Did Paul Teach Law Court Justification?

by Robert Brow   (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

(Notes for discussion, revised in November 1996)

In the western church it is generally assumed that the key to Paul's Epistle to the Romans is the word "justification." The English verb "justify" comes straight from the Latin justificio which is a verb that belonged to the Roman law courts. The noun justificatio from which we transliterated the English word "justification" means that an accused person is pronounced free of condemnation and punishment. It was an essential part of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the atonement, and justification by faith alone became the rallying crying of the Reformation.

 This has saddled Paul with a forensic model of God's dealings with us which is quite foreign to his other epistles and totally absent from the Gospels. A possible counter example is the word "ransom" in Mark 10:45. But this can only be done by focussing on the amount paid for ransoming instead of the resulting new life of freedom. "He has ransomed and redeemed his people" cannnot be forced into a forensic model.

 The heart of the Epistle to the Romans in 7:14-8:17 is Paul's sense that God by the Spirit has freed him (ransoming in the right sense) from the miserable inability of his flesh to attain what he longed be.

 Having assumed that Paul's Epistle to the Romans was set in a law court theologians then developed a model of the Trinity in which the Father is a forensic judge of original sin, the Son is primarily the one who satisfies that justice, and the Holy Spirit is only accessible to humans after that satisfaction is completed and appropriated by humans. This denied the fact that from the beginning all three persons of the Trinity were concerned to bring children to glory from all nations, and all three persons were approachable by humans everywhere (argued for example in Paul's sermon in Acts 17:26-28).

 It is time to question whether the word "justification" is helpful in interpreting Paul, and even whether it has any place in translating any part of the New Testament. The noun only occurs three times in the King James and later English versions of the Bibles. All three occurences are in the Epistle to the Romans.

 In the King James translation the adjective dikaios and the noun dikaiosune are correctly translated "righteous" and "righteousness" thirty-four times in the Epistle to the Romans. The forensic virus was introduced when the King James Version [and most other English translations including the RV, RSV, NIV, NEB, NRSV] in thirteen cases translated the related Greek verbs by the typically Roman law court verbs "to justify" and the passive "to be justified." In each case the forensic term "justify" was used to translate the Greek verb dikaioo which need mean nothing more than "to make righteous."

 Those who use the Latin root words "justification," "justify," and "be justified" have already assumed a judicial paradigm, and by doing so they set Paul's argument in a mold which is alien to his thinking in other epistles. The translators have therefore taken for granted what should be very questionable. The literal translation of the Greek by terms such as "make righteous or upright or just," "be made righteous," "righteousness," etc. would have left open the question of what model Paul had in mind. That does not prove that the forensic model is wrong, only that another model fits the Bible just as well, and avoids the moral problem inherent in Latin law court theology.

 The words in the original Greek might allow, but they never require a judicial interpretation. Since the time of Chrysostom it has been pointed out in the Greek Church that dikaioo could equally well be translated "make upright or righteous" [See David Weaver's three articles on "The Exegesis of Romans 5:12" in the St. Vladimir Theological Quarterly, Volume 27.3, 1983, p. 133 ff., volume 27.4, 1983, p. 187 ff. and Volume 28.1, 1984, p.231 ff].

 If this Greek Orthodox reading of the Epistle is correct then it would seem that it was the legal minds of the first Latin translators and Jerome's Vulgate which introduced the forensic virus into the western church. Augustine did not know Greek, and he set the Roman law court model in stone. Anselm and Calvin clarified that logic with ruthless perfection.

 The result is that the Roman law court term justificatio has dominated the theology of the western Church since Augustine and it was the battleground for the long bloody split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It also twisted the doctrine of the Trinity and caused the obsession with guaranteeing places in heaven which made concern for genuine liberation impossible.

 What for example would be neutral translations for the three occurences in the Bible of the term "justification"? The first is "Who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." [Romans 4:25] Here the Greek word is dikaiosis which in the lexicon is given the meanings "justification, vindication or acquittal." These all assume the Forensic model. But the context of the passage is the faith of Abraham which is going to be a blessing to all nations. And there is no way to set Abraham's life of faith in a Roman lawcourt.

 Paul tells us that Abraham was counted righteous or upright because in his sense of great bodily weakness he had faith in the promises of God. [Romans 4:18-25] In the same way we are counted righteous or upright when in our great weakness we believe through Jesus Christ in the God of Abraham [5:1-6, so 7:14-8:2] So instead of using the law court term justificatio we could translate "He was delivered over to death because of (dia) our sins, and raised for us to be counted righteous or upright." The meaning would be that like Abraham we feel our inability to perform, but as we look in faith to the God who raised Jesus from the dead we are counted as upright and we have Abraham's kind of righteousness. [Compare 4:18-25, 5:1-6, 7:14-8:2]

 A second text is "The free gift is not like the effect of one man's sin. For the judgment following many trespasses brings justification" (Romans 5:16). Here the Greek word is dikaioma which can mean "regulation, requirement, commandment." Since it is applied to Christ two verses later it cannot mean "justification" in a forensic sense. The context suggests that Paul is contrasting two ways of living, in Adam or in Christ, in death or in life, under the sense of condemnation or in the assurance of being accepted as upright before God [Romans 5:12-21. See Anders Nygren on "The Two Aeons," Romarbrevet, Stockholm, 1944, First American Edition, l949; Commentary on Romans, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972, pp.16-26]. So a more neutral translation would be "the gift that followed many transgressions now results in us meeting God's requirement." That avoids importing the Roman judicial model and leaves the interpretation open. So a more neutral translation would be "the gift that followed many transgressions now results in us meeting God's requirement."

