Justification and the challenge for evangelicals

Posted: November 12, 2011 by J in Church, Theology

The approach to justification we’ve been outlining highlights a significant challenge faced by evangelicalism today. The propositional approach to theological thinking (at the simplest level think the 4 spiritual laws, etc) which has for so long been our dominant mode, is no longer working well for us. It is increasingly losing traction in a society preoccupied with authentic experience and connectedness.

Seems to me the people in our churches (i.e. we) are becoming increasingly alienated from theological thinking of this sort, which has come to feel arbitrary and sterile.

The challenge is this: can we reconnect the doctrines of our faith with the gospel story, rather than holding them in abstract propositional terms?

This is hard for us. For so long we’ve long been enamoured of the power of propositional statements. Of course all along we’ve had the apostles’ creed in the background of our collective consciousness, encouraging this sort of narrative approach. But it’s been overshadowed by other ways of formulating Christian faith, which have appeared to do more work for us.

I have no problem with propositional statements. They are useful and a good thing in themselves – but not when they replace the gospel story as the setting in which our theological thinking is done. The great danger of propositions is their abstracting potential: the ease with which they allow us to pull theological truths out of their proper context and treat them, either in isolation or else in a foreign setting. This abstracting leads to severe distortions in our faith.

Right at the heart of protestant faith, in the doctrine of justification, this distortion is particularly evident. We’ve got the elements right enough, but the way we structure the doctrine is wrong-headed.

The death of Christ gets treated as an event which has a self-contained meaning without reference to the story it is part of. Without the constraints imposed by the story, we have been free to load up Jesus’ death with any and every meaning we wished to place on it. The guiding force can easily become the needs of our own system, rather than the Scriptures. Witness, for example, the debate about particular redemption (‘limited atonement’): who exactly did Jesus pay the price for? Not only is the issue difficult to find in the New Testament, it’s difficult to relate it in any way to the gospel story as presented there. It’s a debate generated in the realms of abstraction.

Somehow or other we have made the unfortunate move of identifying justification primarily with Jesus’ death. Unfortunate, because in the dynamic of the Jesus story, death means condemnation; it is resurrection which correlates with justification. In our abstracted approach, his death brings justification, and his resurrection brings nothing very clear. But it’s just not presented like this in the Gospels. And so we read these documents (eg with seekers) and then feel it necessary to make sense of them by adding on a whole swag of extra doctrine that you couldn’t get in the Gospels themselves. Problem.

But once you get to thinking of Jesus the way the Gospels present him, as the representative Israelite, or the new Adam (to pick on Lukan catergories), then his death and resurrection have a very clear meaning. Death = judgement on the old order. Resurrection = rescue and life for the new order. And it’s all there in the text of the story: Jesus’ crucifixion spells the condemnation of Israel and of the world (see e.g. Luke 23:27-31). It is his explicitly his resurrection which enables him to fulfil the role of Messiah, breathing out the new Spirit (i.e. new life) into his new people (the church) at Pentecost (Acts 2:33, 36, 38).

By keeping our theology at a distance from the narrative, we have been able to sustain a doctrine of atonement which is in considerable tension with this Gospel story. It hasn’t done us many favours, and it’s time we did better.

I’ll stick my neck out and say I think reconnecting with the narrative is the biggest challenge facing the evangelical theology today.

Let me know if I’ve got it wrong! 🙂


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