August 10, 2010

Two Concepts of Justification

In my comment on Uncommon Priors the other day, I distinguished between two different problems I might need to be saved from: (1) I deserve to be punished for my actions, and (2) if there is a God, he will probably punish me for my actions. These, in my view, are two different problems. That is, the fact that I deserve punishment is a terrible thing in itself, independent of whether I will ever actually be punished. Because of this, we can see our need for salvation, even before we believe in God. This might be important in terms of coming to believe in God, if only by making the inquiry more urgent.

Today I was reading a post at Called to Communion, which was officially about relics but mostly discussed differences in Roman Catholic and Protestant views of justification, and it occurred to me that these two distinct problems correspond, in some degree, to the two different doctrines of justification. What I want to do in this post is to argue that we are in need of justification in both of two distinct senses. Whether the RCC or Protestant doctrine of justification is correct depends, of course, on more than this. Most importantly, it depends on which sense of 'justification' is intended in Scripture. Things might get complicated if it turns out (as I suspect it might) that different Biblical authors use the word in different ways. But even if the Bible does teach justification in both senses (as I think it does) that won't show that either the RCC or the Protestant doctrine is correct in its entirety. I'm not going to try to answer any of these questions. All I am going to do in this post is distinguish the two senses of 'justification' and comment briefly on how they relate to the doctrinal dispute.

To be justified is to be made just or righteous. But there are two different ways of being just. Justice (by which I mean the property of being just) can be either a legal status or a character trait. I'll call the first 'justice*' and the second 'justice**'. Similarly, I'll call a person having justice* 'just*', and I'll call the process of becoming just* 'justification*', and likewise for justice**.

Let's start, for simplicity, with justice relative to a particular body of law. A person is just* relative to a body of law just in case that person is, as a matter of legal status, considered to be in line with that body of law. So, for instance, consider human law. A person is just* relative to human law just in case (1) the law does not prescribe any future punishment for her, and (2) she does not presently need to defend herself against any charges under the law. This is why 'justification' is sometimes glossed as 'acquittal'. One is justified* relative to human law when one is acquitted (unless there are other outstanding accusations). One is also justified* when one completes one's sentence. But justice* should also be able to be applied relative to the moral law. There it will mean that it is not the case that one (morally) ought to be punished. So this is what justification* in the theologically significant sense is: apart from God's action, human beings are all unjust* relative to the moral law - that is, it would be a great wrong for us not to be punished. God justifies* a human being when God (somehow) brings it about that he ought not to be punished.

Justice**, on the other hand, is not a legal status but a character trait. One is just** if and only if one is the sort of person who keeps her legal obligations. By describing justice** as a character trait, and talking about being a certain sort of person, I mean to imply that the just** person does not merely keep his obligations because of some external circumstances (he doesn't do it to avoid punishment, for instance); rather, he keeps his obligations because that's the sort of person he is.

Now I believe, as did Socrates, Plato, and Kant, that injustice** is must worse than injustice*; if one is unjust*, this merely means that the world would be, on the whole, morally better if one suffered certain unpleasant experiences. This might arise from an isolated incident which reflects very little on one's character. Depending on what the moral facts of the universe are, it might even be due to complicated systemic features of the world not reflecting on one's character at all. (For instance, Protestants will want to argue that Jesus became unjust*, but not unjust**.) But to be unjust** is to be a bad sort of person, the sort of person we don't want around. A salvation which does not deliver us from our injustice** wouldn't be much of a salvation at all, firstly because we would fall right back into injustice*; secondly, and more importantly, because we would still be bad people.

The way Protestants understand justification primarily concerns justification*, but note that, given the way Protestants understand God to accomplish justification*, it will not, in one and the same act, accomplish justification**. Penal substitution (i.e., Christ's punishment in our place) has no tendency, of itself, to change our character. Protestants usually talk about the change in our character as sanctification, or being made holy. (Also, in my opinion, they don't talk about it enough.)

The RCC doctrine of justification, on the other hand, places the emphasis on justification**. (This is well-illustrated by the previously linked CTC post.) However, justification** alone is not really salvation either. The fact that a person's character has been reformed does not mean that he no longer ought to be punished for his earlier acts. If we are justified** we will be better able to recognize that our punishment is deserved and will genuinely care about seeing the right thing done, and so we will perhaps accept our punishment more nobly, but we will still be punished, unless we are justified*. (Indeed, if we are justified** and not justified*, we will be inclined to demand that we be punished, since this is what, under the moral law, ought to be done, and just** people try to see to it that the demands of the moral law are met.)

The point, then, is that in order to save human beings from our miserable condition, God must both bring it about that we no longer morally deserve punishment (as Protestants emphasize) and radically reform our character (as the RCC emphasizes).

Posted by Kenny at August 10, 2010 1:32 PM
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Comments

Kenny,

The Catholic doctrine is that at the moment of justification, the person is not only infused with sanctifying grace and agape, but the debt of eternal punishment is canceled, through the superabundant satisfaction of Christ's sacrifice. So in that moment, according to Catholic doctrine, the person is justified in both the senses to which you refer.

I described St. Thomas's account of the debt of eternal punishment here:

http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/04/aquinas-and-trent-part-5/

And I also talked about St. Thomas's distinction between the debt of punishment [reatus poenae] and the forgiveness of sins [remissionis peccati] in St. Thomas on the Passion of Christ.

http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/04/aquinas-and-trent-part-6/

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Posted by: Bryan Cross at August 10, 2010 8:10 PM

Hi Bryan. I knew that the Catholic doctrine, like the Protestant doctrine, had room for both somewhere, but I was not confident of my ability to explain correctly how it was supposed to work, so I just left it out. Thanks for filling in the blank. Do you agree with my claim that there is a difference of emphasis here?

Posted by: Kenny at August 10, 2010 8:25 PM

I think catholic doctrine is not really very similar to protestant doctrine.

Posted by: Helena at August 11, 2010 11:28 PM

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