Philipp Melanchthon and Forensic Justification in Protestant Orthodoxy

In this post, I would like to offer some historical exposition that sheds light on the reasons for which we in the Protestant tradition tend to interpret biblical teaching on the atonement and its effects, particularly in relation to justification, in a primarily if not exclusively forensic-legal manner in contrast to the Thomistic notions of created grace and infused righteousness characteristic of medieval 0940_Cranach_nR 001Catholicism. I do not want to imply that the Protestant tradition is wrong to emphasize the forensic-legal aspects of salvation inasmuch as Scripture does utilize these categories. But I do think that it is important to understand where this emphasis comes from, and why it should not be absolutized as though it were the only way of understanding Christ’s atoning and justifying work.

In the following description of the genesis of the traditional Protestant doctrine of forensic justification in the theology of Philipp Melanchthon, it should become clear why Scripture’s teaching on the incarnational and ontological aspects of the atonement seem so strange, and perhaps even dangerous, to Protestant ears. It should help us to realize that a purely ‘extrinsicist’ understanding of the atonement – one that frames it exclusively in legal or transactional terms of ‘merit’ or ‘remission of sins’ or ‘payment’ or ‘satisfaction’ – may not be as thoroughly biblical as we suppose. Here I would like to quote (at length) Stephen Strehle, whose illuminating work on The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel (Leiden; New York; Köln: Brill, 1995) provides an incisive look into how certain aspects of Melanchthon’s thought that would exert a decisive influence on later Protestant orthodoxy sprouted and grew from seeds planted by medieval Catholics. Here is Strehle on the origin and development of Melanchthon’s understanding of justification and atonement (pp.66-73):

Through the exegetical analysis of Erasmus, the great Catholic scholar, and certain theological concepts, inspired by Nominalism, Melanchthon began to promote in his Römerbrief-Kommentar of 1532 a more forensic understanding of justification. While this doctrine might not be without some antecedents in Protestantism and Melanchthon’s earlier writings, it was here for the first time under the inspiration of Catholic sources that a pronounced emphasis appeared upon the forensic terms “imputation” and “acceptation,” along with a clear demarcation between justification and any “newness” or “quality” in the believer…

The Franciscan and Nominalistic tradition in the middle ages used this term [acceptation] to speak of the divine will as the ultimate arbitrator in the matter of justification. For them “nothing created or creaturely must be accepted by God.” This meant that the person, his merit, and even the grace that had been created in him, the so-called created grace, had no inherent claim upon divine favor but were subject to the unconstrained verdict of God’s most free will or acceptation. God when it came to justifying man merely accepted what was not acceptable or made acceptable (righteous) through a simple act of the will. Melanchthon by invoking this watchword of their theology certainly could not have been totally unaware of the import of such a well-established theological term…

There are in fact striking parallels between the concept of justification in Melanchthon and his medieval forebears that bear witness to a most decided influence. Both speak of God as accepting what has not been made acceptable through his grace (regeneration), and both separate the forgiveness of sin from an infused state of grace or what God does in us. While it might be objected that the Nominalists did make grace a necessary component of salvation, this was only because God had decreed by his ordained power (de potentia ordinata) to make it a part. It was not because there exists an intrinsic relation between that grace and our justification. It was not because the object of divine grace was somehow made worthy through an infused righteousness as in the Thomistic tradition. The infused state, whether in Catholicism’s created grace or Melanchthon’s newness, is merely concomitant with our justification but not an intrinsic cause of it. Justification remains fundamentally for both a voluntaristic act of God…

