Reformation Debates: It All Comes Down to Romans 4

Another Reformation day reflection (a summary of my presentation linked above)

Just like with the vast array of doctrinal and liturgical differences that formed the ecclesiastical battles between the Latin West and the Greek East (e.g. the Byzantine lists, Photius’s encyclical anathema of 867, Kerularian response to Humbert, etc., etc.) were eventually reduced down to a debate over the nature of the Papal primacy and what precise kind of government is divinely authored by Jesus Christ, so also the vast array of doctrinal and liturgical differences that formed the battles between the Lutherans and Catholics (the Mass, indulgences, prayers to Saints, relics, etc., etc.) have really centered upon the doctrine of sola fide (I would also add the sacrifice of the Mass and others are still points of contention, though to a lesser degree). And just like between Catholics and Orthodox, the debate became even more magnified with whether Christ commissioned St. Peter and office holds of his lineal succession to wield direct, immediate, and universal jurisdiction over all Christians, so also the Lutheran and Catholic debate over sola fide (justification by faith), once magnified further, widdled down to a difference of how we are exegeting and interpreting Romans 4:1-8.

In the past couple years, the debates between the online Lutheran voice Dr. Jordan Cooper versus Dr. Robert Koons and Jimmy Akin showed some progress in how Catholics and answer the basic objections of Romans 4. Nevertheless, Cooper brought out some very pertinent and significant points about the text of Romans 4 that aren’t always caught by Catholic exegetes. I spoke briefly about this in the stream I published earlier today on my YouTube channel entitled “The Reformation and St. Paul’s ‘Righteousness of God.’” I want to truncate the message:

(1) Cooper correct points out that when Paul cites Genesis 15:6 to describe Abraham’s justification by faith apart from works, this is *not* the initial justification of Abraham. And therefore, the exclusion of “works” entirely from the “justification” of Abraham in Gen. 15:6 cannot be due to the fact that this is Abraham’s initial step into the spiritual life. This has often been the explanation of may exegetes, not least Medieval and post-Medieval Catholics, but also even of Latin, Greek, and Syrian Church Fathers when they attempted to resolve Paul and James. The obvious problem with this is that Abraham’s initial justification has to be back in Genesis 12 when he first believed and obeyed, as the author to the Hebrews tells us. Therefore, Catholics will need to explain how Abraham can receive a workless justification in Gen. 15:6 at a moment far after his initial conversion.

(2) Cooper is correct to also point out that “works” in Romans 4 are not speak restrictively to the outward works of the Jewish boundary markers, otherwise popularly referred to as the “ceremonial” law of the Old Covenant. Throughout the book of Romans, “works” are excluded from people who exist far outside the context where such a restriction would make any sense. For example, mercy of God in electing Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Israel over Egypt, and the righteous remnant of Israel over the blinded mass of ethnic Israel, none of this electing mercy was on the basis of moral works over and against ceremonial works. Rather, God’s merciful election took no works at all into consideration as a cause for God’s undeserved grace of salvation. Therefore, the early Patristic commentators who restrict “ergou nomou” to ceremonial works, as well as the medieval to post-medieval exegetes such as exist popularly in today’s New Perspective on Paul, fail to do justice to the argument of Romans 4:1-9.

With these 2 points being true, the Catholic is sort of “pinned” by the Protestant. The Catholic has to figure out a way to reconcile the doctrine of justification given by the Council of Trent and the justification of Abraham in Romans 4 given the heretofore given qualification (#1 & #2). Can this be done?

