Debates over justification have raged for decades now. Is justification forensic, meaning that it is a legal declaration whereby God declares the sinner not guilty and imputes to him the righteousness of Christ? Or, as some recent scholars suggest, does justification have more to do with defining members of the community? Essentially, we could ask whether justification is more vertical or horizontal.
The battleground for such questions is usually Paul’s letters. However, proponents of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) have done extensive work on Second Temple literature, demonstrating, they believe, that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not as legalistic as Protestants have assumed since the Reformation. In many ways these scholars have offered helpful course correctives. The problem, as suggested by NPP advocates, is that we have allowed Luther’s experience with the Catholic Church to be read back into the New Testament.
CACS Fellow, Brian Arnold, has recently published a new work entitled, Justification in the Second Century, published by DeGruyter. In this volume, Arnold appeals to five different works/fathers to demonstrate that Paul’s doctrine of justification did not vanish in the century following the apostle’s death (contra Torrance, Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers). By examining works like 1 Clement (chap. 32), Epistle to Diognetus (chap. 9), Dialogue with Trypho (chaps. 8, 23, 92, 137) and the Odes of Solomon (Odes 17, 25, 29), as well as the important contribution of Ignatius of Antioch, he argues that justification by faith was present in the second century and that several of these fathers even contrasted justification by faith and works righteousness, much like Paul did.
By showing that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was not entirely dormant in the early church, we come to see that the Reformers did not invent a new reading of Paul, but simply returned to the reading of the earliest Christians, which is important to remember as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s rediscovery this year.