Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Critique of Douglas Moo on Justification

On 11 August 2011 Douglas Moo delivered a lecture entitled Justification in the Crosshairs (see “Douglas Moo on Justification”). I found Moo’s lecture to be very stimulating. He expressed himself clearly, and was easy to follow.

In terms of a critique of the content of his views on justification, the major weakness with his presentation was that it presupposed a particular concept of faith and works from the beginning. The terms faith and works were not defined. I assume that Moo’s definition of these terms would be similar to Martin Luther’s anthropological definition. The question needs to be asked, however: what is the biblical concept of faith? In particular, what is the Old Testament concept of emunah (אמונה), and is Paul’s use of faith language consistent with the Old Testament use of emunah? The issue at this point is: is faith (following Luther) a positive response of the human spirit solely to divine promise, or (following the Old Testament) the proper covenant response to the totality of divine revelation? A lot of Protestant discussions of justification assume a Lutheran faith versus works distinction from the outset, and fail to critique these inherited presuppositions in the light of Scripture.

I agree with Moo’s opinion of what justification in the realm of salvation is. Justification in the realm of salvation is the divine declaration by God in his function as Judge that a particular individual is legally in the right, assessed from God’s standard of righteousness. In other words, justification is the divine declaration that a particular person has lived up to (for whatever reason) God’s standard of righteousness. I also agree, as Moo stated contra Tom Wright, that belonging to God’s people is not justification, but a necessary consequence thereof.

In terms of how justification occurs, Moo’s discussion focused on absolute justification, and failed to acknowledge that the Bible also speaks about justification on the level of covenant responsibilities. Absolute justification is concerned with absolute moral perfection. On this level, Moo correctly pointed out that double imputation occurs in the substitutionary function of Christ as the perfect sacrifice that brings forgiveness to his people. Imputation itself (in terms of how systematic theology uses the term) is not justification per se, but justification in Christ on the level of absolute righteousness does presuppose double imputation. It is hard to avoid using the language of imputation at this point, given its usage as a technical term in Christian theology; but at the same time, it is important to notice that imputation in Scripture (i.e, the usage of חשב and λογίζω) has to do with the judicial reckoning of someone as righteous or wicked. Imputation in its scriptural usage is an integral part of the act of judicial justification; but in its systematic theological usage imputation has to do with how the righteous status of Christ is transferred to the believer, thereby enabling the divine judicial pronouncement (which is justification proper) to be made. Even though there are problems with the overlap of similar terms between biblical theology and systematics at this point, I nevertheless believe that the doctrine of double imputation can be derived from Scripture from the way in which atonement took place in the tabernacle. On the Day of Atonement, the priest placed his hand on the head of the goat, symbolizing the transfer of the sins of the people onto the scapegoat (Lev 16:20–22). The death of the other goat, which had to be a perfect specimen (like all sacrificial animals), also meant that the blood of the perfect sacrificial victim could cleanse the sins of the people represented (Lev 16:17–19). This requirement of “perfection” on the part of the animal sacrificial victims was a foreshadowing of Christ, who also had to be perfect or “without blemish” (see Heb 9:13–14). Hence, Christ’s active obedience to the will of God was necessary for his absolute righteousness to be established in order that he might be able to perfect the people of God absolutely through his offering of himself as a sacrifice of atonement.

I also agree with Moo that the phrase the works of the law is more than what James Dunn and Tom Wright have allowed for. Paul’s problem with the works of the law extended to the totality of the law, not just the boundary markers of circumcision, the food laws, and the Sabbath. Moo is correct, therefore, to state that the works of the law denotes obedience to Mosaic torah. The phrase the works of the law is Jewish code for doing the law, i.e., being faithful to the torah of Moses. I believe, however, that Moo is incorrect to assert that the works of the law were viewed by Paul as being a subset of works (i.e., obedience) in general. The logical convenience of this a fortiori argument by Moo is that the common Lutheran anthropological distinction between faith and works can stand. Moo’s a fortiori argument is valid, as long as it is applied to the domain of absolute righteousness. I suspect, however, that Moo does not limit the application of his a fortiori argument in this way. The lack of a concept of covenant righteousness in Moo’s system means that he fails to ask the question of whether or not the issue of justification that was being debated in the early church functioned primarily on the level of covenantal justification rather than on the level of absolute righteousness. The role of Christ in providing perfect atonement was not a point of debate between between Paul and the Christian Judaizers. The point of debate was how people benefit from Christ and everything that he has done: by following the law of Moses (the works of the law), or by following the gospel of Christ (faith)? If Moo’s larger set of works includes Christian obedience such that good works or evangelical obedience have no role in relation to justification on the level of covenant responsibilities, then Moo has effectively excised those parts of the New Testament which link good works or obedience in with justification and salvation (e.g., Matt 7:21; 25:14–46; John 14:21, 23–24; 15:2, 6, 10; Rom 2:6–11, 13; Gal 6:7–9)? I know that Moo acknowledges that works have some part to play in relation to the future aspect of justification, but his lack of a concept of covenant righteousness muddies the water at this point. Adopting the classic Calvinist concept of double justification could bring clarity to his argument.

