17 July 2006

Chief Article

I had coffee with a friend the other morning, and he related a conversation he had had with a mutual friend. Rather, an argument. It was about the chief, the central article of the Christian faith. My friend had said: It's the incarnation. Our mutual friend had maintained: It's justification.

I've thought about this a bit since that day. I have enormous sympathies with either direction, because I do not think you can at all ultimately separate the two.

First, for any who would pooh-pooh justification, remember that our Lord sent our the Apostles "that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations." (Luke 24:47) Further, the Jesus that the Apostles witness as raised from the dead is the one to whom "all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name." (Acts 10:43) So Peter preached. And Paul's preaching agrees with Peter's. He announced in Antioch: "Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses." (Acts 13:38) And when Paul speaks of forgiveness in the Epistles, twice he defines it by apposition: "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace" (Eph. 1:7) and "in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:14).

Second, for any would pooh-pooh the incarnation, remember that it is precisely our Lord's incarnation that is announced by the angels as "good news of great joy for all people." (Luke 2) That Paul can speak of the purpose of our Lord's forgiveness as "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." There the ultimate honor goes to Incarnation where in the flesh of Christ earthly things and heavenly things are joined as one.

So which is it? Which is the chief article? Yes! Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, dead, risen, ascended, glorified, forgiving sinners and calling all from idolatry and into the worship of the true God by the Gospel message - an embassy of pardon that invites to union with God through Christ. The Who and the What. They belong together, not played off against each other. The one presupposes the other and neither makes sense if it is made "the biggy" against the other.

It's as though one had to CHOOSE which was more important: Christmas or Triduum/Easter! No thank you, I'll take them both and see them as two vital parts of one all-encompassing Mystery.



Steven G. said...

I agree that both the Incarnation and Justification are the chief articles. After all without the Incarnation of our Lord there would be no justification and the telos of our Lord's Incarnation is our justification.
As the song goes, "Like a horse and carriage..."

Fr. Shane R. Cota said...

Fr. Weedon,

The beauty is that, as Christians, we don't have to choose between the two. God is never going to come and say, "OK, it's one or the other. So, what is it?" He just says, "Here, this is all for you. Enjoy."

Chaz said...

I like the way Dr. Luther put it:

"The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. He alone is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and on him has been laid the iniquity of us all."

It would seem that he rejoices in both.

Anonymous said...

Well, this also begs the question as to how "Justification" is being defined. It not a simple phrase in the history of Christian doctrine. Justification was not often, always, or usually used in the way in which the Reformation came to use the term. If Reformation understanding of Justification was the central article of the Christian faith, it is odd that Christendom would fight over something as abstruse as monoenergism and monotheletism, and that they would not fight over the quite obvious difference in Justification when (supposedly) compared with the New Testament.

Of course, justification could mean something else, too...

The central tenet of Christianity that was dogmatized on by the Fathers of the Church from the 300s to the 700s had to do with triadology and christology (the Incarnation), and not with the 'how' of redemption (Reformation Justification).

William Weedon said...

For "justification" simply hear "forgiveness of sins." They are one in the same.

Rev. Benjamin Mayes said...

Excellent post! Reminds me of a conversation with a beloved professor once, who was telling me that Good Friday was more important than Easter, because that's when our justification took place. I agreed with him on the importance of Good Friday, but then reminded him that "Christ died for our sins and was raised again for our justification."

On the issue at hand, however, in the Smalcald Articles, the main doctrine appears to be "the Office and Work of Jesus Christ, or Our Redemption." SA II/I is great, because it treats atonement and justification as one, or at least as closely linked. Of course, the atonement depends on Trinity and Incarnation.

Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement (which includes justification) really seem to be the three biggies.

Rev. Timothy May, M.Div., S.S.P. said...

The idea of Christ as a threat to justification as the central article, and this I have heard, is hard to believe. Rather, Christ our righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1). Yes! Incarnation and Justification together in Christ, bringing us into union with God, together indeed!

Petersen said...

The Faith is an organic whole. Which is the chief organ in your body? D.P. Scaer once famously got into trouble for saying: "All Theology is Christology." Now we gladly, as we should, embrace that slogan.

Chris Jones said...

Reverend Fathers,

I don't think it will do to work around the Reformers' contention that justification by faith alone is "the chief article" by saying that the Incarnation is also the chief article, or by noting that all of the articles are connected with it. First of all, by definition there can be at most one "chief" article; and secondly, and more importantly, the whole point of identifying a chief article is to be able to use that article as an interpretive lens to show how all of the articles of faith are interrelated. If the chief article must share its pre-eminence with other articles (the Incarnation, the Trinity, etc.) then it has lost its role as that interpretive lens.

