Beyond Justification by Faith: Faith as the Resolution to Pluralism and “Postmodernism”

Faith is potentially the entry point into meaning, a coherent and dynamic personal engagement with the reality of God and the world. Faith, rightly understood, is the answer to foundationalism and ontotheology and their collapse. Faith is not dependent upon sure and certain knowledge nor does it presume a singular, stable culture, but presumes (from its inception with Abraham) a plurality of cultures, a dynamism in apprehending reality, and an always unfolding personal dimension of growth in wisdom and understanding. Abraham as the prototype of faith leaves his home, family and culture, departing from the unified Babel-like world recorded in Genesis 11, to go into an unknown country. Babel’s foundations were singular, unified, and presuming to attain the heavens (absolute and certain), based on literal concrete foundations not subject to mortality and death. The survival of the culture, through the tower, is the enduring meaning pursued in Babel.

Abraham departs from Babel, and his personal journey (there are no distinguishable persons in Babel) is defined in regard to his encounter with God. There is nothing certain, nothing permanent, and nothing concrete, in his life’s journey. He has the promise from God, and on this basis, he negotiates life’s uncertainties, but most particularly the defining reality of death. The promise from God is his means (meaning) of triangulating between the reality of God, his own mortal reality, and the hope for an enduring life in a son. This triangulation concerns his own bodily self-understanding, counting in his being as good as dead and Sarah’s womb being dead (4:19). Abraham’s understanding of the world depends upon the interpretive lens of the promise and his faithfulness is the point of apprehension. His experience is made intelligible, when it would otherwise be chaotic and futile in the face of death, due to his faithfulness to the promise of life.

This intelligibility is at first laughable, for both Abraham and Sarah. They are not simply dismissive, but the coherence of their life through faith is not evident, especially in the twenty-five some years prior to the birth of Isaac. Faith is not reasonable, it does not accord with experience, and on the surface, it appears to contradict the way things are (though it is not internally contradictory). Abraham has resurrection faith, according to Paul (4:23-25), which means he has an intelligible vision (though it may not be rational in the normal sense, it is not contradictory).

The how of God’s capacity to deliver on his promise is beyond Abraham’s ability to explain, as is evidenced in his attempt to help God along by siring a child through Hagar, his slave. His dependence upon and abandonment of natural explanation is part of his growing faithfulness. Nature is not definitive, life’s circumstance is not definitive, as faith encompasses these realities in a larger understanding. The reality of God does not simply trump other realities, but it brings a coherence and intelligibility they intrinsically lack.

This understanding on the part of Abraham is more than assent to facts, or even trust in a promise, as his entire life’s journey of faithfulness constitutes his recognition and confirms – as Paul describes it, that just as God can create from nothing so too, he can give a son to Abraham: “in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17). God is not known or determined on the basis of the world, but the world and its reality are known and understood through an integrated knowledge of God. God is not caused, but causes all things, and this is the determinate reality in which Abraham lives his life. It is the insight provided by faith.

Abraham spent his life seeking understanding on the basis of faith, and this understanding pertained to his life, his body, his marriage, and his world. His faith is no abstraction, nor a set of dogmas, nor a law, nor a particular doctrine, but his faith pertains directly to the person of God and himself. He can abstract from God’s ability to give him a son, and God’s creation of the world (and vice versa), but this abstraction is grounded in personal reality. His faith opens him to an understanding of the world, and this understanding changes the fabric of his experience, his self-consciousness, and refracts back on his understanding. In other words, faith launches understanding, coherence, intelligibility, and meaning, and these things cannot begin elsewhere, for either Abraham or those who have his faith.

What is at stake in chapter 4 of Romans, first of all in Paul’s battle with the Judaizing false Teacher and then in justification theory, is nothing less than the meaning of faith, the meaning of Christianity, or the meaning of meaning and understanding. Where faith is defined by law (and law here may be any imagined static structure) propositions, dogma, or an imagined stable tradition (positive theology) are determinative. Meaning, rather than being personal, dynamic, continually engaging an unfolding reality, is static, impersonal, and objective. Christianity is reduced to a system or belief in a static set of propositions. Meaning is reduced to grasping the system, and understanding is not concerned with personal reality or a dynamic engagement with the world’s reality. Rather than faith being an ever deepening engagement with God and the world – evinced in an ever-deepening wisdom and understanding – faith becomes belief in doctrines and propositions. The justification theory arising with the Protestant Reformation, is not only nominalist in its origins, but it gives rise to a faith (a meaning system) which must satisfy itself with an impersonal, static, nominalist faith.

