Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith

Article excerpt

This article reexamines the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone in the light of traditional criticisms and misunderstandings, but also of recent developments such as agreed ecumenical statements and the "New Perspective" on Paul. Focusing on formulations of justification found in Anglican reformers such as Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker, the author argues that justification by grace through faith is a summary way of saying that salvation from sin is the work of Jesus Christ alone. Union with Christ takes place through faith, and, through this union, Christ's atoning work has two dimensions: forgiveness of sins (justification) and transformation (sanctification). Union with Christ is sacramentally mediated (through baptism and the eucharist), and has corporate and ecclesial implications, as union with Christ is also union with Christ's body, the church.

The Reformation doctrine of justification by faith is much misunderstood. Among Roman Catholics, there is the caricature of justification by faith as a "legal fiction," as if there were no such thing as a Protestant theology of either creation or sanctification. Similar to the accusation of "legal fiction" was the older criticism that justification by faith was an example of the tendency of late medieval Nominalism to reduce salvation to a matter of a divine voluntarist command, with no correlation to any notion of inherent goodness. For Luther, it was said, the Nominalist God could declare to be righteous someone who was actually sinful.1 That is, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith was interpreted to mean that God declares to be good that which is really evil. However, the traditional Protestant doctrine is not that God declares evil to be good but that, on the basis of Jesus Christ's atoning work, God acquits the evildoer (whose actions are genuinely evil) because of the saving deeds of Christ (whose deeds are genuinely good). God does not declare the evildoer to be good, but rather to be acquitted (not guilty).

There have also been Catholic apologists who interpret Paul's doctrine of justification through the affirmation in the epistle of James that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24).2 Since Paul never uses the expression "by faith alone," Paul could not have been in agreement with the reformers without contradicting James.3 Catholics have pointed to Jesus' demand for good deeds (Matt. 5:20) and to biblical statements affirming the importance of love (1 Cor. 13) as evidence that justification cannot be by faith alone, but also demands virtue.

In contrast, ecumenically-minded Roman Catholics make the opposite claim: that there really is no essential difference between the Catholic position on justification and the Reformation position, that the Council of Trent did not condemn Luther's theology, but only distortions of it. In his book Justification,4 Hans Kiing argued that Karl Barth s position was not incompatible with that put forward at Trent. In a foreword to the book, Barth acknowledged that Kiing had gotten his position right, but was not sure whether Kiing had gotten Trent right! Ecumenical Catholics and Protestants point to the agreed Roman Catholic/Lutheran "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification"5 as evidence that there are no longer substantial disagreements between Protestants and Catholics on justification.

Similarly, Catholic biblical scholars now recognize that Paul taught that justification is a forensic declaration, not an infused righteousness (or a "making righteous"), and that Paul taught that justification is by faith alone.6 Still, the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church is ambiguous on these matters, speaking of justification on the one hand as "the acceptance of God's righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ," but also saying that justification "makes us inwardly just by the power of [God's] mercy."' Is the Catechism teaching that justification is divine "acceptance," which is fully in accord with the reformers, or does it equate justification with "making inwardly just" - the position the reformers rejected? …

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