The Neoorthodox Way of Justification

from Feb 26, 2010 Category: Articles

(This is the third part of John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification. In this article he discusses the neoorthodox view of justification)

Faith  Justification – Works 

In the diagram presented at the beginning of this essay, you will notice that, after the liberal formula, the other four formulae all begin not with works, but with faith. That shows that they are all at least possibly Christian, whereas liberalism, on the very surface of it, cannot be. One cannot conceivably believe that salvation is by his own efforts and be a believer in Jesus Christ. All of these other views, the right one and the three other deviations, have this in common: they begin where they ought to begin, not with works, but with faith. From here on out we are dealing with people who have a right to be considered tentatively, at least, as Christian. I must phrase myself very carefully here. I consider that three of these remaining four ways are not soundly Christian, but are fatally deviant from it. By saying they may be tentatively considered as Christian, I mean this: at least they start out right. They do profess faith in Jesus Christ, as a Christian (if he is to bear that name) must do. Whether they are consistent in their affirmation or not remains to be seen. By contrast, liberalism is fatally wrong from the very beginning because it begins not with Christ’s salvation, but with man’s own achievement. 

In the outline of the neoorthodox view of justification, the faith that leads to justification followed by “minus works’’ is in italics. ‘‘Justification’’ itself is also printed in italicized letters. The word ‘‘works” is in regular print. Neo-orthodox theologians, 

though they vary among themselves as do all schools of thought, do not have the same concept of faith that orthodox Christians teach. They profess faith that, under closer analysis, turns out not to be the genuine article. They differ from the liberals who do not even profess saving faith. When, however, neoorthodox “faith’’ is examined, it turns out to be incompatible with the orthodox meaning of the word and, indeed, devoid of meaning. By representing faith in italics I mean that the neoorthodox concept of faith in Christ is profoundly different from what is ordinarily in mind. 

What we today call neo-orthodoxy is usually thought of as beginning in earnest in Europe with a second edition of Karl Barth’s commentary on the Book of Romans. That was in the early twenties, and the movement had an immediate, profound effect on Europe. Its effect began to be felt in the States in the late thirties and early forties. 

In the early forties I was doing my graduate work at liberal Harvard, which had reluctantly begun to admit the existence of anti-liberal neoorthodoxy. Harvard was urbanely liberal and had buried orthodoxy a century before, except as an historical phenomenon. It was not about to take it seriously in the present. But the impact of the new form of orthodoxy was not to be denied. Harvard did in time at least take notice of it and invited Reinhold Niebuhr, who was one of the early and powerful American advocates of this style of Christian thinking, to lecture at Harvard. 

The liberal professor Julius Seelye Bixler, who introduced Reinhold Niebuhr, then a professor at Union Seminary in New York, presented an interesting contrast to Niebuhr. Bixler, in a characteristically relaxed mood, calmly smoking his Meerschaum pipe and rocking in his chair, was the picture of complacent liberalism. Niebuhr, standing tall and vigorous in the prime of his life, like Elijah on Mt. Carmel, pronounced denunciations on Harvard and other forms of liberalism in no uncertain accents. 

Neibuhr said emphatically and repeatedly that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Ninety-five percent of that audience was confident that Jesus was nothing more than a man. They were told time and again in that hour’s address that Jesus Christ was God, no mere man. This early champion of neoorthodoxy, who had himself come out of liberalism, was denouncing liberalism in terms that sounded like pure, historic orthodoxy. 

If one left after that address, he would have thought that John Calvin redivivus had been heard on Harvard campus that morning. If, however, one remained for the question period, he would have known otherwise. A student immediately arose and said, “Professor Niebuhr, you repudiated the liberal notion that Jesus was merely a man. You said that he was God. What do you mean by calling Jesus Christ God?” Niebuhr explained that he did not mean “ontic deity.” Christ was not eternal. He was not a member of the everlasting Trinity. 

Niebuhr was now repudiating orthodoxy as sharply as he had repudiated liberalism in the address. Definitely, he did not believe that Christ was mere man and, equally certainly, he did not believe that Christ was God in the proper meaning of that word. The Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 had declared that Christ was “truly God and truly man.” Niebuhr expressly disagreed with Chalcedon by name. 

Liberalism we can understand and orthodoxy we can understand. Niebuhr had rejected both. How were we to understand him? That is precisely what the next questioner asked: “What do you mean by ‘God’?” Niebuhr answered with a word he often used later in print—“symbol.” The word ‘‘God’’ did not mean ‘‘God,” it meant “symbol.” The word “man” meant “man.” The word “God” meant “sym-bol.” If anyone at that address understood the meaning of “symbol,” it was not I. The term as used that morning, and on later occasions, defies understanding. We know what it does not mean. It does not mean ‘‘man’’ and does not mean “God.” What it does mean I doubt that Reinhold Niebuhr knew. This is what I mean by putting “faith” and “justification” in italics. There is no way of knowing what is the object of faith or the basis of justification. 

Of course, the question that wasn’t raised that morning (because there was no point to raising it) was, “What do you mean by ‘symbol’?” I’m sure that if someone had asked the question there would have been no answer, unless “symbol” was a symbol for symbol. But no one asked. One sensed that we were at the end of the line. Niebuhr had gone as far as he would. He had clearly repudiated liberalism. He had clearly repudiated orthodoxy. He had unclearly and utterly ambiguously affirmed neoorthodoxy. John Murray once called neoorthodoxy “The Theology of Ambiguity.” 

