Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd and The Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary

Bibliographic Information: 

Hewitson, Ian Alastair. Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd and The Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary, Minneapolis: NextStep Resources, 2011.

Description:

The exclusive particle introduced by Luther has undoubtedly performed valuable service in signalizing the distinction between the Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines of justification and in preventing the intrusion of merit on the part of man as a criterion of acceptability before God. The long and cherished tradition that lies behind “justification by faith alone” as a theological formula would make it appear to be an act of ingratitude, if not impiety, to raise the question of its adequacy as a summary of the thrust of the biblical doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, for the Reverend Professor Norman Shepherd, there were reasons that made it necessary to raise precisely this question.

The Reformation was a religious movement that began as a reaction to what was happening in the day-to-day life of the Roman church. Its perspective on justification was well established by the time the Council of Trent convened, and it was not materially altered by the deliverances of that council. The Reformation definitively rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of human merit as contributing in any way to the justification of a sinner. In the formulations of Protestant doctrine, the teaching of the Apostle Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, figured prominently because Paul’s opposition to “the works of the law” was seen to be pointedly relevant to the basic error of the Roman Church. Rome was recognized to be holding a doctrine of justification by works that was contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Over against this, the doctrine of the Reformation sought to articulate a doctrine of justification by faith. The merit of works belonged to Christ alone, and His merit was laid hold of by faith. To make the Reformation doctrine unambiguously clear, Martin Luther insisted on justification by faith alone as the very heart of Protestant theology and as the article by which the church stands or falls. It is common knowledge that Luther inserted the word alone into his translation of Romans 3:28, even though there was no basis for this insertion in the Greek text or in the Latin text of the New Testament. Luther provided a detailed defense of his translation and noted that, had there been a Latin original, it would not have been the adjective *sola,* but an adverb, *solum* or *tantum.* The stress would then have fallen on faith as the only method of justification: The only way in which sinners are justified is by faith alone. Nevertheless, Luther defends the adjectival sense of alone as though the original could have been *sola*. The consequence of the adjectival use of *sola* is that the stress falls on the solitariness of faith. It is faith alone in its solitariness that justifies—faith prior to and, therefore, faith without any works, without any laws. The faith that justifies is faith alone in the absence of all else.

In light of the ambiguities associated with the formula *sola fide*, Shepherd was compelled to study further the question of why the Protestant church was not content with the Pauline language of “justification by faith,”, or even with the Pauline expression justification “without the works of the law”. Why was it necessary to say “justification by faith alone”? What more is said, or what is better said, with this form of expression than is said by the Pauline formula? Specifically, the question may be asked, why did the language of James not become (in time, at least) as popular in the church as did the language of Paul? Or why, at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, was there an abiding sense of discomfort and awkwardness with the language of James, as evidenced by the energy devoted to the interpretation of the doctrine of justification in James and the reconciliation of this epistle with the epistles of Paul?

The exclusive particle can be found in theological literature prior to the Reformation and even in some translations of the Bible into the common languages. But it did not begin to live in the church until the time of Luther, and for all practical purposes, the Protestant church is indebted to him for its introduction. Roman Catholic objection was vigorous; but in spite of the criticism, the formula maintained itself to the point of entering into the confessional language of the church, and it has been consistently defended by Protestant theologians and exegetes. Luther’s insistence on justification by faith alone has been determinative for the subsequent history of the doctrine of justification in Protestant theology in all of its varied manifestations.

The exclusive particle introduced by Luther has undoubtedly performed valuable service in signalizing the distinction between the Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines of justification and in preventing the intrusion of merit on the part of man as a criterion of acceptability before God. The long and cherished tradition that lies behind “justification by faith alone” as a theological formula would make it appear to be an act of ingratitude, if not impiety, to raise the question of its adequacy as a summary of the thrust of the biblical doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, for the Reverend Professor Norman Shepherd, there were reasons that made it necessary to raise precisely this question.

For Shepherd, there is the fact that neither the Apostle Paul nor any other biblical author uses the expression “justification by faith alone”. It is true, of course, that Paul does use the expression “justification without the works of the law,”, and it is in these words that the theological warrant is traditionally found for “justification by faith alone.”. However, the theology and the confessions of the church are not bound to the precise wording of Scripture, and the formula “justification by faith alone” appears to be a reasonable rendering of the sense of “justification without the works of the law.” Traditionally, the matter has rested at this point with this explanation and could remain there were it not for the fact that the text of the Bible expressly rejects justification by faith alone. James writes (2:24), “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

It is to James 2:24 that Professor Shepherd turned his attention. The result of his enquiry into the book of James was a controversy that lasted seven years and still rages today. During the controversy, Shepherd pointed out that Paul says “justification is by faith” and James says that “justification is not by faith alone.”. Nevertheless, the formulation that has become established in Protestant theology, and that appears to be finding an increasingly cordial reception even within Roman Catholic theology, maintains that justification is by faith alone.

Publisher: 
NextStep Resources