It may be necessary to do a misreading of Romans 4, the reading of justification theory, in order to make clear the absolute alternative represented by Paul’s view of faith. In justification theory, Romans 4 illustrates how faith justifies in place of the law, so that Abraham is to be emulated by all believers so that they too, if they have faith in the manner of Abraham, will be saved. Abraham is the prime example that faith alone (sola fide) saves, apart from works of the law. In this way, both righteousness and faith are given a meaning they simply do not have in this passage.

Abraham, like all who turn to faith, has recognized that he is a sinner and that he cannot please God through the law, and therefore he has faith. His faith fills in the incapacity of the law, a fact Abraham has had to discover (as it is a necessity in justification theory). Abraham trusts in the one who “justifies the ungodly” (4:5), so, though there is no record of Abraham’s struggle with sin, verses 7-8 must apply to him and reference his struggle. We must presume Abraham had a struggle with works righteousness, and his faith is an answer to this struggle (though Paul in no way intimates this). Justification theory requires the encounter of failure in regard to works of the law, as this is the very definition of righteousness, faith and salvation.

Righteousness and salvation are determined through the law, though the law is no aid in meeting these requirements. What is meant by salvation in justification theory is that humanity is sinful (which is defined by inability to keep the law) and faith fills in where works did not cut it. Faith defined by its role in regard to the law is precisely the argument set forth by the false Teacher which Paul is refuting. The Teacher is arguing for the necessity of the law while justification theory argues for the necessity of realization of the inadequacy of the law to achieve good works, but both systems need the law.

There are several problems with justification theory’s account of faith. Though faith is centered on the work of Christ, in place of the law, how can Abraham believe in Jesus, when he does not yet exist. How can he be said to be the father of all who believe, when his own belief (in justification theory) is not Christ centered but God (the Father) centered. Abraham’s faith pertained directly to his life’s journey – he had no son, but justification theory is concerned with law and its requirements. Abraham gives no evidence of an abstract struggle with a universal law. Is Paul picturing Abraham as somehow imputed with righteousness, as defined by the law, before there was law? There is nowhere in the text the notion that legal righteousness is transferred to Abraham, this misses the focus of the promise and the fact that Paul is using the term righteousness, not in reference to the law, but in reference to the life given through Isaac. As Douglas Campbell translates verse 3: “Abraham trusted in God, and it [i.e., his trust] was credited to his advantage with δικαιοσύνη.”[1] “These texts specifically disavow the notion of merit as the basis of God’s action—which would create a forensic-retributive relationship—correlating that act, rather, with ‘trust.’”[2] Paul has stated his intended purpose in 3:21-22: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” Justification theory reads this “apart from the law” not as a complete departure from the law, as Paul argues, but as filling in the weakness of the law. Paul is making the case that faith has nothing to do with the law.

Paul is not doing justification theory, and his use of Abraham as an example of faith, has nothing to do with Abraham’s imagined discovery of the inadequacy of the law. Paul is using Abraham as a type of Christ, and of course does not picture a Christless faith as saving. There is no resurrection faith, no defeat of death, no enduring faithfulness, apart from Christ. Abraham’s journey is a type of the journey of Christ, and is not merely one to be emulated. No one is up to the task of faith like that of Abraham, any more than mere mortals are up to taking up crosses, dying, and being raised, apart from the fact that Christ pioneered this course. This is not something merely to be emulated – which would amount to a greater work than any work of the law. Participation in the faithfulness of Christ is the point. Christ did this and Abraham, in his own life-long encounter with death and his resurrection faith, is a type of Christian faithfulness. In both instances, there is a direct trust in God. Christ is not the object of faith, but the means of faithfulness, so that the focus is on trusting God as he did, through him. The Christian does not conjure up this faith through intense effort, but he participates in the faithfulness of Christ, of which Abraham is the key Old Testament type.

Paul’s argument undercuts the necessity of law, by arguing that Abraham’s faith is prior to the giving of the law. Righteousness does not and cannot pertain to the law, but it first of all refers to God’s promise to give Abraham a son, where he had no means of having a son. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS’” (Rom. 4:3). Abraham was declared righteous, and was given life where death reigned, due to his faith. The declaration of righteousness pertains directly to the giving of Isaac – life in place of death: “(as it is written, ‘A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE’” (Rom. 4:17–18). So, Abraham’s faith is organically connected with his predicament, of being childless (without life) in the face of death.

