Some passing thoughts on some Scripture (and the nature of our predicament).

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!!


About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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22 Responses to Some passing thoughts on some Scripture (and the nature of our predicament).

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. landsperson says:

    Thanks for this post Cyril. If you know of any Orthodox books that deal with this in depth please let me know ( and thanks for posting the link). One thing I find interesting is that my charismatic upbringing taught something that I’ve seen in Orthodoxy, namely that Christ actually makes us righteous as opposed to the positional imputation taught in mainstream Evangelicalism.

  3. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Michael, I will get back to you later tonight. Off to my brother Bill’s.

  4. Ben Shogren says:

    Is the notion of God being infinitely loving, nearer to us than we ourselves AND one who runs out to meet us to fall on our cheek totally incommensurable with that of his being infinitely unloving to that which is unlovable, which is unrighteousness? Couldn’t a duo of justification and sanctification clean this problem up nicely? Also, what did Christ’s death actually do for us if not to justify us? (As in, why can we not be sanctified without his death?) Great post!

  5. landsperson says:

    Thanks Cyril. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

  6. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Having returned from a feast fit for a grand noblemen at my brother Bill’s house (who himself, along with the grand lady of his manor, Kim, are two of the most noble people I know), I would like to defer all answers till morning, and after a good night’s sleep aided by the digestion of turkey. But, I will make a quick note to Michael: three books 1) St. Athanasius On the Incarnation, St. Nicholas Cabasilas On the Life in Christ, and Fr. John Behr The Mystery of Christ. You could also look at Pananyiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ. The Nature of hte Human Person.

    Quickly to Ben, God’s love is not the opposite of His hate, for His hate is only aimed at that which is ultimately nothing, and the best way to think of God’s hate is as divine neglect. When we perform the corporal works of mercy in the Orthodox church (burying the dead) we sing at the end of the service a hymn, Memory Eternal (the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance). For to be remembered by God is to have life everlasting. But to be forgotten by God is to face eternal oblivion. God’s hatred ultimately is aimed at something that has no necessary existence, for sin is only a temporal and created act, but to live in His love is to live in something that eternally exists within the divine Trinity.

    Finally, Christ’s death does have an effect on us, for his death was necessary to bring about his resurrection, and the two together give us life, victory over death, and thus death’s sting, sin.

  7. Reblogged this on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and commented:
    Here’s interesting post from earlier this week by O&H author Dr. Cyril Jenkins on why all the “righteousness” language in Scripture cannot actually be interpreted in a single way, namely, the Reformed sense of forensic justification.

  8. landsperson says:

    Thanks Cyril, much appreciated.

  9. Cyril,

    People need to understand that the only reason Luther and the Lutherans distinguished justification from sanctification was to assure true Christians that they were true Christians. In other words, there were (and are today), those who truly believe in God (and love Him too of course) who, when they read passages about God’s law (what they are to be and do) and his judgment, think that they must not – or at least might not – really believe in Christ. In other words, they are not sure if they are, in the final analysis, at peace with him (saved / state of grace).

    This is the reason for the distinction between justification and sanctification. So, the idea comes down to this: When it comes to our standing before God – when it comes to the either/or question of truly being his child or not – we must only look at Christ, grace, and faith (which also is a gift he provides). In the Large Catechism, Luther even states that we are already forgiven prior to receiving it in faith. Again, all of this is in order to safeguard justification for those with a terrified conscience before God, who justifies the wicked via the external righteousness of Jesus Christ given in his Word. Though those God declares righteous (by faith alone) he makes righteous (faith + love), justification and sanctification are should be kept distinct in our theology for these pastoral reasons. We do not, for example, say [subjective] justification = sanctification. Rather, we say we are reckoned righteous by faith in Christ, grasped in the external word – and not even because of the perfect righteousness of Christ that begins to dwell in our hearts when justified.

    And in one sense, you can say that justification starts the Christian life. But on the other hand, we constantly need to be confronted by God’s law (which inevitably, since we are not totally “new men” yet, will produce fear in us), and then comforted with the words of the Gospel. We call sin “sin” and call grace “grace”. Faith only continues to live in perpetual repentance (like St.Thomas, Luther did believe that someone could lose not just the “exercise of their faith”, but salvation).

