Going back to my time at Dallas, I’ve been interested in the discussion about the doctrine of justification. It was at that time that John Piper’s The Future of Justification came out, as well as N. T. Wright’s response Justification: God’s Plan, Paul’s Vision (which if you’re keeping score, is a response book to a response book). It was also during that time (fall of 2010) that Wright and Piper were supposed to have a showdown at the national ETS conference in Atlanta. Instead, earlier that year Piper took a ministry sabbatical and Thomas Schreiner presented instead. His address was subsequently published in the March 2011 edition of JETS, and having missed the conference, that’s when I read it. I was conveniently taking fifth semester Greek, which is exegesis of Romans. My final paper was a triperspectival view of justification, which combined Schreiner, Wright, and Thielman’s points of view into a (hopefully) coherent whole.
Hard to believe that was almost 5 years ago. But, here we are nearing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Zondervan is conveniently publishing a series called The 5 Solas to celebrate. The very first volume came out earlier this month and not only got my hands on it, I spent the weekend reading it. While highly theological in content, it’s certainly a very readable volume, which is I suppose makes it trademark Schreiner. The chapters aren’t overwhelming because the water doesn’t get too deep, but for most people it probably would be a slower read than I made it.
A big reason for this the importance of the topic, especially in recent biblical scholarship. To his credit, Schreiner doesn’t avoid these issues. Before getting to them though, he begins with a brief historical survey. These first six chapters establish the importance of the doctrine in church history. Schreiner acknowledges in the first chapter that we don’t find a direct parallel in the early church to what the Reformers taught regarding sola fide (36). However, “we find that a number of the fathers endorsed teachings that are similar to what we know today as the doctrine of justification by faith” (36). From here, the following two chapters profile Luther and Calvin respectively. Chapter 4 briefly touches on the doctrine in The Council of Trent before tracing it into later Reformed writers like Owen and Turretin. The historical section ends with a comparison of Edwards and Wesley on the issue, the latter being slightly uncomfortable with the doctrine because it might lead to antinomianism (same issue Richard Baxter had with it, more or less).
The next section, “A Biblical and Theological Tour of Sola Fide” is the heart of the book. Schreiner begins with a chapter on human sin and ends with one on the role of works in the final judgment. Along the way he covers faith, as well as the debate over “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ,” and spends the several consecutive chapters on righteousness from all kinds of angles. We read about the importance of justification in Paul (chapter 10) as well as the imputation of righteousness (chapter 15). Those who have read Schreiner’s other works, either his book on Paul, his commentaries, or his NT theology, or even his whole Bible biblical theology won’t be surprised at many of his conclusions. However, I found it helpful to have a distilled form of Schreiner’s understanding of justification in just over 100 pages.
In the final section, Schreiner takes up contemporary challenges to the doctrine. Here he brings his address at ETS into play, splitting it across two chapters and updating it slightly in light of Wright’s most recent Paul book (which doesn’t feature much in the main text, but Schreiner directs readers to his review). He also interacts with challenges posed by the Roman Catholic church, and in particular, leaders like Francis Beckwith who have converted to Catholicism. Between the two, I think Schreiner covers the major doctrinal issues related to the Reformers understanding of justification.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and only have a minor complaint, which may actually just be something I’m working through theologically. In the chapter on justification in Paul, Schreiner says this just before the conclusion:
I would finally note that there is no need to play justification off against participation. As Michael Allen has rightly argued, justification is the ground of our fellowship with God and participation with God is its goal. Another way to put this is to say that justification is the ground of sanctification. This is certainly Paul’s argument in Romans 6. Those who are justified have also died with Christ. The verdict of being right with God is an effective one, and thus the forensic is the basis of the transformative (140).
He references Allen’s book which I’ve also reviewed and brought up the same issue there. I think it is better to see union with Christ as the ground of both justification and sanctification rather than grounding the latter in the former. Maybe I’m wrong on this. I suppose I should talk with Dr. Allen about it next time we have coffee (it hasn’t come up yet). In any case, this pushed me to want to reconsider the argument, especially in light of Romans 6.
That however hardly amounts to a serious criticism of the book itself or Schreiner’s specific argument in that chapter. There is an intimate connection between sanctification and justification, but I don’t think one is grounded in the other. Or, that understanding one will lead the other to flourish. However, this is definitely a subject I need to study more myself and I’m glad I had the chance to read this book to prod me along the journey.
Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone – The Doctrine of Justification: What The Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (The 5 Solas Series). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September 2015. 288 pp. Paperback, $19.99.
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Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!