Where justification theory has no role for resurrection in salvation, Paul puts the weight of Abraham’s faith and vindication on resurrection. “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23–24). This definition of righteousness does not and cannot refer to the law, and so too this faith is apart from the law.

Justification theory has misconstrued faith, righteousness, salvation, and the work of Christ, but it has also relinquished the intelligibility fostered by the journey of Christian faithfulness. The immutable classicist concept of culture has crumbled, institutional Christianity has faltered, and postmodernism has presumably cleared away the foundations of the modern, but this homelessness is precisely the context in which faith takes on its fulness of meaning. There is no stable reality to be accessed through culture, science, or institutions, but the dynamism of faith apprehends an order of meaning which is not dependent upon these falsely reified forms of immutability. Through faith we can move forward into the unknown country and not be given over to a futile relativity; rather there is an intelligible, personal, meaning, to be continually garnered on the faith journey. Romans 4 in depicting the meaning of faith but pictures entry into an alternative world, a world of life and meaning, on the basis of the dynamic intelligibility of faith.

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (pp. 731-732). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Campbell, 731.

Paul Versus the Teacher in Romans 1-3 and Justification Theory’s Fusion of the Two

It is not simply that Luther and justification theory meld the conditional and unconditional gospel (as I have traced it here), but Luther’s justification theory is the predominant lens for understanding Paul, and in particular the book of Romans, and has been for the past 500 years. Romans 1-4 is considered the “citadel” of justification theory, as this is the text which serves as justification’s frame, with the law providing the foundation for understanding the work of Christ (Christ died to meet the requirements of the law), promoting the notion of retributive justice (God’s righteousness is measured and meted out by law and punishment and wrath are primary), and requiring an anthropology and epistemology in which man has the capacity to know of God and his justice but a total incapacity to do what he knows he should. It is a system which requires that natural revelation provide the same parameters of understanding regarding God and the law as the revelation of the Old Testament, and it presumes that Christian faith serves to complement and complete what is understood through the law. In other words, the gospel is founded and understood in conjunction with law, so that “works of the law” may be judged inadequate but the realization of this inadequacy is a necessity for gospel faith.

Each of these key points finds scriptural attestation in Romans 1-3 (I will deal with chapter 4 later). In 1:18-32, the frame of retributive justice, the pagan capacity to understand God and law through natural revelation and their degenerative failure and culpability are posed. In 2:1-8, the implications for Jews and Gentiles of a retributive, law-based system are universalized, and then 2:9-29, working within the logic of this system, demonstrates that pagans who keep the law might be said to be the authentic Jews in the sight of God such that the benefits of the Old Testament law are thrown into question.

What becomes obvious, as Douglas Campbell demonstrates, is that Paul is not advocating the benefits of Judaism or the advantage of Jews, but he is arguing with a Judaizing Teacher making this case, and Paul turns the logic of this Teacher to “hoist him on his own petard.”[1] Paul is refuting the premises of the Teacher who, like the false teachers in Galatia, is advocating a law-keeping Christianity. In this “accursed gospel” the law is the means of being saved, so that Christians must be circumcised and keep the law, according to the Teacher. Paul is making the same argument he made in Galatians, but now he is giving fuller voice to this false Teacher, so as to thoroughly refute his argument that the law confers advantage and benefits and is the foundation of the gospel.

Paul argues that if possession of the law is thought to confer automatic benefits, recent events in Rome (recorded by Josephus and referenced by Paul) demonstrate the opposite: Jewish swindlers have seduced and tricked a lady out of her money, by having her donate to their Temple (2:22-23, the earliest of charity scandals).[2] One might push the logic of the Teacher’s system (as Paul does), to suggest that not only are righteous pagans the true Jews (better than these particular Jews) but that the uncircumcised righteous are the truly circumcised, such that in the judgment some righteous pagans might end up condemning some unrighteous Jews. Using the Teacher’s retributive justice system and its notion that all are equally culpable, overturns the notion that the Mosaic law is foundational to the gospel and an automatic advantage, and it turns the Teacher’s arguments against him.

Chapter 3:1-20 clinches this argument, pointing out that the logic of this system means there are no advantages to possessing the law and being circumcised, as in a retributive system Jewish sinners suffer the same divine judgment as those degenerate pagans (Paul is not appealing, as of yet to some notion of necessary perfectionism). Within this system, for God to offer leniency would be on the order of a libertine gospel (which Paul says the Teacher and his people are accusing him of: “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). Those accusing Paul of being an antinomian libertine, by the logic of their own system, are caught in their own strange web: “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?” (Rom. 3:7).

