Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

What is Forensic Justification and Alien Righteousness? On Justification by Faith Alone and the Work of the Atonement

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus

1 Timothy 2:5

Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

Romans 5:18-19

If Christ is the mediator between God and us, then what mediates between Christ and us? Although the answer that the Holy Spirit, in some sense, brings Christ to us, but how does the Holy Spirit do this has been largely a matter of great dispute. Of course largely tied up to this dispute is the question as to how does Christ (through the Holy Spirit), redeem us, how are we made partakers of this salvation? What does this salvation consist of? I wish to argue that whereas Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism ultimately dissolves relating to God as a matter of accumulating some amorphous and de-personalised “divine energies” and “infused grace”, Protestant’s bold move which to retain relating to God as a personal subject and agent who is Will which is expressed in His Word and who acts. This consists in faith in the living Voice or Word of God who speaks to us, and trust in the righteous deeds of Christ alone.

Divine Energies and Infusions of Grace

It is usual within the Eastern Orthodox tradition to speak of Christ communicating his new life via a transfusion of “divine energies”, brought by the Holy Spirit, into us whereby we are enable to do good works and stuff. This “divine energies” are considered to be “divine action” as distinct from the divine “essence”. I do not pretend to really understand how it all works (then again, I doubt anyone really understands Eastern Orthodox theology as it is commonly boasts of its resistance to “Western” dogmatic/scholastic precision and clarity), however these “divine energies” is whereby one is enabled towards “theosis” or divinization to participate in the divine life and thereby be saved. By doing good works and praying and various spiritual exercises, one opens onself to God’s presence whereby he may decide to send these created energies and grant a blessing or experience of himself. In essence, the divine energies, or whatever they are,  is Christ’s presence in us.

For all the distinctions between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, Roman Catholicism would actually very much retain this structure of “divine energies” which communicates the divine life into us with an interesting twist. Roman Catholicism’s “infused graces” operates very similar to the Eastern Orthodox divine energies. There are many different “types” of graces, habitual grace, actual grace, sanctifying grace, etc. These “graces” are to be understood as “gifts”, a thing which can be “infused” into our souls, and in traditional Roman Catholicism “grace” doesn’t really refer to God’s attitude of favour, which of course can’t be “infused” anywhere. It is interesting to note in this regard the difference between Roman’s translation of Luke 1:28 where the angel greets the Virgin Mary saying, “Hail Mary, full of grace” against the KJV’s translation which goes, “Hail thou that art highly favoured”, no doubt to shift the emphasis from what she possessed (full of grace), to what God thinks (art highly favoured), this difference between what is in us and what God’s attitude would be a vital distinction later on in this note.

From Infused Graces to Merits; From Pseudo-Spiritual Matter to Personhood

Anyway, these “infused graces” are of course the supernatural gifts and helps which God infuses the soul to help it do good works and love God, etc, very much like the Eastern Orthodox “divine energies”, with these graces and good works, one is on the way to salvation. But there does exist one very vital difference: Whereas the Eastern Orthodox does not define exactly how, when and why God sends his “divine energies” to the faithful except for some vague and utterly open-ended reasons in academic theology about waiting or hoping or expectation in prayer or good works, etc, and some very crude and superstitious reasons in lay practice (i.e. such as being close to holy relics or holy people, etc), the Roman Catholic introduced a very elaborate system for defining exactly how and where and when and why God would infuse these “graces”, basically the merit system.  The Roman Catholic does outright say that by doing good works and spiritual exercises, one can “merit” grace and increase God’s infusion of graces into us (congruous merit of course, not condign, not that that is a difference which makes a difference).

Thus in a certain sense, Roman Catholicism still has one foot very firmly planted in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, let me call this “the laws of spiritual physics” logic. Infused graces, like divine energies, are susceptible to the workings of the space-time continuum. By being in spatial proximity to a relic, a holy object, a holy person, a holy building, etc, one’s chances of having one’s prayer’s heard or getting divine energies/infused graces increases. And of course temporal proximity to special festivals (or Jubilee indulgences) also governs the probability of receiving these divine energies/infused graces. Furthermore, performing increasing quantities of good deeds or prayers or spiritual exercises also increases the chances of getting these divine graces or energies.

