Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Justification and the Via Moderna

Augustine’s doctrine of justification is concerned about ontological change. The Reformation construal of justification however, is concerned more about relational change—i.e., what is my status, or relation, to God. I’ve always suspected that the shift from ontology to status was not strictly a product of the Reformation, but rather had its origins in the via moderna. I had never quite chased it all down however. Consequently, I was pleased to see that Carl Trueman is thinking along the same lines. According to Trueman, the via moderna’s emphasis upon the divine acceptance moved the discussion regarding justification from ontology to status. Here's the logic.

The via moderna emphasized the utter transcendence of God, thus negating the possibility of truly meriting the eternal reward. For the theologians of the via moderna, no true justice can exist between God and humanity. God is too ontologically other—too far above and beyond humanity and thus not bound in any way by our sense of justice. We can make no claim upon him, nor is he obligated to us in any way. No human being, even a perfect human being, is truly worthy of the divine reward. Eternal life therefore, could in no way be earned. So how does a sinner merit eternal life? In his graciousness, God establishes a pactum, or agreement, with sinful humanity wherein he promises to reward with eternal life all those who do “what is in themselves” to honor God. The divine reward however, can only be based upon congruous merit. Condign merit is right out. Since the via moderna no longer viewed merit as condign, the discussion regarding merit and justification became focused on receiving the divine acceptance. Trueman writes, “The basis of and criteria for justification were those established by God’s will [through the pactum] rather than those imposed by some necessary ontology” (81). In other words, justification was no longer viewed as based upon some intrinsic quality within the human wherein the human was now truly worthy of eternal life, but rather upon the divine fiat, the divine pronouncement on the day of judgment that a person would receive eternal life. Consequently, justification had already taken a forensic, declarative turn long before the Reformation. For Augustine, justification spoke of how a sinner became ontologically righteous. It did not directly speak to the question of how a person merited eternal life. But for the schoolmen of the via moderna, justification spoke of the divine acceptance, God’s gracious declaration that one would receive eternal life.

It seems to me that this latter discussion of justification (which I think does not reflect the biblical motif) set the stage and framed the questions that the Reformation sought to answer. It is for this reason that Luther and Calvin (along with their Catholic opponents), were preoccupied with justification in terms that related to the divine acceptance as the chief component of justification.

For the record, I think that the basic theological premise of the via moderna regarding God’s transcendence is sound. But while it is true that humanity can in no way merit the divine reward, the schoolmen perhaps failed to consider the fact that Christ can merit the divine reward, and that his life in us—via the Holy Spirit—provides for us the proper basis of merit by which we gain access into eternal life. Merit is condign, but it is the merit of the Christ-life in us. Only God can merit God. We merit God in Christ. And so it is written, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

7 comments:

Canadian said...

Gerald,
So are you saying we merit eternal life condignly because of the ontological change of nature we have in Christ?(we are actually made righteous, not only declared to be).
And so do we also merit eternal life congruently through our God-wrought, grace induced life of righteousness that springs from this new ontology?
Darrin

Gerald said...

Darrin,

Not really. I think what you describe above would be representative of Augustine (perhaps Thomas a Trent, as well?).

What I mean to say is that Christ himself is our righteousness. I need to check out more of Osiander, but I wonder if I'm not suggesting something similar to his position. Since only God can truly merit God, then only through our participation in God (2 Peter 1:4) can we merit eternal life. Thus it is not our human righteousness that merits eternal life; it is not sufficient for us to be made ontologically righteous with a strictly human righteousness--we must somehow come participate in the divine righteousness. And it is through Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we come to participate in the divine righteousness. This divine righteousness serves as the ultimate ground of merit regarding eternal life. Just as God is bound to honor himself, so too he is bound to honor himself in us. The divine righteousness in us thus serves as the basis of condign merit.

Works "merit" eternal life only in as much as they represent the reality of this divine righteousness in us. Thus when God rewards human merits, he is really only rewarding himself.

Anyway, those are my thoughts at present. Still working it out.

Canadian said...

Gerald,
How would you relate your idea to the Eastern idea of Theosis?
Darrin

Gerald said...

Darrin,

I don't really know enough about the EO idea of theosis, but I think I've got to be in the ball park. The whole idea of "becoming a partaker of the divine nature" is central to my soteriology. As I understand it, it is central to EO soteriology as well.

Primitive Christianity said...

I am in the middle of a theological earthquake :-), and appreciate what you have shared.
I would appreciate any links or info that further delve into ontological justification, and theosis.
mike@primitivechristianity.org

Anonymous said...

Gerald,

My difficulty in following your line of thought here is that in the acceptance one is still performing a meritorious work. I am truly interested in how this would not be considered a work?

Catholic1 said...

I think your concept of justification that you outline in the comments section is in line with the Thomistic view. If you read the section on grace from the Summa Theologiae, you will see that Thomas insists on identifying (sanctifying) grace with the participation in the divine nature. This participation is the basis of condign merit.