I have been puzzling some lately about the doctrine of Justification, particularly as understood by some Protestants. I am not the theologian that my good friend, Fr. Al Kimel, over at Pontifications is, nor am I versed in late medieval scholarship, which is what early Protestant doctrine requires. My puzzle is perhaps a bit more existential, and a bit on the Scriptural side (I do try to study from time to time).
The puzzle for me is the “once and for all” sense that some give to their doctrine of Justification. The only way that we can be “justified” or “made just” in a once and for all sense would be if this action were extrinsic to us and purely forensic in nature. That is to say, it would occur strictly on God’s side, and would, in the last analysis, be a legal declaration based on the merits or actions of Christ. If I understand the rhetoric correctly, this would be “imputed” righteousness – being considered righteous even though we are not.
It cannot mean that we are made righteous in some completed sense – because the example of every Christian I know would prove this not to be the case. We Baptize them (or whatever your particular Church does), and they come up out of the water and sin pretty much just like before. And yet it is quite clear that the Church teaches that something does indeed happen in Baptism and we are not the same as we were before Baptism.
Some of these questions were real questions in the early Church as well. If you read the book of Hebrews, by itself, it is clear that the problem of post-Baptismal sin was considered grave and problematic. St. Paul knows that we can and do sin after Baptism, but says to it, “God forbid” (Romans 6:15).
But first things first in my questions. There have always been problems with the purely extrinsic models of justification. For one thing, the “reality” of what happens is restricted to God alone – it consists only in what He considers us to be. The obvious question, since most would make a person’s justification a requirement for salvation, would be, “If the reality exists only in what God considers us to be, why, in His infinite mercy, does He not just consider it so for everyone?”
This turn of the question seems quite fair, since Martin Luther asked much the same question of the Papacy, when considering the Church’s authority to declare indulgences. “If the Church has this authority to release from Purgatory, why, in the name of mercy, does it not just do so for everyone?” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Reformation could ask such obvious questions of the Pope, can we not ask such obvious questions of the Reformation and its account of God?
Of course, the answer is that the Reformation’s answer has been given, and that’s where extra doctrines, such as election, predestination, sovereignty of God, etc., become important. God could, but He doesn’t, and this is why…
These explanations, with a carefully crafted bulwark of Scripture, are what make up the bulk of classical Protestantism. The Reformation was not a “return” to Biblical authority, but a shifting of authority from one ecclesial source (Rome) to another (Geneva), (Wartburg, etc.), and so it continues to this day.
What is fascinating to me is how these questions failed to be heart-stopping issues in the Church for so many centuries. Admittedly, the Roman construction of Purgatory, etc. was a little late on the scene, along with much of the language of merit, but these issues governing the very issues of our salvation seemed not to have been points of division between the Fathers for centuries. The Church in the East, when it confronted certain ideas in the West, such as at the Council of Florence, did reject the direction the West had taken (despite the Council’s initial acceptance by the Patriarch of Constantinople, et al.). The canonization of St. Mark of Ephesus is the definitive answer to the Council of Florence and its continuing rejection by the Orthodox.
What is interesting to note is that the Fathers of the early centuries (the conciliar period) spoke profoundly about our salvation and in no way neglected it in their thought. St. Athanasius writes on the matter at length, as does St. Gregory the Theologian, or take your pick.
What we find when we read them is not a complete, single, over-arching definition of terms or singularity of imagery, but a use of the whole of Scripture and every example they can bring to mind. Just recently, the Catholic Scholar (I do believe he’s Catholic), Stephen Finlan, produced an excellent study on Problems with Atonement, in which he looks at the history of Atonement doctrine and its use in the New Testament. One of the things he notes is St. Paul’s use of multiple metaphors – sometimes in a single sentence.
Paul intertwines these images so thoroughly that Christians have ever since understood scapegoat as having judicial implications that it did not have in its original setting; have understood redemption as carrying sacrificial or scapegoat implications; have understood sacrifice as carrying weight on the day of final judgment. Christian discourse has so blended these ritual and ransoming images that they have long since ceased to be distinguished by most readers of the Bible. But we need to recognise what his original hearers undoubtedly knew, that he was blending different metaphors. (p52) Incidentally Steven Harris has a good review of Finlan’s book over at his site, The World of Sven.
How could Paul blend metaphors or combine different images? The answer would seem quite simple. St. Paul believed that Christ has reconciled us to God and united us with God in Himself. And, he is willing to use any image that he can put his hand on to illustrate and support his belief. This is far different than saying that St. Paul had a mature, developed understanding of the mechanics of atonement. Apparently, the early Fathers were quite comfortable with that fact and never forced the issue. The issue does not become forced until in the West it became a wedge issue between Protestant and Catholic. Today, many Protestant groups narrowly cite the substitionary atonement theory as a touchstone of orthodoxy and require its subscription in many of their own statements of faith. They do what the Church (Orthodox) has never done nor found necessary.
