Sunday, March 6, 2011

Justification as a hermeneutical principle

I was asked to address the issue of justification and hermeneutics. In addition to the differences outlined in the previous post, is there a difference between the Reformed and Lutheran churches on hermeneutics? Does Lutheranism teach that the doctrine of justification itself is a hermeneutical principle, through which all scripture must be viewed?

First I must recommend Robert Preus' article: How is the Lutheran Church to Interpret and use the Old and New Testaments? in his volume "Essays on Scripture" Preus gives an excellent overview of how the Confessions themselves deal with this issue.

When it is said that Justification is a hermeneutical principle, this does not mean that every verse in scripture is directly referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ. Justification is used here in a broad sense, to mean more fully the work of Christ for us. The chief article as Luther defines it in the Smalcald Articles includes Christ's life, death, and resurrection as well as its personal application to his people in justification. To say that justification is a hermeneutical principle is simply to say that Christ himself is a hermeneutical principle. Jesus explains this to the disciples in Luke 24 "And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself."

This does not mean that every verse must be forced to have direct reference to Christ. Nor does it mean, as some have claimed, that every verse is either law or gospel. What it does mean is that Christ's death and resurrection for sinners is at the center of the Biblical narrative as a whole, and no part of this grand story of redemption is isolated from this center.

I will give some examples as to how this principle works itself out. First, it is seen in all of God's promises of blessing. In Genesis, we read of the Patriarchs whom God promises a great seed. We then read of the severe failings of these Patriarchs, though this never hinders God's goodness toward them. Though there is no direct statement in the book of Genesis that the Messiah will come in the flesh, die a bloody death, and rise again, we through a Christological lens understand that this is ultimately the message that God is giving to the Patriarchs. The great seed which is promised to them is Christ himself. These promises are made continually to Noah, Moses, David, etc.

Second, this is seen through certain figures who are "Types" of Christ. Joseph for example is a type of Christ, as he is betrayed by his brothers and is good to them despite their betrayal. David is a type of Christ as the great godly king of Israel. Look at the famous story of David and Goliath. David, the humble shepherd, confronts the giant Goliath representing the enemies and oppressors of God's people: the Philistines. David, on behalf of the nation of Israel as a whole, slays the giant, defeating the enemies of Israel. This is a picture of Christ, the son of David, crushing the head of Satan, the ultimate enemy of God's people. These types permeate the Old Testament.

Third, all of the ceremonial laws of Israel are a picture of the spotless lamb who would lay down his life on behalf of his people. The sacrifices, and scapegoat are a picture of what Christ would accomplish on the cross. The purity laws are a picture of the sinless Son of God. The established offices in Israel: prophet, priest, and king all find their fulfillment in the Messiah. The nation of Israel itself is fulfilled in Jesus who is the true Israel.

Each Biblical book and story points in its own unique way to the culmination of redemptive history when the sinless Son of God laid down his life for the world, conquering sin, death, and the devil, as well as his victorious resurrection from the dead. This is what it means that justification is a hermeneutical principle.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Are there differences between Lutherans and Calvinists on Justification?

I was asked by a reader of this blog to address the issue of justification. More specifically, I was asked to address the relation between Lutheran and Reformed views of the doctrine. Are they agreed upon this issue?
There certainly are great similarities between the two confessions on the topic. Both understand justification as a forensic term referring to the imputation of righteousness to the believer, and a non-imputation of sin due to one's connection with the death of Christ. It is received by faith alone apart from good works.
This is not the end of the discussion-there are some serious differences.

For one, the Lutheran Confessions do not limit justification to its forensic aspects. Luther states, for example, in the Smalcald Articles Part III, Article XIII.1 "What I have hitherto and constantly taught concerning this I know not how to change in the least, namely, that by faith, as St Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ." Here, as well as in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (I can provide several citations if necessary), justification can be used in a forensic manner, or to refer to the initial change of heart in the Christian which is also wrought by faith. Later Lutheran tradition tended to equate justification more-so with the forensic element so as to not confuse justification and sanctification. The Formula of Concord makes a more clear distinction between justification and regeneration.

Lutherans have seen justification as the center of the ordo salutis. It is not merely one aspect of the reception of salvation for the Christian- it is the heart of all of the gifts given by Christ. There has been much debate in the Reformed world, especially in recent years, over this issue. Some have claimed that union with Christ, in contradistinction to Lutheranism, is the central soteriological motif for historic Calvinism. Justification is merely one blessing of many which flows from this union. Lutheranism, in general, has seen union with Christ as a consequent gift to justification. (Solid Declaration Article III:54)From my reading of Luther's 1535 Galatians commentary however, it seems that Luther sees justification as subsequent to union. Even so however, justification is still the central aspect of salvation, not union.

Perhaps more important than these other two distinctives is the sacramental context in which justification is placed in Lutheranism. The faith which justifies is not an immediate direct gift of the Spirit as in Calvinism; it is mediated through word and sacrament. For Lutherans, the statement "baptism justifies" is synonymous with "faith justifies." The reality of one's justification is then played out through partaking weekly of the Eucharist, and receiving Christ's forgiveness through the words of absolution. The Reformed would shy away from these statements, and see sacraments as covenant badges, not means of justification.