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The grammar of the gospel: justification as a theological criterion in the Reformation and in Paul's letter to the Galatians

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2018

Jonathan Linebaugh*
Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University, Cambridge CB3


Since at least the time of Albert Schweitzer's attempt to move justification from die Mitte to the margins, the question of the centre of Paul's theology has included a criticism of the Reformation's classification of justification as ‘the lord, ruler, and judge’ of theology. For the reformers, however, this designation is not so much a claim about the centrality of the vocabulary of justification as it is a claim about the grammar of the gospel: justification, because it is articulated as an antithesis, says both what the gospel is not and what the gospel is. With this understanding of the theological function of justification in view, the role of justification in Paul's letter to the Galatians can be reconsidered: the antithetical grammar of justification is a critical and hermeneutical criterion in Galatians, both identifying and negating the ‘other gospel’ even as it picks out and proclaims ‘the gospel of Christ’.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 Schweitzer, Albert, Paul and his Interpreters: A Critical History, trans. Montgomery, W. (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), p. 2Google Scholar.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Schweitzer, Albert, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. Montgomery, W. (New York: Seabury Press, 1931), pp. 220–1Google Scholar.

5 Wrede, William, ‘Paulus’, in Rengstorf, K. H. (ed.), Das Bild des Paulus in der neueren deutschen Forschung, WdF 24 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1982), pp. 69, 71Google Scholar. The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule tended to marginalise justification because its Jewish origins failed to match their identification of the Hellenistic mystery cults as the religio-historical background to Paul. It is worth noting in this regard that Käsemann's reassertion of the significance of Paul's Rechtfertigungslehre included an argument for Jewish apocalyptic, and particularly that tradition's understanding of use of the ‘righteousness of God’, as the conceptual wellspring for Paul's theology of justification. See his ‘“The Righteousness of God” in Paul', in New Testament Questions Today, trans. W. J. Montague (London: SCM, 1969), pp. 168–82; cf. Ernst Käsemann, ‘Die Anfänge christlicher Theologie’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche (ZTK) 57 (1960), pp. 162–85.

6 Stendhal, Krister, Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), p. 2Google Scholar.

7 Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1977), pp. 5Google Scholar, 502, 549.

8 Wrede, ‘Paulus’, p. 42.

9 Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, p. 12.

10 Sanders, E. P., Paul: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 1991), pp. 53Google Scholar, 57–8.

11 See e.g. Martin, R. P., ‘Center of Paul's Theology’, in Hawthorne, G., Martin, R. P. and Reid, D. (eds), The Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1993), pp. 92–5Google Scholar; and Plevnik, J., ‘The Center of Paul's Theology’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989), pp. 460–78Google Scholar.

12 Among those who have argued for the centrality of justification in Paul are Seifrid, Mark A., Justification by Faith: The Origin and Development of a Central Pauline Theme (Leiden, Brill: 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Hübner, H., ‘Pauli Theologiae Proprium’, New Testament Studies 26 (1980), pp. 445–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Räisänen, Heikki, ‘Paul's Theological Difficulties with the Law’, Studia Biblica 1978, vol. 3 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 301–20Google Scholar.

14 Beker, J. C., Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980)Google Scholar.

15 Hays, Richard B., ‘Crucified with Christ: A Synthesis of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Philippians, and Galatians’, in Lull, D. J. (ed.), SBL Literature 1988 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), p. 324Google Scholar.

16 Hamann, J. G., Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols, ed. Nadler, J. (Vienna: Herder, 1949–57), vol. 2, p. 129, 7–9Google Scholar. Hamann passed the ‘remarkable quote from Luther’ onto his brother in a letter from 1760. Luther's words, which Hamann encountered in Bengel's Gnomon, were ‘Theology is nothing but a grammar of the words of the Holy Spirit’ (Hamann, Johann Georg, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, ed. Ziesemer, W. and Henkel, A. (Wiesbaden: Insel Verlag, 1956), p. 10Google Scholar).