In Orthodoxy, probably the fullest statement of atonement is in the retelling of the gospel story we hear in the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. There, such notables as St. John Chrysostom, or more thoroughly, St. Basil the Great, recount the gospel for the Church:
With these blessed Powers, 0 Master, Lover of man, we sinners also do cry out and say, Holy art thou, in truth, and all-holy, and there is no measure to the magnificence of thy holiness, and holy art thou in all thy works, for in righteousness and true judgment hast thou brought about all things for us. When thou hadst fashioned man, taking dust from the earth, and hadst honored him with thine own image, 0 God, thou ‘didst set him in a paradise of plenty, promising him life immortal and the enjoyment of eternal good things in the observance of thy commandnients. But when he disobeyed thee, the true God, who had created him, and was led astray by the deceit of the serpent, and was slain by his own trespasses, thou didst banish him, in thy righteous judgment, 0 God, from Paradise into this world, and didst turn him back to the earth from which he was taken, dispensing salvation for him through regeneration, which is in thy Christ Himself. Yet thou didst not turn thyself away till the end from thy creature which thou hadst made, 0 Good One, neither didst thou forget the work of thy hands, but thou didst look upon him in divers manners, through thy tenderhearted mercy. Thou didst send forth prophets; thou hast wrought mighty works through the saints who in every generation have been well-pleasing unto thee; thou didst speak to us by the mouths of thy servants the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come; thou didst give the Law as an help; thou didst appoint guardian angels. And when the fulness of time was come, thou didst speak unto us through thy Son Himself, by whom also thou madest the ages; Who, being the brightness of thy glory, and the express image of thy person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, deemed it not robbery to be equal to thee, the God and Father. But albeit He was God before the ages, yet He appeared upon earth and sojourned among men; and was incarnate of a holy Virgin, and did ‘ empty Himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming conformed to the body of our humility, that He might make us conformed to the image of His glory. For as by man sin entered the world, and by sin death, so thine Only-begotten Son, Who is in thy bosom, God and Father, was well-pleased to be born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, to be born under the Law, that He might condemn sin in His flesh, that they who were dead in Adam might be made alive in thy Christ Himself, and, becoming a citizen in this world, and giving ordinances of salvation, He removed from us the delusion of idols and brought us unto a knowledge of thee, the true God and Father, having won us unto Himself for His own people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and being purified with water, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself a ransom to Death, whereby we were held, sold under sin. And having descended into hell through the Cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the pains of death, and rose again from the dead on the third day, making a way for all flesh unto the resurrection from the dead – for it was not possible that the Author of life should be holden of corruption – that He might be the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born from the dead, that He might be all, being first in all. And, ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of thy majesty on high, and He shall return to render unto everyone according to his works. And He hath left with us as remembrances of His saving Passion these Things which we have set forth according to His commandment. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, and celebrated, and life-creating death, in the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and immaculate hands, and when He had shown it unto thee, the God and Father, and given thanks, and blessed it, and hallowed it, and broken it
And exclaiming, he says this: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins, etc.
If you read through this account of St. Basil’s you can see that, like St. Paul, numerous images are used. We are “sold under death,” we were “dead in Adam,” we were “in delusion,” etc. Finlan notes that it was a mark of good rhetoric to combine metaphors and to use as many allusions as possible. In this sense, Paul is every bit the equal of St. Basil, if not more so.
So where does that leave us with my first question? It seems to me that it leaves us with reality and not with anyone’s legalized version of the metaphysics of salvation. Christ has reconciled us to God. This is clear. In Baptism we are united to Him and we are changed, but it is also true that “it does not yet appear what we shall be” (1John 2:2). For although something new has begun in us and the life of the age to come has begun to show forth within us, yet the life of the age that is passing away shows at least as often if not far more.
The atonement, it would seem to me, and the doctrines associated with it, must be at least as real and reality based, as the incarnation of Christ, else His incarnation need not have been real. Christ did not die for us merely to change the mind of God. What kind of God would need such a thing in order to change His mind?
Christ died for us and in Him we died as well. And the death we die is real, just as the new life we live is real. Christ clearly died, “once and for all,” and does not need to die again. But having said that, we do not then need to make of this fact simply an idea in the mind of God. God became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. This is clearly the teaching of Scripture. It is not merely imputed to us or “reckoned” to us – but is given to us in Christ and it becomes our reality.
We can use more studies like that of Finlan’s and far more reading of the Fathers. We can use far less of doctrinal posturing that rehashes the debates of the 16th century. It was a bad century for almost everyone concerned.