BOOK REVIEW: Justification – Five Views


James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy et al. Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011. [326 pages.$24.99. 978-0-8308-3944-5]


Multi-view debate books have become a major publication genre, and, as many have noted, it is high time that one was released on the doctrine of justification. That such a publication is sorely needed today is indicated by at least two factors: the subject’s importance, and the assortment of disagreements it generates. As to the former, John Calvin said that justification by faith was so important that “wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown,” and many would agree today.[1] Concerning the latter, while it may not surprise many readers that various views of justification exist (especially between Roman Catholics and Protestants), the width of the range of disagreements and options may come as a shock (especially when one considers that four out of the five views expressed in this book are Protestant).

Justification: Historical and Modern Survey

The book begins with an extremely welcome historical survey on the doctrine of justification and its current issues. Taking up the first two chapters, it alone may be worth the price of the book. The first chapter begins with the early church and takes the reader up to current ecumenical dialogues. Often  summarizing material from Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei, it gives the reader a good feel for the historical currents leading up to some of today’s concerns over justification. The second chapter, which picks out these concerns in detail, is especially illuminating for those unaware of the wide spectrum of thinking on the doctrine of justification. These issues, which range from those rooted in biblical theology down to those based on minute details of grammar, generate approximately forty different options amongst Protestant scholars alone.

Reformed View of Justification  (Protestant)

Turning to the view chapters, the first is by Michael Horton, the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine,  representing the traditional Reformed view of justification. Horton argues specifically that justification is a judicial declaration which depends not on anything done by the justified person, but completely upon the righteous work of Jesus Christ which is imputed to the believer externally, and which alone is considered at the final judgment (pp. 85-88). Works pertain to sanctification, a process by which the sinner produces the inevitable fruit of goodness which comes from gratitude for salvation, but which is distinct from justification (pp. 89). The confusion of the two (justification and sanctification) is a major factor in the ongoing debate between Reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics. Horton’s arguments consist of the exegetical variety, focusing on the forensic/legal use of the term “justification” in Scripture (pp. 91-93), God’s righteousness and the debate over the genitive sense of pistis Christou (“in Christ”) (pp. 93-98), and the imputational nature of justification’s application to the sinner (pp. 98-105). He finishes with a discussion of theological presuppositions among various disputants such as N. T. Wright and E. P. Sanders (representing the “New Perspective on Paul”).

Progressive Reformed View of Justification (Protestant)

The Progressive Reformed view is represented by Michael F. Bird, lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. This “progressive view” is seen as broadly covenantal and respectful of the Reformed confessions, but avoiding a “theological straight jacket” by being willing to make corrections when needed (p. 131). Bird ends up landing somewhere between the new perspective and traditional Reformed view. Observing that “much Reformed interpretation of Paul simply lacks social realism and often glosses over the specific historical context of Paul’s letters” (p. 132), Bird presents several correctives that he thinks will bring Reformed theology into line with more up-to-date scholarship. He begins with a look at righteousness and faith in Romans and Galatians. He points out (as do most others in this volume) that justification is but one of many metaphors for salvation in the Bible and that it should not be privileged to the exclusion of those others. Noting that in many cases Paul is referring to the divisive nature of the works of the law with regard to Jews and Gentiles, Bird argues that “participationist categories” of justification in Christ are to be preferred to forensic-only declarations (although both are legitimate). He thus takes a mediating view between purely subjective or objective views of “faith in/of Christ” language. Bird comes out with a strong criticism of the concept of imputation in his second section (pp. 145-152), arguing that it “presses legitimate biblical ideas into an illegitimate framework,”  “misinterprets some of the language,” is “trapped in medieval categories of merit,” and “does not adequately grasp the implications of union with Christ.” Bird finishes with a brief consideration of Paul and James on justification, concluding that although they are using the same words when discussing the faith of  Abraham they are not speaking in the same sense. He concludes with a helpful summary of his position that justification should be considered as both forensic and effective. Further, that incorporation in Christ’s righteousness not only saves the individual but also unites the two previously estranged people groups in God.

New Perspective View of Justification (Protestant)

The third view on the table for discussion is the “New Perspective [on Paul]” view, presented by James D. G. Dunn. This “new” perspective has already spawned new “new perspectives,” and so Dunn begins by laying out which features of the perspective he is prepared to defend, namely: a new view of Judaism, the significance of Paul’s mission, works of the law, and the whole gospel of Paul (p. 177). The new view of Judaism is essentially that first century (Second Temple) Judaism was not the legalistic, works-salvation religion that is has been thought of for so long. Rather, it was a graceful covenant of God based on faith that incorporated works in its agreement (i.e., “covenantal nomism”) (pp.177-183). Thus, the view that simply pitted a legalistic Judaism against a grace-filled Christianity is in error. The real issue was that Jewish laws need not be followed in order to become part of God’s [New] covenant family. “Works of the law” in the relevant Pauline contexts, then, are those that mark out Israel form the nations such as circumcision and cleanliness laws (p. 190-195). It is the uniting of these peoples that is at issue with Paul – not a crass clash between legalism and faith. This new perspective helps explain how Paul can at once be seen to be both strongly critical and supportive of good works – indeed, final judgment will be “according to” ( as opposed to “based on”) good works in the life of the believer, such that what is declared at justification is brought to fruition in the final judgment (pp. 198-200). Paul is thus vindicated as being a consistent theologian when his gospel is considered in its wholeness.

