Concerning “justification by faith” and somethings I’ve been learning, here is my first of three post summarizing the Justice of God by james d.g. dunn
In this short book james dunn briefly outlines how part of our understanding of “justification by faith” was obscured during the Reformation, becoming to individualistic and overly focused on legal aspects, rather than communally and relationally focused. He trace some missteps of the Luther’s recovery of the doctrine of “justification by faith” and then walks us back into the more relational world of Paul’s original formulation, and then back into the OT expression of justice/justification/righteousness
Martin Luther and the Individual Conscience
The first chapter explores the story of Luther’s dramatic recovery of this very important doctrine, and two of its wrong turns.
While an Augustinian monk, situated within a Roman Catholicism of indulgences and purgatory, Luther’s conscience ached with guilt over his sin before “the justice of God,” i.e. that God punishes all unrighteousness. God, for Luther, was to be feared, not loved. But under a prolonged reading of Roman, grappling with the strange manner in which Paul refer to “the justice of God” as a means of salvation, Luther saw the light. It’s not that God is merely a “just God,” but He is also the “justifying God.” The decisive (f)act of God is not that he is just (condemning the wicked), but that He is the one who justifies (acquits the wicked). And much more could be said about the positive aspects of this recovery…
The Wrong Turns
But Dunn then points out two problems with how Luther explain Paul’s doctrine of justification. First, Luther assumed that Paul had gone through the same agonies of conscience and guilt over sin before a blameless and just God, that Luther had been through. He assumed that Paul had been striving to know and please God through ‘works of the Law’ before making the discovery that he is ‘justified by faith’ in Christ. But the problem with this is that Paul nowhere sounds like had a guilty conscience before God. Instead he says he was blameless in regards to righteousness within the law (Phil. 3:6). So, Luther was projecting his situation back into Paul’s, thereby creating distortion is his understanding of the doctrine.
A second distortion was cause by another retojection made by Luther. Quite naturally, he assumed that ancient Judaism must have been similar to mediaeval Catholicism by focusing on “justification by merit” or “by works.” For Luther, Judaism was a legalistic religion of human striving. And this view has been perpetuated to this day in most Protestant traditions. But, again, this is not really the case, but a caricature. The Judaism of Paul’s day, and the one we can read about in the OT. Yes there is the Law, but God grace is choosing Israel, dwelling with Israel in the midst of their sin (allowing for repentance and forgiveness), and the continual prophetic recalling of God’s righteous act to an unworthy nation should reveal the caricature of Judaism as merely a religion of works righteousness.
So, what was Paul getting at, and what was he protesting against?
Dunn’s aswers to those questions will wait until next time.