Book Review: Justification, Five Views


The issue of the Doctrine of Justification has long been a contentious one. As this volume recounts in its superb introduction, it was not a central issue of debate in the early centuries of the Church, but was a central battleground in the Reformation period, and the dissonance of the official Roman Catholic and various Protestant views continues to this day. In the Protestant world, recent debates over the nature of Justification, in particular relating to what people think Paul actually said (or didn’t say) and how it relates to Judaism, have brought this crucial issue to the fore. We can therefore be very grateful to SPCK for bringing this book to the UK market.

The back cover is reason enough to consider this book – with ringing endorsements by no less a set of thinkers than Alister McGrath, Amos Young, Scot McKnight and Roger Olson! I would quietly add my endorsement to theirs.

Edited by Beilby and Eddy, this work brings into conversation – as the title might suggest – five different perspectives on the crucial Christian Doctrine of Justification. With the controversy over how to interpret and read Paul, particularly on Justification, that has come up in recent years (Ever since the New Perspective gained momentum, and beginning perhaps with the publication of “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” by E.P.Sanders), this book is a breath of fresh air. Each writer offers an essay – which is then responded to by the other writers. The perspectives are thus: “Traditional Reformed” – Michael Horton, “progressive Reformed” – Michael Bird, “new perspective” – James Dunn, “Deification” – Veli-Matti Karkkainen, and the “Roman Catholic view”, defended by Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty. The way in which each writer interacts with the perspective of the other is a brilliant excercise in collaborative theology, and very enjoyable.

The book is divided into two parts – the second part being the five views, and the first being two essays. These two essays are immensely valuable. The first is “Justification in Historical Perspective”, which does a superb job of articulating the different and similar ways in which various streams of Christian thought have articulated the Doctrine throughout the centuries. The second, “Justification in Contemporary Debate” provides a solid, intelligent yet accessible summary of the current debate, the major players, and the issues at stake. In a balanced and scholarly way, these two essays set the tone for the book superbly, and would bring anyone with an interest in Christian theology easily up to speed.

The five perspectives, then, are especially interesting. I’m currently doing a module on Pauline theology, and of course an understanding of Justification is crucial for that. This volume was immensely personally-academically valuable, not least because it brings Horton and Dunn together under one roof! As regular readers of this blog may know, I am a fan of Horton, having particularly benefitted from his systematic, “The Christian Faith”.  I’m also grateful for Dunn’s New Testament theology, and own a number of his works. For me at least, the Traditional Reformed view was the most convincing – though this was arguably because I am in general, Traditionally Reformed in my theology! That said, the progressive Reformed view was attractive – though not entirely convincing. Dunn’s essay was a good, clear statement of the New Perspective position – and Horton’s eloquent response identified some common ground and useful lessons from this perspective that those of a more Reformed bent can learn. On the Roman Catholic view, it is helpful to have a modern understanding here, though frustrating to see that the criticisms of the original Reformation remain. The Deification view, in my opinion, is unconvincing, but it is interesting to gain a window into a very different way of doing and viewing theology.

This volume, then, is a superb one. It is a timely and well constructed book, that sets up the debate and then allows it to take place, all in one place. The Five Views are well argued, and the responses make for fascinating reading too. For anyone involved in Christian teaching, theological training, or with an advanced interest in theological matters, this is a great buy. It is perhaps a little technical for everyone – though as accessible as one might hope for a multi-perspective book on the central doctrine of the Christian faith! I would heartily recommend this book!

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