The Lutheran Confessions state clearly that justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is the article by which the Church stands or falls. Carl Braaten (Principles of Lutheran Theology, Fortress, 2007) in his chapter on “The Confessional Principle” posed the challenge for us, “The question we face today as Lutherans is whether justification by faith alone is still the right key for the church” (p. 43). And yet, he fails to give an adequate response, especially in light of two shifts in recent decades that challenge such a claim.
1. New Perspective on Paul: Breaking ground on this was Krister Stendahl and James D. G. Dunn. However, N. T. Wright has led the way in challenging the essential issue at stake in Pauline with what is called the New Perspective on Paul. He claims that Luther and the reformers framed the issue around their own current topics, not around what Paul and the NT presented. In essence, Luther asked the wrong question (how can a sinner be justified before a holy God?).
Recently Dan Wallace offered a compelling critique of Wright and the NPP, “Δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ and N. T. Wright.” As a convenient summary, Wallace writes about the problem from a lexical perspective, “It has coherence when it is not interacting with the particulars of the text, but it wreaks havoc at the lexical level for it is self-defeating.” But Wallace further highlights the ultimate failure of Wright’s approach and method, “I would view Wright’s synthesis of Romans as a brilliant failure—brilliant because of how coherent it is, but a failure because it sits three feet above the text at all points where it would be inconvenient to wrestle with what the text actually says.”
Paul McCain offers a Lutheran starting point for evaluating the NPP with his article on CyberBrethren.
2. Post-modernism: Braaten is definitely a “modern” writer. As you read his works, it almost seems as if he is reluctant to give up the modern perspective for the post-modern reality of life. He has regularly written about the failures of the ELCA and its abandonment of the Lutheran perspective, whether due to the reduction to social gospel or the emphasis on the gospel of inclusiveness. But still his framework is the absolutes of modernity. Thus, while he offers valuable critiques of what went wrong, he offers nothing with regard to a post-modern world view.
So, the challenge of Braaten’s question is still there, but the response has to deal with the post-modern challenges. Stay tuned.