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The Secularization of Justification

An Interview with Bishop C. Fitzsimmons-Allison

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In April 2006, Michael Horton conducted the following interview with Bishop C. Fitzsimmons-Allison, the recently retired bishop of South Carolina for the Episcopal Church, for the White Horse Inn radio broadcast.

Bishop Allison, we have appreciated your encouragement of our work, especially Modern Reformation and the witness for the gospel you have maintained in the Episcopal Church and beyond.
I can tell you it's mutual. I just love Modern Reformation and all that you are doing.

In a chapter that you wrote recently for a Festschrift for Gerhard Forde, the Lutheran theologian who died last year, you talked about the yeast of the Sadducees. We're used to thinking of our problem being similar to that of the reformers, where they were dealing with the Pharisees, and we're dealing with a sort of new pharasaism, a new moralism, but you point out in this chapter that unlike what the reformers were dealing with, we're facing the "yeast of the Sadducees." Could you explain what you mean by that?
Yes, I'll be glad to try. It seems to me that the Sadducees are a good biblical synonym for secularism. They didn't believe in spirits or angels or the resurrection. Is that not just exactly what Reinhold Niebuhr calls secularism: this-world-is-all-there-is-ism? If there's no resurrection, it's just us chickens here in this world and in the confines of history. And there are certain implications to that that are inevitable.

In your chapter, Bishop Allison, you talk about the secularization of justification: Justification by self-esteem, justification by victimization, justification by acceptance. Can you walk through each of these starting with justification by self-esteem? How does the yeast of the Sadducees turn justification into a justification by self-esteem?
Well, I think human beings are made in the image of God. They have a built-in need for righteousness, for justice. We can see it in children who say "It's not my turn" or "It's not fair." I think Parade magazine some years ago pointed out that the average adolescent says "It's not fair" nineteen times a week. I think that's part of our very nature, to demand righteousness, and when there is no transcendent righteousness - there's nothing after the grave - then it naturally comes back in my lap that I must be righteous. So, the way to be righteous is to think well of oneself and self-esteem has become a kind of justification as a result of the yeast of the Sadducees.

And we hear this not just in mainline liberal circles; we hear this in popular evangelical circles where people are told the good news of the gospel is "God loves you anyway," or "You're the center of God's attention. Boy, he's just so excited about you."
Yes, I think it's affected the whole culture.

You say this leads to a nation of sociopaths.
Well, the last thing in the world that self-esteem can stand is guilt, and guilt is regarded almost universally in our culture as some neurotic thing, whereas the Scripture sees guilt as a great friend. I think it's Romans 3:18-19: "Let every mouth be stopped and all the world become guilty before God." Guilt is a discrepancy between where we are and where we ought to be if we're made in the image of God and we are far gone from that original intention. Guilt is not something terrible and bad - true and responsible and authentic guilt, that is - is not something bad, but it is a good and hopeful indication of "that eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived of all that God has prepared" for each of us. Guilt is the very thing that sociopaths lack. I remember talking with a therapist in my parish in New York City, and she said if she could ever find any guilt in some child who had been abused, it was great and good news. It was something she could build on then, to straighten out - there was a lot of false guilt of course, but true guilt is what most sociopaths never are able to come up with.

So, really, facing our guilt is a sign of sanity.
Absolutely - and hope.

Justification by victimization - how does that happen?
Well, I think we are a nation of victims and I've forgotten the name of the book that says a large number of the United States population can claim some victimization. So if you're a victim, you're no longer held responsible. It's a destructive thing to not give someone any sense of responsibility and accountability by which they can move from where they are to where they should be - and the kind of dignity that comes from being held responsible.

How about justification by acceptance?
Well, I think - I can even remember Paul Tillich saying in a lecture that his little attempt to define justification by grace through faith in contemporary words as "accepting oneself" - as having been accepted though unacceptable - was not the use of biblical words. And he warned us about that - that acceptance was not the biblical use of the words - and we forgot it and ignored it and we took Tillich to mean that we can lose the transcendence and reduce justification to mere acceptance. So I will be more effective if I am accepted. And if I am misbehaving and doing something very neurotic, it's because I haven't been accepted. So the worst behavior I am manifesting only means that you must listen and do more accepting for me. So justification by acceptance becomes a secular substitution for justification by grace through faith.

That's fascinating, because you can sit down with some evangelical pastors and ask them, "What does the doctrine of justification mean?" and often get, "Well, that I'm accepted even though I'm unacceptable." For instance, our producer forced me to listen to a Joel Osteen sermon recently and the whole program was about acceptance, and this is what the Christian message is: The gospel is, "accept yourself" - and he never mentioned sin, atonement, or even Christ. It was simply God accepting you, why don't you accept yourselves...
It becomes now the law. If you have a difficult child and you've just said the whole thing is acceptance, then you just have to grit your teeth and accept this terrible behavior along with the child. And the child can sense that because it shows up in the tone - that teeth-gritting tone about accepting. It doesn't work - it's just reduced back to a law, not grace.

