Justification by Faith and John Henry Newman
Newman Alive and Well Today
As we said in the introduction, Newman was in some respects ahead of his time. But the late Pope Paul VI showed that he well understood the religious climate today when he declared, "The present time can be considered in a special way as Newman's hour."1
Among both Catholic and Protestant scholars today, John Henry Newman is alive and well. For two reasons the religious climate is now right for the favorable reception of Newman's views.
1. Within a degenerate Protestantism we see the same tendencies which provoked Newman to react against evangelicalism. Who can deny that Protestantism is rife with antinomianism, an exaggerated individualism, frantic subjectivism and run-away liberalism?
Just as Newman saw these perversions in his day and blamed them on Luther's "extreme" doctrine of justification by faith, so many today are prone to see these same perversions as an out-growth of the Protestant faith. Rome bides her time, for she has always predicted that these evils would be the fruit of the Reformation. But Protestant scholars are also reacting against these "isms," especially against antinomianism, by backing away from the Reformation principles of the centrality of justification and its strictly forensic character.
2. Ecumenism is the spirit of this age, and Christian leaders and teachers are more often employed in exploring the unity that exists between Protestants and Catholics than in stressing the distinctions. The fact that we now live in a post-Christian society in which all Christians are in a distinct minority and threatened by a hostile secularism contributes to this growing feeling of harmony between the two great branches of the Christian church. This is certainly not entirely bad. We can all be thankful that much of the invective has disappeared from apologists and disputants on either side of the theological gulf.
But we are seeing scholars on both sides bending their efforts to effect a synthesis between the theologies of Romanism and Protestantism. It should not surprise us, therefore, that John Henry Newman lives again. In fact we must ask, Was Pope Paul VI right when he said that the present time is Newman's hour?
Let us now show from concrete examples how theologians on either side have resurrected Newman's synthesis.
Catholic scholar Hans Kung amazed Karl Barth when he argued that Barth's theology could be reconciled with the best Catholic tradition.2 The significant thing about Kung's approach is its resurrection of Newman's thesis. Like Newman, Kung admits that the Protestant definition of justification is correct. "The term 'justification,'" he says quite forthrightly, "means a declaring just."3 But then he employs words which must have come directly from Newman's Lectures:
It is a matter of God's declaration of justice and not man's word: the utterance of the Lord, mighty in power. Unlike the word of man, the word of God does what it signifies. God said "Let there be light" and there was light. He says "Be clean" and it was clean. God commands the demons, and they get out. He speaks harshly to the wind and the waves, and there is a deep calm. He says "This is my body." And it is His body. He says "Stand up." And the dead man rises. The sinner's justification is exactly like this. God pronounces the verdict, "You are just." And the sinner is just, really and truly, outwardly and inwardly, wholly and completely. His sins are forgiven, and man is just in his heart. The voice of God never gets lost in the void.
"The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare: and in his temple all cry, 'Glory!'" (Ps. 29.4-9; cf. Ps. 147.18).
Hence God's declaration is not a mere recording of past fact, nor a testimonial to an established one, nor the announcement of something wholly in the future. Much less is it a declaration of something which never was and never will be. The declaration of justice is the cause of something which before now was not, but now is. What man accomplishes by action, God accomplishes by speech, through His Word, filled with spirit and power:
"Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?" (Jer. 23.29; cf. Ezek. 12.25). It is the efficacious Word of God; His verdict is the creative fiat of the Almighty. In brief, God's declaration of justice is, as God's declaration of justice, at the same time and in the same act, a making just.4
Kung concludes his chapter, confident that he has reconciled the main thesis of both Protestants and Catholics:
Protestants speak of a declaring just which includes a making just; and Catholics of a making just which supposes a declaring just. Is it not time to stop arguing about imaginary differences?5
In his The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism Louis Bouyer also writes:
The fiat which saves must be a creative fiat: it causes what it enunciates, and makes us just in complete reality.6
In his Church Dogmatics Barth says:
There is no room for any fears that in the justification of man we are dealing only with a verbal action, with a kind of bracketed "as if," as though what is pronounced were not the whole truth about man. Certainly we have to do with a declaring righteous, but it is a declaration about man which is fulfilled and therefore effective in this event, which corresponds to actuality because it creates and therefore reveals the actuality. It is a declaring righteous which without any reserve can be called a making righteous. Christian faith does not believe in a sentence which is ineffective, or only partly effective.7
