The second Paul book I recently read was The Way of Salvation: The Role of Christian Obedience in Justification by Paul A. Rainbow (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2005). An interesting read indeed! I offer the following reflections.
Have the Reformers set five centuries of Protestantism awry with their banner cry of sola fide? Can the nagging problem of antinomianism that has plagued the church in the wake of the Reformation be traced directly to the Reformers’ biblically partial insistence on sola fide? According to Paul Rainbow, Professor of New Testament at Sioux Falls Seminary (formerly North American Baptist Seminary), the answer to both questions is yes. In this provocative book that is sure to ruffle both Reformed and New Perspective feathers, he makes his case. In Rainbow’s understanding of historical theology, Augustine, and not Calvin and Luther, provides the right balance between faith and good works and how each pertains to the two phases of justification. Rainbow draws preponderantly on Paul with occasional reference to James, proposing that in his soteriological framework the troubling dissonance Protestant exegesis has felt between these two canonical writers disappears.
In the opening pages Rainbow crystallizes the argument of his book: “My thesis in a nutshell is that, though the Reformers had Paul on their side in decrying merit before conversion and rightly emphasized that God freely imputes Christ’s righteousness to a believing sinner apart from prior moral efforts, nevertheless they were wrong to exclude ‘evangelical obedience’ (as the Puritans called deeds produced by divine grace in the lives of the redeemed) from having a secondary role in the way of salvation which we tread thereafter” (xvi). The question of the Reformers’ alleged neglect of “evangelical obedience” aside, there is little here with which any will disagree. The issue, however, is the way in which Rainbow fills out what precisely that “secondary role in the way of salvation” is. For most Reformation and post-Reformation thought, the role of “evangelical obedience” is validation and necessary outworking of a justification based utterly on Christ’s work and appropriated solely through faith—“necessary” due to the inextricably wed legal and transformative effects of union with Christ. Yet for Rainbow, obedience forms part of the ground of justification—it is not mere manifestation of approval with God but constitutive of that approval.
Rainbow argues that while it is true enough that in Paul’s theology the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers when they first trust Christ, final justification will be grounded on both faith and (post-conversion) obedience. Works, them, are certainly excluded from initial justification. Yet there is a reason Paul excludes works beyond the assertion that when he does so he has only initial justification in view. Rainbow posits a clear demarcation between two ways in which Paul speaks of works (chapter five). There are “works of law,” which refer to “works that Adam’s progeny do in their striving under the demands of the law” (79). This brand of works possesses not a whiff of Jewish boundary markers (strangely, J. D. G. Dunn is not cited anywhere in a chapter that is squarely opposed to Dunn’s extensively argumentation for the predominantly nationalistic understanding of Pauline works of the law). More numerous, secondly, are “works of grace,” which are “works done by Christians living out the practical implications of being regenerate under the new covenant” (80). While Paul wholly excludes works of law from playing any role in either phase of justification, works of grace provide a key criterion for final justification.
The book includes twenty brief chapters which fall into three sections. Chapters 1-2 set out the issues and lay the foundation for what is to come. The bulk of the book, chapters 3-16, make the argument. Important components of this section include the old and new covenants, antinomianism, regeneration, numerous chapters on justification, and comparisons of Paul and James. Chapter 17-20 synthesize and draw conclusions, including reflections on how the thesis of the book addresses the topics of the ordo salutis and assurance.
The Way of Salvation possesses unique strengths. First, one appreciates the seriousness with which Rainbow takes the Bible. In a day when historic orthodoxy frequently becomes the engine driving exegesis (I have at times seen this firsthand in confessional Presbyterianism, and I expect a similar thing happens in other groups where confessions are, quite rightly, appreciated) rather than being driven by exegesis, the author’s unmitigated submission to Scripture is refreshing, and a good reminder to us all.
Second, Rainbow is clearly conversant with historical theology and avoids the frequent caricatures of the Reformers (especially Luther) that fills the pages of so many recent treatments of Paul. Rainbow desires that the interpreters of centuries past be understood on their own terms and not written off or used only as fodder for critique.
Third, this book feels no compunction to fall neatly into any particular current Pauline camp. I appreciate his willingness to let the text lead where it will even where that seems to be ground on which no other scholar has trod.
