Here's an essay (slightly edited for clarity) from last semester on the place of justification in Paul's theology. I'd love to receive comments from those who've thought about this issue themselves, whether they agree or disagree with my own conclusions, and of course I'd love to read essays from other who did the same question.
Assess the view that justification by faith is at the heart of Paul’s theology.
This essay deals with what is largely recognised to be one of four major questions in Pauline scholarship – what (if anything) is the heart of Paul’s theology? More specifically it deals with the question of whether or not it can be claimed that the doctrine of justification is at the heart of Paul’s theology. It is the contention of this essay that justification is central to Paul’s theology in the sense that it is a prominent and essential element of his gospel. However, justification by faith is not the heart of Paul’s theology if this is taken to mean that everything else is logically or historically derivative of it. This in no way undermines the importance of justification by faith, but rather seeks to place it appropriately within Paul’s thought.
Ernst Käsemann suggests (consistent with a generally Lutheran tradition) that justification is in fact at the heart of Paul’s theology. For Käsemann, justification is central to the major Pauline theme of God’s victory over the world where hubristic human effort could only fail. In this sense Käsemann disagrees strongly with those for whom justification by faith is merely a polemic for dealing with Jew-Gentile relations in the Church rather than a developed aspect of Paul’s theology. However, Martin has demonstrated that Käsemann’s dealing with the reconciliation theme within Paul is coloured by his prior assumption of justification’s centrality. Martin accords with Käsemann in disagreeing with those who would relegate justification to the position of a mere polemic against the Judaisers. However, he understands justification to be a relational term, entailing “the entire process of the rectification of man’s relationship to God”, as well as a forensic term. It is this relational sense which for Martin suggests the connection between justification and reconciliation. In particular Martin points to the parallel statements of Romans 5:9-10 and suggests that the two terms are almost interchangeable. Justification however often refers to the negative side of the reconciliatory process as part of how Paul stresses that “all impediments to reconciliation are removed and a new status is conferred”. By contrast, “reconciliation is the concomitant of justification, but it is a larger term” encompassing adoption, and restored relational life with God by the Spirit.
Perhaps the strongest critique of this sort of approach, exemplified in both Martin and Käsemann, is that their conclusions do not quite match the approach of various key texts which appear to have a “summarising or synoptic function”. Gaffin, for example, examines a series of such texts, namely 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 10:9-10,1 Corinthians 1:18-3:22, Galatians 6:14, 2 Timothy 2:8, Romans 4:25 and especially 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. among other things this leads him to the conclusion that “the center of Paul’s gospel-theology is not one or other applied benefit of Christ’s work…but that work itself” which Gaffin argues amounts to the cross and resurrection, that is “messianic suffering and glory.” However, we should note that both Martin and Käsemann challenged the notion that justification was for Paul an unimportant and temporary polemic, even if we cannot necessarily adopt all of their conclusions.
Tom Wright’s work on Pauline theology offers a different approach, suggesting that in actual fact it is Paul’s gospel which is the heart of his theology. As such Wright not so much emphasises one particular element of Paul’s teaching but seeks to encompass multiple elements in his four-fold gospel definition. The heart of Paul’s theology for Wright is a declaration of Jesus’ Christ-ship (as the Messianic-representative of Israel) and universal Lordship, his victory “over all the powers of evil” in his cross and his inauguration of the exile-ending New Age in his resurrection. As such the Pauline gospel is not so much about the personal salvation of individuals as it is a “royal announcement”. This immediately has implications for the place of justification within Paul’s thought. For Wright, when Paul refers to the gospel he is not talking about justification by faith; the centre of Paul’s theology is “the person of Jesus himself”. This re-positioning of justification is further confirmed by Wright’s definition of the idea. Wright argues that justification is the announcement in the present of God’s last day declaration of who is a member of his vindicated covenant people. This “covenantal vindication” has a “forensic dimension” (namely justification), which declares someone to be acquitted and righteous in the covenant law-court. This present anticipation of an eschatological verdict is made when faith-response to the gospel occurs. As such then, “justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian” or a “‘member of the covenant family.’” The enemy of justification by faith in the first century (against which Paul wrote) was therefore not a form of pelagianism or moralism but rather a form of Jewish nationalism which ignored or denied the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes in Jesus Christ and the consequence that membership of the covenant was marked by faith rather than by works of the law such as circumcision. This understanding of justification leads Wright to declare it “the ecumenical doctrine” since it declares that for Christian fellowship “what matters is believing in Jesus” rather than “detailed agreement on justification.” Justification by faith is thus “not so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology.”