So you're saying it's a law to tell people, "Accept yourselves"; it's gospel to tell people, "Here is how God has made you acceptable to him."
Yes. I think we can be misled here in the sense that - and I think a lot of people are, because evangelicals are shown to be just as immoral as the secular folks in all the disturbing statistics I've seen lately - so therefore we've got to go back to the law and threaten people: "Hell ain't full and there's plenty of room for you." But I think that's just to revert back to the law without grace. That doesn't provoke the change that we are promised in the Scripture.

You've said that to really overcome this secularization of justification we have to recover the robust biblical words like justification and at the heart of it, you say, imputation. Why imputation?
I think that's the crucial word in all of Scripture. People laugh at me about that, but that's because the English word is translated in such an awkward way and the Greek word is translated in such awkward way, as "to reckon, to treat, to impute, to regard as, to think," and none of those are very powerful words; but the word itself, logizomai, is logos - in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And it's the verb form of logos. And it's not merely that by his action Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to have mercy, but that it's because of what the Logos did - it was the verb, the action of the Logos. I am imputed as righteous even though I am not righteous, and by that wording of me as righteous, I begin to become that kind of righteousness that we see in the second person of the Trinity.

So it is actually a speech event. God has declared us righteous.
That's right. It seems to me that there's imputation in the whole discrepancy between a righteous God ever forgiving anybody. He's got to impute; he's got to regard something that is bad as good in order to make it good. Logizomai, translated most frequently as "impute," is that very action of the whole Christian faith by which God's absolute justice deals with absolute evil and sin and injustice and begins to turn them around and make them right. But that cost, that infinite price which was paid in Jesus Christ, was his death.

So it's not a legal fiction to say that God accounts us as righteous because of a righteousness that is fully in Christ but not in me?
Liberals and Roman Catholics have always accused the Reformation of being a legal fiction; whereas after Trent - Roman Catholicism - you are righteous because you are made righteous. Well, if there's ever a legal fiction - I want you to show me someone who's been made righteous. I've never found one, I've never buried one, and that's the true legal fiction. The liberals say you must be like Jesus. Well, I just don't find anybody like Jesus around. You talk about a legal fiction; those are legal fictions. What is not a legal fiction is for God - because of the price he paid on Good Friday that enabled him - to take upon himself our injustice and our evil and our sin in order for the Father to look upon us with mercy, and for Christians who've been shown that mercy therefore to show that mercy to others. That is not a legal fiction; that is just what makes redemption work.

As we've been going through Romans, obviously we've been talking of introducing our listeners to a term that they may not have heard before in church history called Pelagianism, following the monk Pelagius who believed that we could pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps. You write that Pelagianism is not only the banana peel on the cliff of Unitarianism but it is also "pastorally cruel." We're not only talking about getting your doctrine straight as an end in itself - why do you think getting justification wrong is pastorally cruel?
Well I was thinking of a lady that was in our prayer group some years ago who had a terrible problem with gossip - she was aware enough that she just loved it - it was invading the prayer group. She found in herself some glee in finding foibles in other people, and it was bringing a spirit into the prayer group that was not very good - it wasn't a graceful thing. And it occurred to me that gossip is the compulsive endeavor of hope that God will grade on a curve. If you're in a class in which 70 is passing and you make 69, you flunk. But if the professor grades on a curve, and no one makes higher than a 70, you've got a good chance with your 69 of being an A-, at least. So if we can find enough ugly, evil things in the world and in other people in the world, especially in the clergy, or people who pretend to be righteous, then maybe God will grade on the curve and I'm in. So it's a kind of feeding our self-righteousness. Now if we've heard what the Sermon on the Mount says, we go to Good Friday on our knees because there's no way in the world an honorable, authentic reading of the Sermon on the Mount leaves us with anything but "Lord, have mercy."

So "What would Jesus do?" is not the gospel.
It's a contemporary adoptionism.

What do you mean by that?
It's an ancient and classical heresy which reduced the work of Christ to give us a good example. When Jesus was baptized, we heard the father say "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." According to the adoptionists, he did what none of the rest of us have ever done, which was to be perfect. And therefore he's like a kind of Roger Bannister who breaks the four-minute mile. And he becomes the image by which if we just try harder, if we fuss at people enough, if we are scolded enough, if we scold other people from the pulpit enough - then they will run the four-minute mile, then they will be like Jesus. It ignores the complete Old Testament presentation of a Messiah who came to take away the sins of the world, that God did something of which we were unable to do, that the Messiah came and made it all right by his actions. It leaves out two-thirds of the whole meaning of the gospel.

Bishop Allison, thank you so much for upholding that wonderful announcement of the gospel in your ministry.

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Issue: "The Peace that Starts the War" July/August 2006 Vol. 15 No. 4 Page number(s): 28-30

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