Thursday, January 3, 2013

“Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification” by Alister E. McGrath

Review by John Warwick Montgomery
Christian News, January 7, 2013
Vol. 51, No. 1

(Reprinted by permission from the author from the March/April 2000 Modern Reformation. See “In LCMS Today: McGrath Is In and Montgomery Is Out,” December 17, 2012)

In his preface to this one-volume revision of his original two-volume edition, Alister McGrath informs us of its purpose and scope: “The history of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification has never been written. It is this deficiency which the present volume seeks to remedy. The first edition of this work appeared in two volumes in 1986 and quickly established itself as the definitive work on the subject.” A claim this broad needs to be (we hesitate to use the word) justified to warrant purchase, if only on economic grounds.

McGrath, a prominent Anglican evangelical known on both sides of the Atlantic, treats the doctrine of justification in a strictly chronological fashion, beginning with the Patristic period and St. Augustine. (He does not deal with Paul’s views in the New Testament as such; we shall return to his reasons for this at the end of this review.) The medieval period is discussed in considerable detail, with helpful distinctions made between different approaches to justification characteristic of major monastic orders and ideological schools (Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians). The Reformation period is, needless to say, central to the book, with a description of Luther’s theological development followed by a comparison of the Lutheran and Reformed approaches to the doctrine and a brief discussion of justification in Protestant Orthodoxy. Then follows Trent, the English “Reformation legacy” (including not just Tyndale, Hooker, and the Puritans, but also, oddly enough, John Henry Newman-owing to his critique of Luther in his Lectures on Justification), and the period from the Enlightenment through the Protestant liberalism of Schleiermacher and Ritschl to Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, the post-Bultmannian new hermeneutic (Ebeling), and the 1983 U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue group’s Justification by Faith document.

Before going into details, we may legitimately ask a preliminary question or two: How revised is the revised edition? and, Is the work indeed unique? As to the degree of revision, it is very slight: aside from minor updating of references and a few stylistic improvements, the only new material is the addition of two final sections updating the book with references to recent Pauline scholarship and ecumenical endeavors to bridge the Protestant-Catholic gap.

What about the author’s claim to have produced the only extant “history of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification”? If this means a single volume devoted to the subject and published in our time, he may be strictly correct. But the great histories of Christian thought have hardly been able to avoid a doctrine so central to Christian faith. One thinks not just of the likes of Harnack but of twentieth century treatments such as J. L. Neve and O. W. Heick (1) and J. L. González.(2) Looking at random at Neve and Heick, one finds, for example, an entire chapter devoted to “Positions on Justification” in their discussion of the New England theology of Jonathan Edwards. Neither Neve and Heick nor González is referred to anywhere by McGrath, and one gets the distinct impression that he did not benefit greatly from the synoptic histories of doctrine in doing his own work. Often these histories provide more careful and more detailed discussions of justification than he himself gives.

To be sure, a single work focusing on a cardinal doctrine is always useful. McGrath admits in his preface that “in effect, the present study is a bibliographical essay.” As such, it will often provide insights hard to find elsewhere. Thus, there is a fine critique of John Henry Newman’s gross misunderstandings of Luther.

But sweeping treatments of historical topics must in the final analysis be judged by their adequacy on the level of the particular. Toynbee was unsuccessful in defending himself against the critics of his A Study of History when he declared that “a committee may be able to run a country but a book must be the product of a single mind.” The fact is that no one person can be the master of gigantic amounts of detail, so the specialists’ treatments are often much more useful than one person’s attempt to cover the whole field. How does McGrath’s book stand up to detailed analysis?

Not very well. Here are a few examples. He properly recognizes that the chief influence on the nascent Anglican theology of the Reformation period was Lutheran (“Despite this clear alignment with the Lutheran Reformation, rather than the Swiss Reformations of Zurich or Geneva, the Elizabethan period witnessed a general decline in the fortunes of Lutheranism in England”-sec. 30), but he shows no acquaintance with the best of the detailed treatments of the matter: H. E. Jacobs (3) and N. S. Tjernagel. (4) Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the McGrath volume is its omission of American scholarly literature in general, much of which reaches a greater level of theological depth than the British material.

