Over the past months, author and blogger, Andrew Perriman, has been consistently writing about the topic of justification, especially as found in Romans. His newest published work is The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. I read and reviewed the work in the latter part of 2010.
I was over at his blog this week and found two interesting posts on justification. In the first, Perriman shares his thoughts as he reviews the positions of N.T. Wright, Michael Gorman and Douglas Campbell.
Perriman summarises the discussion around justification:
In scripture “justification” is a very simple notion. It has to do with whether a person is right or—more importantly—will be shown to be right in some concrete respect, regarding what they think or believe or do. It takes on a particular theological character because in scripture the concrete context in which a person thinks or believes or acts is for the most part subject to theological interpretation….
….The question of whether a person—or for that matter, God himself—is right or justified arises critically in the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel in relation to the nations. That is a theological narrative, so “justification” becomes a theological concept. …At the heart of the matter are some very practical and pressing questions. Will Jesus’ disciples be shown to be right for having broken ranks with mainstream Judaism? Will the Gentiles who convert be shown to be right for having abandoned worship of the gods of the empire? These are not abstract questions.
The basic issue that we have to address is this: What is the concrete context in which the question of whether a person is “right” or “righteous” becomes important?
He, then, goes on to challenge the usual Reformation view of justification within Paul’s letter to the Romans, that view being:
justification is a person’s relationship to God as judge: justification is the means by which a guilty sinner is acquitted—not on the basis of works done but on the basis of Christ’s atoning death.
Perriman’s major goal is to embed his discussion of justification within the historical narrative of Scripture. Thus, he notes:
Paul is firmly convinced that the fundamental rightness of God has been revealed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is the good news that he proclaims to the peoples of the Greek-Roman world. It will be the means of “salvation” both for the Jew and for the Greek (Rom. 1:16-17), but salvation is required by the fact that both the Jew and the Greek face a day of wrath (Rom. 1:18; 2:1-11)—the sort of historical crisis by which a nation or an empire or a culture is overthrown—which will be the climax to a long story of conflict between the God of Israel and the gods of the nations.
The distinction between the Jew and the Greek is important. If God is to show himself to be right or righteous with respect to the nations, he must first show himself to be right or righteous with respect to his own people. The Jews must first be held accountable for their own idolatry and wickedness because they should have provided a benchmark of right worship and behaviour in the midst of the nations (Rom. 3:6, 19)….
….In the first place, the Jews stand condemned because it has become clear that they will not be shown to be right before the nations. Why? Because their “works” do not meet the requirements prescribed in the Law. They cannot expect to be “justified” by their works—not because “justification by works” is in principle wrong but because their works are evil; they are no better than the rest of humanity. Indeed, on this day of wrath they will be put to shame by some Gentiles whose works are righteous (Rom. 2:15-16). We should keep in mind that this is not a final judgment: it is a socio-political crisis or transformation through which YHWH will be shown to be sovereign over the nations of the ancient world. Public outcomes, public opinions, matter.
But an alternative outcome is also envisaged. The God of Israel has put forward Christ Jesus as evidence, as a reason to believe—under the actual conditions of the failure of Israel—that sooner or later he will be shown to be right, he will be vindicated, in his controversy with the gods of the nations. That eschatological vindication—the victory of YHWH over the nations—will be realized through the witness of communities of those who have believed in and proclaim this “good news” of the coming reign of God. These communities will be justified, as this narrative of wrath plays itself out, only by virtue of the fact that they have trusted in the “evidence” of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which means, practically speaking, through their participation in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. These communities will be the means by which the God of Israel is vindicated amongst the nations, but only if they are willing to suffer as Jesus suffered in hope of being vindicated as Jesus was vindicated.
Even more, Andrew Perriman shares what he believes is the problem with the new perspective. He states:
So I agree with N.T. Wright that this whole thing is essentially about how God remains true to himself, which means how he remains true to the promises made to Abraham and in particular to the promise that his descendants would inherit the world. But I think that the question that drives the argument about the justification of those who have faith is not “How is membership of the covenant people to be defined?” but “How will the covenant people survive the coming day of wrath?” Only that community which puts its trust exclusively in the prior faithfulness of Jesus as defining a way of salvation will not be condemned along with Israel, first, and then with the pagan world.
To end, he summarises with these words about the theological juggernaut known as justification:
Paul’s argument about justification makes best sense when we set it in the context of a narrative about the transformation of the status of the people of God in the ancient world, culminating in the confession by the nations of the oikoumenē that Jesus and not Caesar is Lord. That was the outcome that finally demonstrated the rightness of the course pursued by those communities which faithfully participated in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection…
…There are many ways in which we may seek to justify ourselves: by superiority of moral character, by good works, by rational argument, by force of numbers, by appeal to tradition, by the denigration of non-believers, and so on. But in the end, we will only ever be justified by our perseverance in the belief that the God who created all things, raised Jesus from the dead as the beginning of new creation, and will finally make all things new.
As I said, there is a second article you might be interested in. It is well worth your time to engage with Perriman’s ‘fresh perspectives’ on justification and the gospel. But beware, it will probably stand in grave contrast to our normal approach to justification.