Fourth, Rainbow writes in clear English that is neither verbose nor unnecessarily confusing. His argument itself is not simple; but the language he uses to explain is, for which simple-minded learners like me can be grateful. His generally short chapters (some just seven or eight pages) helps in seeing his progressing argument.
Fifth, Rainbow draws upon a vast corpus of Pauline interpreters, both past and present.
Some weaknesses to the book ought to be mentioned, too. First, Rainbow’s appeal to the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity in legitimating his admittedly complex soteriological system in which one is justified by faith alone initially but not by faith alone finally is not quite a fair comparison. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to comprehend the deity, as is the other great biblical mystery, the hypostatic union. Should we expect God’s provision of salvation for his creatures to possess a comparable degree of mystery? Some, then, will persist in seeing his view as inherently contradictory (in what sense can imputation be meaningful if it must be finally completed by believer’s good deeds?).
Second, one finds a conspicuous lack of reference to the Holy Spirit. Though the Spirit is brought in at a few points (133-34, 144-47, 194), this is not the heading for any of the twenty chapters nor even for any of the subsections within chapters. Rainbow’s emphasis on the deeds of believers forming part of the ground of eschatological justification would seem to call for a more thorough integration of the pneumatological element of salvation—which is precisely what one finds in other writers who see Christian activity as integral to final justification (N. T. Wright, e.g.). Yet the Spirit is not even mentioned in the opening 70 pages of the book.
Third, one wishes for a more nuanced appropriation of the different prepositions used by Paul. Though not an airtight rule, the Apostle generally speaks of justification as being through (dia.) faith, on the basis of or grounded in (evpi.) Christ’s work, and according to (kata.) deeds. Rainbow repeatedly blurs these distinctions, saying explicitly at several points that justification is based on or grounded in deeds (83, 184, 187, 194, 197, 201, 203, 210, 227).
Fourth, ought we not to make a distinction between eschatological justification and eschatological judgment? It seems that Rainbow has at times confused the two, importing the Pauline truth that judgment will be according to works into his view of final justification. I would say that final justification will be one of the potential verdicts at the final judgment. The two are not equivalent.
Fifth, one wishes for a more thorough integration of the place of union with Christ into the book. This reviewer maintains the sneaking suspicion that had this critical Pauline doctrine been more comprehensively incorporated, Rainbow would come less quickly to the conclusion that the Reformers’ understanding of justification leads unavoidably to antinomianism. I suggest that union with Christ is the doctrine which illumines how antinomianism is a diseased form of Paul’s teaching rather than its inevitable result.
Sixth, at times Rainbow is simply sloppy in his scholarship. For example, he cites the view of Caron, Moo and Morris on the relationship of James and Paul: “It is to this garbled form of Paul’s teaching that James responds because he is writing before he had opportunity to learn from Paul himself just what Paul means by the doctrine” (Introduction to the New Testament, 413). Rainbow comments, “I do not perceive that James garbled Paul’s doctrine, as should become clear from the exposition below” (214 n3). Now this is not at all what Carson, Moo and Morris have stated—they say James is responding to a garbled form of Paulinism, not that James himself garbled it. Less than careful wording infects more substantive issues, too. Is it accurate, for example, to baldly assert that “the Reformation’s rigid exclusion of Christian good works from saving faith is invalid” (xxi)? As I read Calvin, I understand him to be saying on the one hand that moral activity in no way contributes to the basis for justification (whether initial or final, if such a distinction can be upheld to the degree Rainbow asserts), yet on the other hand that fruit-filled lives of obedience can be excluded from saving faith no more than the heat of the sun can be excluded from its light.
We could sum up this book by pointing out that many readers will remain unconvinced by Rainbow’s work due to two overarching questions. First, has he read the Reformers faithfully? Despite the many explicit quotations lifted from Luther and Calvin, it is far from clear whether Rainbow has enfolded a representative sample of their thought. Second, even if Rainbow has indeed accurately portrayed the thought of the Reformers, the question remains whether the Reformers or Rainbow are reading Paul aright. In order to sign on with the proposed thesis, then, both of these hurdles must be cleared. Few will be able to make the leap.
I am grateful for Rainbow’s labors and for the stimulating study he has put together in The Way of Salvation. I do, however, remain unconvinced of his thesis that works form part of the basis of final justification, and, for the sake of their own spiritual well-being as well as the glory of the God who provides all believers need for final exoneration, I hope few in the Church adopt his argument.