Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Fr. Al Kimel On Judgment

The below article is taken from Fr. Al Kimel's site with permission and I have placed it here for any discussion of it.


“When the Lord returns, what will he be looking for, what will he expect, what will he do?” So asks Dwight over at Versus Populum. This is the key question, is it not? When Jesus returns in glory to judge the quick and the dead, how will he judge us?

Dwight is dissatisfied with the typical, though not universal, Lutheran answer, which he formulates as follows:

If you simply allow Jesus to love you, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, who you are, why you have lived the way you have. As long as you don’t put up a big “no” to him, he will usher you into his Father’s kingdom….

Dwight sardonically comments, “All that matters, apparently, is day by day reassuring myself of my personal salvation by repeating the mantra, ‘I am saved by God’s gracious loving act.’” Dwight, of course, knows full well that that any good Lutheran preacher or theologians would object to the caricature, and rightly so—yet who hasn’t heard this construal of grace promoted from the pulpit, whether it be Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or evangelical? I know that I more than frequently preached this message during my twenty-five years as an Episcopal priest: Final salvation is a free gift. Christ has borne God’s judgment against sin on the cross. We are justified by faith, not by works. All we need do, can do, is trust in the One who has fulfilled the law, including the law of faith, for us and in us.

My heart resonates with this message as much today as twenty-five years ago. Precisely because I am a spiritual and moral failure, I have clung to the (Lutheran) gospel of unconditional grace and have taught it to my parishioners as gospel, the gospel, without qualification or reservation. I learned this gospel well through the writings of Thomas Torrance and Robert Jenson. And so I preached and taught.

Yet periodically a text would show up in the Episcopal lectionary that seemed to say something different. My Protestant commentataries would always provide an exegetical “solution” to these difficult texts and thus allow me to continue to believe and preach my gospel of unconditional grace; but given that the “plain meaning” of these difficult texts seemed to contradict my gospel, I invariably chose to preach on something else. Thank goodness there are always three lessons from which to choose each Sunday! And thanks to the miracle of the lectionary cycle, the most difficult text of all, Jesus’ parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), only appears once every three years. Occasionally a parishioner would cite precisely this parable and ask me how it can be reconciled with my claim that we are judged by faith alone. At such moments I would immediately retreat to the Apostle Paul and insist that the parable does not mean what it seems to mean.

But what if a retreat to Paul is impossible? What if even the Apostle of grace teaches final judgment by works? This is the thesis of Chris VanLandingham’s new book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul.

VanLandingham asks us to put aside our confessional spectacles and to take seriously the plain meaning of St Paul’s teaching about the final judgment. When we do so, he argues, we will discover that Paul believed, just as his Jewish contemporaries believed, that “an individual’s behavior during his or her lifetime provides the criterion for this judgment: good behavior is rewarded with eternal life, bad behavior with damnation” (p. 13). Paul may have differed with his fellow Jews on precisely which deeds where proscribed, permitted, or required; but he remained thoroughly Jewish in his conviction that the final judgment was based on deeds: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13). VanLandingham therefore denies that the justification that occurs at the beginning of Christian existence is properly understood as a proleptic experience of the final judgment—God’s eschatological judgment let loose in history, as one of my professors liked to put it. Paul, VanLandingham insists, consistently distinguishes between the two justifications.

But what about all the scholarship that maintains that in Paul the dikai- words necessarily convey a forensic and eschatological sense? It’s wrong, VanLandingham bluntly asserts, just flat wrong:

