Peter Leithart on Ecumenism


Peter Leithart has a book coming out called The End of Protestantism. The title is intentionally provocative. Peter has long held the position that reformation is something the church should always be doing; protesting, on the other hand, is not.

By that he means that the church should not work toward a greater and greater fracturing of denominations; rather, we should work toward a reformation that once more unifies the church catholic. It has been my contention, borrowing from Leithart and others, that rather than protesting the church, we should should work toward healing a church that has long been separated. Mind you, this does not entail swimming the Tiber to Rome. But it does entail working with those in Rome and Constantinople et al. It means taking seriously those differences that divide and working toward overcoming them. We should not take lightly the positions of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, we should engage them. When we brush the issues aside, we create larger rifts in the church. This undoubtedly grieves Christ, who prayed for the unity of his church (which, by the way, is his one mystical body!) before his death (John 17).

To say the least, I’m really looking forward to this book! Here’s a little preview below on his stance toward denominations, one that I also hold.

Atonement Theory and Sacrifice


Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).

Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).

The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:

[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)

To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.

Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.

Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:

[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified…  Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)

So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.

But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:

The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)

Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.

Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!


Paul’s Very First Sermon

Paul’s teaching on justification has been, to say the least, controversial throughout church history. Luther’s own departure, or rather excommunication, from the Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the most palpable example. He came to understand justification as a courtroom reality. Because Christ has suffered on our behalf, God declares us to be in the right, and thus we are acquitted and released from his wrath.

The Roman Catholic Church, in response to Luther’s articulation of salvation as declarative, wrote the decrees of the Council of Trent, which reinforced their teaching that justification is not legal or declarative, but is rather ontological and sanctifying. God’s salvation of the sinner is the filling of the soul with sanctifying grace, thus making man just interiorly, not exteriorly.

The Protestant-Catholic divide has not since eased, and both churches have since only made their stances more firm. What I want to do in this post is present a view that, perhaps, can avoid the controversies between traditions.

Before I go on to describe this view of justification, I do want to say that I’m borrowing from a number of Protestant as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians who have done the groundwork for me. In this post I am borrowing particularly from theologians Peter Leithart an Jordan Cooper.

To begin my examination of Paul’s theology of justification, I want to look at Paul’s very first sermon, which comes from the book of Acts. We know that Luke wrote Acts, and also that he was influenced largely by Paul. He traveled with Paul for much of his missionary journey, and thus we should expect to find Pauline elements in his books.

Luke’s first recorded sermon by Paul is in Acts 13, and lucky for us, Paul preaches the gospel by using the term “justified”, or dikaioo. There is no doubt that the term is a forensic term. However, I do believe that by focusing on this sermon in Acts 13, we will better understand what Paul means when he uses the term elsewhere. Paul’s sermon involves several important elements: Christ is presented as the fulfillment of the promise of a new Davidic king, who will bring about an eternal kingdom (v. 22-23). God established Christ as King when he raised him up from the dead, never to see corruption again (v. 36). David himself died and saw corruption. But by his resurrection, Christ has overcome death and corruption, and therefore all who believe in him are thus “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (v. 39). The ESV renders “justified” as “freed”. It is important to note that this is an interpretive jump: the word in Greek is justified (dikaioo), the same one that Paul uses in Romans and in Galatians.

The impulse to interpret dikaioo as freed however is justified (pun intended!). The reason is because the entire context of Paul’s sermon is deliverance or freedom from death and corruption: King David died along with everyone else; yet Christ, the true Davidic king, was raised, never to see corruption again. Therefore, everyone who believes in him is dikaioo from death.  Paul’s use of dikaioo is thus liberative.

