Recently, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight of JESUS CREED has been working on a series dealing with, N T Wright, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul . At the center of the debate is the discussion whether or not the Reformers (especially Martin Luther) were correct in understanding the apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith as a response to the early Judaisms’ work righteousness. Tradition tells us that Paul was making a case against the Jews who viewed themselves as following the law and somehow earning their salvation to the next world; but is this view of history accurate? The scholars of the New Perspective on Paul would disagree. It is hard for me to totally concur with the traditional Reformation understanding of justification as well since one cannot say that there was just ONE Judaism in the first and second centuries. I personally think that N T Wright (as a first-rate biblical scholar) wasted his time in addressing John Piper and the hyper-Calvinists’criticism of him and the NPP school. The debate over whether or not this or that Judaism taught salvation as earned or not is completely irrelevant to the pressing issues of today. The point of Paul’s Gospel concerning God’s righteousness is to describe for us God’s action in the continual story in the life of Israel and Jesus the Messiah.
When one looks at history, while there are some objective facts to be retrieved, one cannot help but see history as a mirror reflection of one’s very own story. Martin Luther, for instance, viewed his condemnation of some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church as part of a tradition of the apostle Paul’s struggle against the Jews’ works righteousness. With this narrative understanding of history, let us take as our example, James Cone, to some known as the father of Black Theology. Cone sees himself (although a Methodist) as sharing a similar plight to Martin Luther and St. Paul; the difference being the historical context, social location, and type of heresy/works righteousness that needed to be confronted. In his work, BLACK THEOLOGY & BLACK POWER, Cone provides a theological doctrine of divine righteousness which seeks to destroy white supremacy both in the white American church and white American society.
Adherence to the Reformation doctrine “Justification by grace through faith” has political implications in the minds of Black Theologians. To accept God’s grace for Cone, means that “that because God has acted for all, all men are free—free to respond creatively to that act. It thus becomes the act of Christian love to proclaim the Good News of freedom by actively fighting against all those powers which hold men captive” (Cone, 52). God does not move out of necessity; God has the free will to choose to act because God is sovereign, and God has done so in a particular way in history. The drama of the biblical narrative reveals God’s just actions. Therefore, Christian doctrine of justification should first begin in the very praxis of Yahweh and his Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Cone explains:
"It is important to note that God’s righteousness refers not so much to an abstract quality related to his Being in the realm of thought—as commonly found in Greek philosophy—but to his activity in human history, in the historical events of the time and effecting his purpose despite those who oppose it. This is the biblical tradition. Israel as a people initially came to know God through the exodus. It was Yahweh who emancipated her from Egyptian bondage and subsequently established a covenant with her at Sinai, promising: [Exodus 19:4-6]” [….] Divine righteousness means that God will be faithful to his promise, that his purposes for Israel will not be thwarted. Israel, therefore, need not worry about her weakness and powerlessness in a world of mighty military powers, ‘for all of the earth is mine’ (Exodus 19:5). The righteousness of God means that he will protect her from the ungodly menacing of other nations. Righteousness means God is doing justice, that he is putting right what men have made wrong.” (Cone, 44)
In other words, divine righteousness that is disclosed in the story of the Exodus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to protect the defenseless and weak Hebrew children over and against the evil Egyptian empire. Our faithful obedience to God requires our recognition that security and salvation lie with God alone. Cone adds:
“God will unquestionably vindicate the poor. […] If God is to be true to himself, his righteousness must be directed to the helpless and the poor, those who can expect no security from this world. The rich, the secure, the suburbanite can have no part of God’s righteousness because of their trust and dependence on the things of this world. ‘God’s righteousness triumphs when man has no means of triumphing.’ [Barth, Dogmatics] His righteousness is reserved for those who come empty-handed, without any economic, political, or social power. That is why the prophets and Jesus were so critical of the economically secure. Their security gets in the way of absolute faith in God.” (page 45)
While Cone does not explicitly discuss the Resurrection at length, the implication of his doctrine of justification is that the Resurrection vindicates God’s Elect Savior whose life and ministry is forever justified (1st Timothy 3:16 ). The emancipatory mission of Jesus of Nazareth has been approved by the One True God, the God of Israel for all eternity. The Son of Man came to judge the Roman Empire by taking the side of the oppressed, healing the lame and the blind, and opposing the religious and political authorities of his day. Not one human being is able to accuse Jesus the Messiah of any wrongdoing. As the apostle Paul asks, “Who will bring any charge against God’s Elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:33-34). We as sinful human beings are unable to bring any charges against God’s Son because he lives a perfect and blames life; and it is only by Jesus’s death and resurrection that God “makes a way out of no way” in which the Church can participate in his holy life.
I will let Cone have the last word:
“Radical obedience to Christ means that reward cannot be the motive for action. It is a denial of faith to insist on the relevance of reward. Is this not what St. Paul had in mind when he spoke of justification? When Paul uses the term ‘justification’ in reference to Christ he mean that sinful man, through complete trust alone, is accepted by God and is declared an treated as a righteous man. He is emphasizing man’s inability to make himself righteous. All human strivings are nil; man cannot earn God’s acceptance (Romans 3:20; Gal. 3:22). Salvation is by the free grace of God. There is no place for the conceit that men can save themselves by their own efforts, if they try hard enough.” (Cone, 125)
EDIT: THIS IS THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF POSTS EXAMINING JUSTIFICATION FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF THEOLOGIES FROM THE MARGINS.
Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power An Original Seabury Paperback, Sp 59. New York,: Seabury Press, 1969.