Book Review - Justification: Five Views

Justification is a central topic to Free Grace theology, and as such when a book is written in scholarly circles to discuss justification it is worth considering!  

Beilby, James K., and Eddy, Paul Rhodes, eds., Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2011. 308 pp. $15.38.


Multi-view books rise and fall on the quality of their representatives, and Justification: Five Views stands with an impressive list of contributors. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, both professors at Bethel University, have edited several books for the IVP Spectrum series of multiview books and are therefore quite well qualified to edit this volume as well. The flow of the book shows their prowess. This is the fourth multiview book that they have co-edited for IVP, and their experience shows through in the book’s layout from Reformed to Catholic.


In addition to this, the book brings together an impressive list of contributors to their viewpoints, drawing some of the best and brightest in modern Christian scholarship to weigh into the issue. Michael Horton and James Bird are both prominent evangelical scholars and capable Reformed thinkers. James D.G. Dunn hardly needs an introduction, being world-renowned in Pauline studies. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen brings a unique perspective as a Finnish Lutheran and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty well represent the Catholic understanding of Justification from their accomplished perspective.


Multiview books generally follow a straightforward outline, and this one is no exception. The basic content of the book is a discussion of the Christian doctrine of justification from five distinct points of view. Contributors each write approximately 25 pages explaining their particular view of justification followed by the other contributors responding to the strengths and weaknesses of the view just explained. This format allows for a dialogical feel to the book, with each author being able to interact with the other views and sharpen their own distinctions from the others by means of rebuttal.


Every contribution to this work adds significantly. This begins in the opening chapters penned by Beilby and Eddy, who discuss the historical development of and the current state of the debate on justification before turning the discussion over to the experts in their respective views. I found the opening chapters to be particularly helpful, and the historical development in particular gives readers a sense of the discussion in its appropriate context. Within the current state of the debate, the editors go to lengths to point out how the New Perspective on Paul has impacted the discussion. (57-67) Then, they set out the current “flash points” in the debate, including the significant issue of the necessity of works for justification before God. (68-73)


From there, each contribution works along a spectrum from Reformed (and therefore evangelical) to Catholic. Michael Horton espouses a traditional Reformed view focusing on imputation of alien righteousness by faith, while Michael Bird straddles the fence between that and the New Perspective view by focusing on the historia salutis (131-132) and the impact of Gentile-Jewish reapproachment upon a fundamentally Reformed understanding of justification. James D.G. Dunn represents the New Perspective view, that while individual salvation is in view in the NT, “justification” in Paul is more about the “boundary markers” that Israel had which are no longer appropriate in light of Christ’s sacrifice. (191) From there, Kärkkäinen espouses a unique view that combines Lutheranism with the Eastern Orthodox view of theosis, stressing participation in God’s essence. (223-228) Finally, O’Collins and Rafferty finish with the Roman Catholic view of justification as imparted righteousness and ethical conduct. Their contribution is split between an historical view from Augustine to Trent (269-281) and a personal narrative from O’Collins concerning his own journey of thought in his life as a Catholic scholar. (281-290)


This treatment on the important doctrine of justification certainly has its share of strengths. Particularly in the issue that sparked the Protestant Reformation, doctrinal dispute can often lead to recrimination and name-calling. There is none of that in this work; instead, the irenic tone is evident throughout each contribution. Even when responding to a diametrically opposed view, the contributors go out of their way to be gracious and encouraging to one another. For instance, O’Collins begins his response to Horton’s Reformed perspective with praise for the entire enterprise. (127) Horton thoughtfully returns the thanks in his response to the Roman Catholic position. (291) These merely serve as examples of the general tone of the book, and Beilby and Eddy deserve commendation for ensuring that the debate does not devolve into a fight.