 Justification is again used wrongly as a translation of dikaiosis later in the same context. "Just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." [Romans 5:18] This translation adds the word "act" which is not in the Greek, and by using the Latin word "justification" it insists that the Greek word dikaiosis is set in a law court. The New English Bible correctly abandons "justification" but immediately slips back into the judicial paradigm with "a verdict of acquittal."

 In this case the context is Paul's contrast between the two humanities in Adam or in Christ. A radical but neutral paraphrase would be "In contrast to human (Adamic) transgression which condemns us all, the rightness that comes from God (Christ's dikaioma) effects our righteousness (dikaiosis)." That allows the idea of a genuine work of righteousness in the heart by the Holy Spirit, which seems to be the thrust of the whole Epistle. The Epistle to the Romans then becomes the good news of God's plan as a loving parent to perfect us. In such a model God never was interested in condemning anyone to hell, or transferring righteousness by a merely legal transaction.

 It therefore seems that the term "justification" is misleading and never needed, even in the Epistle to the Romans. The passive of the verb dikaioo was translated by the forensic term "justified" seven times in the King James version of the Gospels, but in no case has the context anything to do with a law court. And it would have been impossible to derive a forensic model from a reading of the Gospels alone.

 It is therefore time translators had the courage to discard "justify," "justified," and "justification" from our Bible and use the ordinary meaning of the Greek words instead. Wherever the adjective dikaios, the verb dikaioo, and the noun dikaiosune occur the translation should use "righteous," "make righteous," and "righteousness." The meaning of those words should be derived from the Hebrew idea of a righteous person (tzaddiq) which never has a forensic connotation in the Old Testament. What Paul clarified in Romans is that no one can overcome his or unruly flesh by legalism. The good news is that the three Persons of the Trinity can perfect us in love, and so make us righteous in the Old Testament sense.

 As the Greek Orthodox church has always explained, God's original purpose from Genesis 1 was to bring many children to glory (theiosis), and the three Persons of the Trinity have from the beginning undertaken our perfecting. Romans 1:18 chronicles the disastrous failure of the Greek attempt to attain perfection by wisdom, and the consequent result of their atheism in the collapse of their civilisation since the golden age. He then shows how Jewish civilization has also failed in in its attempt to attain perfection by legalism. Paul's point in Romans is that for Abraham and for all of us the good news is that the whole work of perfecting is done by God, and our part is to accept it by faith alone. That was the experience that moved Luther. Unfortunately he then explained his theology in the forensic model he had learned from Augustine. Wesley delighted in the Greek Fathers, and tried to teach God's perfecting by faith alone, but still found it hard to free himself from the Latin word "justification" in the Vulgate and English translations.

 It seems that history would have been very different, and the western church would have been saved much pain and vast theological confusion if the Roman law terms had never been used. The confusion did not arise in the Orthodox churches of eastern Europe where the Greek New Testament was read in the original, and the Latin paradigm of Roman justice was not usually in mind. What is sorely needed in our generation is a modern commentary on the Epistle to the Romans which offers another model.

An Additional Note About Substitution

If we move the locus of the language game that Paul was using from a law court to a family setting, what does that do for our use of the term "substitution"? One cannot remove the idea of substitution from texts like John 11:50 and 1 Peter 3:18, or from the fact that Christ died on the cross for us.

 One answer might be that the substitutions of love belong to a quite different model from the substitutions of a Roman law court. If we assume that loving parents long for the perfecting (with God the term is theiosis) of their child in love, that process inevitably involves many substitutions: sleepless nights, changing diapers, going hungry so the child can eat, listening to baby talk, defending, saving, taking the blame for, and even posting bail in a law court.

 There are also substitutions in any love relationship, in serving the needy, in fighting for a nation's freedom, etc. The Father has to substitute for the prodigal son by identifying himself with the boy's degradation and giving him the ring and the honour of a barbecue. The good Samaritan substitutes for the wounded man by taking his blood and danger upon himself, and vouching for him at the inn. Sacrifice is inevitably a substitution. Any child knew in the ancient world that "This animal is being zebakhed so we can eat."

 That means we cannot do without the idea of substitution in trying to fathom the costly love of God. What we can do is try to set it in a appropriate context.


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