If you say that the Incarnation and justification are somehow both the chief article, you are saying that the Reformers were wrong to identify justification as the chief article in such a way as to use it as a canon to measure all other aspects of faith and practice.

There are several points where the Confessions say that a teaching or practice is to be rejected on the grounds that it "conflicts with the chief article". These are examples of the use of the chief article as an interpretive lens. If justification loses its unique role as the chief article and interpretive lens, those parts of the Confessions that rely upon it in this way are put in doubt.

Speaking as a layman not bound by a quia subscription, I have never agreed with the exaltation of justification by faith as "the chief article". It's not that I disagree with the doctrine of justification by faith itself. But it seems to me that what is regarded as the chief article will vary through history depending on what doctrines are at risk due to the heresies of the day. Given the sub-Christian theology of merits, purgatory, and indulgences current in the mediaeval West, it was the doctrine of justification by faith which was most at risk at the time of the Reformation. So it is hardly surprising that the Reformers would have identified justification as the most important doctrine. But would St Athanasius and the Cappadocians have agreed with this? or would they have said that the Trinity was the most important? Wouldn't St Cyril and St Maximos Confessor have identified the Incarnation as the most important?

What happens to the whole system of Lutheran doctrine if we no longer use justification as an interpretive lens?

Chaz said...

Dear Chris,

The quotation I gave above is where Luther defines what the first and chief article is. It confesses both the incarnation and justification.

It is also a quotation from the Lutheran Symbols... the Smalcald Articles. What am I missing?

Jon Ledetroit said...

In all that passes as Christianity it is the doctrine of Justification that is "chiefly" attacked.
Those who deny the Incarnation or the Trinity cannot be called Christian (catholic) - as called out in the Athanasian creed.
It is always the definition of the following phrase that is problematic: "At whose coming all men will rise again and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire."
If I have my Lutheran theology correct my account is this: My works are not good. I am a poor miserable sinner and I trust in the work of my Lord Jesus Christ to save me.
The Chief Article is attacked when one pleads a righteousness that springs forth from one's own efforts or that claims salvation outside of the fulfillment of the Incarnation, that being Christ's sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry if this is too simplistic a question, but why does there need to be a chief article? I understand the idea of the article being used as an "interpretive lens". Sometimes I hear Lutheran pastors explaining Scripture, and I think they may be misinterpreting it because they view it through this narrow lens. It almost seems too limiting to me.

I have often wondered this. Can anyone enlighten me?


William Weedon said...


You are expounding something that Fr. Beane has opined on before: that the front line of the battle of truth shifts a bit in different ages. Certainly the Confessions view justification as an interpretive lens. Fr. John Behr in his essay *Orthodoxy* says this:

"It is the Gospel, Scripture read in a particular fashion, through the prism of the Cross, that is salvific - if the Law itself were salvific, then Christ would have died in vain, as Paul points out (Gal. 2:21)." - Fr. John Behr, *Orthodoxy*

This is precisely the point he makes in his *The Way to Nicea* as well. The early fathers point us toward a particular way of reading the Word, an interpretative lens, and that lens is above all focused upon the Cross where our Lord incarnate destroyed death and "blotted out the handwriting that was against us." On the Cross, atonement and incarnation meet in overflowing joy.


About the end of the Athanasian Creed, it should give us no trouble at all. It does not say that those who do good thereby EARN to enter heaven; and those who do evil thereby EARN to enter hell. It simply says that at the Judgment Christ will separate those who have done good from those who have evil and bring the one to eternal joy and the other to eternal blessedness. How does one DO good? That's the question! "But faith alone doth justify / Works serve the neighor *and supply the proof that faith is living.* Instructive is Matthew 25:31ff. Notice that the Lord remembers not one sin committed by those on his right, only the good they have done, even though they are unware of it. Similarly He remembers not one good thing done by those on His left, even though they are unaware of the weighty judgment against them. People who are totally good or totally bad??? On what planet do THEY live? But take it all to heart with the words of Hebrews 11 and it jumps to life: "without faith you cannot please God."


The question is whether or not this is Scripture's own interpretative lens. Is this how the Apostles operated? Check out the passages in Acts that deal with the Apostles' preaching and tell me what you find they are always wanting to proclaim!