17 In George Lindbeck's terms, justification is criteriological not because the juridical metaphor it evokes should be privileged over other soteriological images, but because of the way its ‘grammar . . . informs the way the story [of the gospel] is told’: The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 80. This requires a distinction between identifying justification as criterological because of its grammar and because of its metaphor (e.g. Jüngel, Eberhard, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, trans. Cayzer, J. F. (London: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 48Google Scholar: ‘the doctrine of justification has this strength of a hermeneutical category because it brings all of theology in the dimension of a legal dispute’). This essay is making only the former claim, which means that other instances of this antithetical and christological grammar in Paul's letters (e.g. the identification as Christ as ‘our wisdom’ in exclusionary contrast to human wisdom in 1 Cor 1:18–30) do not need to be read as derived from justification, but rather as parallel instances of the same grammar.

18 It is worth noting that an appendix to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification includes the following: ‘the criteriological significance of the doctrine of justification . . . still deserves to be studied further’.

19 Gritsch, Eric W. and Jenson, Robert W., Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 36Google Scholar.

20 Calvin, John, Institutes of Christian Religion, ed. McNeil, John T., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960)Google Scholar, 3.11.1.

21 Martin Luther, WA 40/III, p. 352.

22 Luther, WA 40/I, p. 33.16; LW 27, p. 145.

23 Luther, LW 26, p. 27.

24 Luther, WA 40/I, p. 441.29; LW 26, p. 283.

25 Luther, WA 39/I, p. 205.

26 Saarinen, Risto, ‘Die Rechtfertigungslehre als Kriterium: Zur Begriffsgeschichte einer ökumenischen Redewendung’, Keryma und Dogma 44 (1998), p. 98Google Scholar. For Kähler's language, see Die Wissenschaft der christlichen Lehre von dem evangelischen Grundartikel aus im Abrisse dargestellt (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1996 [1905]), pp. 67–79.

27 Iwand, Hans J., The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, ed. Thompson, V. F., trans. Lundell, R. H. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), p. 15Google Scholar.

28 Ibid.

29 For ‘discrimen’, see Mattes, Mark C., The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 15Google Scholar; for ‘Grund und Grenze’, see Bayer, Oswald, Leibliches Wort: Reformation und Neuzeit im Konflikt (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992), pp. 1934Google Scholar; see also Wolf, E., ‘Die Rechtfertigungslehre als Mitte und Grenze reformatorische Theologie’, in Peregrinatio, vol. 2, Studien zur reformatorische Theologie, zum Kirchenrecht und zur Sozialethik (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1965), pp. 1121Google Scholar, and Jüngel, Eberhard, Das Evangelium von der Rechtfertigung des Gottlosen als Zentrum des christlichen Glaubens, 3rd edn (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999)Google Scholar.

30 Gleoge, Gerhard, Gnade für die Welt: Kritik und Krise des Luthertums (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964), pp. 3454Google Scholar.

31 Ebeling, Gerhard, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought, trans. Wilson, R. A. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), pp. 111Google Scholar, 113.

32 Luther, WA 39/I, p. 205; WA 40/1, p. 441.29.

33 Smalcald Articles, II.1, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), p. 301.

34 Luther, WA 39/I, p. 205.

35 Jüngel, Justification, p. 47.

36 Iwand, Righteousness of Faith, p. 15.

37 Jenson, Robert W., The Triune God, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Oxford: OUP, 1997), p. 23Google Scholar; Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, pp. 79–84.

38 Cf. Jenson, The Triune God, pp. 13–20. I prefer Bayer's, Oswald alternative to first- and second-order discourse, what he calls the distinction and relationship between ‘monastische und scholastische Theologie’, because it focuses theology on ‘das Klarwerden von Sätze der Verkündigung in ihrem bestimmten Sitz im Leben’: Handbuch: systematischer Theologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloh Verlagshaus, 1994), pp. 2731Google Scholar, 439.

39 Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (London: SCM Press, 1978), vol. 3, pp. 223–4Google Scholar.

