Justification Reconsidered

Article by   January 2014
Justification_Reconsidered.jpgStephen Westerholm. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. pp. viii + 104. $15.00, paperback.

Stephen Westerholm, professor at McMaster University, has long been known in critical scholarship for upholding the "Lutheran" Paul (his term) against all modern attacks. I have been familiar with his work since 1992, and even though I believe in a "Reformed" Paul, I consider Westerholm a valuable aid in combating the New Perspective on Paul. 

His two well-known books, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (1988) and Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics (2004), include a detailed and critical analysis of numerous scholars' views, including more than New Perspective authors. Although these books deal with a variety of Pauline themes and background issues, the central focus for Westerholm is to uphold an essentially "Lutheran" view of justification by faith.

Westerholm's latest book, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme, is a brief restatement of his view of the "Lutheran" Paul using as a foil just a few of the modern scholars he has battled with over the years. "My aim in this book is both to update and to make more widely accessible earlier work I have done" (p. viii). Although I see only a modicum of updating from his two previous major books, it is certainly true that this book will prove to make his views more widely accessible. This book is written with very few footnotes and in an engaging, conversational style, including even a few jokes.

For Westerholm, what is the "Lutheran" Paul as he relates to justification? "Justification" is a forensic category by which one is declared righteous. Paul views the Mosaic law and its requirements as a path to righteousness; however, because of radical human sinfulness, no one is able to achieve righteousness by the "works of the law" (pp. 79-83, 97-98). How then could an "ungodly" human be declared righteous?
God can rightly declare sinners righteous when the sins that kept them from being righteous were borne by the crucified Christ; God allowed human sinfulness to spend all its force on the suffering Christ until, drained of all evil, it was 'expiated' and exists no more. Their sins done away with, there is no miscarriage of justice when erstwhile sinners are declared 'righteous' (pp. 69-70).

Westerholm's paraphrase of Gal 2:16 is "a person (i.e., Jew or Gentile, but necessarily a sinner in either case) will not be found righteous (and thus delivered from the divine condemnation that awaits sinners) by the works of the law (i.e., by complying with the law's demands - since that is not what sinners do), but through faith in Jesus Christ" (pp. 13-14). 

In sum, concerning justification, Westerholm mentions several times that he has slight disagreements with the technicalities of Luther's exegesis (e.g., p. 77), but overall he has a "Lutheran" Paul. The readers of Reformation 21 will be interested to know that Westerholm's books rarely include a direct attack on traditional Reformed authors. Perceptive readers will note that there is significant overlap between Westerholm's Paul and the "Reformed" Paul. The differences would include that Westerholm's Paul has no "active obedience" of Christ, no third use of the law, and little connection between justification and covenant theology. 

Who are Westerholm's opponents in Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme? He calls them "revisionists" (p. vii). He is certainly against New Perspective authors, but includes others also. Westerholm arranges the book in six short chapters and a conclusion. In each chapter he briefly explains an aspect of a modern author's view and then uses his rebuttal  to build his case for the "Lutheran" Paul. His opponents, in order, are Krister Stendhal, E. P. Sanders, Heikki Räisänen, N. T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and Douglas Campbell. 

Krister Stendahl's famous 1963 article, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," argues that Augustine, not Paul, was the first to have a dilemma related to the introspective conscience. Stendahl saw Paul arguing about the place of Gentiles in the church. Paul was not showing the way an individual sinner finds a merciful God as most of the West read Paul after Augustine. Westerholm responds by noting that Paul's earliest book, 1 Thessalonians, clearly includes as part of salvation the deliverance from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10, 5:9). Hence, "with or without an introspective conscience, anyone who takes seriously a warning of imminent divine judgment must deem it an urgent concern to find a merciful God" (pp. 5-6).  

Westerholm then shows how "salvation" and "divine wrath" language in 1 Thessalonians is conceptually tied to "righteousness" and "justification" language in 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians. The "basic thrust of Paul's mission [is] 'saving' sinners from merited judgment" (p. 10). Paul clearly says that because of sin, no one is able to be righteous by the works of the law; and in fact, the law shows all are guilty and merit judgment. "In Romans, then, as in Galatians and Corinthians, Paul uses justification language as the answer to the human dilemma apparent already in Thessalonians: How, in the face of coming judgment, can anyone (Jew or Gentile) find 'salvation'?" (p. 21).

This thrust of saving sinners from judgment is in 1 Thessalonians, a book which does not have Jew/Gentile issues. Hence, in books that do have these issues, 1 Thessalonians shows that being saved from wrath is more basic than the Jew/Gentile issues. While admitting that circumcision was certainly the surface issue in Galatians, Westerholm argues that Paul saw circumcision as just another example of wrongly trying to obtain righteousness by the law. In a slam of Stendahl - and, by implication, New Perspective authors - Westerholm notes that "to claim that the Paul of Galatians was exercised over the terms by which Gentiles can belong to the people of God while overlooking his (still more fundamental) concern with the dilemma facing all human beings responsible before God is to suffer from a peculiarly modern myopia" (p. 18). That is, modern scholars' views of Paul sound eerily similar to modern cultural concerns.