I think it can be done. How? Here’s how. If we plainly read Genesis 15:6, we read: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” What does this say? This says that Abraham’s faith was taken by God to be righteousness. Cooper has time and again said that the Tridentine fathers contradicted the Fathers, but in my book on Justification, “The Just Shall Live by Faith,” I document the interpretation of major fathers such as St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and many others on how they understand this text of Gen. 15:6 and Romans 4:1-25, and what we see is something drastically different than the manner of reading it by later Luther (post 1517). Later Luther, and the doctrine of justification that gets more clarified by later Lutherans who framed the articles, creeds, and treatises of the Book of Concord, as well as the manner in which it is defined by nearly all other Protestants (Calvinists, Anglicans, and Baptists), all understand that “faith” in Gen. 15:6 cannot itself be the “righteousness” that is thereby credited to Abraham. Rather, they insist that faith here is an “instrument” and not a form of justice which can be duly recognized as the virtuous quality that would make Abraham ontologically righteous in God’s sight. With this dogmatic definition of “faith” in Gen. 15:6 qua “instrument”, and only “instrument,” the righteousness that is credited to Abraham actually inheres outside of Abraham entirely and permanently in God or Jesus Christ.

The problem with this is that faith isn’t spoken of, simply, as an instrument through which an alien justice (extra nos) is imputed to the believer. One simply has to keep reading through Romans 4 to see that Paul grounds the recognition of faith as righteousness in Abraham because it merited certain virtuous qualities that pleased and glorified God. We read that Abraham was not “weak in faith”, did not “waver at the promise of God through unbelief,” but was “strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,” and “therefore”, says Paul, “it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:22). Reformers tended to see here a mere description of the “kind” of faith (an obedient faith) that is pure instrument to receive an alien justice, but this is vert unlikely.

In other words, Paul is not simply instrumentalizing faith the way Luther (post 1517), Calvin, and the Protestant exegetes did in the forthcoming commentaries on Romans. Rather, he reads Gen. 15:6 and the contextual virtue of Abraham’s faith just precisely how it is written, namely, faith itself was counted, calculated, or perceived by God as Abraham’s justice. This is very much how St. James also understood Gen. 15:6 (James 2). This is also how the Fathers, predominantly, interpreted this passage.

Therefore, both Catholics and Protestant systems have an apparent collision with Paul’s argument. Both will have to explain how a possible tension is resolved.

Allow me to address the tension that is created given Catholic theology. If Abraham’s faith was this God-pleasing virtuously interior disposition that really, truly, and per se gets calculated by God as righteousness, then where is the principle of free grace in this transaction of Gen. 15:6? If Abraham’s own faith was what made him righteous, then something “in” Abraham made him righteous before God. And if something “in” Abraham made himself righteous, then Abraham is himself the principle cause of said righteousness. And if Abraham is the principle cause of his righteousness, then Abraham must have worked for it himself, rendering it necessary for God to pay him the wage of recognition that he earned his righteousness. Almost all Protestant exegetes who follow the classical interpretation of Romans 4 since the Reformation raises this point as a sine qua non against the idea that faith could be a form of justice inhering in Abraham. It therefore must be a pure instrument to get the justice of Another, namely, Christ’s.

We should take a moment to observe a problem with this, however. Even if we were to completely instrumentalize faith as a pure and empty hand to receive the justice of Another, we could always say that “faith” qua instrument is ultimately our action, and therefore traceable back to ourselves anyway. This is the trap that the Corinthians might have been liable to have since we read they boasted in their faith. Far from thinking faith closes the way to boasting, the Corinthians were taking pride in the faith they had over and against the weakness of others. Paul was quick to tell them that if faith truly did originate in human causation, then they would have something to boast about. But they could not boast because even faith itself was a gift (1 Cor 4:7) – “For what makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” In other words, if the wisdom and faith of some Corinthians came from themselves, they might have reason to boast, but they received their faith as a gift (1 Cor. 1:18-2:6). Therefore, even faith is a gift excluding boasting.

But if it is the case that if faith came from ourselves, we could trace the cause back to ourselves, and therefore the cause of our salvation back to ourselves; and if it is the case that since faith is received as a gift is the only way to situate the possession of faith in accordance with the principle of grace, then that could also be extended if we further define faith as a God-pleasing virtue that gives form to the human person and soul such that it has an inhering justice in God’s eyes. In other words, if faith “formed by love” (Gal 5:5) is a gift given to us, and is not traceable to ourselves as the ultimate cause, then faith itself could be regarded as a form of justice without abrogating its consistency with the principle of grace.

