Monday, April 16, 2012

Thoughts On "Justification" by Markus Barth

JustificationJustification by Markus Barth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Markus Barth's book, though originally written in 1968 (and translated into English in 1971), comes across as new, fresh, and profoundly relevant. I would highly recommend it to all - not only those who are interested in the present debate on justification in Paul, but to anyone who would understand the doctrine better and its relationship to the whole of Christian faith. The book is well-written in an unconventional 'dramatic' format that can be read quickly (it is under a hundred pages) and, for that matter, devotionally.

One thing that this book demonstrates is that the so-called 'New Perspective on Paul,' is really not so new, nor is it an alternative to many of the traditionally-held views of protestants. Well before Dunn and Sanders, Barth is writing about justification as the supremely ecclesiological doctrine, focused on the unification of Jews & Gentiles (and by extension, men, women, and people of other races and different social strata) in the one Messiah who has given his life for all and incorporated all alike, by faith, into his righteousness. Coupled with this ecclesiological focus (at no point treated as an alternative to soteriology, as some recent treatments oddly seem to suggest), Barth also brings in a very robust pneumatology, stressing that the verdict given in Christ is then carried out in the transformation of human lives through a Spirit-led participation in and reflection of the righteousness of Christ.

The following are, I think, the best key insights offered by Barth in this little book:

1) Justification as Christological - My general impression has been that, in many protestant tellings, justification is all about the verdict given to the individual sinner, who is declared righteous in spite of his being a sinner (simul iustus et peccator). What happens in this courtroom setting is that Jesus steps in as a mediator, saying in effect, 'Judge, please pretend I did all those things that make this person guilty, and pretend he did all those things that make me righteous.' The merits and demerits are swapped, and the Christian is thus enabled to stand righteous before God, despite not being so empirically.

Barth gives us a different picture, one that I think is more fundamentally in line with the apostle Paul's teaching. Justification is a verdict rendered, first of all, not for the individual sinner, but for Christ, and rendered in the form of an event - namely, his resurrection from the dead, following his faithful death. In vindicating Jesus on Easter, God pronounced him to be "the righteous one," the one who was faithful and obedient where the rest of humanity was not. From the perspective of the sinner who is justified by faith, the verdict is not so much rendered 'anew' or 'separately,' as it is enjoyed "in Christ" as already having been given; if you are in Christ, his already-rendered verdict ("risen!"; "righteous!") is yours too. As a consequence, the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and in so doing 'justified' him (Rom. 4:23-25; 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Tim. 3:16) now dwells within and does the same for the sinner, fashioning for him or her a new self, "created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" which is to be "put on" for the remainder of one's life (Eph. 4:20-24).

Thus, as so many Reformed thinkers back to Calvin have stressed, justification is experienced only in Christ and the righteousness in which we share is his - it is in this sense 'alien' - but not in the legally fictive way that some protestant interpretations have implied. The verdict is matched with an ontological reality, namely the receipt of the Holy Spirit, invading our sinful state with a new identity that replaces the old and puts the old to death. The 'alien righteousness' of Christ indeed does not become 'intrinsic' to the believer (at least not this side of the eschaton), but nonetheless comes to reside in the believer; the transfer of identity from the old to new, the old being crucified with Christ and the new raised to walk in newness of life with Christ, means a righteousness that is not simply pronounced, but applied. (Barth follows the forensic metaphor in his division of the justifying act into the 'giving of the verdict' and the 'carrying out of the sentence.')

2) God's Righteousness/Justice - The justifying act, Barth stresses, is the activity of God himself, in Christ, of reconciling the world to himself. It is not so much the execution of 'justice' in the sense of meting out punishment where it is due (thought this notion may well be contained in God's righteousness), but refers primarily to God's saving justice, God's righteousness in the sense found most strongly in the Psalms and in Isaiah - including, crucially, the idea of God's faithfulness, particularly to the covenant. God's righteousness is his saving activity, in fidelity to his own promises to Israel, of 'rectifying' his people, and with them the whole created order. Barth's presentation of the theme accomplishes what more recent interpreters (especially N.T. Wright) have wished to capture in the Pauline texts, without absolutizing a single aspect of this righteousness (as Wright seems to do with 'covenant faithfulness'). Also, Barth takes note of the importance of God's righteousness to theodicy, to the vindication of God himself in the light of his creation's rebellion. ('Will the creator let it all go to ruin? Will he simply immolate all of it in the fires of judgment? No! His saving righteousness has now been unveiled through the faithful death of Jesus of Nazareth for the whole world, through which he is reconciling all things to himself in heaven and on earth!')

3) Jesus' Faithfulness - Crucial to this scheme is the idea of Jesus' faithfulness to the will of God his Father, which obtains the verdict we enjoy in him. The righteousness and faithfulness of the creator God is met with the faithfulness and consequent righteousness of the Son of God, who sums up in himself both the faithfulness that was sought (and not found) from the creation, and the faithfulness of God to the creation. I am not quite certain as to whether or not Barth had a definite answer to the pistis Christou question in Paul's letters (to be translated as "faith in Christ" or "the faith/faithfulness of Christ"), but either way, his stress on the faithfulness of Jesus and its relationship to our justifying righteousness is 'faithful' to the Pauline texts. Beyond this, it is of immense personal importance to justified sinners such as myself (which is of course part of the reason Paul is writing about it to begin with!) - my standing before God is not grounded upon my own goodness or obedience, nor even for that matter on my own faith or faithfulness! Rather, it is the faithfulness of the Messiah, in whose faithfulness I participate by the Spirit. "Nevertheless I live; but not I - the Messiah lives in me! And the life I live now in the flesh I live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (my translation; not to suggest this would be Barth's rendering).

These are just a few of the issues to which Markus Barth's book speaks, and more could be said. But to anyone interested in the doctrine of justification - particularly to those who need a breath of fresh air in an area often characterized by repetitive voices simply talking past each other - Justification should be a very welcome and edifying presentation.

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