Yoder on Paul and Protestantism: Justification, Good Works, and A Social Gospel
When I first read this I had to assume that Yoder was being facetious or ironic. Perhaps he’s mocking a radical existentialist reading of justification by faith alone (a la Bultmann or Tillich)? But in fact, he goes on to attempt to prop up this ‘strawman’ reconstruction by appealing to Krister Stendahl’s now famous essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." Following Stendahl’s logic, Yoder argues that Paul’s fundamental concerns were not our modern preoccupation with personal acceptance and amnesty, or the existentialist anguish over authenticity, which have so shaped post-Enlightenment Pauline scholarship. For Saul was not looking to alleviate a guilty conscience or his anxiety over the law (e.g., Nietzsche’s caricature in "The First Christian"), nor, as Luther had, to find a smiling God of grace behind the frown of God’s law (cf., E. P. Sanders, "Paul and Palestinian Judaism"). Rather, he argues (anticipating J. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright), the former Pharisee’s question centered on the identity of Christ as Messiah, and the consequent formation of a new (eschatological) people. And so Yoder writes regarding the apostle’s polemics against the Judaizers,
Thus the Pauline doctrine of justification is basically social in nature.
For example, considering Galatians 2:14ff., he asks, "What does ‘justified’ mean here? Can it really mean, as Protestant tradition assumes (Lutheranism most sweepingly, but the Anglican and Reformed liturgies give the same testimony), that it refers only to the quasi-judicial status of man’s guilt before God, which is annulled or amnestied by a declaration of the judge in response to the act of faith?" After citing Markus Barth’s essay on the "social character" of justification (in which Barth argues that "Justification in Christ is thus not an individual miracle happening to this person or that person, which each may seek or possess for himself. Rather, justification by grace is a joining together of this person to that person, of the near and far;…it is a social event"), he on goes to write,
Really? Does the Pauline term of "justification" entail a ‘horizontal’ reconciliation between men? Or is that a separate though related doctrine of the apostle?
Of course, the traditional Protestant understanding of justification has distinguished the legal and declarative nature of the divine work from the social dimension of its theological consequences (i.e., ecclesial unity). Since we have been first reconciled to God through Christ, it was understood, we are now, subsequently, reconciled to one another in Him (Eph.2:12-20). But Yoder rejects this, asserting instead that "the relationship between divine justification and the reconciliation of men to one another is not a sequential relationship…" Like Wright, Yoder seems to redefine "justification" in terms of the social reconstitution of the people of God. And so the answer to the question he poses above is resoundly negative: justification is fundamentally not a "legal fiction," as he styles it, by which the sinner is declared righteous (simul justus et peccator).
Not only does Yoder’s critique of historic Protestantism often seem misdirected - as it appears he is reading much of Protestant scholarship through the lens of late 19th century Ritschlism and, especially, 20th century existentialism - but (like a lot of "New Perspective" literature I’ve read), false dichotomies abound. He is particularly uncareful in setting the positive functions of the Law over against its negative aspects, as articulated by the Reformers (e.g., pp.219, 230). And, I would argue, pitting Paul’s eschatological and messianic reorientation at his conversion against the traditional notion of a radically new doctrinal and experiential knowledge of divine grace revealed in Jesus Christ is not only unnecessary but misleading. Saul not only experienced Christ’s terrific Lordship on the road to Damascus, but also His profound mercy and grace (such as was unknown in the Law, cf. Ac.13:39). Moreover, surely Saul’s "robust conscience" suffered some pangs from the Law of God (e.g., Ro.7:5-11; cf. 3:20b). Certainly his broad sinfulness and root depravity were seen clearly in retrospect, if not before (Ro.7:12-24; cf. Yoder, p.221).
In particular, and I think most importantly, Yoder dichotomizes the historic doctine of justification by faith alone and the Reformed doctrine of good works.
Ironically, in light of his echoing Stendahl’s charge that we modern exegetes have read our dilemmas into Paul’s, it would seem that Yoder’s modern sensibilities have gotten the better of him here. Note this strange (or at least strange to premoderns) comment regarding the epistle to the Romans:
In other words, the social dimensions of the faith are "concrete," i.e., real, whereas the spiritual dimension of reconciliation to God is "systematic theological" and ‘speculative’, i.e., abstract. Yet such a peculiar framing of the issues could only find traction in what sociologist P.A. Sorokin refered to as the "sensate culture" of modernity. For us moderns, the social aspect takes on weightier significance as the tangible and imminent ‘embodiment’ of religion. Our relationship to one another is apparently more substantial than a relationship with the invisible God, and frankly, more consequential. Whereas, in the ideational culture of the medieval world, one’s relationship to God was very "concrete," and extremely ‘real’, as it had been for Luther and his contemporaries. Moreover, implicit in this argument is his persistent dichotomy between the introspective or psychological and the social or historical aspect (e.g., p. 228).
Interestingly, Yoder finds it necessary to end his chapter on "Justification by Grace through Faith," by reaffirming his qualification:
And so, he asserts, his arguments are not ‘either/or’ with regard to the traditional view (i.e., historic evangelicalism), but ‘both/and.’ But in fact it does seem, despite his qualifiers, that such disjunction is precisely what his arguments suggest. At the very least, his arguments imply that the "traditional view" must be rejected for its allegedly undue narrowness and the "disjunction" of biblical doctrines. But, honestly, I don’t see how this conclusion can be fairly drawn regarding the historic Protestant paradigm of justification by faith. Is such a charge just or honest with the history of theology? In particular, the question that must be addressed is this:
Does the legal aspect of justification by faith alone (as understood within the Reformational tradition) effectively nullify the essential role of good works, and/or the social dimension of Christian spirituality? Does justification by faith render ethics theologically superfluous?