But on the other hand, Roman Catholicism deviates from the Eastern Orthodox tradition in its conception of the merit system. Roman Catholics have decided not to leave God’s decision to dispense his infused graces to chance by composing a very elaborate system whereby is one able to determine with more or less some degree of precision, when, how and where one can increase one’s chances, if not outright guarantee, the reception of these infused merits (and of course not only for oneself but also for others, especially for those in purgatory!). The revolution of this conception consists in the fact that the language of merit is not the language of the law of spiritual physics. Crude as the language of merit maybe, with its legal and accounting connotations, it is the first steps towards the understanding of God who is a person, a rational being, who acts upon reasons and motivations, who speaks in words which of course can enter the web of reasoning and descriptions and meanings, who reveals his will and intentions. Overall, under this conception is a god who acts as a person rather than some sort of alien entity or matter obeying some form of mysterious laws of spiritual physics. To speak of “meriting grace” from God, is to invoke one’s merits (whether from one’s long prayer, spiritual discipline or good works, etc), as a reason for God to grant graces to one. Of course, one can also invoke the merits of the saints, who supposedly have a superabundance of them, and God then considers them a reason to bless one, etc. Thus, to “merit” something from God is to give God a reason to grant something or give someone to one, whether it is graces, prayers answered, temporal goods or even salvation, both for oneself and for others.

Protestantism and Believing in a Person

It would unnecessarily encumber this discussion with a detour into how medieval Nominalism under Duns Scotus and Ockham finally paved the way for Protestantism. But it is important to note that their vital contribution to theology in their emphasis upon the maximal freedom of God as an free agent and person utterly unconstrained by any external standard or reality except by his own Will. As Thomas Williams, a Scotus expert and philosopher, has argued, Duns Scotus severs morality from ethical systems of human flourishing or happiness. Thus, what makes something good or bad or right or wrong is simply God’s Will, nothing inherent in our own actions or deeds or natures or whatever, which Will is naturally expressed in his Word. God is Will, and He speaks in His Word.

When Protestantism appeared on the scene, their bold revolution is not with its teachings of justification by grace alone. As we have already noted, medieval Catholics would certainly conceive of justification and salvation as a matter of purely by grace alone. Whatever works the Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) does towards his salvation, these are “grace infused” works. Thus, in this sense, they are also justified by grace alone too, or grace filled works.

As the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde noted, the Reformation break with Catholicism is their teaching of justification by faith alone without the works of the law, as opposed to justification by grace alone. It was a bold move which shifted the understanding of salvation as a process of character growth and development (whether by infused grace or divine energies), to a direct relation and interaction with a God who is a personal subject. (I wanted to use the phrase “personal relationship”, but given how banalised that term has become I decided to go by this round about way). God is a personal agent who acts, who has a will and intentions which he expresses by speaking, he makes promises, he commands, (Law and Gospel!) he forgives by speaking and confirmed by various deeds and miracles, he assures and consoles by his promises, he threatens with his commands which he sometimes carries out in punishments. Thus as a personal agent and subject, God has a history as opposed to a nature (think Laws of Spiritual Physics again!), Salvation History is composed of particular and individual actions and words of God and Christ for us, it is the record of God’s action in his world for us. Justification by faith alone means that we are reconciled to God and saved, brought into a saving relationship with Him, by believing in his promises and in his deeds for us in Salvation History. Thus, when He speaks to us in his Word, which he confirms in his deeds, we are brought into friendship with God by hearing, trusting, and believing what He says to us and what He has done and receiving the gifts so promised in His Word.

