What happens when you put two world-class New Testament scholars in a room to argue over one of the most contentious topics in NT studies in recent years? Thought-provoking insight, exegetical depth, innovative theological inquiry, a few animated exchanges, and a handful of laughs.

In others words, the latest installment of the Trinity Debate, one of the Henry Center’s most popular events that invites the most prominent theological voices to offer their opinions on a variety of controversial topics.

Is the Lutheran Approach to Pauline Justification “Justified”? This was the question posed to two well-regarded New Testament scholars, Douglas Moo and Douglas Campbell, who squared off in this highly anticipated debate. The debate met expectations as both Moo and Campbell drew from their deep Pauline expertise to convincingly argue for their respective positions. Moo defended the traditional Lutheran understanding of justification as forensic, with sanctification a necessary implication of justification but not part and parcel of it. Campbell argued for a newer perspective on Paul that views the traditional understanding of justification as something that misrepresents God’s character and requires an account of sin that produces an account of God apart from Christ.

Moo: The Lutheran Approach to Pauline Justification IS “Justified”

Moo opened the debate with fifteen theses on Pauline justification, noting that he falls just short of the 95 that Martin Luther posted on the door of All Saints Church. As we have come to expect from the author of a number of commentaries on Paul’s epistles, Moo’s argument was grounded in biblical exegesis, focusing on a core set of texts to define the doctrine. These key texts were selected by carefully identifying passages thatmoo-campbell deal with the concept of justification in both testaments, with the most significant support coming texts that include Paul’s use of the verb “justify” (dikaioō).

Moo noted the tendency of some scholars to expand justification to include soteriological categories that obscure its special function within salvation. For example, justification should be distinguished from sanctification and does not include internal righteousness within the justified sinner. Justification and sanctification are indeed both gifts to the believer who is “in Christ,” but they are separate categories under the wider scope of salvation. Moo emphasized that justification is not central to Paul’s thought, though it is critical to his articulation of the gospel. Rather, union with Christ is the central theme of Paul’s theology, and it includes a forensic account of justification as one angle from which to understand what we receive in Christ.

Campbell: The Lutheran Approach to Pauline Justification IS NOT “Justified”

Campbell opened with a broad outline of what he believes to be Paul’s genuine gospel: “Trinitarian Participation.” Believers participate in the death and resurrection of Christ (sent by the Father and resurrected by the Spirit), and in this new situation we are now able to respond to God in joyful obedience. Campbell suggests that sanctification basically is Paul’s gospel.

douglas-campbellWith this background, Campbell emphasized that our cognition of sin is something that happens in the process of being transformed by Christ, through the Spirit. It is only in light of Christ that we are able to see sin clearly. But this poses a problem to the traditional doctrine of justification and its requirement of an accurate understanding of sin for conversion. How can totally depraved people arrive at an accurate understanding of their sin before they encounter Christ? More importantly, if any account of sin (i.e. the bad) requires an account of God (i.e. the good), are we then coming to an understanding of God apart from Christ? According to Campbell, the doctrine of justification encourages a Marcionite understanding of God by removing his revelation in Christ.

These questions force Campbell to reread texts like Romans 1-3 through a new hermeneutical lens. He claims Paul is employing a Socratic argument whereby Paul presents the concept of justification in order to expose internal contradictions (and the precariousness of holding such a position). This is how Campbell preserves his position exegetically, and he is left to conclude that the doctrine of justification should be discarded because of what we are “in Christ”.

Responses and Audience Interaction

Both Moo and Campbell offered responses to the other’s position, and the audience (both in-person and via live-stream) also engaged both presenters with their own questions and comments. Issues like the relation between God’s love and his wrath, the relationship between the testaments,  the flow of the argument in Romans, among others.

On the whole, the discussion was a productive conversation with some healthy back-and-forth between Moo and Campbell (all captured on video). TEDS student Kirk Miller’s opinion seemed to be the shared opinion of many:

In a polarizing society that prioritizes sound bits and one-liners to genuine disagreement and discussion, the demonstration of charitable disagreement was as valuable as the topic itself. If you missed the debate and would still like to listen, the video will be available on the Henry Center resource page in the coming weeks.

Please join us next week (Tues and Thurs) as the Henry Center hosts its Timothy Series featuring Ralph West, founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston.