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

[1] Mark Mattes offers an assessment of the role of the doctrine of justification in five contemporary Protestant theologians: Eberhard Jüngel, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Robert Jenson and Oswald Bayer. These theologians are not just expounded and described but also rigourously assessed. By what criterion? This is explained in the first chapter. Mattes shares the radical Lutheran stance found in Gerhard Forde. The doctrine of justification is the ‘doctrine by which the church stands or falls’ and all systematic theological frameworks are subordinate to it. It is both the basis of theology and its boundary. It applies not just to ‘first order’ but also to ‘second order’ theological discourse-i.e. to academic theology as well as to preaching (5-6). Judged by this criterion, only one of the five theologians, Bayer, passes muster.

[2] After the introductory chapter there are chapters on each of the five theologians. The charge against most of them is not denying the doctrine of justification but subordinating it to an alien agenda. The first three are accused of accommodating the doctrine to modern secular assumptions, interpreting it in terms of ‘feeling’, ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’, respectively.

The analogy between God and humanity, human correspondence to God, viewed existentially by Jüngel and theoretically by Pannenberg, is seen ethically by Moltmann. We correspond to God primarily in action and secondarily in thought. Either way, the pall of Barthianism hangs over these theologians. When law is the form of the gospel, the gospel is lost. Faith is subverted by sight. Driving these theologies is an apologetic. The gospel itself will be justified to (Schleiermacher’s) “culture despisers” of religion when it delivers the new moral world. … If Jüngel’s tendency is to liken the gospel to a meta-experience, a “feeling,” and Pannenberg’s is to refine it into a grand, unified theory, a “knowing,” Moltmann’s tendency is to translate the gospel into a praxis, a “doing.” (98)

[3] The other two theologians, by contrast, adopt ‘non-accommodating strategies’, but only one of them is deemed satisfactory. Jenson is commended for seeing the church as a clear alternative to the world and not seeking a foundation for Christian faith shared by non-Christians. But, like the other three, he is accused of Hegelianism, of a process view of God. Also, he subordinates a forensic to an ontological view of justification, following the Finnish school of Luther research.

[4] Oswald Bayer is presented as the theologian who takes seriously the role of justification, to the extent that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the doctrine of justification from Bayer’s thinking at virtually any point in his theology” (145). He locates truth not in experience (Jüngel), knowledge (Pannenberg), action (Moltmann) or a Catholic community (Jenson) but in a performative Word, a speech-act, in which the promise of the gospel brings forgiveness, life and salvation. From this perspective Bayer critiques the views of Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel and thus, implicitly, those of the other four theologians considered in this book.

[5] The account of each theologian is masterful, although demanding for those who are not used to the obscure language used by many systematic theologians. Each chapter concludes with a helpful summary which includes a list of positive and negative features of the theology that has been expounded. The account and critique of Moltmann, the theologian with whom I am most familiar, is profound and insightful. Against the emphasis that Moltmann (with many others) places on liberation, Mattes urges that politics belongs to the order of creation, not salvation. “The most important stance that the church can bring to the political realm is the truth that the political realm is never ultimate” (111), which undermines syncretistic theories of political salvation. One of the least helpful effects of liberation theologies is that political conflict is elevated to the status of Holy War.

[6] In the final chapter Mattes reaffirms his stance on the role of justification as the discrimen of theology. Justification is the criterion for theology as well as preaching and corrodes systems like those built up by the four theologians who are criticized.

[7] The argument is competently presented and the expositions and critiques of the theologians are perceptive. If, as one from the Reformed rather than Lutheran wing of the Reformation, I am not persuaded it is because I cannot accept the fundamental premise. On what grounds is this particular doctrine, hardly the most prominent in the New Testament, elevated to such an exclusive and elevated status? Why should it be considered flattering to Bayer to state that “it is difficult, if not possible, to separate the doctrine of justification from Bayer’s thinking at virtually any point in his theology”? The radical stance underlying this book is one that would not be accepted outside of Lutheranism and goes beyond the position held historically by most Lutherans. It can justifiably claim to be part of the historic Lutheran tradition, but it has never been the whole of that tradition and has usually been a minority.