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History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification

Alister E. McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford. He is also the editor of the “Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought” (1995) and the author of a number of student textbooks, including “Christian Theology: An Introduction” (2001). In his work Iustitia Dei: a History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, the author thoroughly describes the concept of the ancient Near East, exams the doctrine of the medieval Christianity, and pays special attention to the critical period for Christianity in the sixteenth century.

In the third edition, McGrath thoroughly updates his work, and adds new material where it is necessary. The author himself calls his work a “historical analysis, not of theological prescription” (p. x). The author gives three reasons for his exploratory work. First is a historical study of any Christian doctrine from his origins to the present date, which seems to be the most significant for the author. The exploration of the doctrine of justification, thus, helps to illustrate “how theological and secular concepts were related as theologians responded to the cultural situation of the period” (p. vii).

The second reason of the study is of an interest of systematic theology. The author considers that, in order to restate the concept, it is necessary to appreciate the historical origins. It appears to him, that the justification is one of a few conceptions, portrayed in the Bible, when God’s Will is reported through God-man Jesus Christ. The conception is necessary for helping the church to understand its identity and mission. The third reason is to help sustaining a conversation between Christians of different traditions, especially of those, whose convictions has essentially changed from the period of the sixteenth century.

In the first chapter, the author envisages the influent of the Reformation concept of justification on the future generation of scholars. He admits that the Reformation of the sixteenth century brought many changes to thoughts of the Western Christian church. The most significant change here is a reformulating the traditional concept of salvation, connected with the Pauline image of justification. And, if earlier the humanity was reconciled with God in terms of “salvation by grace”, a new concept assumed reconciliation with God in terms of “justification by faith”.

In the nineteenth century, the doubt of this concept began arising. Some scholars insisted that Paul’s thoughts “lay in the concept of redemption” (p. 1). Yet, the Catholic tradition reverted to the concept of salvation through life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the majority of the Western churches the concept of justification is a barrier to church unity. For example, the Orthodox Church refers to Jesus Christ in a concept of deification rather than justification.

In order to puzzle out these contrarieties, the author contemplates “an investigation of the development of the doctrine of justification within the first two thousand years of the western tradition” (p. 4). McGrath begins his investigations with the period of the Middle Ages. For the purpose of his study he regards the initiation of this period “through Alaric’s conquest of Rome in 410” (p. 55). He considers that the medieval period can be characterized by combination of the biblical and patristic thoughts, and also by the development of the hermeneutical methods to resolve contradictions.

The majority of the patristic “sentences” were originated from the work of Augustine. Thus, the development of the doctrine of justification, according to McGrath, is the systematization of “Augustine’s framework of justification” (p. 56). The author emphasizes two factors of the development of church during the period: shift of the discussion of salvation from the mythological to the moral plane; and the influence of Pauline commentaries concerning justification. The emphasis which is laid upon moral character of God leads to development of the concept of divine justice and its correlation with human justice.

A survey of Pauline commentaries on Romans, “the most important of the Pauline’s epistles” (p. 58), was used by most of the medieval theologians for development of their own position. The questions concerning the salvation of the Old Testament patriarchs (for example, Abraham), and the relation between faith and work with a reference to the concept of the justification, were discussed. Thus, the Pauline commentaries catalyzed the establishment of the doctrine of justification. The next point of McGrath’s work is the Protestantism or the Reformation.

The author states, that the main principle of Martin Luther’s Reformation is also its conception of justification. Though, this principle was never accepted by “the more radical wing of the Reformation, which stressed the importance of the obedience and discipleship, adopting doctrine of grace” (p. 208). That wing stressed human responsibility towards God. Nevertheless, Luther’s doctrine was rapidly adopted everywhere, it was the distinctive mark of the mainline Reformation. Thus, by the seventeenth century the concept of justification was the “article by which the church stands or falls” (p. 209).