40 The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), p. 87 verso.

41 Luther, LW 26, pp. 4, 8–9.

42 Barclay, John M. G., Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), p. 338Google Scholar; cf. Martyn, J. Louis, ‘Apocalyptic Antinomies in Paul's Letter to Galatia’, New Testament Studies 31 (1985), pp. 410–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 This distinction between ‘the gospel of Christ’ as the canon of Paul's theological cartography and justification as Paul's evangelical criterion suggests that the identification of justification as the ‘centre’ of Paul's theology is imprecise: ‘the gospel of Christ’ is the theological radix; justification relates to that gospel both critically and hermeneutically, naming not-gospels and norming the articulation of the gospel.

44 Paul's use of ἐὰν μή to articulate this antithesis is a source of much scholarly discussion, as ἐὰν μή is almost always exceptive rather than contrastive; see e.g. Das, A. A., ‘Another Look at ἐὰν μή in Galatians 2:16’, Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000), pp. 529–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar; de Boer, Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), pp. 144–5. The exceptive sense can be read within the overall antithesis, taking ἐὰν μή with the opening clause (i.e. ‘a person is not justified . . . except through πίστις Χριστοῦ’), but de Boer is right to insist that however ἐὰν μή is translated, in Gal 2:16 the phrase is part of Paul's articulation of an antithesis (ibid., p. 144).

45 Ibid., p. 155; cf. Martyn, Galatians, p. 251; Moo, D. J., Galatians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 154Google Scholar.

46 This question is, in part, about the interpretation of ἔργα νόμου and πίστις Χριστοῦ, but it is less concerned with what de Boer calls their ‘referential meanings’ and focuses instead on what he terms their ‘theological ones’ (Galatians, p. 144, n. 209). In the case of ἔργα νόμου, the referential meaning takes its bearings from Ἰουδαϊκῶς in 2:14 and the ongoing argument about the time and purpose of the Mosaic law in God's promissory and christological economy. This suggests that νόμος refers to the whole law (cf. 5:3) and ἔργα, as the references to ποιέω from the quotations of Deuteronomy and Leviticus indicate (Gal 3:10, 12), refers to the observance of the law.

47 Cf. Martyn, Galatians, p. 271, who speaks of Paul setting ‘an act of God’ (πίστις Χριστοῦ) ‘over against . . . an act of the human being’ (ἔργα νόμου). This critique of human agency is distinguishable from, though often linked with, an argument about the impossibility of keeping the law – a point Paul does seem to make in Galatians: see e.g. the insertion of σάρξ in the echo of Ps 142:2 LXX in Gal 2:16d, the scriptural logic of Gal 3:10–12, and the denial that righteousness comes through the law because the law is unable to give life in Gal 3:21.

48 See e.g. Dunn, James D. G., The Theology of Paul of the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 354–9Google Scholar.

49 Martyn is right to hear the ‘harmony’ between the antitheses of Gal 1:1, 11–12 and 2:16, but he unnecessarily limits the anthropological/christological either/or to an antinomy of agency (Galatians, p. 271). Paul's polarity certainly includes a negation of human action qua a condition of the gospel, but it also includes a ‘no’ to all other anthropological predicates, whether inherited or acquired.

50 To distinguish this negative work of God against the old from the gospel that creates the new, the reformers called it the opus alienum Dei in distinction from the opus proprium Dei and argued that God does these two works through two words: law and gospel.

51 See Linebaugh, Jonathan A., ‘The Christo-Centrism of Faith in Christ: Martin Luther's Reading of Galatians 2:16, 19–20’, New Testament Studies 59/4 (2013), pp. 535–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 The reformers used a term from Latin grammar, particula exclusiva, to express the excluding function of Paul's antithesis.

53 For a different view, that ‘the influencers’ were non-believing Jews local to Galatia, see Nanos, M. D., The Irony of Galatians: Paul's Letter in First-Century Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), pp. 6272Google Scholar.

54 For the theology of Paul's opponents, see Barclay, John M. G., Obeying the Truth: A Study of Paul's Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), pp. 4560Google Scholar.