The connection with the Franciscan/Nominalistic tradition is important because it helps to interpret the overall theological matrix out of which such a doctrine could be formulated and to decipher some of its most basic themes, especially its voluntarism or fixation on the divine will. This doctrine can then be seen as a product of Nominalism and interpreted in accordance with its belief that the will of God is the ultimate arbiter in all things, especially in regard to our salvation. According to this tradition God from his absolute power (de potentia absoluta) is not so much indebted as in the Thomistic tradition to a priori standards of righteousness but can exact or accept pretty much whatever he pleases. In Ockham, an extreme example, this means that God de potentia absoluta…could justify us or condemn us, with or without Christ, with or without the atonement, and with or without grace, especially created grace. The fact that he decided to act in a certain way is not to be attributed to the inherent rightness or necessity of that way but to his unconstrained decree to do such or to act thusly in accordance with his ordained power (de potentia ordinata)…

Luther and his theology cannot be considered its primary inspiration, even if the doctrine [of forensic justification] comes to be interpreted within his thought. Luther in fact considered it most improper to so accentuate divine “imputation” – a term he also connects with Nominalism – as to turn God’s work into “nothing but shadow-boxing and a devilish trick.” If God could perform such tricks, Luther argues, he certainly would never have sent his Son to die…For Ockham, of course, there really is no need for Christ to suffer, at least, de potentia dei absoluta, and even de potentia ordinata his death does not strictly satisfy the demands of justice…

However, for Melanchthon who above all the Reformers renders testimony to the Anselmic theory of satisfaction – a theory that views the atonement as the necessary and only way – the answer is not so simple. How can one consider the atonement in terms of the exacting standards of Anselm with its need for a perfect Savior (a God-man) and a perfect sacrifice (an innocent death) and then around and make justification a pure voluntaristic act? Melanchthon is clearly caught in a dilemma between Anselm’s theory of atonement and Ockham’s doctrine of justification, between a God who has righteous and narrow and exact ways and a God who can do as he wills.

This can readily be seen in almost any of Melanchthon’s discussions. Typically Melanchthon will speak of justification with the following words and phrases: “remission of sins,” “acceptation before God,” “imputation and righteousness,” and, of course, “to repute or pronounce as just in a forensic manner.” All of these phrases speak of justification as a disposition that the divine will has assumed on our behalf. And yet, in order not to lapse into utter voluntarism, Melanchthon invariably inserts as an addendum to such phrases a reference to the work of Christ (proper Christum). It is the obedience or merit of Christ that is said to be somehow imputed to us and to reconciled the demands of divine justice, even if it is also said that this work does not materially touch us in any substantive way. The decree is then said to be separated from any quality or newness produced by divine grace within the soul of man and is even unrelated to the gift of the Holy Spirit that lives in our hearts. It is related to neither created grace nor uncreated grace, but the free acceptation of God to reckon what is not righteous as righteous or what we did not do (i.e. Christ’s work) just as if we had done it. This in brief is the position of Melanchthon – a position caught between Anselm and Ockham; it is this position, with all its tensions, that will eventually gain ascendancy and become the confession of all Protestant orthodoxy.

Strehle’s account provides an important look into how Protestant orthodoxy came to emphasize the forensic-legal dimension of salvation to the neglect of other important elements of the biblical witness. Drawing from Erasmus and the Nominalist (in contrast with the Thomist) tradition, Melanchthon defined justification and the work of Christ in such exclusively forensic terms that he effectively dissolved, as Strehle points out, any inherent or organic connection between Christ’s work and our justification. Although Melanchthon certainly did not go to the voluntaristic extremes of someone like Ockham due to his desire to retain Anselm’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of Christ’s work within the redemptive economy, the influence of Nominalistic concepts such as ‘acceptation’ led him to separate Christ from justification in such a way that the only link connecting the former as cause to the latter as effect was simply God’s decision that it should be so.