However, the author admits, that the Reformed church derived little from that concept. He calls the difference between Luther’s teachings and the thoughts of the dawn of Reformation a historical question of the utmost complexity; neither the Reformation can be called a “fundamental consequence of Luther’s insights into human justification” (p. 210). The Reformation is usually portrayed as a re-discovery of the Bible; yet, the author states that it is rather a re-discovery of Augustine’s doctrine of grace with a subsequent criticism of church.

According to McGrath, the Reformists represented new interpretation of Pauline concept of “imputed righteousness” in combination with Augustinian soterological framework. This interpretation comprised distinctions between justification and sanctification. The author considers the notional distinction between the external act of God in and the internal regeneration “along with the associated insistence upon the alien and external nature of justifying righteousness” (p. 211) to be the most prominent characteristic of the Protestant doctrine of justification.

This criterion is used to distinguish the doctrines of the magisterial Reformation from those of Catholicism, and from the radical Reformation. McGrath states, that the Catholic Church was unprepared to meet the challenge of the Reformation thoughts. “Luther’s doctrine attached considerable attention, not all of it unsympathetic”(p. 308). The author mentions three reasons, attached within the Catholicism to the doctrine of justification. First, the Catholic Church required an internationalization of the religious life.

Second, it accentuated the priority of the divine role in justification, “upon the prevailing tendency to concentrate upon the human role” (p. 309). Third, it dealt with an implicit declaration of war upon the Roman curia. Only few works on justification by Catholics were published in the period of 1520-45. It can mean that the Luther’s doctrine of justification was not understood by its opponents. They treated only the views on the papacy, indulgences, and sacraments, failing to deal with such important question as the nature of justifying righteousness.

The author admits the similarity between the justifying dogmas of the Catholic Church and those of the northern European Reformers. The Catholic scholars of that period assumed, that “God, having punished Christ, and hence humanity, for the sins of humankind, may be relied upon not to punish twice for the same offence” (p. 310). Thus, the Christians were to realize that the penalty for the sin is laid upon Christ, not upon them. It is impossible for humans to be justified by their deeds; humans are justified through faith in Christ.

Some scholars suggested entering a local hermitage as the only possibility to expiate their sins, while the others preferred to remain in this world. The Catholic Church also faced refutations of the teachings of the evangelic faction in its crucial phase. McGrath admits that, though there are obvious similarities in the Luther’s and the evangelic thoughts, also there is a difference between them: the evangelists insisted on the elimination of the human self-confidence, though they did not exclude the possibility of human co-operation with God. In the last chapter, McGrath envisages the “modern” period, i. e. the period after the Italian Renaissance.

He considers that the main theme of the modern era is “the shift from fundamentally theocentric to anthropocentric frame of reference, in relation with both revelation and salvation” (p. 358). The desire of intellectual and political emancipation occurred, it wad linked with a figure of Prometheus, a symbol of liberation in European literature. According to the author, this shift had two important implications. First, the doctrine of justification shifted to self-actualization as a goal of human existence.

This led to a perception that the traditional Christian teachings were inapplicable for the modernity. Second, classic formulation of the concept of justification took the sin as a “given”. The scholars of the Enlightenment suggested such notions to be irrational and invented for the purpose of enslaving the humanity with appropriate pattern of believes and behavior. The author accentuates that the principle of the orthodox concept of justification is in the assumption of “the essential natural alienation of individuals from God” (p. 360). The rise of the Enlightenment posed a serious challenge to such theologies.

The modern scholars rejected the view that the human nature “was corrupted through the original sin to such an extent that it is unable to recognize the truths of gospels” (p. 361); they conceded the weakness of human nature and insisted upon necessity of a moral element in faith. The author finishes his work with a description of the present ecumenical debates concerning the Christian doctrine of justification. He considers the willingness of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to discuss the past divisions with a view to overcoming them to be the most important development within Christianity.

Another important point here is a willingness of the Catholic Church “to discuss the controvertible issue of justification” (p. 388). Alister E. McGrath’s book has been declared an “invaluable source, which should be recognized as a standard work on a subject”. It has already become the leading reference work on the subject. The author provides skilful and easy-to-interpret introduction to a difficult and controvertible positions, both historical and theological. The study is a good reminder of an important branch of the Christian teachings

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