On Justification (Part IV)

This final post is lengthy. Since it will the reader some time, the next several days will consist in brief posts of collects and antiphons of the new and old liturgy side by side.

The topic today is Paul’s teaching concerning our final judgment. It will be shown that Paul teaches that a key criterion for our being judged righteous and so, finally saved, is our obedience to the commandments, our good works, our avoidance of wicked sins. Therefore, Paul does not teach that salvation is by faith alone.

Rather noteworthy in this regard, although too little noticed, is Chris VanLandingham’s book Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. It is a significant book in exegesis. Perhaps a reason it is too little noticed is an unfortunate, and needless, flaw in VanLandingham’s theology. And quite an unfortunate flaw it is, for it casts a shadow on the text precisely for those readers who would most benefit from his exegetical insights. That flaw is semi-Pelagianism. He thinks that if man works, that work is as it were “in addition” to God’s work. Thus, insofar as man must work, God must not work. “Christians themselves do these things [i.e. good works necessary for salvation], not God” (VanLandingham, 186).

VanLandingham, a Protestant (though he attempted to perform his exegesis outside of any doctrinal tradition [another questionable element in his theology]), thus succumbs to the flaw in many a Protestant theology: Man’s action and God’s action is a zero sum game. The more you ascribe to one, the more you take away from the other. That flawed view must end, for any pious man, in the denial that any human work is good. For all must confess, “Non nobis, non nobis, Domine, sed Nomini tuo da gloria” = “Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to Your Name, give the glory” (Ps 113:9). And, it is alleged, did not Jesus teach as much: The flesh is of no avail (Jn 6). And, it is alleged, did not Paul teach as much: Not I, but Christ in me (Gal 2)?

Let us follow this flaw out to the dregs of its absurdity. Since action follows being, since being is for action, the negation of human work implies the negation of human being. Thus, the ultimate outcome of this flawed view is the denial of man. And if man is denied, so is the Son of Man. Therefore, the ultimate logic of this flawed zero sum game is the negation of the Incarnation. And, finally, of creation. And we arrive at what Erich Przywara called the Protestant pan-theism. God alone is. Nothing else is.

Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that this result is false. And its logic is absurd. The ultimate flaw in the logic is that the creature and the Creator are conceived as though “on the same plane”. They are conceived with a monolithic notion of “being”. With this monolithic notion of being, both are placed as it were on the same footing. Then, since God is pretty big, man must be pretty small. Since God must not lack anything, he had better fill up the “space”. But if he fills up the space, where stands man? This is a flawed view of Being, and it is a large part of the flaw in the entire Protestant outlook, insofar as that outlook departs from Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The solution is the Analogy of Being, about which more in some other post.

But back to basics, for this was meant to be a set of basic posts about justification.

If we thus lay aside the important weaknesses in VanLandingham’s theology, we can take away the golden treasures of his work. His overarching thesis is that Paul presents us with two teachings. The first teaching regards justification, which is not the product of human hands but the free gift of God in Jesus Christ. Note that this is exactly Tridentine dogma. See the most glorious magisterial text ever produced, Session VI of that most glorious council Trent. The efficient cause – the agent – of justification is God himself; the meritorious cause – the one who paid the agent to act, so to speak – is Christ in his passion on the cross. (Of course, this payment must be carefully understood. It means that Almighty God willed that a contingent event, the Passion, be the reason that he would offer grace to sinful man. But note, since God himself put forward his Son, his eternal love is the cause of the entire process. But that his eternal and uncaused love is the cause of the entire process does not negate the fact that he ordained that the dispensation of grace be dependent upon a contingent event. It is by the wood of the cross that we are healed [Isa 53]. Thus we see the total falsity and utterly misleading guise of the claim of Karl Rahner that the cross is not a cause of the offer of grace. Here, he negates revelation itself though in so subtle [and, we hope, for him, unwitting] a fashion that few discern it!) So far, Catholic doctrine matches what VanLandingham finds in Paul. And in fact, it matches what Luther taught as well. (With the important exception that Luther and Catholic doctrine utterly diverge regarding what it is that God does in this event. Thus, the agreement ends up being the introit to a disagreement.) That is Paul’s first teaching, that justification is free.

Paul’s second teaching is that salvation is dependent upon fidelity to the precepts of the covenant. In Catholic phraseology, salvation is dependent upon obedience to the Law of nature and of the covenant which ratifies and expands and deepens this law. VanLandingham observes that Paul does not speak of salvation by faith alone. He does not speak of a final judgment by faith alone. Rather, he speaks of obedience to the commandments. Those who obey inherit eternal life. Those who do not do not. We can give some examples.