Obviously, these theologians mean to say something, but the something they are meaning to say eludes us. Not only with respect to Christ, but obviously with respect to faith in Christ. If one has no clear idea of who Christ, the object of faith, is, how can one have any clear idea of what faith is? The essence of this school of thought has been the “paradox.” Gordon Clark has referred to paradox as a ‘‘charley-horse between the ears.” Whether neoorthodox theologians are suffering from that kind of mental paralysis or not, the concept itself does indeed produce a charley-horse between the ears of anybody who tries to comprehend its meaning. He simply cannot make heads or tails of anything expressed as an absolute paradox. If Niebuhr did understand what he meant, certainly no one else could. 

I know there are some readers who would say immediately you cannot call Paul Tillich a neoorthodox theologian. But his myths are not essentially different from the paradoxes and pointers of others. His concept of justification is pure paradox. 

The formula which he and others use is a quotation from Martin Luther, Simul justus, simul peccator. Martin Luther, however, meant something quite different. For the Reformer, when a person was justified by faith, he still remained in a certain sense a peccator, or sinner. That is, he was not perfectly sanctified, and he never could entirely escape the power of sin during his entire life. But Luther did believe in the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, which removed the guilt of the believer’s sin, and in the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit by regeneration, which broke the back of sin, even though it did not eradicate it fully. In Luther’s understanding, while the justified person remained a sinner and imperfect, he was not a sinner in the same way that he was before his conversion. He was acquitted of his guilt, endued with Christ’s righteousness, and empowered by the Spirit to pursue righteousness, not perfectly but genuinely, as he never did prior to his conversion. So he was not the identical peccator after his being declared just that he was before But in the neoorthodox connotation, that’s precisely the case. 

The way Tillich shows this is in his essay, “The Shaking of the Foundations,” when he talks about the woman of the streets who washed the Savior’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Tillich does not say in so many words what he means by the justification of that woman. It is clear, however, that her faith in Christ made her justus, even though she remained the same peccator (in this case prostitute) that she was before. According to Martin Luther, this interpretation would be the heresy of antinomianism against which he wrote two vehement tracts. When Christ forgave the prostitute of John 8 (as He will forgive any prostitute as soon as she repents), He said to her, “Neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more.” If she continues in her prostitution, she is no forgiven Christian. She is not justified. It is obvious from this essay that Tillich has no such understanding in mind. While he cannot bring himself to say that the woman continued in her prostitution (just as multitudes of others may continue in that and other recognized sins that the Bible denounces, practitioners of which the Bible says shall never inherit the kingdom of God), in Tillich’s opinion this woman, even though she continued in her prostitution, was nevertheless just or righteous before God and an heir to eternal life. 

That is the reason I put ‘‘justification’’ in italics. It is not the biblical doctrine. It is not a meaningful doctrine. It is an absolutely paradoxical simul justus simul peccator, which does not convey the meaning of the Bible at all. So we must say about neoorthodox theology at this very crucial point, that, though it has the form of sound words, it lacks the truth and the power of them. 

The “minus works” in the formula needs some explanation, lest I do a very great injustice to the neo-orthodox proponents. Many of them, such as Barth and Tillich, have exhibited real courage and devotion to the Christian religion. Both of them virtually laid their lives on the line in their resistance to Adolph Hitler. Both of them were driven out of Germany because of their opposition to the Fuehrer. 

Nevertheless, in their teaching and thinking, works are not necessary. They are advisable, and many of the adherents of this school practice them and exhibit them sometimes in heroic dimensions. Notwithstanding, they are not essential. This was Tillich’s point in respect to the prostitute. Paul Tillich did not, of course, recommend prostitution. Tillich would believe that the woman would have done better if she had given up her prostitution. He would maintain, however, that she was justified whether she continued in it or not. That is what we mean by the “minus.” The works are not necessary. A person may be justified while being without them. Not necessarily lacking in them, he may nevertheless possibly lack them without his justification being questioned for a moment. 

An illustration of this point I take from an autobiographical story of a minister in the Netherlands, whose name I have forgotten, whose action is a true expression of the neoorthodox mentality. He was approached by a prostitute on his way home one night. He relates that he refused her invitation and went on home. His comment was, “It would not have made any difference if I had gone with her. My relation to Jesus Christ is between Him and me, and not affected by my relation to any other person.” 

The neo-orthodox doctrine of justification by faith is no sound view of this indispensable doctrine. While it honors the formula of justification by faith, and even emphasizes it, and considers itself biblical in its position, nevertheless its conception of justification plus its conception of faith is quite unbiblical. That is not to say a neo-orthodox theologian or person was never saved, but no person will ever be saved on the basis of such a formula. Furthermore, the antinomian strain in the doctrine, even if it were orthodox, would vitiate it also. This is truly a strange theological movement, and this particular formula is utterly characteristic in its oddity. There is a formal emphasis on the doctrines of the Reformation, coupled with a strange eviscerating of their content.

*****

Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.
Click here to read the first part of this series.

Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.

So far in this series Dr. Gerstner has provided an Introduction and has written of the Liberal View of Justification.

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