“Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, Why I Wrote It”
Why would I write another book on justification? John Piper and Tom Wright have each said their piece, Don Carson has edited two volumes, Wheaton held a large theology conference on the subject, and the articles and monographs have poured forth from presses over the past two decades. What more could there be to say? Justification and the Gospel arises from my own personal journey as a theologian. As an undergraduate student at Wheaton College, I was drawn into the exciting thrusts and parries of two major theological discussions. These two debates were my entry into the world of biblical and theological studies. The two conversations went on separately, never interacting explicitly with one another, but I eventually found that venturing into one was impossible without working through the other as well.
On the one hand, my studies in biblical exegesis (as an ancient languages major) introduced me to major debates swirling around the legacy of the Reformation, in particular the question regarding how the Protestant doctrine of justification related to New Testament (especially Pauline) theology. I remember working through James Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle with two classmates and a beloved professor at his home, taking in a chapter a week for almost two full years. I remember where I was sitting when I read Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said and Käsemann’s Commentary on Romans. Those were exciting days. To what I thought had been basic interpretative questions were now added lexical, historiographical, and contextual matters that just might complicate things. I read Davies, Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, as well as their many critics. It seemed that the same energy and passion that marked the time of the Reformation was afoot in the world of Pauline studies.
On the other hand, my work in hermeneutics and systematic theology alerted me to the growing concern of many regarding the shape of modern biblical criticism and the need for some other methodological approach to the study of the Bible, often going by the names “theological interpretation of Scripture,” “theological exegesis,” or “theological commentary.” Frequently close to these discussions were always the questions of hermeneutics and the impact of postmodernity. I read everything from Hirsch and Derrida on authorial meaning to Lindbeck and Kelsey on the nature of doctrine and theology. I was introduced to major fault lines between the theological disciplines, wherein many theologians and exegetes shared little but suspicion for each other’s intellectual moves.
Ten years ago I certainly could not—would not—have written this book. I had been convinced that the Protestant doctrine of justification fared very poorly under the bar of exegetical and historical reason, and I was equally convinced that a dogmatic approach to anything was, well, going nowhere fast. I remember debating with parents, professors, pastors, and friends about these matters. I can completely identify now with the many critics of systematic theology and of the Protestant doctrine of justification; I was among them and zealous about it, spending more than my share of late nights as a student discussing these matters to the wee morning hours.
But now I have written Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, arguing that the Protestant doctrine of justification is exegetically defensible and theologically essential to filling out catholic teaching on God’s relations to creatures in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This book manifests something of the journey I’ve been on now for a decade. I found that rising familiarity with the exegetical riches of the great teachers of the church (from Irenaeus and Gregory to Thomas and Bonaventure to Luther and Calvin) shows their brilliance as aids and our own limits as modern researchers. I’ve also seen that too often protests regarding the Reformation stem from really bad understandings of what it actually involved, too frequently based in reading of poor secondary sources rather than in careful study of primary texts. I hope this book serves as a useful prompt to further reflection in these two conversations: how do we think well of justification in light of the wider gospel of Jesus? And how do we go about the task of Christian theology and of a faithful Christian reading of the Holy Scriptures today?
R. Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and dean of the faculty at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of several books, including Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, Reformed Theology, and The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account. He also serves as book review editor for the International Journal of Systematic Theology and is ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
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