The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology by Mark C. Mattes


[1] I do not know many parish pastors who routinely wrestle with a substantial theological work like this book by Mark Mattes. That is tragic because the result of failing to take our theology seriously is that we are awash in shallow preaching and trite worship. Yet deep theology is no guarantee of vitality for the church. We are the heirs of two centuries of erudite German theologians whose theologies have overseen the unabated decline of the church in Germany and most of Europe. Mattes gets that.

[2] The premise is that justification is the article, or as Mattes likes to call it the discrimen of theology. In the Foreword, Klaus Scharzwaller effectively supports Mattes's contention that justification is not a mere foundation for theology, but the fountainhead, to use Luther's metaphor. Mattes frequently calls the doctrine of justification the hub around which all else rotates. "This study affirms that justification, properly understood, is not solely a discrete theological locus, or theology's starting point, but rather the evaluator of all theology-including the standard of reason operative in theology. It is not one topic, or even foundation, but rather the basis by which to evaluate all" (10).

[3] Too often theologians confine themselves to making their mark in the academy, but Mattes takes the next step. "

The purpose of this study, then, is to encourage and promote the doctrine of justification so that it will be used in the church-not only with respect to preaching, pastoral conversations, and administration of absolution and the sacraments, but also for discerning how theology should be done….If we fail to get the doctrine of justification right with respect to theology then we fail not only the doctrine itself and theology, but also the church" (8).

[4] If we agree with this assertion, then this book is quite worthy of our consideration. And beyond mere consideration, we should expect to get a better handle on the tools God gives with the intention they be used for ministry. The title of Gerhard Forde's book hits the target: Theology Is for Proclamation (AFPH, 1990). In Mattes the church is blessed to have a theologian who understands systematics as penultimate. Doctrine is not an end in itself. Theology reaches its telos when it is the servant of ministry.

[5] In this book five systematic heavyweights of the last half century are examined on the basis of what they do with the doctrine of justification. Mattes summarizes justification in Eberhard Jungel, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann, Robert Jenson, and Oswald Bayer. Mattes is thorough in documenting the philosophic and theological underpinnings of all of them in relation to justification. Though he zeroes in on aspects that he finds contrary he also notes strengths in each. These strengths are summarized on page 183.

[6] A parable lays two things side-by-side so we can see similarity or contrast. I especially appreciated that Mattes laid these five theologians side-by-side with Luther to reveal where they agree and where they clash on justification. Also very helpful was that Mattes closed chapters with a concise "Summary and Critical Assessment" of these five. 

[7] The first four theologians take different routes yet stumble on the same stone: Justification is finally molded to fit a theological system. Justification is pushed off its throne in order to accommodate other impinging concerns like ecumenism or secularism or ecclesiology. After Mattes' dissection only Oswald Bayer is left intact: 

Bayer's view of justification, compared to those of the previous thinkers, is markedly robust and thoroughly ready to assist the church in its mission. For Bayer, justification gives life and freedom to sinners through God's promise made physical in Jesus Christ, between whose manger and cross, God is eternally for us (171). 

[8] For Bayer, truth is to be found not in a comprehensive knowing (Pannenberg), or in doing (Moltmann), or as attested by a meta-experience (Jungel), or in a Catholic community (Jenson), or in hybrid combination of these, but rather in a performative word in which the promise of the gospel is efficacious. The promise delivers the goods of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation (146).

[9] What Bayer understands, but the others appear to miss is that "…the quest for 'system' is a hindrance to truth" (149), "Justification is corrosive to system building…" (177), and "The most important task in theology is not construction but discernment" (182). This brings to mind the Reformation era cartoon showing Luther as the "German Hercules" in the final stages of clubbing to pieces the statues of Aquinas and other Scholastic theologians.  It was not time constraint that prevented Luther from constructing a new systematic theology crowned by the recovery of the gospel showing its impact on church and doctrine. Luther realized that the Bible is not systematic. God and truth defy packaging. Apparently Calvin believed the problem with previous systems was that they were not Protestant and sought to correct that with his Institutes.