55 Gal 2:15–21 is lexically and thematically connected to both 2:11–14 and 3:1ff. For the former, see Barclay, Paul and the Gift, p. 370. For the latter, see Eckstein, H.-J., Verheissung und Gesetz: Eine exegetische Untersuchung zu Galater 2,15–4,7 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996), p. 79Google Scholar. Gal 2:15–21 should therefore be read both within the context of the incident in Antioch and as part of Paul's argument against the ‘different gospel’ that has come to Galatia.

56 Cf. Martyn, Galatians, p. 264, n. 158; Campbell, Deliverance of God, pp. 842–7.

57 Moo, Galatians, p. 154.

58 Barclay, Paul and the Gift, p. 392.

59 Jenson, The Triune God, p. 14.

60 This language is native to Israel's scripture, as Paul's quotations from Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Habakkuk indicate (Gal 3:6, 10–13). But Paul's selection of these texts – and not others – and his distinctive reading of them (i.e. distinguishing law from promise and faith) suggest that his personal and missionary experience and his antithetical theology of justification inform his scriptural interpretation. The source of Paul's justification vocabulary is Israel's scripture; the origin of Paul's justification grammar, however, is theological and experiential – i.e. the antithesis of justification and the specific experience of the self-giving of Christ to sinners qua sinners (both Paul and the Gentiles, 1:13–15; 2:16–17, 19–20; 3:1–5; 4:8–9). This theology and experience, however, establish a hermeneutical frame within which Paul does not so much create as discover the antithetical grammar of the gospel within his canonical tradition, a discovery that in turn informs the shape of his theology and the interpretation of his experiences. In this sense, justification functions as a hermeneutical criterion in a mutually interpretative relationship with Paul's calling in grace, the Gentile mission, and Israel's scripture, all of which source and shape his justification formulae even as his theology and grammar of justification inform his renarrations and rereadings of those events and texts.

61 Stanton, Graham N., ‘The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ: Galatians 3:1–6:2’, in Dunn, James D. G. (ed.), Paul and the Mosaic Law (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996), p. 101Google Scholar.

62 Ibid., p. 103, n. 11.

63 On the connection between 1:6 and 1:15, see McFarland, O., ‘The One Who Calls in Grace: Paul's Rhetorical and Theological Identification with the Galatians’, Horizons in Biblical Theology 35 (2013), pp. 151–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 In 1 Cor 15:8–10, Paul's former life is interpreted as a condition of unworthiness that is met with an incongruous and identity-creating grace. For the theological shape and function of Paul's autobiographical remarks, see Schütz, John Howard, Paul and the Anatomy of Apostolic Authority (Cambridge: CUP, 1975), pp. 114–58Google Scholar; Gaventa, Beverly R., ‘Galatians 1 and 2: Autobiography as Paradigm’, New Testament Studies 28 (1986), pp. 309–26Google Scholar.

65 This unconditioned grammar is echoed in the antithetically structured depiction of the calling of the Corinthians in 1 Cor 1:26–31: ‘Consider your calling . . . Not many were wise . . . not many were powerful . . . not many were of noble birth . . . But God chose.’ A similarly antithetical dynamic shapes Paul's interpretation of the genesis of Israel: Isaac is not a child of the flesh but of the promise, Jacob is chosen not on the basis of works but by the one who calls (Rom 9:7–13).

66 See Güttgemanns, E., Der leidende Apostel und sein Herr: Studien zur paulinischen Christologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), p. 185Google Scholar.

67 Barclay, Paul and the Gift, pp. 412–13.

68 Martyn, J. Louis, ‘Paul and his Jewish-Christian Interpreters’, Union Seminary Quarterly Review 42 (1987–8), p. 6.Google Scholar

69 Percy, Walker, Love in the Ruins (New York: Picador, 1971), p. 68Google Scholar.

70 Barclay, Paul and the Gift, p. 413.

71 This begins to address Daphne Hampson's concern that a soteriology of death and resurrection is inherently misanthropic; see her Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), pp. 239–40.