I contend that even if on occasion dikai- terms are forensic, in Paul at least, the terms do not refer to the Last Judgment. Paul does not, in fact, use the dikai- terms (conjunction with “faith”) in reference to the Last Judgment, that is, the judgment that determines one’s eternal destiny. The issue does not need to be whether the terms (in conjunction with “faith”) are forensic, but whether they refer specifically to the Last Judgment. Paul’s use of the dikai- terms (in conjunction with “faith”), however, does not evoke any judgment or divine determination, and if any divine determination, then certainly not the Last Judgment. … The dikai- terms in Paul do not refer to an acquittal at the Last Judgment. Rather, Paul employs the dikai- terms, as they describe the initial effects of the Christ event for believers, to embrace both the notions of (1) forgiveness, cleansing, and purification of past sins and (2) an emancipation from sin as a ruler over humanity. As such, the dikai- terms are qualitative since they describe the believer’s state of being. The various dikai-terms all refer to the same quality or effect of Jesus’ death upon the believer. Other than their grammatical distinctions, therefore, the best rendering of dikaiosunê is “righteousness,” of dikaios, “righteous,” and of dikaioô, “make righteous.” This sense of the verb, though largely disputed, signifies the transferral from the state of unrighteousness and sin to the state of righteousness, and in regard to sin as a ruler, from bondage to emancipation. Both context and verbal tenses dictate that the verb typically denotes the beginning of the believer’s new life, not the event of the Last Judgment. The usual translation “to justify,” which indicates the notion of acquittal at the Last Judgment, is most difficult to reconcile in several places: 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 2:17; Rom 3:24-25; and Rom 6:7. … Paul never says the dikai- terms, as he uses them with regard to Jesus’ death, refer to the Last Judgment. Only rarely does he associate them with the Last Judgment, but even then nothing demands that they refer only to a status in relation to the court. To the contrary, on these occasions they just as easily could, and, in fact, do refer to character and state of being—they bring out publicly only what one really is. This sense is verified outside of Paul when the dikai- terms are used in association with the Last Judgment (Matt 12:34-37; 25:37, 46; 2 Tim 4:8; 1 Peter 4:17-18; 2 Bar. 24:1-2; 51:1, 3). (pp. 245, 331)

I am particularly intrigued by VanLandingham’s analysis of dikaioô. He notes that the word is used in a variety of senses in classical Greek, Jewish, and Christian literature. He does not deny that the word sometimes conveys a forensic sense, but he does assert that it “does not usually mean ‘to acquit’” (p. 256). On five occasions dikaioô clearly means “to make righteous” (Ps 72:13; Luke 18:14; Jas 2:21, 24, 25). In the absence of compelling contrary evidence, says VanLandingham, we should assume continuity between Paul and popular usage. This Protestant exegete, in other words, thus finds himself in basic agreement with St Jerome and the Vulgate.

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that if VanLandingham’s exegesis of the Apostle Paul stands up against critical scrutiny, it will initiate a revolution in Pauline studies. Given my lack of competence in Greek and New Testament studies, I am unable to offer any judgment on the matters addressed; but I am impressed by VanLandingham’s thoroughness. Clearly he knows well the Scriptures and the intertestamental literature, as well as the secondary scholarship.

What are the consequences for the various Christian traditions should VanLandingham’s exegesis prove sound? The Catholic and Orthodox traditions will have no problem absorbing his exegesis, since it basically confirms the consensual exegesis of Paul in the first millenium. Arminians, too, should be able to receive his exegesis, given their affirmation of salvation as synergistic process, yet it will still require some significant adjustments on their part. But VanLandingham’s book represents a direct attack on the fundamental positions of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. If he is right, the Lutheran and Reformed confessions are wrong, plain and simple. No longer will Lutherans be able to proclaim that the Scripture teaches that believers experience the eschatological acquittal in the present moment of faith. No longer will Reformeds be able to declare that the Scripture teaches the forensic imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

One final thought: I would love to see Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul reviewed by N. T. Wright. Wright has struggled in his recent writings on Paul to relate present justification and future justification. Regarding the latter, Wright has written: “Future justification, acquittal at the last great Assize, always takes place on the basis of the totality of the life lived.”


Blogger Pontificator said...

Jeff, I've made some corrections to my article. You may wish to substitute the latest version.

9:29 pm  

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