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Justification by the Word: Restoring Sola Fide, by Jack D. Kilcrease. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022, xi + 442 pages, $39.99.

A steady stream of books and articles on the doctrine of justification continues to flow from presses, and this latest contribution comes from Jack D. Kilcrease, professor of historical and systematic theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology in Brookings, South Dakota. This book is about the doctrine of justification within the framework of Lutheran soteriology. The book consists of seventeen chapters with the first four discussing the doctrine from Genesis through the Pauline corpus; the following seven chapters provide a historical-theological survey that begins with the early church, has two chapters on Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) view, and then covers post-Lutheran developments. The following six chapters treat justification and election, the sacraments, and the Christian life. The final chapter presents six theses on justification as a summary of the book.

There are three strengths in this book that commend it to readers. First, Kilcrease writes from a Lutheran perspective. For readers that come from a Reformed perspective, studying the doctrine of justification from a Lutheran vantage point offers a good opportunity to see things differently. Rather than rehearsing important but common arguments, the reader can see how Lutherans employ the doctrine. There is confessional agreement between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions on the doctrine of justification, a point attested by John Calvin’s (1509–64) subscription to the modified Augsburg Confession and Theodore Beza’s (1519–1605) supervision of the creation of the Harmony of Confessions of Faith (1581), a collection of Reformed and Lutheran confessions that Reformed theologians used to demonstrate agreement among the Reformed and Lutheran churches. At the same time, the respective doctrines function differently within the context of each tradition’s theology. Kilcrease’s book showcases this difference.

Second, the book delves into exegetical arguments for the doctrine of justification, and in light of recent debates over the New Perspective on Paul, the book critiques this contemporary movement in a nuanced way. Kilcrease persuasively argues, for example, that the New Perspective “has projected the modern, post-secular problem of how to create unity in the midst of radical pluralism onto the first-century situation” (79). He also insightfully captures the eschatological nature of justification and presses this point against N. T. Wright’s (1948–) claims of a twofold justification, one based on faith in the present and a second based on faith-wrought works (94).

A third strength lies in the book’s two chapters on Luther’s doctrine of justification. Luther was a chief figure in the articulation of this biblical doctrine. In popular Reformation mythology, Luther was fully persuaded of the doctrine of justification when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door at Wittenberg, but students of church history often read his Theses searching in vain for the doctrine. The author traces the development of the young Luther and the various biblical and theological influences upon him until he had his Reformation breakthrough. This is not to say that everyone will agree with every historical claim the author makes, but tracing Luther’s maturation process helps readers obtain a more nuanced understanding of Luther’s doctrine of justification.

There are at least three areas that warrant further consideration. First, the book lacks a strong introduction and thesis. The book’s introduction is a mere four pages. Introductions need not be long, but they should present the book’s chief thesis and briefly explain how each chapter supports the thesis. The author, for example, writes: “Instead of ‘justification through faith’ it might be appropriate to characterize Luther’s position as ‘justification by the word.’ In this book, we will endeavor to show that, although it has been neglected and misunderstood by Protestants and Catholics alike, Luther’s ‘justification by the word’ is a better model for understanding salvation in Christ” (4). This is the book’s thesis, but the author does not clearly explain what he means by justification by the word in the introduction. There are hints that point to the “sacramentality of the word, and not justification by faith” as an important difference, but what the author means is unclear. Readers must wade into the book to determine what the author specifically seeks to substantiate.

Related to this is the fact that the author does not explain the plan of his argument. How do each of the following chapters support the thesis? How will each chapter prove that justification by the word is preferable to justification by faith? Once again, the reader must wade into the book to ascertain how each chapter supports the book’s thesis. There is a clear statement of the book’s main point at the end of chapter eleven that crystalizes the author’s thesis: he argues that justification by faith alone must function with an anchor in sacramental realism and the sacramentality of the word (258). In other words, the chief claim of the book is that justification by faith alone is incomplete apart from the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation (though Lutherans object to this term)—that Christ is truly present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Apart from this sacramental objectivism, sola fide degenerates into a form of subjectivism and legalism.