The author’s handling of the Lutheran theologians of the period of seventeenth century Protestant Orthodoxy is truly unfortunate. This does not apparently arise from dependence on A. C. McGiffert’s Protestant Thought Before Kant or on Jaroslav Pelikan’s stereotyped treatment in his From Luther to Kierkegaard (they are nowhere referred to), but his underlying point is the same as theirs: These theologians departed from Luther, hardened their categories, and contributed to the rise of Pietism and ultimately to Enlightenment rationalism. McGrath doesn’t address the groundbreaking work on the theologians of Lutheran Orthodoxy by the brothers J. A. O. Preus and Robert D. Preus. (5)

Particularly unsettling is the impact of the author’s own Calvinism on his interpretations. Thus, the Lutheran dogmaticians of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries invariably come out less attractively than their Calvinist counterparts:

Significantly, the Reformed school is considerably closer to Luther (especially the 1525 Luther) than Lutheranism. Given that both confessions adopted a strongly forensic concept of justification, which set them apart from Luther on this point, the strongly predestinarian cast of Reformed theology approximates to that of Luther to a far greater extent than Lutheran Orthodoxy. Similarly, the strongly Christological conception of justification to be found in Luther’s writings is carried over into Reformed theology, particularly in the image of Christ as caput et sponsor electorum, where it is so evidently lacking in Lutheran Orthodoxy. Both in terms of its substance and emphasis, the teaching of later Lutheran Orthodoxy bears little relation to that of Luther (sec. 24).

These misrepresentations derive not from careful analysis of the corpus of dogmatic writings in question but from a tacit acceptance of such Reformed attempts to assimilate Luther to Calvinist double-predestination as that of James Packer in his edition of Luther’s Bondage of the Will. It is also not easy to see a one-to-one relationship between Luther’s very definitely Christological center and the Calvinist dogmaticians’ emphasis on our Lord as “head and sponsor of the elect”! (6)

McGrath holds that the Lutheran dogmaticians based their doctrine of election upon God’s foreknowledge of the faith of the one to be justified. He says nothing of the controversies over the question of the actual teaching of Luther and of the dogmaticians of Orthodoxy on this issue that led to the formulation of the theology of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.(7) The literature of that nineteenth-century controversy, involving also the old Buffalo, Iowa, and Ohio Synods, leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Lutheran view was not at all as McGrath formulates it. Neither the Calvinists nor the classic Lutherans focused on foreknowledge of free will; they both saw God’s election and the work of the Holy Spirit as the sole source of the believer’s status. They differed in attempting to account for the lost, the Calvinist theologians attributing this to a divine decree, either supralapsarian or infralapsarian, the Lutherans to man’s own fallen condition and perverse misuse of his free will. (8)

Karl Barth’s position on justification comes under criticism but not, it would seem, for the best reasons. McGrath notes that “Barth cannot share Luther’s high estimation for the articulus iustificationis" (sec. 37). He explains this as stemming from Barth’s theological method: for Barth, “soteriology is necessarily secondary to the fact of revelation, Deus dixit.” Now Barth’s lack of appreciation for the centrality of justification certainly relates to his theological method, but that does not concern his attitude toward revelation at all as much as it does (1) his overarching stress on the sovereignty of God and (2) his appallingly weak doctrine of sin (sin as an absence of something-see Gustaf Wingren’s criticism of Barth in Wingren’s classic, Theology in Conflict; and my Where Is History Going?). Moreover, it does not seem entirely responsible for McGrath to stress Barth’s doctrine of revelation and not inform his readers that, as a matter of fact, Barth’s view of revelation was evacuated of any and all empirical grounding by his absorption of Khler’s distinction between revelatory Geschichte and the ordinary facts of history (Historie). But that is doubtless because McGrath, like many English evangelicals, refuses himself to acknowledge the inerrancy of Scriptural revelation.
The treatment of Tillich is even more inadequate. Here is the whole of it:

