The discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith by Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century earned a decisive role in the origination and propagation of the reformation. Haled as one of the most important discoveries in recent religious history, it would in turn reface organized religion forever. However, a closer look at this doctrine by theologians, historians, and the religious communities, has created widespread criticism for some of its main points and overall theory altogether.
One might get the impression that the doctrine of justification begins with Luther, and that the crucial question is how to interpret Luther rather than how to interpret Paul. This is a fatal error in the analyzation of this theory. It is most important to closely dissect the literature in which this discovery begins, the epistle of Paul the apostle to the Romans, chapter three. The Pauline epistles, or Letters of Paul are the thirteen New Testament books, which have the name Paul. Among these letters are some of the earliest Christian documents. They provide an insight into the beliefs and controversies of early Christianity and, as part of the New Testament; they also have been and continue to be foundational to Christian theology and Christian ethics. Reading these letters gives great insight into the thoughts and theories of Paul. However the letters of Paul point very much in the opposite direction of Luther’s doctrine of Justification by faith.
Paul 3,19 Now we know that what things so ever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
Taken from the same chapter of Paul as used by Luther for his doctrine, one could surmise that neither deed, nor action is substantial in the eyes of the lord. That all men are sinners “and come short in the glory of God,” is a just conclusion when interpreting interpretations as vague as biblical scripture. Luther was defecting from the church due to his views on the actions of the church. He began with the implication that Rome was wrong and worked backwards to rationalize his own actions. His actions better known as heresy, created an eternal rift between man and his belief system in God.
The notion of justifying righteousness as inherent (held by the believer), as opposed to alien (held by God), opened the floodgates for new interpretations of the Bible. The idea that any layman could create his own religious ideals, laws and consequences stood to be very appealing to the hopeless masses of the sixteenth century.
It is important to view what Luther thought was such strong evidence for his doctrine of justification by faith, if only to see the continuing issues within. Held on high is the claim that the doctrine derives from the bible, that it is biblical. One cannot debate this, he is correct it does come from the bible. However it is in regards to only one line of Paul, chapter 3, sentence 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Standing by itself one could agree with Luther’s views, but how quickly it is forgotten, or better yet ignored, that most of Paul is a long list repeatedly stating faith is not the only necessity for Justification by God. Furthermore to hide the rules to justification in such a dark corner of the Bible, as in the letters of Paul to the Romans, one could conclude that this is not the heart of the issue at topic. For an argument that is considered by many as the central idea of Christianity, it would have been nice for the son of God to discuss it a little on his trip to Earth.
Secondly is the notion that the doctrine emphasizes Gods action in the process of salvation. This idea closes the book on Luther’s attempt at rewriting the Bible. It proves the complete opposite, taking God out of the picture. For Luther’s Doctrine of the justification by faith; all you need is faith, it’s in the name! Believe in God and our savoir Jesus Christ and you will be saved, better yet, be justified by God. This goes against pretty much all of Paul and most of the entire Bible. There is no question that a child must be baptized for the removal of original sin to be entered into the Kingdom of God. However this will be forfeited by sin and then “cleared” by penance. Justification is thus earned by the removal of sin by the sinner and given by the grace of God. Unfortunately Luther’s misunderstanding of the Bible would lead others to do much of the same.
Such ideas were developed further in the writings of Hienrich Bullinger, [Huldrych] Zwingli’s successor at Zurich. One may regard Bullingers’s most important contribution to the Reformed discussion of justification as the forging of a strongly conventional foundation to justification, allowing the moral emphasis of the early Swiss reformers to be retained, while maintaining Luther’s concern to defend the graciousness of Justification. At Strasburg Martin Bucer developed a similar approach, insisting that the possibility of an individual being justified without being morally renewed should be eliminated. To this end, Bucer developed the theology of double justification, in which the “justification of the godly by faith” is followed immediately by the “justification of the godly through works.”
Bucer joins the ideology of seemingly irreconcilable views of James and Paul in the New Testament. Such approaches would be increasingly adopted in the early 1540s, as pressure to reconcile Protestant and Roman Catholic Views on justification increased. The Catholic Church also jumped at the opportunity to institute new rules and doctrine or sustain the old ones, as more and more of a response was required to the new theories that had surfaced.
In direct response to Luther and others like Bullinger, Zwingli and Bucer; (at the end of the sixth session of the council of Trent, 13 January 1547) The Tridentine Decree on justification sets out the Roman Catholic teaching on justification with considerable clarity. The church wrote, “The single formal cause [of justification] is the righteousness of God.” This single line, purposely including the numerical standard, was set to preclude any ideas or theories of justification by faith or double justification.
In brief, then, Trent maintains the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification of comprising an event with a process – the event of being declared to be righteous through the work of Christ, and the process of being made righteous through the internal work of the Holy Spirit.
Justification by faith was the catalyst to the beginning phases of the Reformation and continued to have considerable influence during the later stages. The doctrine had widespread appeal to the masses due to the oppressive trends within contemporary Catholic spirituality and satisfied a deep desire for reassurance of individual salvation. At the same time it is difficult for modern historians to understand the concerns lying behind the Reformation debates, however it is hard to ignore that they were seen as one of the most important issues to those involved, on either side of the aisle.
Andrea, Alfred J., and James H. Overfield. The Human Record
Sources of Global History. 5th ed. University of Vermont: Houghton, 2005.
The New Testament (Romans 3,19-3,28)
Gaffin, Richard Jr. " A Reformed Critique of the New Perspective."
“Paul the Theologian,” Westminster Theological Journal 62 (2000) 121-41.
< http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/reformed-critique-new-perspective/ >.
Justification_EncyclopediaEntry.pdf (??) Couldn’t find a title on it.