Peter Leithart agrees with me:

In Acts 13:38-39, he tells a Jewish audience that forgiveness comes through Jesus the Messiah, and that everyone who believes (pisteuo) is justified (dikaioo) from all the things that the law of Moses could not justify (dikaioo). It’s all there – justification by faith in contrast to justification by law – but it’s all sorted differently from what we (Protestants) expect. Paul’s point about the law is not about human efforts at law-keeping, but about the efficacy of the law itself as an agent of justification. What could not be done through the law of Moses is done by Jesus. Further, “justify” here does not refer to reckoning a sinner righteous. It is justification from (apo panton . . . dikaioutai), sensibly translated as “freed” in many English Bibles. Torah did not liberate from some “things”; Jesus does for those who trust Him. (source)

By using justify, Paul thus means to say that Jesus liberates, in contrast to the law which cannot. Reformed Christians should notice that there are elements from the common Reformed presentation of justification. For the Reformation understanding of justification, God is presented as Judge, and we are guilty sinners. Justification is thus commonly used as courtroom language. God, the righteous judge, justifies, or acquits us on the basis of Christ’s death. But here in Acts 13, justification is not presented in courtroom language, and God is not presented as judge. Rather, death is presented by Paul as the common enemy of all peoples; and to be justified means to be freed from the grip of sin and death through the resurrection of Christ from the dead (mind you, the emphasis is not Christ’s death, but his resurrection!!), something the law could could not accomplish.

What do we do with this? What I would suggest, and what Leithart suggests, is that dikaioo is Paul’s way of explaining that through Christ men can be freed from the bondage of sin, Satan, and death. Leithart explains:

In short, Paul is not dealing with the guilt of sin; the “picture” here is not the courtroom; Paul presents a scene of battle, or, better, he pictures the sinner an oppressed slave under the thumb of a harsh master. To be “justified” from “master sin” is to be delivered from his hand, from his lordship and mastery; in this context, to be justified from sin is to be liberated. (The Federal Vision, “Deliver Me, Oh God”, Kindle Locations 3499-3502)

Thus, justification does not picture God as the stern Judge who accuses us of wrongs done, but by the sacrifice of Jesus, acquits us of those wrongs done. God is rather the great liberator. He is the one who breaks the chains of sin’s bondage, who overthrow’s the Devil’s schemes, and who destroys the great enemy death. At this point my atonement theology becomes clear: Christ is the great victor over sin, Satan, and death. What Gustav Aulen has called Christus Victor, is in my opinion, the major thematic frame of atonement and salvation in the Bible.

Surprisingly enough, Lutheran scholarship has understood justification similarly as well. Jordan Cooper says this about justification:

For Lutheran theology, sanctification and justification have an intimate connection which cannot be severed. Sanctification is the effect of justification. It is not a separate benefit of union with Christ, but is the declarative reality of righteousness (in justification) becoming an effective intrinsic reality. Sanctification is thus the “working out” of justification.

Resurrection is thoroughly intertwined with the Pauline concept of sanctification, as it is with justification. In encouraging good works in the Christian life, Paul states, “If the Spirit of   him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies   through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8: 11). Sanctification is a result of the resurrecting act of God through the declarative act of justification.

(Cooper, Jordan, The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology, Kindle Locations 4010-4016)

This is odd because, of course, Luther is the one who initially understood justification in declarative terms. But it is even more surprising because Cooper sounds an awful lot like John Henry Newman. Newman was an Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism. For Newman, justification was a speech-act of God. Just like God’s Word caused the universe to come into being, God’s declarative Word makes the sinner righteous. Or, think of Christ calling Lazarus from the tomb. It was his word that rose him from the dead! Thus, justification is declarative, but it is also transformative. It is a great speech-act of deliverance by God from the powers of sin and death. Peter Leithart follows Newman’s thought by calling justification a “deliverdict”, a verdict that at once delivers.

Theologian Douglas Campbell has made a further insight that Paul wrote about justification by faith from prison. He was quite literally in bondage, under Rome’s tyranny, while he wrote about justification by faith. Would it not then make sense to understand justification as a liberative declaration over the great powers of evil? I think so! Something else to note is that Paul’s main salvation motif was the exodus, which, was liberation from slavery. Romans 6 comes to mind here.

In my next post I will explain the atonement in terms of victory and as liberative power. For now though, I’ve included a video below by Chris Tilling to further expound on justification as liberation. It’s a great little presentation, just 25 mins.