    As best I can tell, in Thomas’ (and the 16th c. council of Trent’s) being reminded of God’s mercy basically means that a person is now within the living institution whereby they might most easily, by the graces attained in the Presence of God, merit eternal life and salvation – it does not mean that they can be confident that they have it right now, or even that they have it right now (i.e. “state of grace”) but simply can’t fully know this.

    In other words, for St. Thomas, “presumptive hope” (this goes with “sin of presumption”) would be that which chiefly banks on the “grace already received” in the present, as opposed to God’s “omnipotence and mercy” – i.e. that He will provide all the sanctifying grace we need to merit eternal life. If we think in this way, it seems clear to me that because of the demands of God’s law and the sin which inheres in us, we (like Luther) will lose the true confidence God means for us to possess, and this can potentially leave us with only false confidence not placed where it should be – which is the true “sin of presumption”.


  10. Ben Shogren says:

    Let’s hear a rebuttal, Cyril.

  11. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Well Ben, I didn’t see a reason to refute it, as in many ways this makes my case: according to the first paragraph the distinction between justification and sanctification was made in order to help the weak, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that for those who aren’t, the distinction does not obtain. We should not let peoples’ misunderstandings drive our theology and what it should say. People should see that the law is not in opposition to the Gospel, a position Luther came to from none of the Fathers, so I see no reason either to refute it or let alone to hold to it. Since I do not hold to the distinction of nature and grace, but instead of created and uncreated, and as we are called to push on “into” the uncreated, the law is good, and righteous and holy; and the law will always be life giving to those who walk in the Spirit (For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death). I don’t see the words “truly saved” in Holy Scripture or the Fathers. We are saved in hope, and we are warned constantly to take heed lest we fall, and that we have obtained Christ if we hold steadfast. Much more to say, but also too many papers to grade.

  12. infanttheology says:


    Glad Ben prodded you.

    “Since I do not hold to the distinction of nature and grace, but instead of created and uncreated, and as we are called to push on “into” the uncreated, the law is good, and righteous and holy; and the law will always be life giving to those who walk in the Spirit (For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death)”

    Can you link me to the best free resource you know that sums up this position. I’ve heard things on it in the past, but nothing has ever really “stuck”. Looking for some hooks and handles to grab on here.

    Of the law, I can say this: the Law of God describes that objective form of life wherein (not whereby) our relationships with God and neighbor are nourished and are brought to fulfillment.

    Good, righteous and holy indeed.

    “I don’t see the words “truly saved” in Holy Scripture or the Fathers. We are saved in hope, and we are warned constantly to take heed lest we fall, and that we have obtained Christ if we hold steadfast.”

    Did I say “truly saved”. If so, I should just say, “in a state of grace”, period. It seems to me that Romans 5:1 and I John 5:12 and 13 imply as much.

    “Much more to say, but also too many papers to grade.”

    Subscribed to your blog now. Hoping and praying you will say more at some point in the future.


  13. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Nathan, there is much more to say on this, and I will do so once the semester winds down. As for free resources, you can sack the energetic processions blog (linked on the blog roll) but I can post some other things. This has been a hot topic among Catholics in the last several decades owing to Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel, pub’d in 1946, and then reissued in two larger volumes in 1965, and trans’d into English as Augustinianism and Modern Theology, and The Mystery of the Supernatural. If I uncover some really good posts on this in the next week or so I will link them. I should note that de Lubac asserts that the distinction between nature and grace as absolute categories has never obtained among the Orthodox and I concur.

    You wrote “Of the law, I can say this: the Law of God describes that objective form of life wherein (not whereby) our relationships with God and neighbor are nourished and are brought to fulfillment.” With this I wholeheartedly agree. God’s commandments (shall we say Christ’s commandments) are an easy and light burden. To love is to fulfill the law and to walk with God.

    Peace to you.

