent to prove that Catholicism still includes works as an essential element of justification.
For all its weaknesses, however, Horton’s essay succeeds in defining what most evangelicals mean when they talk about justification, in part because it brings out the best in Michael Bird and James D.G. Dunn. Both Bird and Dunn agree with Horton that justification is primarily a forensic term in which the believer’s status changes from guilty to not guilty. Bird also reconfirms Horton’s assertion that justification is “generally distinct” from sanctification, but adds that there are a few scriptural examples “where the divide between justification and sanctification gets a little foggy.”
The four responses to Horton’s essay are somewhat uneven. Bird and Dunn both do an admirable job of critiquing Horton’s theology in a clear, organized manner. (I happen to think that organization is a severely under-rated virtue when it comes to academic writing.) Karkkainen and O’Collins are less helpful, but I’m holding off my assessment until I read their position papers.
One of the highlights of the four responses to Horton’s essay is Dunn’s claim that:
“pushing all of Paul’s thought through the narrow gauge of a strict forensic reading of justification strips off the diversity of images and metaphors on which Paul draws to expand his Gospel…I am really quite alarmed at Horton’s unwillingness to take seriously Paul’s understanding of final judgment, to give his exhortations and warnings the seriousness that Paul evidently intended.
This is, I think, is a great example of how discussions about something as seemingly esoteric as justification can impact the practicalities of day-to-day faith. While Horton tries to make the case that the Traditional Reformed View “gives rise to a spontaneous embrace of the very law that once condemned us,” experience has shown that a minimalist version of this very same view can easily turn into a cocky confidence in salvation that does nothing to kick-start the transformation process. Excluding Paul’s “exhortations and warnings” about falling away from our conversations about justification leads to—at best—a tragically shallow understanding of how we live out our faith
One final note: The fact that I don’t find Horton’s argument compelling does not negate the value of what he has done in contributing to this book. I love multi-view books precisely because they include dissenting opinions. When I’m thinking through a sticky theological question like justification, I can pull just one book down off the shelf, read through the various positions, and assess for myself which one seems to make the most sense. And I can imagine all the scholars wearing tweed.