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.


Thomas M said...

Jordan, thank you for this. From what you write, I can see that the view of justification is simply closely related to how you read the Bible and Christology. Also it seems like the relation between sanctification and justification comes in here. From what I understand, Lutherans say that sanctification "flows" out of justification. So we produce good works because through the promise of forgiveness, we can't help but do it. But Reformed would say (I guess) that we produce good works becuase the law tells us to, and we want to obey. Maybe an idea for a future blog post would be the sanctification-justification issue.

Is this by the way the article by Preus that you are referring to:

Thanks again.

Steve Martin said...

The Law always accuses. If we do anything because of the Law, it is a filthy rag.

The Law demands good works, the gospel inspires them.

mahlon said...

Dear Bro. Jordon: Two questions.

First, would Romans 5:17 be a possible verse that proves most explicitly that Jesus Christ is the believer's justification? Romans 5:17 (NASB) "For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ."

Secondly, tell me if I am understanding your piece correctly?
Major Premise: Justification is when all of Who Christ is and did is deemed by God at faith to be all of who I am and have done.

Minor Premise: Old and New Testaments are to be interpreted in the hermeneutic of all of who Christ is and did

Thus: Justification is the proper hermeneutic for interpreting Old and New Testaments.

Jordan Cooper said...

Romans 5 is certainly central to this discussion, though personally I don't see how active obedience can be spoken of in this text as many see it. And yes, I think you have basically understood my argument.