Thus, whereas Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism’s relationship with God is mediated via some amorphous “divine energies” or “infused grace”, Protestantism bold move was to cut out the “middleman” as necessary to relate to God and go straight to believing what He says to us and in his actions in salvation history. As God is a person, we are brought into a personal communion with Him via a personal relating and trusting in Him who communicates and relates to us in His Word. The problem with the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic’s system of salvation is that God’s particular and individual personality is dissolved into an apersonal and ahistorical pseudo spiritual matter of “divine energies” and “infused graces”. God is no more a person, an agent with will and intentions which is expressed in words and a particular history of actions but becomes a sort of sci-fi fountain or “source” of divine energies or grace substances which he distribute via some form of Law of Spiritual Physics. But under the Protestant conception, God remains a personal agent with a Will, intentions, etc, which is expressed in words of particular promises, commands, etc, in general speech acts and a history of highly unique deeds in Salvation History.

The Holy Spirit and the Kergymatic or Forensic Justification

It would be important to make a detour here to understand the Holy Spirit’s role in bringing about this relationship with God. In both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the primary role of the Holy Spirit is causative. Like a cause-and-effect in physics, the Holy Spirit’s role is to infuse divine energies and grace into the faithful to enlightened their minds and bring about faith and to give them strength (or energy!) to do good works and in general, to motivate them towards salvation.

Protestantism did not give up this role of the Holy Spirit; however they gave it a very important “Kerygmatic” twist to cohere with their understanding of what a relationship and reconciliation with God means. The Protestant shifts the focus from the causative role of the Holy Spirit to its Kerygmatic role, as an agent who speaks to us and testifies to us concerning Christ, as John 15:26

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.

Thus the Holy Spirit’s primary role is to communicate to our minds God’s testimony concerning the truth of Christ. The Holy Spirit’s primary role is to speak to us and enlighten our minds to understand the Word of God. Thus, just as God communicates His intentions, His will, etc, via words, the Holy Spirit’s role is to bring God’s Word concerning Christ into our hearts and minds and to raise our consciousness towards that Word and inspire faith and confidence in that Word. This intensely Protestant spirituality finds its grandest expression in Luther’s Smalcald Articles whereby Luther insists that,

…And in those things which concern the spoken, external Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word…

…Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments…

God does not wish to deal (or relate!) with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments! This constitutes the core of Protestant spirituality or relationship with God, a trusting and believing in God’s Word to us which is brought into our hearts and minds by the Holy Ghost. And the Sacraments are also to be understood as nothing more than the embodied Word, as Luther insists that the Word (This is My Body which is given for you, etc) is the chief thing in the Sacraments.

Melanchthon beautifully expresses the same point about the Holy Spirit’s role in communicating God’s gracious Word to us when he cites in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession the great doctor of the Church, St Bernard, to argue how faith saves,

For Bernard says the same thing in words that are in no way obscure: For it is necessary first of all to believe that you cannot have remission of sins except by the indulgence of God, but add yet that you believe also this, namely, that through Him sins are forgiven thee. This is the testimony which the Holy Ghost asserts in your heart, saying: “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” For thus the apostle judges that man is justified freely through faith. These words of Bernard shed a wonderful light upon our cause, because he not only requires that we in a general way believe that sins are remitted through mercy, but he bids us add special faith, by which we believe that sins are remitted even to us; and he teaches how we may be rendered certain concerning the remission of sins, namely, when our hearts are encouraged by faith, and become tranquil through the Holy Ghost. What more do the adversaries require? But how now, ye adversaries? Is St. Bernard also a heretic? Do they still dare deny that by faith we obtain the remission of sins, or that faith is a part of repentance?

This wonderfully expresses the relationship between our salvation or justification by faith and the word which the Holy Spirit brings, for justification by faith alone is trust in the Word of God which the Holy Spirit testifies to our hearts saying, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” A most elegant summary of the doctrine of justification by faith alone! And it is here whereby we may understand what is meant by “Forensic Justification”. “Forensic” refers to a declarative judgement, therefore we are justified by believing God’s Word which declares us to be forgiven, adopted as His Son, as reconciled, etc. By believing this “declarative judgement”, we are forensically justified. Thus in sum, our relationship with God is defined by a trust in the living God’s voice speaking to us through the Holy Spirit in the life of His Son Jesus Christ.