Positively, Wright’s formulation of justification and its place within Pauline thought is extremely helpful in avoiding some traditional pitfalls and false antitheses. This is especially true as regards the common “dichotomy of the law-court” or “‘juristic’” notions with “‘participationist’ categories” which was often used to deny or relegate the forensic. Wright argues that once we read Paul in a covenantal context the integration of these two supposed opposites is apparent. Additionally, from the perspective of biblical theology, Wright’s covenantal framework for justification is extremely attractive since it allows us to place Paul within the plotline of the whole canon. In a similar fashion, Wright admirably seeks to place Paul in his 1st century context. Also, his definition of the relationship between the gospel (as the centre of Paul’s thought) and justification does seem to account for at least some of the key Pauline texts mentioned above. Of particular importance to Wright is Romans 1:1-5.
However, on the negative side it can be claimed that in some respects Wright’s placement and definition of justification are inadequate and potentially confusing. Whilst there is undoubtedly some truth in the basic presupposition of Wright regarding the meaning of ‘works of the law’ (as Torah-derived “badges of membership” in the covenant), it is yet to be proven exegetically. Problems for this interpretation would seem to arise when one considers the explanation of justification and works implied by the illustration of wage and gift in Romans 4:4-5. It seems overall that Wright goes too far in his revision of traditional views on justification and, whilst he does not deny the relevance of forgiveness of sins and escape from wrath he underplays the significance of these concepts for the doctrine. His insistence that justification relates to ecclesiology rather than soteriology, to recognition of covenant members and not entering the covenant, at least potentially amounts to a demotion of the significance doctrine. This soteriology-ecclesiology distinction can at times seem like hair-splitting, for, even within Wright's framework there is room for justification to be soteriological and/or connected to entering the covenant. Similarly, Wright does not seem to acknowledge that justification-related concepts can be found elsewhere in Paul’s writing where the terminology is different. For example, Seifrid, having established the relationship between justification and themes such as salvation from wrath and the resurrection, is able to recognise “the basic elements” of justification in passages such as 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and Ephesians 2:8-10. Likewise, the “conceptual elements of justification” can be found dispersed throughout Colossians and Ephesians, especially seen in relation to themes of forgiveness, victory and the denial of grounds for human boasting. Of particular significance is Ephesians 2:8-9 where Paul writes of salvation in language which echoes that used of justification elsewhere.
With regard to the fundamental question of the relationship between the centre of Paul’s theology and justification, it is worth noting that Wright’s formulations (and especially his applications of them) do not fully account for the potency of passages such as Galatians 1:6-9 where Paul quite clearly links justification to the gospel in such a way as to denote that error over this doctrine amounts to the erecting of a false gospel. When Wright does allude to this text he does not do adequate justice to the importance of justification in Paul’s understanding of the gospel and the consequences for Christian fellowship as implied in Galatians. There is a logical inconsistency here since justification for Wright is actually in some sense entailed by the gospel. Wright recoils from relegating justification to a position of unimportance, even stating that it is an implication of the gospel which “cannot be detached without pulling part of the very heart of Paul away with it” since “it is organically and integrally linked” to his gospel. Perhaps he has Galatians in mind when he writes “a church that does not grasp it and teach it is heading for trouble.” We conclude therefore that Wright’s own formulation of justification itself suggests a greater significance for the doctrine in Paul’s thoughts than he himself seems to allow. On this basis alone it seems we must at the very least alter Wright’s definition of justification and nuance his positioning of it within Paul’s theology.
This brings us back to the work of Gaffin on this subject. As hinted above, Gaffin comes to similar conclusions to Wright as regards the centre of Paul’s theology being a declaration about Christ (though his focus is more clearly on the work of Christ in his death and resurrection). However he does in a way which manages to avoid Wright’s over-statements and more clearly brings out the relation between Paul’s gospel and issues of personal salvation. He too sees Paul as a covenantal theologian and roots this in a discussion of Christ as Adamic covenantal representative (Romans 5:12-19). Present union with Christ means “sharing with him in all he has accomplished and now is by virtue of his death and resurrection.” For Gaffin then the centre of Paul’s theology is his gospel, which in turn has at its centre union with Christ, “the key soteriological reality comprising all others.” It is in relation to union with Christ that justification finds its place as the forensic facet of “the salvation appropriated in union with Christ.” Additonally, Gaffin appeals to Titus 3:5-7, 2 Timothy 1:9 and Ephesians 2:8-9 to establish the soteriological significance of justification.
