Pauline Studies Scripture and Tradition

Justification in the Greek Fathers: An Important Reversal in the New Edition of Iustitia Dei (Alister McGrath)

Alister McGrath’s extensive monograph on justification has long been viewed as one of the magisterial works on the topic. I was therefore quite excited to see that Cambridge University Press was publishing a new revised version this year: Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 4th ed. (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

You do not have to read very far into the book before you begin to see some significant changes. In fact, in the Preface, McGrath reveals that he has substantially rewritten the book:

This fourth edition thus represents a complete reappraisal of every aspect of previous editions, including their structure and format. Those using this work for teaching purposes should thus ensure that they familiarise themselves with these structural and scholarly changes. My continuing engagement with both primary and secondary sources in this field convinced me of the need to rewrite the book, retaining what was clearly sound, reliable and useful to its readers, while correcting or modifying whatever was open to justified criticism.

McGrath, Iustitia Dei, x.

One of the more significant aspects of this newly revised version is the treatment of justification in the Greek fathers. Previously, McGrath suggested that a regenerative reading of justification was the result of the emergence of Latin in the Western Christianity. The narrative held that when the Greek term for “to justify” (=dikaioō) was translated into Latin (=iustificare), Christian interpreters came to misinterpret Paul’s teaching. This was because the Latin suggested that justification involved “making” the believer righteous. The notion that “justification” involves a transformative element was viewed as contradicted by the Greek.

For some, this has held a key to unlocking Reformation debates. R. C. Sproul routinely made this point. (Go to 1:29 in the following video):

In short, in speaking about this “linguistic trick,” Sproul draws on McGrath’s older work. The reason “justification” was thought to involve the believer actually becoming righteous was due in part to misreading Paul in Latin. The Reformed tradition eventually recovered the original meaning of Paul by returning to the Greek, which shows that justification is not only merely juridical, but counterfactual–the believer is declared righteous but remains unrighteous; the righteousness of God is “alien” to the one who is justified.

McGrath’s new volume shows that this version of history is flawed. Here is the problem: McGrath has discovered that the Greek fathers read justification as involving transformation.

For example, writing on Chrysostom, McGrath states,

Chrysostom’s account affirms the declaration or manifestation (endeixeis) of God’s own righteousness with its actualisation in the transformation of the nature of humanity.

McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 37.

He then quotes directly from Chrysostom:

It is like the declaration of God’s riches, not only in that God is rich, but also in that God makes others rich; or in the same way about [the declaration of God’s] life, not only in that God is living, but also in that God makes the dead to live; and of [the declaration of God’s] power, not only in that God is powerful, but also in that God makes the weak powerful. So the declaration of God’s righteousness is not only that God is righteous, but also that God makes those that are corrupted by sin immediately righteous.

Chrysostom, Homilia ad Romanos, VII.iii.26; MPG 60.444; McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 37.

McGrath writes,

It has become a commonplace in some quarters to suggest that the dik group of terms–particularly the verb dikaioo, “to justify”–are naturally translated as being “treated as righteous” or “reckoned as righteous”, and that Paul’s Greek-speaking readers would have understood him in this way. This may be true at the purely linguistic level; however, the Greek Christian preoccupation with the strongly transformative soteriological metaphor of deification appears to have led to justification being treated in a factitive sense. This is not, however, to be seen as a conceptual imposition on Pauline thought, but rather a discernment of this aspect of his soteriological narrative.

McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 36-37.

In a footnote, McGrath goes on to cite Michael Gorman and M. David Litwa: “As argued by Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God; Litwa; We Are Being Transformed.”

I only wish McGrath could have read our new book, Paul, A New Covenant Jew, in which we build on Gorman and Litwa’s arguments, but with a special focus on the implications of Jeremiah 31 for Paul’s doctrine on justification. Oh well!

McGrath’s book has a number of other important sections. I hope to get to them in a future post.

6 comments

  1. That is quite a major shift for McGrath! It will be interesting to see the ripple effects–both appreciative and critical!

  2. I’ve always been surprised by those who argued against a transformative reading of dikaioō. Perhaps it’s because my Greek training was in a Classics department, where I learned that the -oō ending generally denotes a causative (like the hifil in Hebrew). Focusing on the verb stem rather than the ending in this case always seemed like a strange decision—the word form is itself causative and inherently implies transformation.

  3. McGrath writes that “the Gospel account of Christ healing lepers was seen as offering a narrative framework for concieving salvation as healing from infirmities (footnote 63, pg 38). I wonder what kind of impact on his other views and religious affiliation such a momentous change in thinking will have on Professor McGrath?

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