Justification in Anglican Life and Thought: A Retrospective

Retired Bishop and theologian FitzSimons Allison, a presenter at our conference, opened his Saturday morning address with the comment that he regarded this conference on justification at Nashotah House as an “historic event.”  My first reaction to the comment, having been on the ground floor of its planning, was to rejoice in the affirmation.  My immediate second, and more lasting, reaction was to regard it as hyperbole of the moment born of the Bishop’s generous spirit.  But, now in retrospect, I’m inclined to take the Bishop’s comment more seriously and concur.

First, it needs to be said that no one who was there thinks that the question got settled.  No final “Anglican” view of justification was arrived, nor did we write a new homily on justification to be published in the next edition of the Prayer Book.  At the same time, an attentive listener (and it was hard work to wade through these excellent but rather academic pieces – something our students made clear to us during and after the event), would have found signs not only of Anglican diversity but of Christian rapprochement throughout the lectures.

With David Steinmetz’s expert help, we were shown that Luther was not to be mistaken for his caricature, especially on the matter of justification.  Several presenters showed that both more “Catholic” and more “Protestant” accounts of justification are properly located in the Church’s union with the crucified and resurrected Christ – that both “treasury of merit” and “legal fiction” accounts of justification are best regarded as theological fiction.  We were shown throughout that, at their best, evangelical accounts of justification are fully ecclesial and sacramental, issuing forth in transformation and characteristic virtues, and that Catholic accounts, at their best, rest fully on the gratuity of God-for-us.

It was my particular interest to show that Bishop N. T. Wright has got Paul substantially right, that in doing so he vivifies a Catholic impulse that is rooted in the NT itself, and yet that Wright has not to date quite exploited his own exegetical harvest, being mired somewhat in remediation of extreme Protestant views.

Well, of course, it is not possible to summarize all the sessions.  You are welcome to listen to them, as they are posted on our website.  A rich feast there.

I think, though, beyond the topic that the conference was “historic” for other reasons as well.  It was the first such event which we have hosted at Nashotah House in our new addition to the Refectory, Adams Hall.  With a seating capacity approaching 250, this new facility creates opportunities for Nashotah House to be a natural place for theological training and dialogue.  And if we have learned anything about our wonderful seminary it is that it is a secret all too well kept and that virtually everyone who has opportunity to visit us is smitten by the place, its people, its heritage, and, above all, its potential.  (For a recent example, see this blog post from the dean of another seminary!)  It was, for example, a moment of entry into the holy life of the House when, on Friday afternoon of the conference, the assembly hushed itself for the quiet simplicity of said Evening Prayer.  It was a statement.  A theological conference in which we talk about God does not pre-empt the worship of God. But, of course, we weren’t making a statement.  It’s just what we do.  And when people join us in what we do, they want to come back and join us again.  That was precisely the reaction of Fr. Tony Clavier, who wrote a charming and affirming piece for The Living Church in the aftermath of the conference.

The conference was also a watershed for the Nashotah House faculty.  Attending to teaching, worship, and formation as we do, it is not always easy for us to find that extra time to do constructive theological scholarship.  The conference pushed several of us to put into essay form and for public presentation work that had previously been on our computer hard drives or just rattling around in our heads.  What we saw, is what I already knew: we’ve got some keen scholars on this faculty, who can hold their own.  Fr. Tom Holtzen is drawing to conclusion a manuscript of a full-length treatment of J. H. Newman’s Lectures on Justification, the publication of which will be a signal event for Nashotah House.  I’m working on a “new perspective” on the new perspective on Paul, which I hope to complete during my 2013-14 sabbatical.  Frs. Steven Peay and Daniel Westberg gave papers on the history of justification in Anglicanism during the 19th and 20th centuries that deserve wide readership.  It is our intention also to gather the conference papers together for publication with a major theological press.  So we hope in due time, that the proceedings will indeed be available to wider audience.

We learned a lot from doing this conference, not only about justification, but about how to do this kind of conference.  Our conclusion was that we can do it even better.  More than that, we need to keep meeting this way.