Blogging Through “Justification: Five Views” Roman Catholic View @ivpacademic

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Here we are—the last entry in our survey of IVP Academic’s Justification: Five Views. In a way, this final essay on Roman Catholicism brings us back full circle to where we started. The Traditional Reformed View was, after all, a reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism. I guess it’s fitting, then, that the authors, Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty, spend much of their time talking about the 1547 Council of Trent.

Trent, according to the authors, is probably the “clearest exposition of the Catholic position on justification” ever penned, and was done so with the specific purpose of drawing a line in the sand between Roman Catholic and Protestant teaching on the issue. After spending a lot of time tracing the Roman Catholic position on justification from Augustine down through the late Middle Ages, the authors describe the decree as a clear explanation of the Catholic position “that justification involved not only the remission of sins but also the sanctification of the individual.”

Although the authors suggest that the Council at Trent was “determined to avoid contentious adjudication on issues of divine grace and human freedom of the will,” the authors themselves have no such compunction and express themselves quite ably on this topic:

At an intellectual level, the Catholic tradition has, of course, profoundly accepted and maintained that no one can stand in the sight of God without blame. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).We cannot make ourselves sinless. It is God alone who justifies the sinner through the merits of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the tradition, in general, affords the conviction that all was not lost by the sin of Adam and Eve. There was not an utter corruption of the human person, and although the image of God was severely occluded, it was not obliterated and was certainly not replaced by the “image of the devil,” as Luther, in a perhaps unguarded outburst, maintained. Most importantly of all, human beings retained, despite concupiscence, an essential freedom of the will, which, under the right conditions and stimulus, could move toward God.

Later in their article, the authors do eventually broaden their analysis beyond the history of the Council of Trent and begin to highlight other issues as well. Among them is the claim that justification should not be the primary metaphor for the “Christ event,” a view which has become almost a consensus opinion among the scholars represented here. In what is by far the longest list of alternative metaphors so far, the authors suggest that  “salvation, reconciliation, expiation, redemption, liberation, sanctification, transformation, new creation, and glorification” can all stand alongside justification in Paul’s metaphoric hall of fame.

Another welcome perspective—and one that has popped up frequently in other books and blogs lately—is the observation that theologians have too often neglected the resurrection in their discussions about justification. In one of the authors’ rare scriptural citations, they refer to Romans 4:25 “He was handed over for our sins and raised for our justification,” and suggest that “innumerable theologians, not to mention rank and file believers, have long neglected the resurrection in their versions of redemption in general and of justification in particular.” I say a hearty Amen to that!

The responses to O’Collins and Rafferty’s essay were, I think, among the clearest and most articulate of the entire book. Michael Horton, especially, provided what is probably one of the clearest summaries of Luther’s view of the “near-dissolution of the imago Dei” I’ve ever read. He also frames what I think is one of the central questions of the debate when he writes “Why does justification have to be subsumed under sanctification in order for us to affirm both?”

Similarly, Michael Bird wonders why everyone can’t agree that justification is both forensic and transformative. Bird admits that that there are substantive differences between the Catholic and Protestant view of justification (referring specifically to the authors’ claim that believers are able to fulfill the moral imperatives of the law and “thus cooperate with their own justification”), but he does make me wonder whether some of the differences between Catholics and Protestants aren’t primarily in the words we use rather than in the substance of what we believe.

My primary criticism of O’Collins and Rafferty’s essay is echoed by James Dunn, who describes their survey of the patristic and medieval sources as an example of “the interpretations of the biblical text becoming more influential than the biblical text itself.” In fact, I have this same criticism with several of the essays. Horton, O’Collins & Rafferty, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Karkkainen, all appeal primarily to the interpretations of scripture by the founding fathers of their traditions rather than an analysis of the scriptures themselves. And while this may be a valid way of presenting their position, it doesn’t instill me with the same confidence as, for example, Michael Bird’s and James Dunn’s essays do.  I think all these scholars would agree that scripture itself should be more persuasive than what Augustine or Luther said about it.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that in his personal account of his exploration of justification, O’Collins rejects the concept of penal substitution, which he describes as “burdened with the guilt of human sin, Jesus was treated like a sinner on the cross and through his suffering and death propitiated the anger of God.” While O’Collins winsomely describes “reflecting for a lifetime” on whether Paul’s theology supports the concept of penal substitution, he fails to provide the details of the exegesis that lead him to reject it. Later, in his response to O’Collins’ essay, Michael Bird challenges the Roman Catholic position, saying “This doctrine can get caricatured and misrepresented, but as long as Jesus suffers the penalty of our sins in our place, then a doctrine of substitution is clearly biblical.”

I have to agree with Bird here. Although the theory of penal substitution has suffered from a serious public relations problem for the last few years, it is still a valid aspect of the atonement that is supported by scripture. I’m glad to see that someone agrees.


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One Reply to “Blogging Through “Justification: Five Views” Roman Catholic View @ivpacademic”

  1. The Magisterium of the Roman Church is obviously more authoritative than the (Catholic) bible. The Teaching Authority of the Church is the only proper interpreter of the scriptures. Anything else is just opinion.

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