Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Some say that Christians are obsessed by sin and how to avoid its consequences. This might be better stated as concern at a deep level about how to be in a right relationship with the Creator. The Church has evolved a teaching about this called the Doctrine of Justification. But a question today is whether this teaching still makes sense.

The suggestion that human beings must somehow have God's approval is central to many, if not most, world religions. Christianity is no different and has worked out over centuries a complex theology of how this comes about. 

Christian teaching is based on two fundamental starting points. First, central to the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth is his unconditional acceptance of people as they are. In his day acceptance in Hebrew society depended on birth and on adherence to the rules and regulations of the Jewish religion. This kind of belonging meant that only certain types of people could be admitted into Hebrew society. The gospels record the consistent refusal of Jesus to relate to people in this way.

Second, deriving from the Jewish approach to God, is the stand of Paul of Tarsus as recorded in his letters to various Christian groups some 20-30 years after the death of Jesus. A primary sign of being Hebrew was the circumcision of men. Paul stood against the insistence by Jewish Christians that only the circumcised could become Christian. In so doing, he opened up the Church to non-Hebrews and ensured its consequent expansion to become the Western world's major religion. In other words, the Church began as a radically inclusive fellowship.

The logic of the traditional teaching about justification derives from the belief that everyone sins. Because God is absolutely good, it's impossible for a less-than-good sinner to be "God's friend". The perfectly good can't tolerate the imperfect. 

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the first to work out a theology of justification. This is hardly surprising since he had also developed the idea that not only does each of us sin against God, but we are also all sinful in nature. We all start life deeply corrupted by what is called "original sin". Given this starting point, it was hard for Augustine and other church people of the time to work out how a totally corrupt humanity can take tea with absolute holiness.

The answer, said Augustine, lies in Paul's concept of how we are justified - that is, brought into a right relationship with a utterly holy God. Alister McGrath uses the analogy of a prison to clarify the notion:

Let us suppose you are in prison, and are offered your freedom on condition you pay a heavy fine. The promise is real - so long as you can meet the precondition, the promise will be fulfilled. [1]

Augustine proposed that because we don't have the necessary money, and have no way of getting it, we are given it by the jailer. We are liberated from the dark prison of sin into the enlightened freedom of repentance and a reformed life by God's unsolicited gift.

Unfortunately, this solution - that God gives us access to the holy presence free and for nothing - seems to merely push the problem a step further back. The question arises, "What sort of money pays for our release?". 

That is, what is required in order to, as it were, trigger the gift of justification? For if something doesn't trigger the gift, then what we're really saying is either [a] that God gives justification to everyone regardless of how they live and what sort of person they are, or [b] that he picks and chooses between people either at random or by some sort of criteria about which we have no knowledge. If the latter, then it's all-important to know what are those criteria.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) answered that it is faith which triggers God's gift of justification, which he understood as the acceptance of us sinners as though we were actually righteous. This faith is a deep trust in God. In other words, getting right with God requires the precondition of faith.

This theological response is summarised by McGrath:

Luther insists that God provides everything necessary for justification, so that all that a sinner needs to do is receive it. God is active, and humans passive, in justification ... even faith itself is a gift of God, rather than human action. God himself meets the precondition for justification.

But, as McGrath's summary implies, this position merely once more pushes the matter one step back. This time it is required that a person first agree to receive the gift of faith before God can relate to him or her. A problem with this is that few people will not agree to receive a gift so important that it puts one right with God. Who could turn their back on such a gift? Getting a free pass to the Creator's garden party is not something one turns one's nose up at.

If this is true, then God might as well give the grace of faith and hence righteousness to everyone. But those who put the doctrine of justification together have to insist that we supply part of the equation. How can God give a free pass to someone who is merely pretending to agree. There obviously has to be a very basic change to a person at some very deep level before they can genuinely agree to accept the free gift.

The difficulty of providing a starting point for the process by which God accepts us even though we are sinful has led to many ingenious and tortuous verbal formulas. They are not worth going into in great detail here. Suffice it to say that the contrary to the traditional teaching of justification is the view that we have in some degree to earn God's acceptance. That is, only when we do something to indicate our willingness does God have anything to work with.

This is known technically as "justification by works". It is backed up by quotes from the Letter of James, which counsels something close to what is today called social activism. The author of the letter says that Christians should be generous in giving and "doers of the word" - not merely "hearers who deceive themselves" (1.22). The author goes on to say,

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (2.14)

The answer to this question is obviously, "No!"

Whichever approach might be correct, the logic of the traditional position rules out the solution that God has everyone to tea without precondition. For if God were to do this, then sin ceases to be a significant barrier between us and God. And if sin is diminished, then so is the saving death of Jesus on the cross - which was put at the centre of the Christian vision by Paul and held there since by all but a few (heretical) Christians. If so, then it follows that whatever God does, a life reformed in deeds must  be part of the equation.