Secondly, the introductory chapters are especially helpful. Beilby and Eddy set the debate within the historical framework from the New Testament through the history of the church, right up to the modern ecumenical movement. (13-52) The framework of the discussion on justification must be its development within the context of theological discussion in the church, and this chapter does an exceedingly good job of fulfilling that need. Once that is accomplished, they set the parameters and important concerns to the issue in its current context, staging the debate to come. They sum up the current status well: “…the doctrine of justification is a contested one at virtually every turn. At stake for many is the defining conviction of the Protestant Reformation. At stake for all concerned is a proper understanding of Scripture and, particularly, the thought of Paul.” (82)


The irenic nature and well-framed debate lead to a third strength of this book: ecumenical dialog. While the differences can be stark, engaging Scripture with professing Christians in significant issues shows that dialog can be irenic as well as significant. While the chasm at the end of the day between Evangelical and Catholic theology is still pronounced, seeing the spectrum represented in the viewpoints serves to show that the issue is not black-and-white. The flow of the book from Reformed through NPP and Lutheran to Catholic along a discernible spectrum showcases that spectrum well.


Unfortunately, this book has several shortcomings that tend to overshadow its strengths. While it is tempting to seek to defend a view and critique the others within a review, in a multiview book this is not appropriate. Instead, the various views should be well-expressed and understandable to the target audience regardless of which one the reader adopts at the conclusion.


Certainly, this book does not present a Free Grace understanding of justification in that all five views argue in one way or another that works are necessary for final justification at the end of the day.  Thus, if a reader is looking to be encouraged in Free Grace theology this book is not helpful. If instead a reader wanted to know what many scholars are saying, as well as the critique of other writers of each view, then it could have some merit from the perspective of ideas.


Ideas aside, there are several structural and approach-related shortcomings.


First, the book has significant repetition of content. Within the chapter on the current state of the debate on justification, Beilby and Eddy spend ten pages (57-67) explaining the New Perspective and contemporary responses to it; this would seem to be the purview of Dunn as his contribution to the work rather than the editors. In a similar manner, Horton spends six pages (93-98) within his section critiquing the New Perspective rather than focusing on a thorough explanation of the Reformed understanding of justification. In another place, Rafferty spends over half of the Roman Catholic perspective reiterating the historical evolution of justification dialog already put forth by the editors. (264-281; cf. 13-52) These repetitions are unhelpful in a book that is already short and takes valuable space away from the contributors.


Next, the very purpose of the book asks the contributors to “address a wide range of important biblical and theological issues as they present their views.” (9) Attempting to accomplish that goal within only 25 or so pages of presentation is a quixotic project to say the least. Adding to this range, the fact that there are historical issues as well as biblical and theological ones that bear on the debate only exacerbates the problem. Attempting to publish a book that is concise while asking for this amount of detail is too much, and as such the book sides with brevity at the expense of detail.


This fact leads to the third shortcoming in the book, namely explanation of terms and ideas. The contributors speed along in their presentations without defining terms, apparently assuming that their readers know their definitions. This is especially concerning given that the book is keyed to discuss a term and therefore its definition, namely justification! Nowhere is this more apparent than in the deification view, where Bird rightly notes in his response that Kärkkäinen never defines what he means by theosis or deification. (250) A reader who is well-read in Eastern Orthodox theology will know theosis well, but the average American reader will not and is therefore left wondering. Likewise, there is a better simple summary of the New Perspective’s view in the introductory chapter (57) than there is in Dunn’s presentation.


The challenge with this approach is one of audience. If the book’s intended audience is those who are well-versed in the positions and terminology of various camps on the issue, then the brevity of the treatments causes the book to be unhelpful. For those with significant exposure to the issue there will be little to learn in such brief introductions. On the other hand, for those who are unfamiliar or only just introduced to some of the positions, the lack of guidance on terms and ideas can make the entire presentation inaccessible and make the responses unhelpful.


Unfortunately, the shortcomings of this book make it one that I cannot readily recommend. It is certainly not targeted at laypersons, as it naturally assumes that its readers are interested in a technical discussion and have at least some skills with the biblical languages. Many pastors will not have the background in the issues presented to get much out of this book without significant reading beforehand to know terms and positions, particularly of the deification view but also of the New Perspective. Seminarians will likely not find enough here to add to the discussion. Therefore, while the book holds great promise in concept I cannot give it a wholehearted or even a qualified recommendation.