The meaning of dikaioo (to justify) and its cognates has been an issue of long standing debate between Catholics and Protestants. Both Calvin and Luther (though perhaps more so Calvin) give dikaioo a decidedly judicial, declarative turn. For Calvin, the Pauline conception of justification is limited to God’s judicial declaration that the one believing in Christ is now righteous/innocent regarding the divine judgment. Thus the “righteousness” of justification does not involve any ontological/ethical change, but rather speaks of one’s legal innocence derived from Christ and his atoning work. Further, Calvin very pointedly insists that the righteousness of justification has nothing whatsoever to do with regeneration (see his Institutes, III.13.5). In contrast, Catholic theologians—both then and now—have insisted that dikaioo has strong ontological overtones. Justification in Catholic thought is virtually synonymous with spiritual regeneration and speaks of the sinner’s actual transformation. (Both sides agree that this initial justification is apart from works.) While there is more to this debate than the correct lexical definition of dikaioo and its cognates, this is nonetheless an important place to begin.
Those who have read this blog for any length of time know that I have strong Augustinian tendencies. Consequently, I have sympathies toward the Catholic interpretation of dikaioo. Certainly Augustine and most of the early church fathers viewed justification in a transformative sense. This is conceded by most Protestant historians (though see Needham’s chapter in Justification in Perspective, where he marshals a myriad of evidence that shows a strong forensic strain in the early church. Thomas Oden attempts something similar in his Justification Reader, though with less success in my mind). Further, McGrath is incorrect in his contention that Augustine’s dependency on Latin—and thus the ontologically ladened Latin expression iustificare as a translation of the Greek dikaioo—caused Augustine to mistakenly read a transformative sense into Paul’s doctrine of justification that wasn’t originally present in the Greek (see Iustitia Dei, 12-16). But Augustine’s iustificare had a semantic range that allowed for a strictly declarative sense (see On the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 45). Augustine interpreted iustificare in a transformative sense because this was how he understood the term to be used in Scripture, and because this is how most of the early church fathers before him understood Paul’s doctrine of justification. Augustine had the tools to interpret iustificare in a declarative sense, and even did so on some occasions. But he chose not to do so in relation to the bulk of Paul’s letters.
Augustine’s interpretation of Paul makes a good deal of sense. But having said that, the fact remains that dikaioo does have strong declarative overtones. In the end, the meaning of the word doesn’t rest on it’s usage within the scope of church history, but on what the biblical authors actually meant by it when they used it. While Paul’s use of dikaioo can be interpreted in a transformative sense in many instances (especially Titus 3:4-7, where dikaioo is used as a participle summarizing the spiritual regeneration and ontological cleansing of the preceding verses), virtually all of these passages can be read in a thoroughly Protestant manner as well. It is necessary, I believe, to look beyond Paul’s use of the term and examine the broader biblical usage, particularly in the LXX. This gives us a clue in determining what Paul had in mind when he co-opted this term for his soteriological purposes.
Passages such as Deuteronomy 25:1, 2 Samuel 15:4, 1 Kings 8:32, 2 Chronicles 6:23, Isaiah 5:23, and 43:26, etc., show that dikaioo was frequently used in a judicial context, with dikaioo denoting the judicial ruling/declaration/verdict that one party was right over against another. In most other instances outside of a formal judicial context, the meaning of the term seems to carry the primary meaning of “to vindicate” (see Genesis 44:16, Psalm 51:4, Isaiah 43:26, etc.). In no instances that I am aware is dikaioo used in the LXX to denote moral or ontological change (if anyone knows different, please let me know). But does this mean that Calvin and company are essentially correct in their insistence that justification involves no ontological component? I don’t believe so. In my next post I will offer a working thesis regarding the nature of justification and its relationship to the New Covenant, and argue that spiritual regeneration is central to Paul’s conception of justification.
See part 2 here.