FIRST: PAUL TEACHES JUDGMENT BY WORKS.

“Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance. But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:4-8).

Now, sadly, some simply read Rom 2 as a statement of the “Law”. They say that that is true “under the law” but false “under the Gospel of Grace”. They think that Paul is merely equipping his reader to hear the condemnation in Rom 3, so that, humbled, the reader can receive justification and salvation by faith alone.

Such a reading contradicts Catholic dogma, so the Catholic knows that it is false immediately, since Christ instituted the Holy Catholic Church to know and teach His Mind and Paul’s. But, thankfully, even those who reject what Christ instituted and wish to go it alone in exegesis, as though a mere man could discern the Spirit of God adequately in all cases and fathom the depth of Paul’s teaching, Paul left a hint that his teaching in Rom 2 pertains not only to the Law but also to the Gospel: “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When the Gentiles who have not the law do by nature hat the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them ON THAT DAY WHEN, ACCORDING TO MY GOSPEL, GOD JUDGES THE SECRETS OF MEN BY JESUS CHRIST” (Rom 2:13-16).

We see the same teaching in 2 Cor 5:10 “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.”

SECOND, THOSE WHO DISOBEY THE LAW DO NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM:

Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

1 Cor 6:9-11: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Col 3:23-25: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”

Gal 6:7-9 “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

THIRD: THERE IS SUCH A THING AS FAITH THAT DOES NOT AVAIL:

We have already seen the very important 1 Cor 13.

We have also seen the important Jn 12:41ff. There were others who believed in Jesus but loved the praise of man more than that of God. (This is a condemnation.)

1 Tim 5:8: If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

This verse shows that the person is a believer, for he is worse than an unbeliever, but he has disowned his faith, made shipwreck of it. How? By not doing what is required by the commandment of God. He has infringed justice. Therefore, once again we see that one can be a believer while not doing the requisite works of justice and charity by which one is to maintain covenant status.

I conclude with a remark about VanLandingham’s fine work.

“Widespread, though not unanimous, support persists for the view that justification refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment that is pronounced proleptically at the time of faith in Christ. Such an understanding cannot be sustained if at the Last Judgment God recompenses each one’s eternal destiny according to behavior” (p. 176). It is VanLandingham’s thesis that Paul correlates the final judgment solely with behavior. This conclusion corresponds exactly to Catholic doctrine, PROVIDED we add that it is behavior wrought in grace that avails. VanLandingham is conceptually weak on the relation between grace and works, as Alan Mitchel of Georgetown noted a while ago and as I pointed out above.

Notwithstanding, his point that the final judgment is based on works, on “love” as Catholics believe, and his anchoring this in Paul himself, is a service to the scholarly discussion of Paul. For this reason, his work is must reading for the Pauline scholar (as writes Bruce Shields).

Finally, I would note that a significant line of expression in VanLandingham indicates the contrary of Pelagianism. He does observe that the gift of the Spirit and the remission of sins past are necessary for one to stand just. He frequently speaks of the Spirit as the one who “catalyzes the obedience necessary” (VL, p. 232). Thus, I believe that he simply is poorly trained as a theologian, though he does exhibit some skill in working with biblical and extrabiblical texts. VL’s reading of Rom 6 is splendid, solidly critiquing Fitzmeyer as well as traditional Reformation readings (see VL, pp. 232-36). We can say the same of his treatment of Rom 8 (esp. v. 4). He contends, in short, that the purpose of God’s work in Christ was that the law might be fulfilled in those who are justified. That the passive here (in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us) is not simply the divine passive, as though it meant the exclusion of human free will by which law is fulfilled (for it is not God who fulfills, but God who gives the law for creatures, and note that Paul continues “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirig”), VL demonstrates by what follows in vv. 6ff. For it is those who set their minds on the flesh that do not and cannot fulfill God’s law, but these are opposed to those who set their minds on the Spirit.

I would like to cite the closing passage from VL’s book: “At the time of faith, a person who has been “made righteous” is forgiven of past sins (which then become a dead issue), cleansed from the guilt and impurity of sin, freed from the human propensity to sin, and then given the ability to obey. The Last Judgment will then determine whether a person, as an act of the will, has followed through with these benefits of Christ’s death. If so, eternal life will be the reward; if not, damnation” (VL, 335).

This statement, although it might benefit from trained theological precision (actual grace; habitual grace) could not be more in harmony with Catholic doctrine.