In an important essay of 1924, Tillich noted that the doctrine of justification applied not merely to the religious aspects of moral life, but also to the intellectual life of religion, in that it is not merely the sinner, but also the doubter, who is justified by faith. Tillich thus extends the scope of the doctrine to the universal human situation of despair and doubt concerning the meaning of existence. Tillich thus argues that the doctrine of justification, when rightly understood, lies at the heart of the Christian faith. While nineteenth-century man was characterized by his idealism, his twentieth-century counterpart is characterized by existential despair and anxiety-and it is to this latter man that the Christian message must be made relevant. Tillich attempts this task by the “method of correlation,” by which the Christian proclamation is “correlated” with the existential questions arising from human existence. For Tillich, the doctrine of justification addresses a genuine human need: “man must learn to accept that he is accepted, despite being unacceptable” (sec. 38).

It is amazing that McGrath can set forth such a viewpoint without pointing out its utter incompatibility with anything historic Christian faith or Holy Writ has said concerning justification. (The only semblance of an evaluation is the single sentence in a footnote: “Despite the verbal parallels with the concept of acceptatio Dei, it is difficult to see quite how Tillich understands man to be accepted by God.”) Moreover, no attempt at all is made to relate Tillich’s metaphorical recasting of justification to (1) his presentation of God as Being Itself (the ontological dimension of his thought), (2) Christ as the New Being (his soteriology), or (3) his so-called “Protestant principle,” on the basis of which every religious assertion stands under criticism-thus, ironically, making doubt endemic! Altizer, according to Hannah Tillich, hastened Tillich’s demise by pointing out that if noreligious claims are indefeasible that would of course include Tillich’s Being Itself, the foundation of his entire system-and Altizer’s point would, of course, equally apply, mutantis mutandis, to any “doctrine” of justification he espoused. For the short treatment of Tillich just quoted, McGrath cites only Tillich’s Protestant Era and The Shaking of the Foundations-and gives but a single secondary reference, and that to a relatively unimportant treatment of Tillich’s correlation principle. Surely a theologian of Tillich’s influence deserved a more thorough analysis and critique than this.
It is also difficult to understand how a history of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith could be written with no mention of such overarching ideas in the history of doctrine as Anders Nygren’s magisterial analysis of the interplay of agape (God’s self-giving love) and eros (man’s self-centered love)-a thesis unsuccessfully refuted by M. C. D’Arcy. (McGrath cites a minor journal article by Nygren, but not his Agape and Eros, and the concept is nowhere treated.) If justification is understood forensically as God’s unmerited act of love in eternity toward a fallen race, as the Reformers believed, whilst Roman theology saw the infusion of grace as requiring human acceptance by way of adherence to the Church’s teachings, then it should be quite evident why Augustine’s uneasy caritas-synthesis of agape and eros fractured at the time of the Reformation, and why Trent unqualifiedly condemned justification by grace through faith alone. Appreciation of the Nygren thesis would also have helped McGrath to see more clearly the weaknesses in contemporary ecumenical attempts to blend the Protestant and Roman Catholic positions on justification.

Unquestionably the most troubling aspect of this book comes in a paragraph of the preface. The author writes:

Some readers of the first edition expressed puzzlement that there was to be found no specific treatment of Paul’s view on justification. It may be helpful to such readers to recall that every generation believed that it had understood Paul correctly, and was duly puzzled when its own settled convictions were called into question by a later generation. What one generation takes to be an accurate analysis of Paul is seen by later scholarship as that generation’s analysis of Paul, reflecting its own values, presuppositions, goals and prejudices. The present volume can thus be seen, at one level, as a continuous analysis of the church’s interpretation of Paul on justification, which takes no fixed view on what the correct interpretation of Paul should be.