This account of justification and Paul’s theology accounts for various key texts in the Pauline corpus, in particular the move from forensic language to union language in Romans 4-5. Gaffin does this whilst retaining the Christ-centredness necessary to any account of Paul’s theology. Similarly the soteriological nature of justification as evidenced in Romans 1:16-17 (which must surely be a key text for understanding that entire book’s exposition of the doctrine) is retained without compromising the importance of Romans 1:1-6 as a gospel-summary statement.
From these varied alternatives two things emerge. Firstly, justification by faith is not the heart of Paul’s theology from which all other elements are derived. This is most clearly seen in that it is itself a doctrine which depends upon others, as well as in its absence from several key summary passages and some entire epistles. However, the negative significance of these facts should not be overestimated. Rather they uphold and establish what we may term the essential importance of justification for Paul. Justification is bound up with the very centre of Paul’s soteriology, and the conceptual elements of the doctrine are to be found spread throughout Paul’s epistles. Therefore, and secondly, our examination of alternative suggestions for the heart of his thought has demonstrated that justification cannot be removed from a prominent and essential place in Paul's theology.
 Tom. Wright, What St Paul Really Said, (Oxford: Lion, 1997) 14.
 Mark A. Seifrid, Justification by Faith: The Origin and Development of a Central Pauline Theme (NovTSup 68. Leicester: Leiden: Brill, 1992) 270. Also Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006) 24 & 43.
 Wright, St Paul, 17-18.
 Wright, St Paul, 13. Also R. P. Martin, Reconciliation: A Study of Paul’s Theology, (rev. ed. Eugene, Oregon.: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 76.
 In stating such, Martin undoubtedly is coloured by his own favouring of the theme of reconciliation as that crucial “interpretive key to Paul’s theology.” Martin, Reconciliation, 5 & 75.
 Martin, Reconciliation, 32-33, 75-76. Also Wright, St Paul, 13.
 Martin, Reconciliation, 32-37.
 Martin, Reconciliation, 150-1.
 Martin, Reconciliation, 151-3.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 21.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 21-24. The significance of Gaffin for the question posed in this essay was suggested by Steve Jeffrey, personal communication.
 In particular note how, even should Martin be correct, the fact that he has related justification to reconciliation could be seen as support for its importance rather than its relegation.
 Wright, St Paul, 46-62.
 Wright, St Paul, 60.
 Wright, St Paul, 40-1, 125-6.
 Wright, St Paul, 114-5, 132.
 Wright, St Paul, 131.
 Wright, St Paul, 122 & 125. author’s italics.
 Wright, St Paul, 120-22, 124, 127-130.
 Wright, St Paul, 158-9.
 Wright, St Paul, 119.
 Wright, St Paul, 119-120.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 40-41.
 Wright, St Paul, 119-120, 132.
 E.g. Wright, St Paul, 18-20, 23, 25-29.
 Wright, St Paul, 45.
 E.g.Wright, St Paul, 132.
 Stephen. Walton, “A Gross Miscarriage of Justice? Justification, N.T. Wright, and Romans 4” (BA (Hons) diss. Oak Hill College, 2001) 1, 13, 16-18.
 Cf. Mark A. Seifrid, Christ our Righteousness: Paul’s theology of justification, (NSBT 9. Leicester: Apollos, 2000) 65-66 & 92.
 Wright may well stress that this is not his intention. See footnote 36 below.
 Seifrid, Christ, 171.
 This has been well established by Seifrid who writes from a position closer to Kasemann’s than Wright. Seifrid, Christ, 65-66, 70-71, 76-79 & 91. Also Seifrid, Justification, 249.
 Seifrid specifically lists Ephesians 1:19-23, 2:2 & 9, 6:10-17 and Colossians 2:15. Seifrid, Christ, 92-3.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 44-45.
 Wright, St Paul, 60, 159. Also Gaffin, By Faith, 44-45.
 Wright, St Paul, 114-5, 132-33.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 24.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 35-40.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 24, 40-41, 44-46.
 Wright, St Paul, 125-126.
 Gaffin, By Faith, 43. Also Seifrid, Justification, 270.