Christ’s Merits and Alien Righteousness

It is at this juncture whereby we can draw now the connection between the righteous deeds of Christ and our salvation and thereby understand the concept of “Alien righteousness”. Justification in Protestantism, is by faith in the Word of Promise of God, who speaks to us by the Holy Spirit and which pronounces or declares to us that we are forgiven. By believing in this declarative judgement, we are forensically justified, justified by believing in the declaration of forgiveness.

However this Word of Promise or Declaration of Forgiveness is a Word concerning Christ, it has its basis, its reason, its ground in Christ. Thus, faith in the Word is faith in the Word of a specific content, and that content is Christ. Before we begin a discussion concerning the merits of Christ, let us recapitulate what the Catholic tradition got right with its concept of “merits”. As I’ve argued earlier, the thing about merits is that is consists of pointing to the reasons for why God decides to “infuse graces” or answers prayers or save someone. To say that one has “merited” graces is to say that one has given God a reason, a motivation, to grant graces to one.

Thus, the Augsburg Reformers would retain the “merit” language, but what they insisted upon is that it is Christ’s merits, Christ’s deeds which is the reason for God to act favourably towards us. Christ’s “merits”, Christ’s deeds, alone grounds our relationship with God, and is the reason for God forgiving us as Philip Melanchthon explains in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession,

Christ does not succeed Moses in such a way as to remit sins on account of our works, but so as to set His own merits and His own propitiation on our behalf against God’s wrath, that we may be freely forgiven.

Thus, Christ’s “own merits and His own propitiation” is the reason why God’s wrath is turned away and we are forgiven. Thus, in this sense, we can speak of Christ’s “merited” for us salvation, i.e. He acquires for us salvation and forgiveness of sins and God’s favour, etc.

There is however a danger in this “merit” language. Merit language, like “divine energies” and “infused graces” is detachable and can be abstracted away from the concrete particular deeds and words of Christ. They can collapse into a sort of amorphous quantifiable generic accumulation of “merits”, (and I will show later that it did collapse into that in later Protestant Orthodoxy). We already know that in medieval Catholicism merit language did collapse into this amorphous and generic quantifiable accounting number in their disputes about whether Christ’s deeds were “infinitely meritorious” or “finitely meritorious” and how this “merit” can be distributed and dispensed, etc.

In any case, when the Protestant uses the phrase “Alien Righteousness”, we simply mean that we are justified by placing our faith in the Word concerning Christ’s righteous deeds or merits. This “righteousness”, because it is the righteousness of Christ, because it is the work of Him and not us, is alien or outside of us. It is not our work; we do not place our faith in our own “righteous” deeds, but we place it in the righteous deeds of another, basically Christ. And in so trusting the righteous deeds of Christ, we are justified.

Reckoned or Credited?

However Protestantism was confronted by the same danger which confronted Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and which they were only able to evade partially. The concept of “righteousness”, like “merits” and “divine energies” and “infused graces”, is as much in danger of detachment or abstraction into a “thing in itself”, a sort of accounting number of “how much righteousness” one “has” or some form of “degree” of righteousness and perfection.

But righteousness is not meant to be a sort of magical quality or “thing in itself”, to be abstracted into a magic quantity or accounting figure whereby one can buy stuff, from God! When we speak of Christ’s “righteousness”, it must be simply a shorthand of referring or speaking of Christ’s obedience to God in concrete deeds. Thus, what is Christ’s righteousness? It is him obeying the Father’s Will to love his enemies (us!), even if it leads him to his death, it is him practicing what he preaches about forgiving his enemies and praying for them (which he did for his murders, and us!), it is him hearing our pleas and prayers and having compassion and mercy upon us which the Gospel richly records abundant examples for us. And it is his continued high priestly ministry today whereby He makes intercessions for us, offering prayers for us to the Father even before we pray to Him and presents our prayers to God the Father, out of his great love for us, and most of all, it is Him offering His own Body and Blood at every Eucharist and to feed our souls and bodies unto our eternal salvation. It is in these concrete individual deeds of righteousness which is the proper object of our trust, our confidence, and our faith, and it is by these deeds of Christ whereby we are justified, sanctified and saved.

