The present study is an extended exploration of the manner in which the western church developed the Pauline concept of ‘justification’ throughout two thousand years of reflection and debate, culminating in the sixteenth-century Protestant declaration that the doctrine of justification was ‘the article by which the church stands or falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). It reflects my own interest in a number of areas of scholarship, especially the intellectual origins of the European Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the nature of doctrinal development within the Christian tradition. It is both a celebration and a criticism of the pioneering work of Albrecht Benjamin Ritschl, Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung (1870). Despite its many weaknesses, this earlier work remains a landmark of scholarship in the field.
Three reasons may be given for exploring the history of the doctrine of justification within the Christian tradition at such length. First, the historical study of the development of any Christian doctrine from its origins to the present day is inherently significant, in that it offers a means of identifying and evaluating the factors which have influenced the development of doctrine in general. The development of the doctrine of justification is thus a paradigm for the study of ideological interaction in the development of doctrine, illustrating how theological and secular concepts were related as theologians responded to the cultural situation of their period.
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