Sunday, February 20, 2005

Augustine and Justification - Part III

Well, the fury of the inerrancy dialog has died down, and though I’ll add a few more comments in the future, I want to return to my discussion of Augustinian sotieriology. For those of you who have had the will to work your way through both previous post (here and here), I commend you. For those who gave up after the first paragraph… I now provide a short summary…

In my mind, the issue of salvation/justification, hinges upon one’s understanding of culpability. If we assume that God’s wrath has been provoked against us due chiefly to our sinful actions, then salvation must provide resolution to sin as a matter of volition (will/actions). But if we believe that God’s wrath is provoked primarily due to our sinful nature, then salvation must provide resolution to sin as a matter of ontology (being or essence). The two previous posts were an attempt to show the disparity between Augustine and the Reformers (particularly John Calvin) in this matter. In my reading, Augustine grounds culpability in essence. We are “by nature objects of wrath” (Eph 2). The Reformers, conversely tended to ground culpability in volition, - i.e. our actions, what we do (there’s more to the Reformer’s doctrine of culpability, particularly as it pertains to original sin, but this is blog post and not a theological journal).

Having framed culpability in these two distinct paradigms, their mutual understandings of justification are also distinct. For Augustine, conversion/justification entails spiritual regeneration as the primary emphasis, for it is only in being born again through the resurrection of Christ that essential corruption is overcome. On the other hand, for the Reformers, justification/conversion entails the securing of favorable legal standing before God through Christ’s death on the cross. Augustine focuses on the resurrection – the Reformers on the crucifixion. So in short, Augustine’s doctrine of justification highlights regeneration – the Reformers’ doctrine of justificaiton emphasizes forgiveness. Now you are up to speed.

So what does it really matter anyway? Glad you asked.

The understanding of justification that we uphold has huge implications for gospel proclamation (as well as sanctification - but that's another post). Will we preach that a man “must be born again” or will we preach that a man “must be forgiven?” (I know I’m creating a false dichotomy here, but bear with me for a while.) A gospel that offers forgiveness of sins as its foundational component is far different that a gospel that offers new life. The first requires no essential change (change of essence/nature) upon conversion. It is purely legal. But Augustine’s doctrine of justification, by its very nature, requires essential transformation at the moment of conversion. Conversion is being born again through union with the risen life of Christ. How many people do you know who have professed Christ with nary the first inkling of spiritual fruit? Could it be that they have bought a gospel of forgiveness while rejecting essential renewal? How many faithful evangelicals (as well as faithful Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.) remain in a purely natural state, trusting in legal cleansing while neglecting supernatural spiritual transformation? And how much can we blame them? We are the one's who told them that all they needed was forgiveness. I close now with another excerpt from my thesis…

This absence of the resurrection in the evangelical doctrine of justification has led we believe to a gospel that often fails to mention spiritual regeneration. One need only survey the most popular evangelical tracts to observe that the resurrection, regeneration and life change do not figure prominently (if at all) in the evangelical gospel message. For wider evangelicalism, judicial forgiveness of sins has become the absolute core of salvation, for it is in judicial cleansing that one inherits eternal life. Regeneration, if mentioned at all, is mentioned as simply an “extra” of having been justified.

And though Reformed theologians may lament the loss of an essential element in conversion, we believe this loss is due to the fact that evangelicals are simply and consistently following the core teaching of their Reformed heritage. To be sure, much of evangelicalism, particularly through the influence of Free Grace theology, neglects to incorporate a fully orbed Reformed sotieriology, but it cannot be denied that the popular evangelical doctrine of justification is essentially Reformed in its insistence that legal/non-essential righteousness serves as the sole basis of eternal life.

We should not find such popular level sotieriology surprising. In gospel proclamation, we wisely do not deluge the uninitiated with every aspect of sotieriology. Though liberals and post evangelicals would disagree, in our mind, gospel proclamation rightly seeks to address first and foremost one fundamental question: How can the sinner find peace with an angry God and merit eternal life? For most of evangelicalism, the answer to this basic question is not found in the doctrine of regeneration. It is not found in a doctrine of sanctification. It is not even found in spiritual union with Christ. The answer to this most basic question is grounded in the Reformed doctrine of justification. Should we be surprised then, that popular evangelicalism’s evangelistic efforts reflect only that aspect of our sotieriology which addresses this core question?

If we continue to deny that essential righteousness serves any role as a basis by which we inherit eternal life – regardless of how much we later affirm the necessity of regeneration, sanctification and perseverance – popular evangelicalism’s understanding and proclamation of the gospel will continue to remain neutered of its most crucial element. For too long the resurrection has been sidelined as a non essential element of the gospel. Augustine understanding of justification, we believe, alleviates this significant deficiency…

And finally, I must add that there is a real need for judicial forgiveness (the Reformers were right about this, and Augustine falls short here). But regardless, in my mind, forgiveness is only the key that unlocks the door to the room of salvation. It is not salvation itself. It is the can opener. Salvation is the substance in the can. God forgives us in order that he might regenerate us, but judicial forgiveness alone gets no one eternal life.

(I would love to have some Reformed guys weigh in on this...)


J Daniel said...

so i made it through the trilogy. and i'm tracking with you, no doubt thanks to a 6 hour conversation on it around a fireplace...i don't know if i'm a "reformed guy" or what, but i'll chip in.

is the critique of the Reformed position primarily noting a lack of emphasis on regeneration at the right place (as an attachment to salvation rather than as the essence of salvation) or are you saying that Reformed theology allows for salvation to occur without regeneration at all? you mention that Reformed theology, maybe not at the street evangelism level but at the systematic level, does give attention to the "new life" of the Christian in the doctrines of regeneration and sanctification that surround justification. by neglecting the "new birth" in the one aspect (justification), does regeneration lose its necessity for salvation in Reformed theology? can the Reformed thinkers keep justification to a purely legal emphasis while giving proper attention to a regenerated life/nature in the other aspects?

if systematic theology is expaining truths about God and man in ways that break down the big picture into workable parts, recognizing that they are not so easily seperable as we make them for understanding's sake, can i not have justification mean something volitional and regeneration mean something ontological and then hold them both as necessary and complementary parts of a whole picture of salvation?

Gerald said...

see Augustine and Jusitification: Part IV for a response to this comment.

Charlie said...


I would be hesitant of saying that Augustine "falls short" of recognizing the need for judicial forgiveness. For Augustine, as for the other fathers, judicial forgiveness was a given. We should be careful of judging the early fathers on the basis of modern soteriological debates.

Gerald said...


Thanks for the comment.

I am not an Augustinian scholar. I have read his anti-pelagian writings, enchridion, confessions, trinity, as well as a few surveys of his theology, so I don't pretend to be conversant with his entire corpus of thought (but then who is?--the man wrote so much!)

From my observation, Augustine uses the expression "remission of sins" in a way that is identical to "regeneration." For Augustine, the remission of sins is ontological, not primiarly legal. This is what I meant when I wrote that Augustine does not recognize the need for "judicial forgiveness."

His understanding of the atonement, being essentially a ransom view, knows nothing of the forensic categories that drove Reformation theology. I don't have my books here at home, but I know that there is a passage in Enchridion where he states that Jesus did not die to turn away God's wrath, for God was already predisposed in love toward the elect. It is original sin as a condition of ontological corruption, not legal guilt, that drives Augustine's soteriology.

We should be careful of judging the early fathers on the basis of modern soteriological debates.

I agree, and wonder if seeing "judicial forgiveness" in Augustine's soteriology is--in fact--doing this very thing.