Westerholm's next opponent is E. P. Sanders and his monumental 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Sanders saw the Judaism of Paul's day as united in the view that it was a religion of grace. One entered the covenant based on election/grace. Works are only the condition of remaining in the covenant; they do not earn salvation. Sanders was adamant Judaism did not believe in salvation by works; it was not legalistic and it was not a religion of works-righteousness. Hence, the traditional view of Paul must be wrong, so argues Sanders, because the traditional view sees Paul as opposing legalistic Judaism (or Christians with similar ideas) and these views did not truly exist in Paul's opponents. In fact, Paul and Judaism had very similar views of the compatible relationship of grace and works.

Westerholm agrees with much of Sanders's analysis, including his contention that Judaism was not legalistic. Westerholm does not believe that Paul saw Judaism as legalistic; however, Paul did see a much stronger distinction between grace and works than Judaism. In fact, "for Paul, God's gift of salvation necessarily excludes any part to be played by God-pleasing 'works' since human beings are incapable of doing them" (p. 32, emphasis his). Westerholm believes that the key difference between Paul and the Judaism of his day is Paul's high view of man's sinfulness so that humans are "not capable of the modicum of obedience required by the covenant" (p. 33). 

Heikki Räisänen, as opposed to traditional and New Perspective authors, saw Paul's view of the law as full of contradictions (Paul and the Law, 2nd ed., 1987). One of Räisänen's arguments was that Paul saw unbelievers both able and not able to do what is good. Texts that indicate unbelievers cannot do good are obvious (e.g., Rom 8:5-9, Gal 5:19-21). Räisänen notes that Rom 2:14-15, Phil 3:6, and Rom 13:1-4 show unbelievers doing that which is good. 

Westerholm responds that Rom 2:14-15 and Phil 3:6 are not good examples. The Gentile doing what the law requires in Rom 2:14-15 is just hypothetical as seen by the larger context of Rom 1:18-3:20 proving all have sinned (pp. 39-41, 83-84). The "blameless" comment of Phil 3:6 is a subset of "confidence in the flesh" (Phil 3:3); hence, "blameless" is not positive and is from a "distorted perspective" (p. 41). 

Westerholm concedes that Rom 13:1-4 does indicate that some unbelieving rulers do good. Westerholm notes that one aspect of language is to use words and concepts at different levels (p. 42). Did Paul knowingly have two levels of "good?" Westerholm looks to Augustine, Luther, and Calvin for an answer. All three of these had two levels of good: truly good and common-grace good. In order to do truly good, one must worship the true God and have true faith. Westerholm also sees these two levels in Paul. Romans 1:25 deems honoring other gods as extremely sinful, and Rom 14:23 explicitly requires faith for any activity not to be sin. "It would be strange if Paul did not believe both that human beings, created as moral beings, show evidence of their origin and nature in deeds of relative goodness and that human beings alienated from God are, in the end, incapable of true goodness" (p. 49, emphasis his).

N. T. Wright is Westerholm's next opponent. More specifically, the issue is the definition of justification. Wright's definition, especially in the Galatian context, is "to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship. . . . Righteousness is the status of covenant membership" (Wright, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, pp. 116, 134). 

Westerholm counters by noting that in the OT the "'righteous' are those who do what they ought to do (i.e., righteousness)...People are what they are - innocent or guilty - based on the rightness or wrongness of what they have done" (pp. 61, 63, emphasis his). Also, "righteousness" language it is not necessarily tied to covenant membership. Israel is many times said not to be righteous but was still in covenant relationship with God (e.g., Deut 9:7), and conversely, Noah was righteous even though he was not part of the Mosaic Covenant. Westerholm adds, "Righteousness" language is also in Proverbs, where the "framework" of Proverbs is not that of 'the covenant'" (p. 63). 

In Paul, "the verb 'justify' means (what the word had always meant) 'to find innocent,' 'declare righteous'" (p. 66). See 1 Cor 4:4 and Rom 2:13. When Paul declares that God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5), "his point is striking but his language is conventional... The apostle is using language of 'righteousness' in ordinary ways to speak of the extraordinary divine answer to the human predicament" (p. 67, his emphasis). Due to sin, no human can achieve the path to righteousness by the Mosaic law; hence, the extraordinary solution to an ungodly person being deemed "righteous" is believing in the crucified Christ. The simplest response...is that the word 'justify' cannot mean what Wright wants it to mean: no Galatian would have heard 'justified' and thought 'entitled to sit at the family table'" (p. 68.) It is not true that "'righteousness' means 'membership in the covenant' (never did, never will)" (p. 98). 