Thus, we do not trust in some abstract quality or thing such as “righteousness” to save us, what we trust, what we believe in, is in these individual particular deeds and actions of Christ, and we trust in these individual deeds as the basis for God to be merciful to us, God to hear our prayers, God to save us, etc.

The problem was that later Protestant Orthodoxy started to formulate “justification by faith alone” alone the same lines and within the same framework as the previous scholastics before. They shifted away from the individual particular actions and words and record of events in Salvation History in Scripture and started to indulge in the same sort of scholastic mechanical deductions as the Catholics before. Thus, they begin with a general problem, i.e. we need “righteousness”, but we “lack” this righteousness, therefore we need to get it somehow. Therefore Christ comes along to “perfectly” fulfill the Law and get the necessary righteousness credits needed for all mankind, and then from the abundance of Christ’s righteousness or merits, God “credits” or transfers them to us, and the way this is “transferred” to us is by faith. (Although of course one can ask why can’t Christ just live a perfect normal life on earth and then ascend into heaven since, by virtue of being God, anything he does would be infinitely meritorious, thus he need not die.)

The curious thing is that while this is definitely a much more simplified version of the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic account, it is essentially as mechanical or “Law-like” as both of them. This account is essentially an abstraction from the concrete details and particular deeds and actions of Christ into a generic principle or system which needs resolving, and Christ comes along to make the system work. It does not matter whether the gears which holds the system together is “divine energies”, “infused graces” or “transferred merits”. The point is that the particular acts and words of Christ pretty much becomes superfluous, he’s just comes along to run the whole thing, a mere concretisation of an eternal system.

But if the Protestant essential insight of justification by faith alone is to be preserved, a faith which has as its direct object the individual particular deeds and words of Christ and a life which is sustained by trust in the living voice of God which speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, then this mechanical “credit transfer” account of justification must be rejected. Christ’s righteousness remains always “alien” to us, it does not refer to some pool of righteousness “credits” or money which can be “transferred” around, it refers to His concrete deeds and individual acts of obedience to God. When we trust in Christ’s righteousness, we trust in the individual righteous deeds of Christ for us and for our salvation which He does in obedience to the Will of His Father.

Therefore although it is now usual within Protestant Reformed circles to speak of God “crediting” to us Christ’s righteousness, this change of language must be resisted. Christ’s righteousness always remains his own, and we should simply retain the older language of “reckoning” or “imputing” which simply means, “declares” or “accounts” us righteous simply on the basis or ground of Christ’s own righteous deed, His great love for us in obedience to His Father. There is no need for some “credit transfer” of “righteousness” to make us righteous, it is enough simply for God to declare, reckon, or impute us righteous because of the Love of His Son and His high priestly mediatorship for us.

Conclusion: A Proper Understanding of the High Priestly Office of Christ Needed

This note has already become spectacularly long so I think it would be good to end here simply with the observation that if truly the object of faith and trust is in the individual deeds of Christ for us, it is necessary for this faith to be living now in the present to have a proper grasp and understanding of what Christ is doing for us now. As such, we need to have a better understanding and appreciation for the High Priestly office of Christ whereby Christ daily and constantly intercedes and prays for his faithful at the right hand of His Father. When we approach God in prayer, we must be conscious that we do so joining in a prayer which is already on-going in the heavens, the prayer of the Son for His adopted brothers and sisters. As such as also need to learn how to relate all the individual deeds of Christ in his time on earth to this high office as mediator, which relation I have already sketched out in another note, which I shall leave you with the link.

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2012 by in atonement, Atonement and Reconciliation.
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