To provide some contrast, Calvin insisted (rightly in my view and in keeping with Paul’s ubiquitous emphasis on salvation ‘in Christ’) that we are justified only insofar as we are ‘engrafted’ into Christ, as a branch into a vine, such that his righteousness becomes ‘imputed’ (if we want to retain this language) to us due to the inextricable and intimate union that obtains by the Spirit between Christ as our head and we as his body. This, of course, enabled Calvin to evade the charges that his doctrine of justification by faith alone encouraged licentiousness, for he could coolly respond that we do not have the righteousness by which we are justified in ourselves and separate from Christ but only in intimate union with his very person. Since Christ cannot be divided, Calvin argued, we cannot separate his righteousness that justifies us from his holiness that sanctifies us (duplex gratia), for sum total of our salvation is found in Christ himself. Therefore, it is absurd to think that we could be justified without also being sanctified, for these salvific benefits are not gifts distinct from Christ but only inhere in Christ himself and become ours through union with him by the Spirit. For Calvin, union with Christ was a truly unitive theme that permitted him to hold together all the various strands of biblical witness regarding the full spectrum of our salvation in Christ. Calvin was certainly not opposed to emphasizing the forensic aspects of atonement and justification, yet he saw these aspects as subsumed under the comprehensive category of union with Christ in whom alone are all of the benefits of salvation.

According to Strehle, Melanchthon, by contrast, came to teach that we are not justified so much because of an incarnational-spiritual union that we share with Christ by the Spirit (an internal, organic, realist soteriology) but simply because God, by a sheer act of will, simply predetermined the set of conditions upon which Christ’s righteousness could be legally ‘imputed’ to our account, almost as though Christ’s righteousness were a ‘substance’ or a ‘merit’ that could be distanced from his person and ‘transferred’ to us. This may not be a fully adequate characterization of Melanchthon’s position, but I think that it captures the overall spirit of what he was saying. Thus, whereas Calvin articulated, we could say, a more incarnational, internal, and organic relation between Christ’s work and our justification, Melanchthon formulated a view, (which as Strehle points out was to become characteristic of Protestant orthodoxy) that was primarily forensic, legal, and external in that he did not see Christ’s righteousness as the “intrinsic cause” of our justification (as when a vine organically gives life to a branch engrafted into it) but rather as a form of merit that only becomes imputed to us by a purely voluntaristic decision of God to do so on condition of faith (which hypothetically could have been different). Although he viewed, following Anselm, Christ’s work as necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, he understood its application to sinners in justification, following the Nominalists, to depend entirely on a voluntaristic decision of God that could have been otherwise, for hypothetically, God could have decided, according to his absolute power, not to impute Christ’s righteousness to sinners even if they repented and believed, or he could have required humanity to fulfill a completely different set of conditions above and beyond faith and repentance in order for him to impute Christ’s righteousness to them. In such a purely forensic scheme, there is no intrinsic, incarnational, or necessary link between Christ’s work and the justification of sinners.

In conclusion, this shows us once again why historical perspective is important, because it helps us realize just how beholden we can be to interpretive frameworks and theological presuppositions, such as those of Nominalism, of which we may be totally unaware and, in my view, do not accurately reflect the full scope of biblical teaching. Strehle helps us to grasp, by tracing the origin of Melanchthon’s views to Erasmus and the Nominalists, the importance of not naively thinking that our understanding of Scripture is what we simply read of its pages without any external influences. He helps us to see the necessity of being intentional about not only examining our interpretations of Scripture but also in examining the theological and/or philosophical apparatus which conditions our interpretation of Scripture. Ultimately, it should inspire us to move ever deeper and ever higher in our knowledge of the gospel that we might truly come to understand the full scope of all that Scripture proclaims concerning the beauty and glory of who Christ is and what he has done to redeem us. It is true that Christ has delivered us from the penalty from our sin and that we are legally declared righteous on the basis of his righteousness. But there is also so much more! For in making himself bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, Christ came not only to free us from our guilt but also to recreate us from within.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle.)


7 thoughts on “Philipp Melanchthon and Forensic Justification in Protestant Orthodoxy

  1. Bobby Grow 26 August 2016 / 12:31

    Strehle’s book is a good one; more people should read it!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Bobby Grow 26 August 2016 / 23:07

        Yeah, it’s too spendy of course … like any important book seems to be. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

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