01 July 2011

Forgiveness and Justification Part 1

Theology alert! This post is devoted to an issue of exegetical and systematic theology and has nothing to do with the law. For those who might find such a topic even more arcane than my usual, you have been warned.

In Justice and Love Wolterstorff takes a crack at dogmatic theology.  I have to give him credit; he doesn’t pick topics at the margins. He goes to the heart of Western theology (and especially that of the tradition into which he was born, Reformed Christianity) and tackles the doctrines of justification and election. His effort to read the epistle to the Romans afresh proves provocative on the one hand but on the other reaffirms the truism that “‘just me and my Bible’ is the shortest route to heresy.” I found his exposure of some unclear language in longstanding expressions of the doctrine of justification helpful. I cannot say the same about his proposed solution

Let’s start with the question Wolterstorff raises: If on account of faith Christians are in some sense accounted righteous, then what is the point of God’s forgiveness? In other words, if forgiveness is, as Wolterstorff defines it, “the enacted resolution of the victim no longer to hold against the wrongdoer” the wrong done” (Justice in Love at 169), then what does the guilty party need in terms of righteousness? Conversely, if human beings somehow become or are accounted righteous, then for what does God forgive them? If God forgives, Wolterstorff concludes, the question of the righteousness of the sinner (infused or imputed) is irrelevant. (If only we had some good analytic philosophers in the sixteenth century—no need for that messy Reformation!) On the other hand, if the sinner becomes or is accounted righteous, then God’s forgiveness is superfluous: there’s no need to forgive someone who’s in effect done no wrong.

Wolterstorff quotes Thomas Oden to illustrate what he takes to be theological incoherence:
[On the one hand,] God’s justifying verdict is compared to a judicial act by which God declares the sinner free from guilt—acquitted. [On the other,] the judge forgives the one who repents and believes . . . . (Justice in Love at 257)
What gives?

On any account there are plenty of biblical texts that speak of God’s forgiving sinners. But what of those many passages that also speak of God’s righteousness being revealed in some way and of Abraham’s faith being counted as righteousness? For example, “And to one who does not work but trusts him who judgment the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5) Is the Bible itself as incoherent as Wolterstorff claims is the Western Theological tradition? Why does it seem to teach both that God forgives the penitent sinner and that the former object of God’s wrath is now righteous?

Wolterstorff suggests an arcane answer: first, that God’s forgiveness is complete and thus no righteousness (imputed or infused) on the part of the forgiven sinner is required. Second, to make sense of the recurrent Pauline forensic metaphor—where God’s charges against sinners are resolved in their favor—I will quote Wolterstorff at length:
While fully cognizant of the fact that the person before him has done what he, the judge, hold him accountable for doing, the judge takes note of the fact that he has faith. The judge then reckons that to him as dikaiosunē. The idea, quite clearly, is that after the judge has done the reckoning, the one whose faith is reckoned to him as dikaiosunē has the same status before the law as the one who is declared innocent (dikaios) of misdeeds. (Id.  at 264)
This sounds a bit like the governmental theory of the atonement of Hugo Grotius. The sinner is not in any sense actually righteous but simply treated as if it were so. Wolterstorff elaborates on this phenomenon as follows:
What might that same legal status be—given that it is not the status of having been acquitted: The status of there being no valid charges against him—the status of being in the clear . . . by having the charges dismissed. I suggest that for God to justify the sinner on account of his faith is for God to dismiss the charges on account of his faith. (Id.)
Forgiveness trumps righteousness and the forensic metaphor is substantially recast. I’ll defer my thoughts until later.

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