[10] Our context has changed, but the quest for a comprehensive Protestant system goes on. Mattes sees in Jungel, Pannenberg, Moltmann, and Jenson theologians targeting the university while erecting systems to cope with present day situations, or expound ideals intended to change the world, or map reality. Mattes frequently poses his critiques of these four in the form of questions that clearly imply his position; e.g. "What if none of these proposed salvations really saves? What if salvation is entirely in God's hands and not in ours at all? Is not the problem our ability to trust God's word to deliver the promise?" (157).

[11] When he finally begins looking at Bayer, Mattes credits him for guiding his assessments of the first four. Bayer grips justification and doggedly hangs on throughout: "It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the doctrine of justification from Bayer's thinking at virtually any point in his theology" (145). Bayer refuses to sacrifice justification to a system of his own making with full appreciation that the heart of Luther's theology was composed of matters beyond human constructs. Bayer lists four features from Luther's thinking that cannot be systematized by means of a unifying, overarching structure of practical or theoretical reason, but that likewise cannot be excluded from our understanding of faith. These four features are (1) the law as accusing, (2) the gospel as promising, (3) divine hiddenness as terrifying, and (4) divine providence as conserving the world (149).

[12] Respect for the 'hiddenness of God' is a key difference between Bayer and his contemporaries. "For Bayer, theology is not done to integrate all knowledge, either theoretical or practical, into an abstract unity, but to limit reason to its proper fields. It is the art of discerning what God is saying to us, not peering into the divine" (149). No God sleuthing allowed. This is consistent with Luther's theologia crucis presented in the Heidelberg Disputation.

[13] Bayer is more than an historical interpreter of Luther's theology. His insight into our context has implications for ministry. "If we are to be rhetorically effective in delivering the gospel, we must reflect on the fact that there seem to be few anxious consciences today…for many Europeans and North Americans, the law is no longer the law of God but at best the categorical imperative" (167). This is not to say that the law has become a theological artifact. 

[14] Duty, beauty, self-esteem, personal choice, fulfilling potential, aging, and meaninglessness are some of the ways the law effectively accuses today. We walk to the kitchen with a vague hunger, but we are not sure what we want. We browse the shelves, or book store, or internet, or television, or entertainment venue. None of it exactly "hits the spot," but we consume. When that does not satisfy, we conclude it was the wrong flavor or the serving was too small. This time we demand, "Super-size me." We are on the road to despair.

[15] The preacher is called to name demons. The adversary is a master of disguise. The name will continue to change. But the law still works and always will until the gospel takes hold.

The church today is trying to do so many tasks because it has forgotten the task for which it exists: delivering the good news. The gospel is a word that frees. In this regard, the gospel is not 'whatever' frees but is tied to a specific liberator, Jesus Christ, and offers a specific liberation-from sin, death, wrath, and the devil. It allows us to be restored to creation, to be the caretakers of God's beautiful garden, and to treasure and savor the delights of this garden as well (184).

[16] As one with the privilege of preaching and teaching in a parish I am grateful for the exercise and clarification Mattes offers on the article on which the church stands or falls. To translate this into the language of laity in a classroom I remain partial to Where God Meets Man by Gerhard Forde (AFPH, 1972). Its gender specific title betrays its age, but the fact that it still is being translated from English into many languages testifies to its continued vitality.

[17] Mattes thoroughly documents his indebtedness to Forde. The passing of Gerhard Forde early last year marked the end of an era for some of us. Perhaps no one can fully take up his mantle, but in Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson we have fresh voices of faithful confessional theologians. In this time of uncertainty about the future direction of the whole church including the Lutheran tradition, we ignore our theological heritage at our own peril.

[18] "There is always a danger in doing theology. It is the old being's favorite subject. We must be vigilant because if the cross alone is our theology, then the theologian too comes to an end. Faith alone saves (170)."

[19] That's good stuff.

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© June 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 7, Issue 6