Tuesday, June 13, 2006
A Modest Proposal: Barthian Implications on the Question of Justification's Formal Cause
Over at Pontifications I came across Al Kimel's recent discussion of the doctrine of Justification (We Can Earn it to Lose it). He begins with a quote from Matt Kennedy's recent posting at Stand Firm where Matt attempts to give a brief description of the differences between Anglican Evangelicals and Anglican Catholics on the question of justification.
I don't intend to critique either blogger in this entry. I merely point out these examples to illustrate that the main issue that continues to divide Western Christians -- Catholics and Protestants -- hasn't changed much in nearly five centuries with regard to the way the arguments on both sides have been presented; nor is this an issue that is going away anytime soon, despite genuine attempts on both sides to achieve rapprochement on what Luther described as the "articulus stantis vel candentis ecclesiae."
For theologians, this debate has not been so much about whether faith or works or some combination of the two justifies a person, as is popularly thought; but rather it has been about how theologians have answered the question "What is justification's formal cause?" For example, is the formal cause of the justification of the sinner the imputed alien-righteousness of Christ as most Protestants claim? Or are we justified by the gracious "supernaturalization of our natures" (to borrow Al Kimel's apt description of the Council of Trent's teaching on the matter)?
I'd like to make a modest proposal here, one suggested by Barth's actualist theology. I am particularly impressed by the strong distinction that Barth makes between the objective and existential moments of salvation. Despite many centuries of polemical hashing and rehashing on the subject, I suggest that Barth's insights might just serve to expose the inherently anthropocentric underpinnings and assumptions of the theological approaches of BOTH sides of this issue. If (as Barth's interpreter George Hunsinger describes it) the actuality and truth of our salvation does not depend on the existential occurrence of it, but rather the existential occurence of salvation is brought about by the actuality and truth of it, then it is simply wrongheaded to ground the event and occurrence of justification in something that happens to or within the individual sinner (whether as something imputed to, imparted to, or even "supernaturalized" within a person).
Rather a truly Christocentric approach to this issue would see the "formal cause" of justification (i.e., the actuality of salvation) as the ontological and vicarious identification of Christ with ALL humankind, which (as an existential encounter) becomes true for us even as we begin to recognize that it has always been true apart from us, and even against us. As St. Paul says, "...While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
Until next time.