Deification View of Justification (Protestant)

The fourth view is probably the most unknown for Western readers – the “Deification View” of the Finnish school  of Luther presented by Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Although Eastern in origin, this view of justification is argued by a Protestant Fuller Theological Seminary professor who served as president and professor at Isokirja College in Keuruu, Finland, and holds a teaching position at the University of Helsinki as Docent of Ecumenics. Kärkkäinen’s ecumenical stance comes through clearly in his contribution, as  he not only presents the deification interpretation of Luther as a viable view, but also as one that might serve as a bridge with the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Statement on Justification of 1999 (and, thus, could serve to help the three major branches of Christianity reunite over this controversial subject). Kärkkäinen gives the Finnish (“Manermaa school”) view of Luther – arguing that Luther saw justification not in the forensic-only sense of his later followers, but as a transformative process more like that of the Eastern churches (i.e., “theosis”). Unfortunately, Kärkkäinen does not give a very precise definition of what he means by these terms, which not only could easily lead to confusion for readers unfamiliar with the distinctions made by eastern theologians when they speak of “deification” in the salvific sense, but also leaves his interlocutors unable to give as much helpful feedback. Kärkkäinen agrees with others that justification is synergistic to some extent, that freedom of the will remains even after original sin, and that faith produces a “real-ontic” union with Christ that allows the believer to participate in Christ’s life producing true transformation and not just a legal declaration. Thus, although a distinction between God’s and man’s righteousness remains, the later Lutheran separation of justification and sanctification is not Luther’s actual view. Once this understanding of justification and the work of the Spirit is taken into account, says Kärkkäine, many of the dichotomies found in the current debate turn out to be false ones.

Roman Catholic View of Justification

The fifth and final view (Roman Catholic) is presented by two writers: Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty. O’Collins was professor of systematic and fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and currently is research professor at the Jesuit Theological College in Melbourne, Australia as well as a research professor in theology at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. Rafferty is a lecturer in Church History at Heythrop College, London and has taught at several universities in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and has held visiting professorships of history in the United States and Korea. Rafferty opens the chapter with a summary of the historical development of the Catholic doctrine of justification leading up to the Council of Trent [which Rafferty asserts to be “the clearest and most systematic exposition of the catholic theology of justification” (p. 265)] (pp. 265-281). Above all, says Rafferty, “Trent wanted to uphold the view that justification involved not only the remission of sins but also the sanctification of the individual” (p. 278). Although Trent cannot be easily summarized, Rafferty lists a few important points concerning imputation vs. impartation, certainty of salvation, purgatory, etc. to aid in considering Trent’s findings. O’Collin’s offering is primarily autobiographic in nature, with little argumentation or explication of his view [which he says represents “a rather than the Roman Catholic version of justification” (p. 281 – emphasis in original)]. He touches on the multiple metaphors for salvation, the objective vs. subjective understanding of “in Christ” in Luther and later translators, and ends by defining justification as “God’s faithful activity of human and cosmic restoration effected through the inseparable work of Christ and the Holy Spirit” (p. 286). He concludes by pointing out that both sides in the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration agree on the basics of justification by grace and that the condemnations of the 16th Century no longer apply. However, he cautions the reader that neither side in this Declaration officially represent either side for either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism, and notes that had Luther’s view actually been so close to that of Rome, Trent would hardly have been so harsh.


Overall,  Justification: Five Views is not only a very welcome addition to the multi-view book genre, but an excellent example for future publications of its type. The introductory chapters are very helpful, little space is wasted in the position and response chapters, a loving spirit is exhibited by all writers, and helpful tools such as author, subject, and Scripture indices are included as well.

Should another publisher deign to publish something similar, a few suggestions might be helpful. First, the spectrum of views might be better represented by other positions.[2] For example, a more traditional Lutheran view might be best to include (no Lutheran writers are included in this volume). The mediating view between the traditional Reformed and New Perspective views may not be as helpful as a third, more popular and representative view, as these two fairly represent the spectrum. Further, while including the deification view was very welcome, expressing it as a minority view of a single Lutheran school was probably not as strong as simply seeking representation from a traditional Eastern Orthodox scholar. Second, a stronger voice for Roman Catholicism would be appreciated. As interesting as a (second) history of interpretation by Rafferty, and the biographical details of O’Collins theological journey were, a more straightforward presentation of, and arguments for, current Catholic thinking on justification would better match the tenor of the book.


[1] John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, ed. John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 66.

[2] Here I am reminded of Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan, 1998) which included the minority position of Progressive Dispensationalism, but left Historicism completely out of the discussion.


3 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Justification – Five Views

  1. Thank you for an excellent review. This book has been collecting dust on my Amazon wish list. Perhaps I’ll now “pull the trigger.” Question: Are you aware of any books from this genre that compare the interpretive approaches of the grammatical-historical (dispensationalism) and the allegorical (reformed/covenantal)? Any ideas / recommendations would be appreciated.

  2. Jeff,

    I do not know of any multi-view type books on this subject (although it’s a winning idea!). If you are interested in the subject you ought to get Milton Terry’s BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS and Bernard Ramm’s PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION and Robert Thomas EVANGELICAL HERMENEUTICS – those will give you a good idea of the range of views. Also check this out:

  3. Pingback: Tiber Treading No More | Soul Device

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