Protestant and Catholic Perspectives on Justification
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2006, 270 pp.
Reviewed by Ben Witherington, III
Collections of essays on a particular topic of Biblical interest are always a mixed blessing. Typically, some of the essays are compelling, some are good, some are adequate and some are, frankly, dull. This collection of essays is certainly interesting, as are some of the responses to the papers presented. Rereading Paul Together collects papers presented at a colloquium by the same name held at Notre Dame in 2002. Present were various Lutheran and Catholic scholars there to discuss an issue that bitterly divided these two groups at and after the Reformation: the concept of justification by grace through faith alone—that one obtains right standing with God by means of faith in Jesus Christ. This is the concept that sparked the Protestant Reformation in the first place.
When we catch up with the discussion at this seminar, something momentous had already happened. After decades of discussions and years of dialogue, Catholic and Protestant scholars had ratified and published in 1999 a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The Notre Dame colloquium was in part responding to that document and in part taking the conversation several steps further. For those not much interested in issues regarding denominations or in systematic theology, this volume still has a good deal to offer. Here I will focus on the essays by Biblical scholars, and a fine group of scholars they are.
Joseph Fitzmyer, one of the foremost Catholic New Testament scholars in the world and now retired from Catholic University, offers an essay on “Justification by Faith in Pauline Thought: A Catholic View” and is responded to by Lutheran scholar Richard E. Demaris, of Valpariso University (a co-sponsor of the colloquium). Reversing this process we have John Reumann, emeritus professor at Luther Theological Seminary, offering “Justification by Faith in Pauline Thought: A Lutheran View,” who is responded to by Margaret Mitchell of the University of Chicago, a Roman Catholic. In addition we have a summary essay by David E. Aune, of Notre Dame and the volume?s editor, on “Recent Readings of Paul Related to Justification by Faith,” which really should have been near the beginning of the volume. All of these scholars are well seasoned and highly respected and their essays make the volume worth reading for anyone interested in Biblical studies. If one is wondering, Fitzmyer is able to cover the Jewish background and foreground to the topic, though only in cursory fashion (given the constraints of the forum itself).
There are some interesting features to this discussion. Fitzmyer sounds like a good Lutheran when he stresses that the verb dikaioo means “to acquit,” “declare innocent” or “to justify” in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), a meaning not found in pagan literature. But when Paul uses this verb, does he mean “declare righteous,” as Luther thought, or does he mean “make righteous,”which the form of the verb would suggest and which major early Church Fathers such as Chrysostom and Augustine were convinced was the case? Fitzmyer rejects the”new perspective on Paul” as represented by James D.G. Dunn on the issue of what Paul meant by “works of the Law.” Dunn wants to limit this phrase to the boundary-marking rituals such as circumcision and the food laws but, as Fitzmyer rightly says, the phrase in Galatians 2:15-16 (“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is set right not by the works of the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”) clearly means “concrete acts of all sort demanded by the Mosaic law.” In other words, Paul was far more radical, believing that the Mosaic covenant was obsolete in his day, than Dunn allows. Another interesting moment in the discussion is when Margaret Mitchell questions whether we really have access to Paul?s experience of justification in Phillipians 3, as John Reumann seems to suggest. She also, in my mind rightly, questions Reumann?s assumption that Paul in Galatians 2:16 is reflecting the theology from the church in Antioch rather than venturing a thought of his own.
“Especially helpful is Aune’s closing essay, which provides a helpful brief survey of recent discussion of Paul and the issue of justification. He surveys the work of Krister Stendahl, E.P Sanders, Dunn and N.T. Wright, who have been purveyors of the “new Perspective on Paul,” and also the work of Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, John Lodge and Mark Nanos, who take the Two Covenants approach to Paul (which holds that Paul thought Jews could be saved through keeping the Mosaic Law but Gentiles weren?t required to, while Gentiles were required to have faith in the saving grace of Jesus but Jews weren?t required to). As Aune says, this second view has not yet had wide impact on the world of New Testament scholarship (much less on the church), for the good reason that it fails to come to grips with the radical nature of Paul?s view of the Mosaic Law (namely that the Mosaic Law is a good thing, but it has had its day and no one is obligated to keep that covenant any more, not even Jewish Christians) and his belief in the need for all persons to be saved through faith in Jesus as the risen Lord, a faith that is counted as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 4.
If the measure of a good book is how much ferment and fervor it can stir up in the reader, then Rereading Paul Together qualifies. It certainly teases the mind into active thought, even though its level of discussion of justification as a Pauline theological idea often leaves one wanting more. But that, too, is a sign of a good book.
Ben Witherington is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland.
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