Monday, January 26, 2009

Christian Speech: Common or Commandeering?

In our continuing debate over the nature of justification, the conversation seems to be going like this:

Protestant: “You Catholics are misusing the term ‘justify’ (dikaioo), claiming that it means everything from ‘receive into God’s family’ (which the Bible calls ‘adoption’) to ‘make one a partaker of the divine life’ (which the Bible calls ‘regeneration’), when the actual word itself has a much more limited meaning, namely, to ‘acquit’ or ‘vindicate.’”

Catholic: “Well, even if the Greek term has a more limited meaning that the one we assign to the doctrine named after it, it doesn’t matter. Justification is an in-house doctrine, a teaching of the church that is uniquely ours, and therefore we oughtn’t ask Jewish or pagan lexicographers how to speak our own tribal, peculiar language.”

An interesting response, I admit. William Willimon would be proud.

I think it is necessary to clarify the Protestant position here. We are not saying that we should prefer the technical definition of the best lexica over that of Paul and the subsequent church fathers. Rather, we are saying that Paul used the term in accord with how it was commonly understood in the vernacular of his own day. In other words, he didn’t commandeer a common legal term and transform its meaning without bothering to let anyone in on the joke.

Though the dikaio- word group has a pretty broad semantic range, Paul uses the term “to justify” primarily to denote the act of God rendering to a person his legal due in response to the moral actions he has (or has not) performed. There are two kinds of justification in Paul, one ordinary and the other extraordinary. According to the former, God simply rewards a man according to his works (see Rom. 2:13). Extraordinary justification, on the other hand, occurs when the Father does what he often claims is impossible for him to do, namely, when he “clears the guilty” and “justifies the wicked.”

The reason he can do this is because he has provided for himself an airtight theodicy—he has punished his Son in the sinner’s stead and has imputed to the sinner Christ’s own righteousness as a free gift, thus remaining “just, and the justifier of the one who believes” the gospel (Rom. 3:23-26).

But semantics can be tedious, after all. What I’m really interested in finding out is whether or not the Catholic can accept what is said above, regardless of what they call it.