Friday, September 25, 2009

Justification by Faith: A Case-Study in Theological Innovation

Last week I spoke at the pulpit about innovation, about how 'rock logic' (critical thinking, truth, certainty, etc.) was cool but not nearly enough and how we need to adopt more relational, contextual and creative forms of thinking.

One issue I didn't get to emphasize was that of justification by faith which I believe illustrates the route of innovation taken by our forefathers in the faith, no less than the likes of giants such as the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther.

I believe, in line with the New Perspective of Paul and Law, that Paul constructed his theology of justification by faith as a way of fusing together the two warring worlds of Jew and Gentile. He had to think of some way to merge these two communities under the umbrella of God's people. The end result was NOT, contrary to popular Evangelical thought, a 'Law-free' new covenant stripped of its Jewish character (Acts 15 simply doesn't bear this out) but a covenant people composed of both Jew and Gentile, yet elevating neither.

This is to say that Jew and Gentiles were equal and one in Christ, hence the famous sayings in Gal 3:28 and Col 3:11. Justification by faith, therefore, was first and foremost an ecumenical and ecclesiological issue and only secondarily a soteriological one. Paul's theology of 'salvation through faith' was not primarily concerned with challenging a supposed Jewish understanding of 'salvation through works' (not least because it's become very difficult to hold that the Jews during Paul's time believed in 'earning' their salvation!) but was about finding a way to connect the two communities.

This was relational and synthesis-thinking par excellence as it had to be constructed and imagined against the 'rock logic' of centuries of entrenched Jewish thinking, not to mention Gentile suspicions of the Jews.

There is simply no flawless absolute logical line from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth to the 'new Israel' consisting of Jews and Gentiles (in fact, it could be said that Jesus and Paul were working with different questions altogether!).

Fast forward about one and a half millenia. Martin Luther innovates again with justification by faith. This time the doctrine served to burst the old wineskins of Roman Catholic thought which, fossilized by the burden of the Church's greed and politics, had been burdening and oppressing the people. Luther's doctrine was a new wine of hope, of liberation, of release from the institutional dictates of who can be forgiven, how guilt is dealt with (and, most importantly, how much all this will cost).

Luther, just like Paul and Jesus before him, had to battle against the current of 'conservative' theology and thinking. Like Paul (and certainly Jesus), Luther was condemned as a madman, a heretic, a destroyer of the faith itself when he - like his predecessors - was really trying to reform it for a new future, giving the people of God a new vision, a new hope, a fresh way to God.

Justification by faith, often used a stalwart doctrine of absolute truth for salvation which excludes all other ways, is really an on-going drama in the nurturing of relational and contextual truth for a new kind of salvation which includes rather than excludes. (A new kind of salvation? Yes, just ask Paul's peers and the Luther's theological detractors).

Innovators. Let's not merely celebrate their outputs, but their spirit of creativity as well. Let's not be content to enshrine their thinking in stone and liturgy (and seminary brochures) but may we imitate the way they thought. Most importantly, let's not be afraid to rethink our theology so the glory of God may be seen and embraced anew (that's kinda corny but this piece feels rather 'stiffer' than normal so, yeah, let's rock the worlds - Christian and otherwise - with new thinking).


Alex Tang said...

How did Jesus' death on the cross fit into what you have just posted?

Pastor Thomas said...

As to your statement, "Justification by faith, therefore, was first and foremost an ecumenical and ecclesiological issue and only secondarily a soteriological one." I have to disagree with you on that.

Justification is PRIMARILY a soteriological issue not secondary - that the whole point of Jesus' vicarious sacrifice on the Cross. It is not a by-the-way thing. To say that justification is primarily for ecumenical purpose sounds very disturbingly that "political correctness' is the primary work of the cross.