If we can capture this point and return to Romans 4, then we can see how Abraham’s faith truly can be something which inhered within Abraham and which gave him an ontological status before God that was pleasing to God. This is far more preferable than the absolutizing of faith qua instrument. As I explained in my video on the epistle to the Hebrews, faith is a virtue that involves more than just a mental assent to certain facts (something which classical Lutherans and Calvinists agree with). For example, the Israelites were not capable of entering the promise land because of a lack of faith. They had “an evil heart of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12). It stands to reason that if they had the opposite, namely, a “good heart of belief”, they would have been worthy of entering. But you can see here how “belief” or “faith” assumes more than just the assent to facts. It includes something of the disposition of the soul, whether it is bent towards the worship of God or against the worship of God. In Heb 10-11, we read that faith was the cause of reward in the Old Testament saints. Depending on the strength of their faith, they would be returned with a “better resurrection.” At the end of Heb. 10, the author speaks of faith as the opposite of one who “draws back to perdition.” Therefore, unbelief is sinful. It stands to reason that an exercise of faith is, in some sense, obedience to God. And there is no wonder, therefore, how Paul understood his entire ministry as attempting to bring the Gentiles into the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). Elsewhere Paul describes faith as obedience, as well: “… you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered” (Rom 6:17). All throughout the Gospels, Jesus commends those who have faith – “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50). The Centurion who had more faith than all of Israel was meant to shame the Israelites, which requires the possession of faith as something rendering the human pleasing and disposed to the service of God – without faith, it is impossible to please God.

Therefore, Abraham shows up in Gen. 15:6 with a God pleasing disposition, a disposition which was internal and which was his firm conviction to go with God’s plan over and against all the alternative competitors, e.g. Hagar or returning to Ur. The same challenge stood before the Israelites who came out of Egypt, but they failed. So we have to figure a way in which Abraham’s faith is the God-pleasing quality that God recognizes as His righteousness while also understanding that no works were being done. This can be construed in two ways First, perhaps Moses is referring to merely the inner quality without an outward act of obedience, as Abraham did later in Gen. 22 when he was willing to offer up Isaac. It could also mean that Abraham’s post-conversion (post Gen. 12) exercise of faith in Gen. 15:6 was an act of obedience, but one that is ultimately rooted in God’s grace of transforming him to love God and trust Him. Either construal situates the event under the principle of grace. Works, then are wholly exuded, but the kind of works that trace their cause to the human. Paul includes the interior God pleasing disposition of the soul as from another principle – grace.

This is further supported by the example of justification by faith alone in Psalm of David. The man who repents and turns away from sin, as is the constant testimony of Old Testament revelation, comes to have his sins blotted out from the eyes of God, i.e., justification. The non-imputation of sin is the negative aspect of one’s turning to the Lord in repentance, and therefore a turning towards justice and righteousness.

It is also the case that faith is an instrument through which the soul is transformed and becomes a beneficiary of the atoning work of Christ on the cross (Rom. 3:21-22). In fact, the very generation that occurs by the Holy Spirit is the application of the work of redemption on the cross (Rom. 3:24-25). Christ gave Himself as a redeemer, whose redemption buys man out of the slave market of sin and into the glorious liberty of the children of God. This liberty, as testified in Romans 8, is the justified status.

And so, the ultimate aim of Paul in Romans 4 is to teach that Gentiles can be justified without circumcision, just as Abraham, but his argument stretches further than that and encompasses a very radical understanding of the scope of grace such that even the faith and obedience that Abraham had are gifts coming from God through the finished work of Christ retroactively applied to Abraham (Rom 3:25-26).

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