  14. Cyril,

    I’d say that insofar as we are new men, they are indeed not a burden. Insofar as we remain infected by sin however (Romans 7), we groan under the burden of our imperfection, knowing that our Lord desires us to be and do much more.

    An E.O. friend said to me “surely all people, at times, (and not just the weaker brother) have experienced doubt or the hammer of God’s law that pulls them up short when they realize they are not living up to the law and commandments of God and the gospel. In short, we often don’t live like Jesus–so then what? In the Orthodox liturgy and prayers there are certainly prayers that could be understood as prayers of assurance and comfort, though they might not use those terms or embrace a Lutheran explication of them.”

    I thought that was wise.

    “the distinction between nature and grace as absolute categories has never obtained among the Orthodox and I concur.”

    Yes – the Lutheran answer would be that these philosophical categories may be of some use in explaining the faith, but I do not think that we would insist on an absolute separation of these thigns as well. I recall getting into a conversation at the blog you mentioned. Just found it:

    It was a bit crazy – we seemed to be in agreement about things in a way that seemed to transcend the absolute categories you mention…

    Would love those links – thank you.

    +Nathan Rinne

  15. Hey – I guess we have talked before (looked at that post more closely).


  16. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Nathan, will get back to this in the next day or so, or may just draft another post on this. Have just finished Eric Mascall’s On the importance of being Human in which he asserts his embrace of the Patristic doctrine of man being ordered to the supernatural. I am hoping to finish in the next couple days Etienne Gilson’s Letters to Henri de Lubac in which Gilson showed himself a violent defender of de Lubac’s teaching on this matter.

  17. Fascinating. A few years ago, I asked my pastor about Augustine and free will. First he quoted this:

    “Luther’s challenge was more profound than many of his peers realized at first. The two systems were at complete odds with each other. In Augustine’s model of the human will, the affective component is primary, so that the love of God is the motivating feature of salvation-God draws the elect ot himself apart from any initiative on their part towards God. This was a thoroughly unilateral model of salvation. In the Aristotle/Aquinas model, by contrast, the will is self-moved. The is, the will works most effectively apart from any influence of the affection. In adopting this model, Aquinas assumed that thee self-moved will is a necessary feature of salvation which, in turn, led him to adopt a cooperative doctrine of salvation-a doctrine that Luther rejected. The was the “hinge” of Luther’s reformation activism.” Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation? Trinity Journal, Fall 1997, available at: is_199710/ai_n8776993.

    Then he asked: “Is this simply a theological debate? Hardly. In his Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: Quill, 1991), Norman F. Cantor discusses at length Etienne Gilson’s attempts to bring Augustine and Aquinas together”.

    He then shared this quote with me:

    “Throughout his life Gilson agonized over the question of whether or not Thomism represents a break with the thought of St. Augustine. He shilly-shallied back and forth on this issue. Indeed, he said various things about it at different times. Whether Thomism is an intellectual revolution against Augustinianism or a reinterpretation of Augustinian doctrine in a new Aristoteliasn intellectual ambiece and language remains one of the persistent conundrums of medieval studies. It is my view that Thomism was an almost clean break with Augustinianism and that Gilson leans much too far in trying to picture a continuity between these two great medieval intellectual and religious systems. This is still a particularly difficult issue for Catholic scholars to deal with because Rome wants continuity, not rupture, within the development of Catholic theology. Regarding medieval thought as conditioned by conflict between the Augustinians and the Thomists gives legitimacy to intellectual dissent within the Catholic Church today. That is the Roman conviction. Therefore, for all this vanguard liberalism as a Catholic thinker in his day, Gilson in respect as a Romanist-leaning conservative who did not appreciate the full extent of the intellectual upheaveal of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.” p. 332-33.

  18. Nathan says:


    I have picked up the conversation from your post “Am I a Pelagian, a recovering Calvinist, or just too much into Origen?” at the the Energetic Processions blog at my blog:

    Would be gratified if you would take the time to have a look:


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  20. Pingback: Hope alone!: Christ’s roman [catholic] candles (part II of II) | theology like a child

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