Justification of course, in the wisdom of God, has an ecumenical dimension that bridges the gap between all groups and divisions that man created for themselves. But it does not mean that the primarily reason for justification is for ecumenical-sociological purpose. The entire revelation and Work of God is for Salvation - the rest are just facets of that core purpose. We cannot replace the core with peripherals.

alwyn said...

Pastor ~ the statement about JBF being an ecclesiological issue focuses on *Paul's use of 'justification' in the Epistles*.

Salvation, the Cross, vicarious suffering - all this is primary for sure(!) but the question (one fought over today by scholars of all stripes) is whether 'justification' AS USED BY PAUL means what we traditionally mean by it (i.e. "how we are saved", etc.).

I believe you are emphasizing the fact that soteriology is primary, and on this I probably can't disagree much (in fact I too hold the Cross to be central to everything). But, again, one of the big questions in NT studies today (sparked off more than 20 years ago by the work of E.P. Sanders and continued today by folks like Dunn, Wright, Westerholm, Thielman, Nanos, Kim, Schreiner, etc.) is :

- what did Paul mean by justification? Is his Jewish context relevant, and so, what would the Jews 'hear' when that word justification was used?

- is Paul's meaning equal (and how much) to what the likes of Luther meant (or believed Paul to have meant!) by the word?

As for political correctness, Paul would surely be a bad example (I mean, he told the Galatian pro-circumcision group to castrate themselves, didn't he?!), so we can be assured that PC has very little to do with it. *Socio-Politics*, on the other hand, has almost everything to do with it (cf. Acts 15).

Still, funny thing, JBF was more medium than message in this post. My point was to show how Paul and Luther innovated for the sake of their communities, in the hope that we may boldly follow suit if the need arises.

Keep the conversations flowing.

alwyn said...

Alex ~ I'd reckon that Jesus' death and resurrection (and subsequent appearance to Paul) caused the Apostle to rethink his Jewishness, esp. the issue of who God's people were.

Paul certainly USED to believe it was only the Jews, but hmm if the Son of God who was obviously pro-Israel was nevertheless killed by the guardians of Israel, and if JC kept talking about a new community, then MAYBE the Jews weren't the only group God was concerned about, and hey doesn't Gen 17 talk about faith being primary to everything else? etc etc.

Critically, if by the Resurrection God *vindicated* this Jesus who later talked about making disciples throughout the world, then hmm could it be like I dunno MAYBE the traditional Jewish markers aren't exactly practical anymore, and, worse still, if Jesus is the 'climax of the covenant' (and if He fulfils it) then hey what does this do to God's covenant with Israel, could there be a new Israel, with new 'markers' (i.e. faith in JC?) etc etc etc.

I know my 'imitation' of Paul's thinking (ahem) sucks bad but isn't is just impossible to 'figure out' HOW Paul was thinking from this side of the Cross 2,000 years later, with all our pre-supps and lenses and assumptions?

blogpastor said...

Paul said " the gospel a righteousness from god is revealed"(romans 1:17) and "..I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ"(gal 1:12).

Alwyn, how does innovation operate within revelation?

alwyn said...

hi Kenny, good question; my initial thoughts hover around what we *mean* by revelation, what 'levels' or 'grades' of revelation there are, and so on.

If we can agree that God's revelation is never something passed *without* human agency, then one could argue that innovation is the other side of the coin we call God's work / revelation / providence, etc. i.e. God USES innovators (among other kinds of folks) to get or 'cascade' His revelation through.

My point is, generally, that i see revelation and innovation in the same way that i see revelation and science - they should complement and often 'tag team' to bring about fresh knowledge/fruit/kingdom-progress, etc.

I suspect, though, that you have a an alternative angle to this (but I don't wish to assume). Would love to know yr thoughts.

blogpastor said...

Yes, the human element in the equation could possibly include "innovation" though it sounds so man made, but so does research and investigation which Luke did before he wrote Luke-Acts.

In the end how revelation comes must not denigrate our humanity but probably heighten or sublimate our right- and left-brained activity.