The 18th century ushered in various attempts to make sense of ancient doctrines in the light of reason. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought that nature embodies certain truths about morality, and therefore about how God will relate to us. Some actions are proved right because they achieve aims we have previously decided upon. But other actions inhere in the way things are (his "categorical imperative"). If nature - as he and others thought at the time - runs rather like clockwork, having a rigid set of laws to operate by, then we should be able to discover what makes for right actions by getting to know all these laws.

In this context, justification becomes a process by which God sees us as "essentially well-pleasing to him", says Kant. In our terms today, God is not limited by space/time - so he can judge us as a completed whole through what Kant calls "a purely intellectual intuition". When God perceives us in this way, we become what we can be. That is, "ought" becomes "can" and we are justified.

Kant's approaches relies heavily on reason to move from "ought" to "can". Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) took a more intuitive approach. There are those, himself among them as he confesses, who find they cannot live a truly ethical life. That is, they recognise a gap between them and the universal good or "Unconditional". This leads a person to live out life beyond reason, to recognise that extra-human assistance is a necessary component in our attempts to close the gap.

Such is the nature of doctrines such as justification, that they become ever more elaborate and intricate. Differences of opinion are therefore perhaps inevitable. The Roman Catholic Church has, for example, evolved its own version of justification which - if one pays attention to the detail - differs considerably from the Lutheran version. To the untrained, uninterested eye, however, both the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran versions appear generic.

Today, the once-fierce debates between Christians of differing parties have died down. It is rare (and boring) for the old, worn-out, bloodstained cudgels to be taken out of ecclesiastical cupboards and waved around in sham conflict. For the fact of the matter is that most Christians and (probably) all others are not in the least interested in arguing the doctrine of justification.

This is not to say that people at large are not concerned with being right with God - or whatever name they attach to that which is ultimate in their lives. The matter is of as much concern as ever, but is expressed in very different terms from the dim and distant Christian past.

  • An increasing number of reputable Christian theologians question the traditional teaching that we can relate to God in the same sense as we relate to each other. This is not to say that we don't or can't so relate. But it is to say that the way we relate differs in essence from human relationships. We don't perceive God as people did previously - as a sort of glorious monarch, elevated far above us in station and set apart in a holy haze. 

    The modern perceptions are very different - ranging from God as wholly other and therefore mysterious for all time, or God expressed through nature, or God discovered in deep meditation (all often variously labelled as "new age" spirituality). In other words, the approval of a majesty on high is not, as it once was, of any concern.

  • Similarly, it is becoming more and more difficult to think of a God who steers human affairs as a driver steers a motor car. As humanity discovers more about how the world and the universe work, it becomes apparent that the latter is a complex whole. The universe is a system. Change one part of it and the whole changes. The space/time continuum allows only one-way change.

    It is upon this perception of reality that we today base the analytical discipline we call history. Without history, it is nonsense to talk about Jesus as a man who really existed in history as we all do - a lynch pin of traditional theology. In fact, history as a discipline ceases to exist if God can intervene at will and change things from moment to moment. This is because no cause and effect can in that case ever be traced. The idea of God's grace reforming us through the free gift of justification doesn't hold water in this scenario because it requires God's intervention in human affairs. If God does intervene from moment to moment in the world, we cannot separate a normal cause from a God-cause. History in this case is a delusion.

  • The traditional idea of a humanity totally corrupted by inherited sin is less credible now than ever before. While many acknowledge sin in their lives, it is no longer necessarily something which leads to eternal torment, and deliverance from which should be our all-consuming concern. 

    The modern mind is rapidly becoming tuned to the notion that human beings have developed gradually over millions of years. The idea that we have been utterly corrupted somewhere along the line no longer makes sense. The garden of Eden and the Fall have irrevocably been placed into the category of myth. A corollary is that God's creation is good as it is, warts and all. Sin is not inherited.

  • It is being increasingly recognised that Jesus of Nazareth, not theism, makes Christianity distinctive. It might be said that God belongs to everyone, while Christians stand out because they lay claim to Jesus as someone special. 

    Many others worship God. Christian scholars are increasingly exploring the implications of this in relation to other religions. For example, they ask what happens if we give Muslims credit for venerating the same God as do Christians? One of the implications of doing so is that the life and person of Jesus becomes more, not less, important. And, if the doctrine of justification is to fly at all, it must carry many more on board than just a faithful Christian few.

Justification and the many controversies which surround it has a long and (for the historian) interesting story. But it is now seldom the bone of contention it once was. Indeed, I think it is true to say that it is of little or no concern to Christians, facing as they do a large number of much more pressing concerns.

[1] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994

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