3 Reasons Why You Should (Re)consider the Doctrine of Justification
When we reflect on the meaning of salvation—and on our piety, mission, and life together—our thought necessarily engages the doctrine of justification. Michael Horton aims to help scholars, students, pastors, and interested Christians alike (re)engage this vital doctrine in his new two-volume theological project, Justification (Volume 1 and Volume 2).
In Justification, Horton helps the reader encounter the remarkable biblical texts on justification, and places those texts in conversation with provocative proposals that have reignited contemporary debates around justification.
“I write this book,” explains Horton, “with the conviction that it is always relevant to proclaim the justification of the ungodly, although we have a long way to go to explore what that means . . . It is always the right time to tell the story that God is always telling us. Its controversial status already points to the fact that, true or false, we are dealing with reality and not with our projection of God” (23).
Now is the right time to renew and retrieve the proclamation of justification—and (re)consider its doctrine. Horton offers reasons why in volume 1. Here’s an overview of some insights from his introduction to volume one. (Note: Justification is the fourth title in the groundbreaking New Studies in Dogmatics series which seeks to retrieve the riches of classical Christian doctrine for the sake of contemporary theological renewal.)
1) We Must Reassess Tortured Subjectivity
Horton writes contemporary “dismissals of the Reformation’s formulation of justification and its broader quest as little more than the product of an early modern obsession with the self” (23). “Tortured subjectivity,” is what he calls this alleged early modern obsession (23).
Horton explains, tortured subjectivity “is what you get when ‘God is dead,’ while you nevertheless feel a sense of guilt and despair that vaguely comes from somewhere other than your inner self or the people around you” (23).
Such despair did not obsess the Reformers. Instead, they were gripped by the notion that one day they would meet an “other” to whom they were accountable. “Luther didn’t fear an inner judgment but a real one on the great stage of history, with banners flying and a fight to the death. Whoever this God was, he was not manipulable by the subjective wants or wish-projections of mortals” (23).
Horton continues, Luther (and the Reformers broadly) would neither have invented nor recognized “this sort of religion as therapy for self-improvement, self-empowerment, and tranquility of mind . . . If there are lingering doubts about that, I hope that this book lays them to rest.” (23).
2) We Must Reassess Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism
Horton helps us orient the current justification debates within a proper context. He points out the doctrine “has largely been assimilated to other concerns, rejected on a priori ethical and philosophical grounds, or simply ignored” (27). Chief among the reasons for rejection across the spectrum is a pernicious theme of our modern age: so-called “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” He explains:
Within a therapeutic outlook, even when the old terms are used, they acquire new meanings. Sin becomes dysfunction, and redemption is code for recovery. Peace with God—and with each other through that primary relationship—is not denied; it is just absent. Justification, if it figures in at all, becomes a way of talking about inner peace of mind, self-acceptance, social justice, and liberation from norms that have not been elected by the autonomous self. (27–28)
Such an accommodation “has proved fatal,” according to Horton. In his view, “recovering the clear message that the Reformers proclaimed over against medieval distortions can alone bring a fresh discovery of the gospel in our day when Protestantism itself has surrendered to modern Pelagianism and Gnosticism” (28).
3) Evangelical Union without Justification?
Even within evangelicalism, the doctrine of justification has been either taken for granted or sidelined. For example, Horton points out B. B. Warfield’s reaction to the “Plan of Union” for American Protestantism crafted in 1920: “There is nothing about justification by faith in this creed,” noted Warfield (28). Warfield concluded, “Fellowship is a good word and a great duty. But our fellowship, according to Paul, must be in ‘the furtherance of the gospel’” (29).
Similarly, Horton notes, “the National Association of Evangelicals is united today by a statement of faith that affirms nothing that is distinctively evangelical,” including justification (29).
Furthermore, “Even where there is rather widespread affirmation of the doctrine in theory, much of popular preaching and piety in American evangelicalism is oriented toward therapeutic moralism and culture wars” (29). As Bonhoeffer described America as “Protestantism without the Reformation,” (29) is America largely characterized today by evangelicalism without the Reformation?
“The fact that justification is one of the most hotly debated and controversial doctrines in biblical and theological scholarship today,” Horton concludes his in introduction to Justification, Volume 1, “is a sign of the significance of the doctrine, however interpreted, in Scripture and tradition. The doctrine of justification is alive and well, even if traditional views of what it means are being challenged from all sides” (38).
Engage volume 1 and volume 2 of Horton’s project to trace the doctrine of justification from the patristic era to the Reformation, and to discover a map for constructive discussions of justification today. Craig Keener calls Horton’s new work a “thorough, systematic, and far-ranging work [that] advances a reading both distinctive and yet more traditional than many of today’s dominant paradigms.” Get your copies today.
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