Second, the author writes for a Lutheran audience who will probably nod in agreement with his claims. Those from a Reformed perspective, however, will likely be unpersuaded because he relies more on assertion rather than careful exegetically and theologically persuasive arguments. For example, the author claims that sacramental realism is a bulwark against subjective doubts of faith. Christ is truly present in the supper and therefore assures believers of their saved state (304). This view is supposedly superior to Reformed views of assurance because they must rely upon the practical syllogism. Yet, something the author never addresses is how does a believer truly know whether he is saved? For the sake of argument, assume consubstantiation is true and Christ is physically present in the supper; in contrast to the Reformed, Lutherans teach because Christ is truly present apart from faith in the participant, even the unregenerate consume Christ. The manducatio impii seems to be a looming fear for the true believer, does it not? Just because Christ is present in the supper does not guarantee that the person who partakes is saved. He could be unregenerate and nevertheless consuming the physically present Christ to his condemnation. Moreover, what of Scripture’s call for self-examination (1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Pet. 1:10; Luke 6:43-44)? The book dismisses calls for self-examination as subjective and legalistic quests for assurance. Such self-examination may very well be, but apart from exegetical and theological treatment of these passages, claims of the superiority of sacramental realism border on assertion rather than proven points.

Another example appears in the book’s scant engagement with Reformed views. Calvin and Zwingli are the representatives for the Reformed tradition. The problem is that both of these theologians are not fountainheads of the tradition the way that Luther is for Lutheranism. The Reformed churches employ their confessional and catechetical corpus to define Reformed theology, and yet the book never interacts with these documents; the Westminster Standards, Three Forms of Unity, and Second Helvetic Confession never appear. When the book engages Zwingli (e.g. 304, 329), it only mentions the early memorialist views of the reformer and not his later views that commend a spiritual presence of Christ. Related to this limited exploration of the Reformed tradition is the book’s rejection of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. The book only cites a secondary source as the “Reformed tradition” and never shows by exegesis, theology, or engagement with primary sources why the Lutheran view of sacramental realism is the correct position (313–14). The book also does not wrestle with more recent historical-theological claims by Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves that Calvin’s extra-Calvinisticum is not unique to Calvin or the wider Reformed tradition but also appears among the patristic theologians and should be called the extra Catholicum.[1]

Third, at key points I wonder how much the author reads Luther through modern ideas that end up distorting the reformer’s doctrine. The book begins with the claim that justification is central to Christian theology. He rejects the notion of a central dogma, a single doctrine from which one deduces an entire system of thought (1). On the other hand, he nevertheless argues that justification is central to Christianity but never explains in what way and how his idea of centrality differs from central dogmas. This becomes relevant to questions of interpreting Luther when the author periodically invokes the interpretations of Oswald Bayer (1939c), a contemporary Lutheran scholar (178). The author cites Bayer’s explanation of Luther’s doctrine through speech-act theory, which is a contemporary linguistic school of thought associated with J. L. Austin (1911–60). The book simply assumes the legitimacy of this interpretation. Moreover, Bayer constructs justification along the lines of a central dogma and has argued that sanctification is not something that follows justification but is nothing other than justification. Similar types of modern interpretations of Calvin abounded in nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography that necessitated works like Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin,[2] i.e., a reading of Calvin situated within his early modern context defined by primary sources, not accommodated by modern misreadings. The book’s use of modern interpretations of Luther apart from argumentation warrants the question, does the author present the unaccommodated Luther?

Lutheran readers of this book will likely find its claims and arguments familiar and agreeable, but Reformed readers will find key arguments unpersuasive. This does not mean that people should not read the book. The book can be read for profit, and it is especially important for readers with Reformed convictions to engage Lutheran sources so they have a first-hand knowledge of what Lutherans believe. However, Reformed readers should also be aware and will detect the shortcomings of this book. The book succeeds as a treatment of the function of justification by faith alone within a Lutheran view of salvation but fails to persuade this reviewer of its superiority over Reformed confessional views.

Endnotes

[1] Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019).

[2] Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as Harriett Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2023.

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