Westerholm concentrates next on the expression "works of the law." His foil is the view of James D. G. Dunn (and most New Perspective authors) that these works are only boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, Sabbath) to distinguish Jews from Gentiles. Now that Christ has come, faith in Christ is the marker for a believer, not these boundary markers.
Using Gal 2:21 and 5:4, Westerholm notes that it "is not that particular parts of the Mosaic law are unnecessary for Gentiles, but that all [Jews and Gentiles] those under the law are subject to its curse" (p. 78, emphasis his). Paul's use of Lev 18:5 in Gal 3:12 (and Rom 10:5) show that one receives life if one does the law; that is, the law is a path to righteousness. However, because of sin, this option is not available. The law also "makes possible a clear recognition of human sinfulness (Rom 3:20, 7:7-13)" (p. 83). In Galatians, Paul is "saying that those who get circumcised are submitting to a law that cannot lead sinners to righteousness in God's sight" (p. 83). Hence, "works of the law" includes the whole Mosaic Law and its required path of obedience; "works of the law" does not simply mean boundary markers.

Westerholm notes that many have seen in Paul an initial justification by faith and a final justification by works, with the final justification based on Rom 2:13. Westerholm responds that Rom 3:20 explicitly denies that anyone, believer or unbeliever, will be justified by works of the law. Therefore, Rom 2:13 is simply expressing the "rightness of the moral order" before he concludes in Rom 3:20 that no one can in fact be righteous by works" (p. 84). 

Westerholm several times goes out of his way to note that Paul is not arguing against a Jewish or "legalistic" distortion of the law. "It is the law itself, as given by God, that curses those who transgress its commands" (p. 79).

The final opponent is Douglas Campbell, and this is new territory for Westerholm. Campbell's 1,218 page book, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, was published in 2009. Campbell sees the typical "justification theory" as "foundationalist, conditional, and contractual" (The Deliverance of God, p. 933). This was not Paul's view. The gospel according to Paul is found in Rom 5-8; "Paul's account of sanctification is the Gospel" (The Deliverance of God, p. 934, emphasis Campbell's). That is, to try and coordinate in Paul a view of justification (traditional or New Perspective) and sanctification is wrong. The God of justification theory is "just," but the God of Rom 5-8 and sanctification is "benevolent" - these are two different views of God, which Paul did not have (p. 184).

Here, Westerholm briefly attacks Campbell's notion that God cannot be both just and benevolent. As Rom 3:24-26 shows, according to Westerholm, God is "both good and just when, because Christ's death bore the bane of humanity's sins, he finds believers righteous" (p. 94, emphasis his).

Given my lengthy explanation of Westerholm's opponents and his critique of them, I offer just a brief critique of Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme

Since I believe in the traditional "Reformed" Paul, I am pleased with the vast majority of Westerholm's arguments as there is considerable overlap between the "Lutheran" and "Reformed" Pauls. As proof of my pleasure, I have spent considerable space above giving Westerholm's rebuttals to various opponents, and my complaints below will be brief.
Several of my minor complaints simply reduce to the fact that Westerholm is not Reformed. Westerholm is good on the second use of the law and the law/Gospel distinction; however, the concept of the third use of the law would better explain some passages. In addition, Westerholm's explanations of Christ's death only relate to his passive obedience and do not include his active obedience (although, this omission does not affect any arguments in this book). Finally, for me, Westerholm tends to see too much of a separation between justification and covenant theology.  

As in his other books, Westerholm gives too much deference to E. P. Sanders. Possibly it is partly semantic, but I do believe that the evidence in the Bible and from Second Temple Judaism show that many were "legalistic" and oriented towards "works-righteousness". Also, Sanders's view of the general uniformity of Judaism's understanding of salvation needs to be critiqued. However, in the end, these differences between Westerholm and me about Sanders apparently result in minimal differences concerning our interpretations of justification in Paul. I think Westerholm is somewhat inconsistent, but so be it.

My most substantive complaint is probably not fair. Similar to most of critical scholarship, Westerholm rarely makes an argument from the "deutero-Paul" books (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus). Texts such as Eph 2:8-9 (briefly noted), 2 Tim 1:9-10, Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-8 clearly relate to Paul's faith/works views and are avoided by New Perspective authors. Even if one assumes that Paul did not write these texts, and I do assume Paul wrote these, it appears that at least Paul's followers said that human works were unrelated to justification.  It was not simply the Reformation's context that produced this reading of Paul as so much of scholarship argues. In fact, Westerholm makes this point very briefly in Perspectives Old and New on Paul (p. 406), but it is not included in Justification Reconsidered

Possibly Westerholm does not include this because he does not believe Paul wrote these books, or possibly he realizes that his intended audience would not appreciate arguments from these books. Either way, including these texts does add significantly to the arguments against New Perspective authors, whether Paul wrote them or not. As I said above, this complaint is probably not fair as I am whining about something Westerholm did not include, which is normally bad form in a book review.

Although this book is written from a critical perspective to an intended critical audience, read this short, engaging book. An evangelical reader will get up to speed on various critical views of Paul concerning justification and enjoy a heart-warming defense of the glorious Gospel.   

Robert J. Cara is the Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC and the Chief Academic Officer for all the RTS campuses. He has written A Study Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Evangelical Press, 2009) and has two forthcoming works: the first is entitled New Perspective on Judaism and Paul: A Traditional Reformed Evaluation, and the second is a commentary on Hebrews.

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