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.


Jason said...


The classical Protestant understanding of justification,as I'm sure you're aware, is that the justification of the ungodly takes place outside(!) of him and not within him, i.e. outside his experience and consciousness. That's precisely the difference between the forensic model and the Roman and others. Faith is a matter of existential actualisation, i.e. being aware and assured that I am justified, Baptism being the effectual outward instrumental sign of the experience of self-awareness. So, for the Reformed, justification takes place on the Cross there and then (for the elect only that is), i.e. before our experience of salvation as outlined in the temporal ordo salutis. Justification being a juridical act of God is a legal *declaration* of a thing accomplished once for all(not a covenantal performance enabling God to command a person to be righteous). Everything true about justification takes place within the constitution Christ, the God-Man.

The Reformed differ from the scholastic Lutheranism in making Objective Justification to be objectively for GOD (God the Father reconciled to the world of elect) and subjective justification is subjectively true for man (man experiencing reconciliation with God through Christ after being broekn down by Law). Also, the Reformed posits different phases of justification ...

a) From eternity, in the mind of God (this is in conjunction with predestination. Note the forensic nature of justification ties in with election - before we were born, having done neither good nor evil, i.e. outside of our experience)

b) Foreshadowing the Cross (OT)

c) The Cross (the justification of God revealed and vindicated)

d) Looking back to the Cross (in the tribunal of the conscience) -preaching of the Gospel and respose to the summons through belief and repentance

e)Daily life (conversion, sanctification, temporal justification)

f) Judgment Day - tribunal of God's judgment seat

In each of these phases, justification of God is revealed.

lexorandi2 said...

Hi Jason,

Just a few comments by way of response. You are essentially correct in your description of the Protestant model. In that system, justification of the ungodly is said to take place outside of him (i.e., the alien righteousness of Christ). However, it is still nonetheless something that is "declared" of him (i.e., imputed to him) upon faith and repentence. So for the Protestant "faith," as you say, "is a matter of existential actualization." But that's precisely where Barth modified the argument in such a way as to transcend the perennial debate.

Both the Catholic and the Protestant begin with a righteousness outside of the ungodly, and both understand justification to be actualized (either imputed to or imparted to) the individual in the existential encounter, thereby grounding the ACTUALIZATION of justification in the existential moment, rather than grounding the existential moment in the ACTUALIZATION of our salvation in Christ. You see, Barth has turned the tables on the debate.

Both classical positions render the atonement a potential justification that depends on the existential moment of "you name it" -- faith, repentance, baptism, whatever, etc. -- to effect or to actualize or to make real justification for the individual. Barth is not saying this at all, at least in my reading of him. Rather justification is an actualized reality in Christ on behalf of all humanity apart from the existential encounter.

Take care,

Pontificator said...

Dan, have you read Hans Kung's analysis of Barth on justification? If yes, what is your evaluation of him and how does his presentation differ from Hunsinger's? TIA.

lexorandi2 said...

Hi Pontificator,

I confess that it's been awhile since I read Kung's analysis of Barth on Justification. I will have to dig up my copy.

What I do remember, however, is that Barth commended it as being an eminently fair analysis. I also recall that a very suprised Barth had expressed amazement over Kung's restatement of the Catholic position in light of the best Catholic thought down through the ages, and showed how this thought was consistent with Barth's essential thinking on the matter.

What I appreciate about Kung's Catholic response to Barth was not that he actually demonstrated what his thesis maintains -- namely that the best representations of Catholic thought "agree" with Barth. Rather I think the strength of Kung's work lay in showing how easily the best fruits of Catholic thinking can be brought into alignment with a truly Christocentric objectivist theology (like Barth's), because the basic instincts of such a theology are already present.

Take care,

Acolyte4236 said...

I couldn't agree more with re-centering the issue in Christology. Both sides seem to subsume Christ's humanity to a general notion of humanity and then work from there. Consequently they both seem committed to seeing Christ's humanity as a sign or instrument of the divine will, albeit in Christ's case, a perfect case. The subsuming of Christ to a general notion result sin a soteriology that is anthropocentric. Barth was quite right to turn such a model on its head. This is why Barth at this point was much closer to a Palamite Eastern model of salvation than I think he probably realized.