My Interlocutor whom I had responded to before asked also the following question, and this one in a most real sense gets to the whole question of Scripture and imputed righteousness. Now, the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone does not stand or fall with imputed righteousness, as Luther had no clear concept of it, at least not a stated one at first, though it is implicit in his teaching on alien righteousness. To the question:
“How does the Orthodox perspective on the doctrine of Justification handle these Calvinist-wielded texts which seem to resist a ‘causative’ interpretation (‘make righteous’) of ‘dikaioo’ and demand a more legal/declarative interpretation: Gen 44.16; Pr 17:15; Luke 7.29; Luke 7.35; Luke 10.29; 1 Tim 3.16. I saw these quoted by a Reformed scholar as, at the very least, the texts which completely nullify a Roman Catholic understanding of Justification as making righteous. They are seen to demand a legal/declarative sense instead of a causative change sense (that is positional and not actual, if that is a helpful way of putting it?). I don’t yet know whether the Orthodox perspective is that of the Roman communion, but regardless I’m sure that the Orthodox perspective is such that these texts are not problematic for the Orthodox articulation of the doctrine of Justification.
Here in full are the texts, and I have drawn them from the KJV.
Gen. 44:16 And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found.
Proverbs 17:15 He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.
Luke 7:29 And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.
Luke 7:35 But wisdom is justified of all her children.
Luke 10:29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
I Timothy 3:16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
My friend’s questions are easily enough cleared up when we realize that language operates on multiple levels. When Wyclif translators train their teams they use certain rhetorical analyses of language that looks at any language relatively, dynamically, and statically. This same approach has been used in rhetoric and composition, or at least it was about twenty years ago. This of course means that language has an elastic quality so that words admit of all sorts of meanings, and to attempt to say that a word which admits of one meaning in one place must admit it in all occurrences of the word’s usage is not tenable. If we look at the word righteousness’s use in Luke 1:6 in reference to Zechariah and Elizabeth we would have a completely nonsensical reading of the text if we let the above instances of it obtain. “And they were both righteous before God, walking righteously in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.” I would commend to all the interview that Bryan Cross did with Jason Stellman at Called to Communion (it’s about an hour in length) and Stellman references this very verse. The whole interview is worth the time. (Though, he is sorely weak on the whole question of primacy, and at one point he made a statement that were St. Peter in the minority, you still must go with St. Peter – - and I thought “this might be news to St. Paul.”) But the point here is that to read “righteous” here as a declarative and forensic legal act makes nonsense of the verse. Further, if this were the only meaning of the word, why did St. Luke not inform us that, well, this was an alien righteousness, and they only were reckoned so.
In looking at the first verse, Gen. 44:16, the passage as it is in the Septuagint seemingly speaks against the very notion of a mere extrinsic righteousness, for Judah wants to know “how will we be righteous” since their sins have been found out. To say this precludes an formative or intrinsic righteousness, at best strains the passage, since Judah clearly is referencing the whole problem in situ: Benjamin had been caught with Joseph’s divination cup, the evidence was right there, so how could they be anything but guilty. It is clear they are guilty, and thus clear that they are not righteous. Had the evidence been otherwise, then they would have been vindicated, not by a declaration, but by reality itself. To draw some conclusion that this passage means that there can be no such thing as intrinsic righteousness is begging the question that is itself in dispute.
Second, when we look at these other texts, and let me throw another in the mix for really good measure, namely Psalm 50(51):4. This reads in the Septuagint “that thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” St. Paul quotes this in Romans 3:4, and it is from the Septuagint that he quotes it. Clearly there is no sense that someone makes God righteous, but it also is clear that God Himself is intrinsically just. So where does this leave us. These other passages speak about either honesty, veracity, or the reality of appearance. Just as being justified in a court of law has no sense that the law or the court makes one just, but merely that those at the bar are declared so, so these, while they have a sense of declaration, they also are hardly harbingers of forensic righteousness, for how can we draw that sense from the publicans justifying God?
We have truly offended God. We come forth from the womb speaking lies, and there is no one that does good. But in the context in which this is given, Romans 4, St. Paul is clearly pointing out those who stand apart from Christ are incapable of performing works that please God in such a sense that they can obtain salvation. One of the chief points that Protestants make is that since we have by sin offended an infinite God we can only recompense Him with an infinite substitute who endures an infinite act of just punishment. This of course begs a question: do we stand or fall before God based on the merit or lack thereof that God required of us in Eden? For the Orthodox this is not the problem, and we won’t find language like this in the Fathers, East or West, in which merit is part of a transaction accomplished for our eternal benefit. In the West it is only found when we get to St. Anselm and his Cur Deus Homo, which clearly is written from the vantage point of feudal custom and law: he openly states his inclusion of this language and these metaphors in his text. St. Anselm’s views were championed against Abelard by St. Bernard, and thus find their way into the Western soteriological vocabulary. But is it a matter of merit? There are passages in the New Testament which seem to have this sense, and here I think especially of Colossians 2 about Christ removing the handbill or ordinances contrary to us by nailing them to the cross, and thus creating peace. Yet here we find no necessary notion of merit, but instead the simple statement that we have obtained peace by Christ’s death, and that what once was against us, that we have shattered the cosmic order, has been restored by Christ, and we can begin again to live life reconciled to God.
The Bible uses a vast amount of imagery, and perhaps had feudalism been about when St. Paul wrote he would have used that imagery as well of honor due to one’s suzerain. We have certainly offended God, but like the Father in the parable of the prodigal He awaits sight of us coming back that He might fall on our necks and kiss us before we have even spoken a word. God is nearer to us, says St. Nicholas Cabasilas, than we are to ourselves. The image of the offended God, infinitely removed from us that Luther inherited from his nominalism, whose justice condemned him no matter what he did, is not that of Orthodoxy or the Fathers. We are of such great worth, having been made in the image and likeness of God, that God out of his love for us, while we were yet sinners, had Christ die for us. Our problem is not a matter of merit, but a matter of death: that we have through union with Adam been corrupted and liable to misery. We have turned to that which is not life, to that which is not good, and even the goods that we have we use illegitimately. It’s not a question of what we supposedly lack (notions of original righteousness which was a keeping of the law), but of what we were (created in God’s image for communion) and what we need to get back there (the divine life which in Christ restores the image).
Above I provided a hyperlink to St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ on the Old and the New Man. It is well worth reading!!