In regard to the phrase the faith of Christ and variants of this, I agree with Moo that the issue of the day was how people benefit from the salvation that Christ has come to bring. In the light of this broader context, it would make sense that the default meaning of the phrase the faith of Christ would be the faith that a believer has in Christ. Obviously more specific contextual issues are involved in particular instances of this phrase; but where there is no immediate contextual argument to the contrary, then the phrase the faith of Christ and its equivalents should be taken in the default sense.

In discussing the time at which justification takes place, Moo correctly states that initial justification occurs at the point of conversion. If justification is “in Christ,” then justification is one of the benefits of being a member of Christ’s body. Moo did not mention that conversion in the early church ordinarily also involved a formal confession of faith in the context of baptism, but to link initial justification in with conversion is nevertheless correct. Moo also did not speak of a state of justification that the believer abides in (thanks to his or her union with Christ), yet I think that it would have been worthwhile to mention this in passing. Moo emphasized that there is also a future aspect to justification; and he is to be commended for doing so, despite the controversial nature of this to some Protestants. He noted that works have some role to play in this future aspect of justification, but he said that he was unsure of how this could be fully reconciled with the idea of justification by faith alone. He said that there is a biblical tension here that we have to acknowledge. This is where a concept of covenantal justification could have been cited to great effect. On the last day believers will also be judged according to their works. That is to say, there will be a judgment for believers in accordance with how they have lived up to their responsibilities before God on the level of the covenant. On that day believers will hear Christ the Judge say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or words to that effect. The expression well done, good and faithful servant is by definition a justification. It is a legal pronouncement acknowledging that one has fulfilled one’s covenant responsibilities before God (in the context of the absolute righteousness of Christ). This justification operates on the level of covenant responsibilities. It is, therefore, wrong to effectively confuse this justification with the absolute justification that comes through Christ. There is definitely a linkage between the two, but they operate on separate conceptual levels. From a biblical point of view, the only people who benefit from the atoning power of the covenant sacrifice(s) are the covenantally righteous as opposed to the wicked. By not distinguishing the absolute and covenantal types of justification from each other from the outset, Moo has effectively had to take cover behind the idea of “biblical tension” at this point in a manner which is unnecessary and a little vague.

In speaking of how the biblical view of justification leads to assurance without presumption on the part of the believer, I find myself in thorough agreement with Moo. Yet Moo views a believer’s striving for holiness as being separate from faith. Could it be that faith on the level of the covenant includes a believer’s striving for holiness? This possibility was not entertained, neither was the question of what happens to justification if a believer commits apostasy and is cut off from Christ, nor the question of how it is that a believer can know that they have been justified in the first place. In regard to the knowledge of one’s individual justification, Moo’s presentation of the doctrine of justification could benefit from a consideration of chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession where the assurance (i.e., the knowledge) of grace and salvation (including the truth of individual justification) is something about which only those “as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him” can be assured (WCF 18.1). In other words, a knowledge of one’s justification is deduced from the experiential reality of a believer’s union with Christ, and it is contingent on being (and remaining) in Christ. In the words of the Westminster Confession, the assurance of being “in the state of grace” is “founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, [and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God … without extraordinary revelation” (WCF 18.1–3).

I would, therefore, have preferred for Moo to speak about initial justification on the level of the covenant, which assumes (subject to a believer’s perseverance) the application of absolute justification in Christ, and also about a state of justification in which one abides in Christ, along with justification on the final day on both the covenantal and absolute levels.

Overall, I think that Moo has tried to be balanced and to grapple honestly with the biblical teaching on justification; but so much of the New Testament teaching on justification presupposes Old Testament covenantal categories. To the extent that Moo did not allow the Old Testament conceptual background on justification to impact his interpretation of Paul, the snapshot of justification presented in the lecture was deficient. But it was good to stimulated by a humble, thoughtful Christian scholar on this important issue; and I pray God’s blessing upon him and his work in the future.


Anonymous said...


Very stimulating and right on the mark, in my view. Like you, I also believe that the NPP has unnecessarily constrained 'works of the law'. But even so, I truly appreciate your effort in uncovering the consequences of holding to flawed/passe Lutheran presuppositions on law and faith. I was just reading Prof Marvin Wilson's book "Our Father Abraham", where he points out that emunah has a much richer/fuller meaning for jews, including the Lord and His disciples. We have to start with the right conceptual understanding of faith if we're to understand Paul! Otherwise, all of our theologizing is nothing but hay and stubble. So much western scholasticism must be thrown out as pure rubbish on account of this...