On the other hand, Paul says to the false Teacher, by the logic of your own system and by the Scriptures you appeal to, you are condemned – and though you may claim the name of Christ, your system will not allow God to deliver you. “The Scriptures state repeatedly and hence unavoidably and emphatically that all are sinful, and comprehensively so. No one is in fact righteous.”[3] Paul is referencing and echoing the Old Testament in a long series of quotes (3:10-18) and may be quoting or echoing the Teacher, to show that his own argument and his own Scriptures condemn him. As Douglas Campbell concludes, “By this point in Romans it is apparent that the Teacher’s gospel is incoherent. Its opening—a definition of ‘the problem’ facing all pagans (1)—leads to a set of contradictions in relation to its continuation—its purported solution in terms of circumcision and law-observance—that ultimately overrule and undermine it (4). Properly understood, this gospel—understood in its own terms—saves no one, not even its proclaimer!”[4]

Paul is not setting forth his gospel in these opening chapters, but is dealing with the problem that has arisen in Rome, just as it arose in Galatia, and in fact it may be the same people or person. To miss that Paul is making an argument, which he then refutes – both within its presentation and in the body of the text of Romans (chapters 5-8) – may be to confuse his gospel with the accursed gospel (as in justification theory). In the first instance, Paul is refuting this law-gospel fusion by showing its inherent contradictions. It is the false gospel, not his gospel, which holds to humanity’s rational capacity to understand God and the law. As demonstrated in Romans 5, in his gospel those in Adam are in bondage and helpless (5:6), they are enemies of God (5:10), and death reigns over those under the law (5:13) and even over those who have no law or had broken no law (5:14). Paul does not hold to retributive justice, nor does he imagine that Judaism is characterized by retributive justice. He is not describing or refuting Judaism, but is refuting the Teacher. Paul does not think circumcision or the law conveys benefits to Jews, this is the position of the Teacher. It is the Teacher’s argument that pagans are peculiarly sinful and culpable, as they have enslaved themselves to their evil passions. It is the Teacher that is arguing these pagans must turn to the law so as to recognize God’s righteousness and their unrighteousness. The Teacher, not Paul, imagines people are “storing up wrath” because of bad deeds, or they are storing up reward through good deeds (2:4-5). Neither Paul nor Judaism function according to this works of the law measure, but this is the way the Teacher measures.

Nor is Paul driving anyone to Christianity by demonstrating their helplessness before the law (which justification theory requires as part of the gospel), rather he is demonstrating the contradictions of the Teacher in imagining the law is the basis for God’s justice and judgment. On this basis the Teacher imagines that as a law-keeping Christian he is better than the lawless pagans. The Teacher imagines humanity can be strictly divided between the circumcised law-keepers and those uncircumcised pagans who have succumbed to their evil desire (2:6-12). These pagans, presumably the gentile Christians making up the majority of the Roman church, need to repent, according to the Teacher. Not because they are not keeping the law of Christ, but because according his standard of measure, only the circumcised and law observant will be vindicated at the judgment.

Paul projects into the argument the possibility of righteous unchristian pagans, but this is according to the measure of the Teacher. It is not that Paul believes there are righteous saved pagans, it is that the Teacher’s strict works righteousness theory indicates the possibility there are such people. Paul believes people are delivered from bondage only through Christ. No one, in Paul’s estimate (nor a Jewish estimate) can work their way to heaven; rather this is the argument of the Teacher. Paul is not anti-Semitic nor does he see Jews as having an intrinsic advantage through the law. Paul does not see people as even theoretically capable of knowing and keeping God’s law and thus pleasing God (whether Jew or Gentile). According to Paul, one can come to God only through Christ.

On the other hand, Paul does not believe God is a wrathful, retributive God, set to punish and destroy most of the human race. Rather, he considers that what happened in Adam is reversed in Christ: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Paul does not believe people are capable of pleasing God apart from Christ. For him, there is no backdoor, available light, or two-tiered law-system; rather there is either the first Adam (who brings death), or the second Adam (who brings life), and nothing in between.

Where the Teacher is focused on the wrath of God being poured out on humanity (1:18), Paul is focused on the love of God poured out on humanity through Christ: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). It is not that the enemies of God (inclusive of all humanity) can make peace through law-keeping. Dependence on anything short of God (law, ethnic identity, idols, etc.) brings on its own inherent punishment. Paul explains, that the fleshly person exists in an agonized, “wretched” orientation to death and the law, which they might think empowers them unto salvation (7:7-25), but it actually disempowers and makes them God’s enemies (5:10; 8:5-8) “as the sinful mind,” whether the sinner knows it or not, “is hostile to God.”

