DoG: The Heart of the Matter: The Justifcation Theory of Salvation

Other parts to this series can be found on my Deliverance of God page

As part of my summary and (slight) analysis of Campbell’s The Deliverance of God (hereafter DoG), I will condense and articulate Justification Theory as Campbell states it.  Justification Theory (or JT) is Campbell’s name for the classic Protestant statement of the core of the Gospel, namely Justification by Faith alone.  Historically, this is often called the “Lutheran” reading, but Campbell opts for “Justification Theory” instead.

DoG is fundamentally a critique and rejection of Justification Theory.  Campbell appropriately begins his tome with his articulation of JT.  He acknowledges that he is susceptible to creating a “straw man,” but strives to articulate the “opponent’s reading” as well as he can.  For the sake of discussion on the blog here, it’s also necessary to state what JT says.  Growing up in a Protestant church, JT was rarely explained in full, but it was certainly latent in our thinking.  So, now we can begin!

Campbell describes Justification Theory as a soteriology (theory of salvation) of two contracts.  The first one is rigorous, and the second one is generous.  The first contract goes something like this:

  • Premises
    • Humans are rational, self-interested and ethical.
    • God is omnipotent and just.
    • Everyone knows God is omnipotent from examining the Universe.
    • Everyone knows God is just from their own conscience.
    • God’s ethical demands are made known to Jews through the Old Testament laws.
    • God’s ethical demands are made known to everyone else innately (through their conscience)
    • Rewards and punishments will be meted out by God in accordance to a person’s obedience or disobedience of these ethical demands.  (Have you obeyed or not?)
    • Present injustices will be resolved at the end of time on the day of judgment.
    • The future age will have a positive aspect (heaven) and a negative one (hell).
    • God will determine an individual’s destiny based on their merit, whether they’ve obeyed his ethical laws or not (in accordance with Romans 2:6-10).
  • The Introspective Twist and the Loop of Despair
    • As we try to fulfill God’s ethical demands, we fail.  After failing, we try harder to fulfill God’s demands.
    • The harder we try, the worse we fail.
    • This results in a “Loop of Despair,” where we grow more and more depressed as we realize we cannot fulfill God’s ethical demands.
  • At this point, the “Generous Contract” enters:
    • God redirects, graciously, the punishment we deserve to Christ (who dies).
    • Because of his sinlessness and divinity, Christ can offer unlimited satisfaction of divine justice through his sacrificial death.
    • God redirects, generously, the perfect righteousness of Christ to sinners who are now viewed as if this righteousness were their own.
    • God, again graciously, offers faith as the criterion for accessing this righteousness.  This is manageable, unlike the the rigors of the first contract.
    • Individuals who have this faith access the perfect righteousness of Christ and will receive a favorable judgment on the day of judgment (they’ll go to Heaven).

Campbell goes through these in more detail, but that will suffice as a depiction of JT.  Toward the end of chapter 1, he lists these as the “root” metaphors of Justification Theory:

  • Humanity is ultimately individual, rationalistic, and self-interested. Humans are primarily cognitive (thinking is our most basic task).  By thinking, we discern the second “root” idea:
  • God is primarily an authority figure of strict justice. The “philosophical man” discerns the most fundamental divine attribute is retributive justice (that is, God punishes wrongdoing and rewards right-doing).
  • Humanity perceives itself to be “ethically incapable.” Humanity tries to do right in light of God’s justice, but is unable to fulfill these commands.
  • There needs to be compensatory mechanism of satisfaction, namely, Christ’s atonement. Jesus’ death pays for the sins from which humanity cannot escape.
  • The criterion of salvation is faith.   An individual accesses this work of Christ by believing in the revelation of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Campbell is working here on the theoretical level.  He only wants to with JT on a theoretical level since his approach is “theory” driven.  Discussion of the key Biblical texts will come later, but right now he wants to highlight the integrity (and also the difficulties) of JT before interacting with the important texts.

I’ll respond a little bit to his method in a separate post, but I find his articulation of the classic interpretation fair.  Admittedly, I haven’t done a tone of reading on classical Protestant theology, but it does fit will with both my reading and my experience growing up in Church.  If there’s something “amiss” in this representation, please let me know.  I’ve cut out a lot to make the summary manageable, so it’s likely I left something important out!


Reflections on Tom Wright’s Justification

I wanted to record a few little bits as I go along reading N.T. Wright’s book on Justification. More will be coming as I continue to read through the book. Hopefully I’ll get to write a review of the whole book once I finish.

I just finished up his bit of exegesis on Corinthians. His reading of 2 Corinthians 5 I found challenging, as I often do when I read Wright. I think he’s correct in his exegesis, but it does fly in the face of how I’ve heard that passage read and read it myself for years. However, it makes much more sense of the text. As I recall, the argument is basically that the end of 2 Cor 5 (especially the "that we might become the righteousness of God" part) is the climax to the 3 chapter long expose on the nature of his apostleship. The we here functions first to refer to the apostles. The point of becoming the righteousness of God is not so much we’re not going to hell, or we’re pardoned from sin, or that we’re going to heaven but that through the apostles (and in turn the whole church) God is making his plea of reconciliation to the world, God is displaying his covenant faithfulness in us (faithfulness to the covenant is Wright’s definition of righteousness as understood in second temple Judaism and early Christianity). We have made the primary focus of this passage what Paul has made the implicit, underlying assumption. Paul is not talking primarily about what happens to us when we become Christians, he’s rather discussing his apostolic calling, and indeed the call of the entire church. By dying and rising with Christ, by the washing of baptism and the seal of the Holy Spirit, in the power and wisdom of the Spirit we call out to the world: "be reconciled to God!" As usual, Wright’s reading of the text, though not always agreeing with the Protestant tradition which I’ve grown up in, does give me the "Aha!"’ moment. Scripture makes much more sense than it did before.

His comments on Ephesians, too were interesting. In our Protestant zeal to divorce soteriology (how we get saved) from ecclesiology (our beliefs about the church), we’ve lost the New Testament’s very high ecclesiology. Frankly, it’s hard for me to reconcile Paul’s picture of a glorified church with our rather spotty track record over the past 2,000 years. I suppose that’s another part of learning to live with the eschatological tension, the tension which groans in the present because we’ve experience a down payment of what’s to come. I do find it comforting that the primitive church was far less perfect than we sometimes imagine it. Paul too, as he wrote Ephesians, knew that the church was not perfect. He knew that racial tensions were rampant, and that false prophets and teachers abounded. His letters to the Corinthians showed how "colorful" the church could be. Yet he still paints the broad, view of a jew+gentile church, one which is seated in heavenly places with Christ, which is, indeed, the bride of Christ. It’s a fascinating picture which Paul paints for us, and understanding the jew+gentile tension certainly helps it resonate more deeply within me.

Thanks for reading!