Paul Althaus represents some modern Lutheran scholars who say that the doctrine of a purely forensic justification comes from Melanchthon and not from Luther. Luther is said to have taught an "effective justification." If by effective justification these scholars meant that God's act of justification has sanctifying effects in the life, they would be in harmony with the best Protestant tradition. But the entire history of effective justification is suspect. This expression comes from the Latin justum efficare, which was used as a slogan by the Roman Catholic opponents of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Justum efficare means "to make righteous." Effective justification is a technical term for Newman's theory, which says that when God declares a sinner to be righteous, His word effects what it declares.8
In an article on Newman, H. Cunliffe—Jones says:
What is especially significant, however, is that the greater number of leading contemporary Protestant theologians have given up the purely intrinsic9 declaration of justice [e.g., Althaus, Schlink, Lachmann, Asmussen, Heidland]. It is without any doubt significant that today there is a fundamental agreement between Catholic and Protestant theology, precisely in the theology of justification—the point at which Reformation theology took its departure.10
The echoes of Althaus can be seen in Michael Rogness' Philip Melanchthon: Reformer without Honor. This Lutheran scholar fuses justification with regeneration.11 Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson appear to compromise the strictly forensic nature of justification when they say: "Am I right? Or am I merely declared right? There is no difference."12
One of the most significant features of the movement to synthesize Protestantism and Romanism is the use being made of Luther. Once the apostle of the great sixteenth-century schism, Luther has become the apostle of unity. Protestant and Catholic scholars have found that they can synthesize their differences by returning to the young Luther—that is, the pre-1519 Luther. According to his own testimony, Luther broke through into the true Protestant faith when he made the distinction between the passive righteousness of faith and the active righteousness of sanctification.13
Luther's great Commentary on Galatians (1531-1535) is built around this distinction. Prior to 1519, Luther was still basically a Roman Catholic, and his confounding of the righteousness for us and the righteousness which is a quality in us was Augustinian. But in recent years the mainstream of Luther scholarship has ignored his own testimony on the dating of his great enlightenment and has shifted his "breakthrough" back to about 1513 or 1515. In this way these scholars can contend that Luther did not teach forensic but effective justification—that is, a theology which fuses rather than distinguishes between justification and renewal. Lutheran scholar Dr. Lowell C. Green, who is a Luther-Melanchthon specialist, shows that this return to the young (Catholic) Luther has had a stranglehold on Luther studies in recent years.14 Luther is resurrected looking astonishingly like John Henry Newman. It is amazing to see who is being swept along in this movement which compromises forensic justification in favor of the synthesis theology.
J. A. Ziesler
In his scholarly monograph, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul, Ziesler attempts a synthesis between the Roman Catholic and Protestant positions. He does this by saying that justification by faith means to declare righteous, but righteousness by faith means to make righteous. Ziesler calls this "some sort of reconciliation between Protestant and Catholic traditional exegesis" 15 He says that his interpretation is ''an exegesis which satisfies the concerns of both traditional Catholicism and traditional Protestantism."16 We would suggest, however, that Ziesler and others attempting this kind of synthesis are treading Newman's path. It will be proved in this twentieth century, as Newman proved in the nineteenth, that Rome can accept the synthesis and still be Rome, but a Protestant cannot accept the synthesis and still be Protestant.
1 Pope Paul vi, "Cardinal Newman's Thought and Example Relevant Today," L'Osservatore Romano, 17 Apr.1975.
2 See Karl Barth, "A Letter to the Author," in Hans Kung, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, pp. xvii-xx.
3 Kung, Justification, p.203.
4 Ibid., pp. 203-4.
5 Ibid., p.211.
6 Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, quoted in Robert M. Horn, Go Free! p.126.
7 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part One, p.95.
8 See Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, pp.224-42.
9 The author means forensic justification.
10 H. Cunliffe-Jones, "Newman on Justification," The Clergy Review 54 (Jan.1969): 117-23.
11 See Michael Rogness, Philip Melanchthon: Reformer Without Honor, pp.113-18.
12 Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings, p.68.
13 See Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol.34, Career of the Reformer: IV, pp.327-37.
14 See forthcoming book by Dr. Lowell C. Green, How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel.
15 J. A. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Enquiry, p.171.
16 Ibid., p.212.