One understands not wanting to be criticized for one’s theological views by those who disagree, but the kind of relativism that this passage conveys goes beyond mere scholarly reticence. It is, in effect, the refusal to assert that Scripture has any objective, absolute meaning: its teachings, even those as central as justification, are defined only in the continuing history of its interpretation. Of course, this is in fact to espouse precisely Newman’s “organic” model of doctrinal development, which is basic to Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Contrast Luther to Erasmus, who was arguing essentially the same thing:

If you are referring to essential truths-why, what more irreligious assertion could a man possibly make than that he wants to be free to assert precisely nothing  about such things? ... I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance. ... Who will maintain that the town fountain does not stand in the light because the people down some alley cannot see it, while everyone in the square can see it? (De servo arbitrio, WA, 18, 604-605; cf. Montgomery, In Defense of Martin Luther and Crisis in Lutheran Theology).

This is the same McGrath who wrote in a foreword to a recent evangelical interpretation of Richard Hooker: “The vision which Hooker encourages for modern Evangelicalism is that of a movement which is deeply grounded in and nourished by Scripture, yet strengthened and sustained by a sense of solidarity within Christian orthodoxy down the ages.” (9) But how can the church be “grounded in and nourished by Scripture” if the meaning of the major doctrines of Scripture-to say nothing of the rest of its content-is at the mercy of the “values, presuppositions, goals, and prejudices” of each generation of Christian believers? Here, one either holds, in Anglo-Catholic fashion, that the Holy Spirit continuously preserves the church from error through control of its traditions or, in the unshakable conviction of the Reformers, that an objective, perspicuous Scripture must forever judge the church: Ecclesia semper reformanda est. A firm doctrine of inspiration and a rock-solid hermeneutic are essential for the latter viewpoint. Neither is needed for the former.

1 [ Back ] J. L. Neve and O. W. Heick, A History of Christian Thought (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946).
2 [ Back ] J. L. González, A History of Christian Thought (3 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1970-1975)
3 [ Back ] H. E. Jacobs, The Lutheran Movement in England During the Reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI (Philadelphia: G. W. Frederick, 1890).
4 [ Back ] N. S. Tjernagel, Henry VIII and the Lutherans (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, l965).
5 [ Back ] Cf. Robert D. Preus’s two-volume Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1970-1972).
6 [ Back ] Cf. David Chytraeus, On Sacrifice, ed. and trans. John Warwick Montgomery (2d. ed.; Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1999).
7 [ Back ] See inter alia, A. R. Wentz, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America  (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, l955), pp. 212-216.
8 [ Back ] F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (4 vols.; Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1950-1957), II, 419-422, III, 471-503.9 [Back] In Nigel Atkinson, Richard Hooker: Reformed Theologian of the Church of England? (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 1997).
John Warwick Montgomery is distinguished professor of apologetics and law at Trinity College and Theological Seminary (Newburgh, Indiana) and provost for its U.K. and European operations. He is author of several books, including Law & Gospel.


  1. Just a few notes here, for anyone who may come across this blog post and who has never heard of or barely heard of John Warwick Montgomery. A Wikipedia article on him is at His personal web page is at Since this article was written, he became associated with Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia:

    Craig Parton in Tough-Minded Christianity: The Legacy of John Warwick Montgomery (an excellent book available through and elsewhere) stated: "John Montgomery has remained a faithful proclaimer of Christ crucified to all men." "Lutherans by and large have never figured out Montgomery. Of course, that assumes Lutherans have even heard of him. Most have not."

  2. "To be sure, a single work focusing on a cardinal doctrine is always useful. McGrath admits in his preface that “in effect, the present study is a bibliographical essay.” As such, it will often provide insights hard to find elsewhere. Thus, there is a fine critique of John Henry Newman’s gross misunderstandings of Luther."

    I take you haven't actually read Newman's lectures on Justification then?

  3. But what to say to those who have never seen a parish pump, yet imagine it to be something one might encounter in a dark alley? How to argue with them about what is and what is not the case?

    Those who know what a parish pump is, do so by virtue of belonging to a tradition where parish pumps have a use and a consequent meaning. The "plain" meaning of Scripture depends on the plain context in which it is received. Tradition provides the context in which Scripture is properly read. The Church alone teaches Christian truth; Scripture proves what the Church teaches.