You are absolutely right to point out the lack of a covenantal grounding to Moo's analysis. In fact, that same glaring lacking is present in his peers' work as well (Piper, Das, Kim etc).

The most powerful text among those mentioned by you, in my view, is the parable of the talents. It is impossible to escape its forcefulness. The third servant was gifted with a talent, just as the other two were. No one questions whether he was justified or not in the Master's eyes! He was His servant afterall. And yet we see the Master expecting and demanding a return on His gracious gift. Covenant, covenant, covenant!

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. Glad you found the post helpful.

Marvin Wilson's book Our Father Abraham is excellent. I thoroughly recommend that book to anyone who wants to learn more about the Jewish roots of Christianity.

The problem as far as I understand it is that most Protestants read Paul through the lens of Martin Luther, who understood Paul's faith versus works distinction in terms of a dualistic anthropology that was more influenced by Greek philosophical concepts than Jewish covenantal theology. A clear understanding of the covenant theology of the Old Testament is a prerequisite to an accurate comprehension of Paul's argument in Galatians and Romans.

God bless!

SS said...


Polycarp, disciple of John the Beloved, and martyr for the faith, says in his epistle to the Phillipians:

"But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments , and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; "not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: "Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again;" and once more, "Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God."

The early church was faithful in teaching the covenantal calling of the believer. In the light of Jude 1:3, it grieves me that such a wide swath of protestant history has stubbornly refused to contend earnestly for this faith, once and for all handed down...Sadly, biblicism and the epistemologically unsound idea of sola scriptura has replaced this key exhortation of the apostles and disciples.

Would like to stay in touch via email, if that's possible. Will send you a note later this week.

Sacha, Pastor in Oregon (USA)

P.S: I was the 'anonymous' commenter above.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Sacha,

Pleased to meet you, and thanks for your comment.

Yes, that is a good quote from Polycarp. The idea of doing the will of God as expressed by Polycarp in that quotation is very similar to what is found in Matt 7:21; Heb 10:36; and 1 John 2:17.

I’m happy with the concept of sola scriptura (indicating the supreme authority of inscripturated tradition) provided that it is understood that the theology of the Bible needs to be understood in its historical and theological context, and not in a total vacuum. I’ve also found the idea common in Protestant circles that Christians did not fully understand the gospel and the doctrine of justification from around 100 A.D. until the time of the Reformation very dubious. Being close to the apostolic source, the theology of the early church fathers definitely needs to be treated with more respect. Your point about Jude 1:3 is well made. A similar covenantal understanding of the faith is also evident in the works of Justin Martyr.

Feel free to stay in touch.

SS said...

Hi Steven,

Would it be fair to say that every splinter of protestantism claims to get it right, i.e, to apply sola scriptura in its historical and theological context? The christianpost is featuring an article on Al Mohler and his thoughts on the evangelical world. I had to sigh reading it, because he is just another voice pushing reformed theology as orthodoxy. Move over to Witherington's blog and he will do the same with his theology. So who is right? One side will claim proper hermeneutics, and so will the other. Both sides have intellectual firepower behind them. When all is said and done, one side will view the other with suspicion and behind backs call it heretical. We're back to square one. Who's right and who's wrong?

To me, sola scriptura is an epistemologically unsound concept. No matter how you color it or color your application of it, when divorced from the faith once handed down it is an inherently flawed and unstable.

I pray and long for the day, when a remnant of believers would put aside their allegiance to medieval theological gurus (or even contemporary ones) and return to the purity of the faith once delivered.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Sacha,

Thanks for your thoughts.

I’m not sure that all brands of Protestantism would view themselves as reading Scripture in the context of the totality of Christian theological tradition. How many Protestant Christians are aware of the theology of the early church fathers? I reckon that most wouldn’t be. The general Protestant view seems to be that the church was more or less deficient in its understanding of soteriology and ecclesiology from the post-apostolic period up until the Reformation, so it’s virtually ignored by many. It is good to go back to Scripture as the apostolic source of Christian doctrine, but the way in which the orthodox early church fathers read Scripture also needs to guide our reflection on Scripture.

I think that a strong argument can be made that the early church fathers generally viewed the Scriptures as being the official, authoritative repository of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, upon the basis of which the church was to conduct its work of ministry and doctrine. They also seemed to hold in high regard teachers who were close to the apostolic source historically, particularly because the problem of heretical teaching was present (in various places) in the early church. Given the diversity of opinion on some issues in the early church, and given the problem of heresy, the role of Scripture as an authoritative canon of apostolic tradition was vital. In this way Scripture was viewed as being the final authority against which the validity of all doctrine taught in the church must be assessed.

By the way, have you seen my recent post on Justin Martyr? The address is: http://berithroad.blogspot.com/2011/09/justin-martyr-old-law-new-covenant.html.

Anonymous said...