Justification in Unfolding History

The history of justification is just as important as its definition. The Reformed doctrine of justification is not a timeless truth but it exists within a nexus of events, relationships, and other contingent factors. Due to this, it can be helpful to view historical study as a hallway connecting two rooms; the room of Reformed doctrine and the room of Biblical exegesis. On one hand, a history of justification will show how the doctrine came about in the life of the Church. It will allow us to see it in context and see how the Church men of past laid a foundation for it. On the other hand, in some sense it will free us to do better exegesis of the Bible in that it will expand our own hermeneutical framework to some degree. Hans-Georg Gadamer has a point when he states that when we come to a text, we do not come alone. Our horizon comes filled with tradition and historical contingencies when it meets the other horizon of the text.[1] Mapping out the tradition’s history will allow us to be more honest with our exegesis of the Bible. It will open up other potential (and appropriate) ways of understanding what the relevant texts could mean. Ahead, I want to show how some influential people in church history have contributed to the doctrine of justification.


[1] see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 1975).

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4 responses to “Justification in Unfolding History

  1. Justin (you are the person writing these posts on justification, right?),

    I want to make sure that I have a clear understanding of your analysis of Biblical exegesis, church history, and tradition, as they relate to justification. As I’m sure you know, the common view, among Reformed Christians, is that the Reformation, at least some some degree, “recovered” the Biblical Gospel from the distortions that had crept in from Roman Catholicism (and by implication, from Eastern Orthodoxy, although Reformed examinations of Orthodox doctrine are few and far between, compared to those of Catholicism).

    When you write that “The Reformed doctrine of justification is not a timeless truth, but it exists within a nexus of events, relationships, and other contingent factors,” do you mean that human beings came to a proper Biblical understanding of a doctrine that was already *in the Bible* through events, relationships, and other factors? (I write as a theologically Reformed Christian who is convinced that the Reformed understanding of justification *is* the Biblical one– as the church to which I belong, Desert Springs, also officially teaches).

    Or, are you saying that there is not, necessarily, a proper Biblical understanding of justification, and different theological traditions have come to their various understandings of justification through events, relationships, and other factors? Help a brother out here! 🙂

  2. Christopher Lake,

    You are right; this is Justin. Great questions by the way. I am glad you asked them. I think I should answer your last question first. Yes, I think there is a proper biblical understanding of Justification. I also think there are wrong understandings of Justification (i.e. Pelagianism or Judaizing); however, I do think there are multiple formulations of a right understanding of justification (i.e. there are multiple reformed confessions).

    To say that the Reformed definition isn’t timeless doesn’t mean that it is a wrong definition or that every truth is right; Maybe historical events moved the Reformers to have a better understanding? For example, the resurgence of studying Greek and Hebrew allowed for a more biblical understanding of the word “justification.” Historical events helped shape the Reformed definition of justification. If you check the next post you will also notice that the Reformed definition was only possible because it is built upon the doctrine’s of the Trinity and the Incarnation, which were formulated by previous generations of the Church.

    It is important to look at the history of justification for multiple reasons:

    1) It is important to see if it is unique in history of the Church? If it is, why is that?

    2) What are some of the contributing factors to why the Reformation understanding?

    3) When we interpret scripture it is helpful to see how other people have interpreted it through out the years. I am not sure if you have ever read someone else s opinion and thought, “hmmm, I never thought about it like that.” It happens to me all the time (e.g. Piper and reading scripture with God at its center).

    4) Most importantly, it humbles us. Do we come up with a definition that excludes %90 of the Christians throughout history; or if they are different are they necessarily heretical? Calvin disagrees with Augustine but he considers him an important genuine Christian. Before we consider ourselves the “most” biblical we need to show love to our brothers and consider their thoughts on the matter.

    5) Oh and lastly, it allows us to be more empathetic to why the Catholic Church developed their understanding of it. Its not simple. If you read the council of Trent they were clearly had Luther in mind. If Luther was being a punk then of course people weren’t going listen to him. Have you ever met somebody who ticked you off and from that point on everything they did was wrong? The Catholic Church may have responded in that way. By the way the Reformers thought that anti-Christ was the Pope for similar reasons.

    Hopefully this answers some questions and raises others. Let me know what you think.

  3. Justin,

    First, thank you for your reply, and I apologize for taking so long to respond to it. I didn’t want to respond too hastily, without proper thought. I also had probably too many blog and e-mail “conversations” with different people going on at the same time!

    About your response, I think that I agree with you almost entirely. In part, that is because your wording seemed a little more careful and nuanced in the response than it did in the original post. Your clarification about the “multiple formulations of a right understanding of justification” is helpful. I’d actually like to hear more about this, if possible.

    When you originally wrote that “the Reformed doctrine of justification is not a timeless truth,” it sounded as if you were only comparing *one* doctrine of justification (by grace through faith, not by works) with other “doctrines” (i.e. Pelagian, semi-Pelagian, Judaizing). In my reading of Reformed theology, most Reformed scholars, when they write about about “the Reformed doctrine of justification,” simply have in mind the more basic doctrine that I mentioned above, in the parenthesis. I do take that basic doctrine to be objectively, Biblically true, and as such, timeless.

    However, there may well be more than one way of “formulating” the doctrine– or, would it be better to say, formulating the *outworking* or *implications* of the doctrine? I remember reading, for example, that Luther and Calvin had a different understanding, to some extent, on the dynamic of Christ’s holiness and our holiness, in terms of their interplay with justification and sanctification. Doubtless, I need to read more widely in the Reformed tradition and other traditions on this issue. I very much agree with you that we can learn new, and sometimes better, ways of understanding from reading different Christian thinkers.

    In that vein, I also agree that the more recent (2oth-early 21st century) Reformed tradition has given short shrift, too often, to the early church fathers on the issue of justification. One needs only to read selections from Calvin’s Institutes to see the difference between the original Reformers and those who follow after them today, as far as a proper respect for the church fathers. Calvin *filled* the Institutes with quotations from these men, and quite often, in a positive way! He obviously felt enriched by his reading of them and seemed to think it important that other Christians read them too. As a far lesser man than Calvin, in every way, I would agree.

    Thank you for these posts, Justin! They are very interesting and thought-provoking!

  4. Actually, Justin, I see that you wrote about Calvin and Luther on justification and sanctification in “Calvin in the Sun!” I’ll read it and comment if I have any questions!

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