Though Paul, in chapter 4, will explain the role of the law and Jews through the life of Abraham, in chapter 5 he sees all of humanity as entrapped by the force of sin and death: Adam unleashed death and “death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned” (5:12). Thus, “death reigned from Adam until Moses” (5:14). The only solution is one of apocalyptic deliverance and divine rescue, and this is precisely what Paul argues. “The agonized ‘I’ of chapter 7 even cries out for such a solution: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (‘Thanks be to God … Jesus Christ our Lord’: Rom. 7:24–25; see also 8:21, 23).”[5] This is and must be an unconditional event, as human capacity in Paul’s perspective has nothing to offer. “A pessimistic anthropology dictates an unconditional solution. And no criteria for its activation, appropriation, or reception by humans are apparent in this text, while what causality or agency is apparent is attributed to God: ‘those whom he foreknew he also predestined … those whom he predestined he also called’ (8:29–30; see also 5:6–8, 10).”[6] As Campbell concludes, “People who exist in this dire condition—and we all do according to Paul here—are obviously incapable of accurate theological reflection or of any positive action, ethical or salvific. They need to be rescued first and then taught to think about God and to behave correctly, hence the text’s repeated emphasis on deliverance (7:24b; 8:2; 12:2).”[7]

Romans 1-3, apart from acknowledgement that Paul is giving voice to the Teacher and countering his argument, is contradictory within itself and stands opposed to Paul’s gospel presentation in 5-8. The Teacher sees law-keeping as a necessity for Christians. Paul’s refutation of this notion and the Teacher’s affirmation of it are combined in justification theory, effectively combining the contradictory argument that the law is necessary and that the law is of no advantage. The result is neither Paul nor the Teacher, in that justification theory pictures the failure of the law as the necessary impetus to become a Christian. Paul did not have such a low view of Judaism, and certainly the Teacher did not think or teach this. In turn, the Teacher has a very high view of rationality and Paul gives no credence to human rationale and ability. The fusion of the two in justification theory is both: humans are capable of understanding God, the world, the law and themselves, but are completely incapable of doing anything about it.

Justification theory, as a result, posits a different problem than that pictured by Paul. Where Paul sees humanity as completely captive to the orientation to death, and thus deluded in their ability to understand God, themselves, or the world, justification theory pictures humanity as their own competent ground for knowing and understanding, though people need help in regard to the law. Where Paul would set aside the law entirely, against the Teacher who thinks it a necessity, justification theory fuses the two with disastrous results: the law is the ground for Christ and the gospel. The work of Christ is one of law-keeping, law-satisfying, and law-establishing, as the law informs and grounds the work of Christ in justification theory. Where for Paul, Christ sets aside the law, justification theory has taken up the false gospel of the Teacher and makes the law foundational, rather than seeing Christ as the one true foundation.

This shows itself in the forward perspective of both the Teacher and justification theory, apprehending Christ through the law. Where for Paul, everything is grounded and understood in light of Christ (a retrospective view of creation, Abraham, Moses, the law, Judaism, etc.), in the false gospel, Christ is reduced to a legal fiction, legally covering human incapacity in the sight of God. Justification theory sides with the false gospel of the Teacher, in making law, retributive justice, and the forward-looking perspective (understanding Christ through the law, rather than understanding the law through Christ) primary.

Douglas Campbell, in his massive work, has lifted the burden of confusion surrounding Romans and justification theory. His detailed argument makes the conclusion irresistible, that justification theory has mistaken the false Teacher for Paul and passed on a muddled and confusing gospel. I have argued Paul would call what is preached and taught in justification theory the accursed gospel, or no gospel at all (as I have explained here in regard to Galatians). On the other hand, recognizing that Paul is giving voice to and refuting this false Teacher, is the first step in recovering the fulness of Paul’s gospel.  

(Sign up for our next class, Romans: Salvation through the Body of Christ A theological study of the faithfulness of God revealed in Christ Jesus as articulated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Focusing on Paul’s exposition of God making the world right through Christ. Starting September 4th

[1] Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 343). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition

[2] Jewish Antiquities 18.81–84. Cited in Campbell, 1086..

[3] Ibid, 593.

[4] Ibid.   

[5] Ibid, 65-66

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 63.