The word justification, as used in theological circles today, is pregnant with meaning and laden with baggage carried over from the Protestant reformation. There has been, in recent centuries, a tendency among biblical scholars to exclusively adopt and employ the standard western Christian or reformed protestant [juridical] definition of the word. It often seems that this understanding of justification is adopted de facto as the only proper way to understand the Pauline use of the word.
The word justification is used three times in the book of Romans. The word group is defined in the following manner: dike (root word of the group, meaning right or just), dikaios (meaning righteously or justly), dikaiosune (meaning righteousness or justice), dikaiosis (meaning “the act of pronouncing righteous” or acquittal), dikaioma (meaning an ordinance, a sentence of acquittal or condemnation, a righteous deed), dikaio (meaning “to show to be righteous” or “to declare righteous”), and dikastase (meaning “to judge” or “a judge”). It appears that the word group, when taken as a whole, can convey both a sense of righteousness and justice (as a legal declaration).
This legal framework for understanding justification all hinges on the concept of justice as understood in the pagan Greek culture of the time - dikaiosis. The ancient, pagan Greeks, Thucydides for one, adhered to a juridical understanding of this concept as punishment. It is valid to assume that St. Paul was familiar with these pagan concepts since this [Greek culture] was his immediate cultural context. The question arises: What do we do with St. Paul’s Jewish heritage and culture that was no less familiar to St. Paul, but was surely of more importance to him? Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros in The River of Fire proposes that the traditional eastern Christian and patristic view of justification is more compatible with the nature of the Christian God. He says, "The word dikaiosune, 'justice,' is a translation of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This word means 'the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation.' It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed, which means 'mercy,' 'compassion,' 'love,' and to the word emeth which means 'fidelity,' 'truth.' This gives a completely other dimension to what we usually conceive as justice. This is how the Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it - God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving."
Kalomiros sees justification primarily in an eschatological manner. For Kalomiros, justification is both present and future, eliciting submission in loving response to the unmerited love of God by those who would respond in faith. So, for the Eastern Christian, it is this imparted “righteousness”, dikaiosune, (instead of a juridical justification) that is culminated eschatologically in the fullness of time through the mercy of God by our loving response, in faith to Him.
So, in Romans 5:16, when St. Paul says, “And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto [dikaioma] justification,” the eastern Christian and patristic scholar would be completely comfortable with justification defined as a “righteousness mercifully imparted by God that restores man to a state that was originally intended.” As the fall of Adam condemned the cosmos, and therefore mankind, to a world of sin and corruption, the death and resurrection is able to “make righteous” that creation which previously existed in a fallen state subjected to death.
While eastern Christian theology does not embrace a juridical framework, the work of Christ is the sole basis for our imparted righteousness and “justification” in the eyes of God. It is only the work of Christ on the Cross, the “tree that saves” which can counter the condemnation and corruption introduced to the world through the Edenic tree.
Viewing the word group holistically, we can turn to the rest of scripture for a more complete understanding of the dike word group and its implications on St. Paul’s use of dikaiosune et. al.
In Matthew 5:17-20, Christ says, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven."
Here we see a hint about the depth of the righteousness imparted to us by God in his Mercy. The dikaiosune tos anthropos that is unattainable by man (as indicated in the passage above) is to be replaced by the dikaiosune tou theou – the righteousness of God in Christ which is imparted to man in God’s mercy. There is no necessity for a juridical pronouncement of innocence, but rather Christ’s righteousness is imparted to man in a transformative manner through Christ and his death on the cross.
In the Eastern Churches, this justification (impartation of righteousness) is associated with entrance into the Church. This is an ancient practice preserved from the earliest times. The liturgical texts indicate a process of conversion that culminates in baptism and the joining of oneself to the Church. The baptismal service text clearly defines this belief when the convert, or newly baptized infant [after the baptism] is told, “You are justified; you are illumined!” (GOAA – The Service of Holy Baptism) Justification, the impartation of righteousness, begins at conversion through the mercy of God, and it continues throughout the life of the Christian as one is conformed, in righteousness, to the image and likeness of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Since the righteousness is offered and imparted to the Christian in love, the Orthodox Christian believes that man is, likewise, free to reject Christ’s righteousness and offer of salvation. For there is no love apart from freedom – coercion and slavery are characteristics that are incompatible with a perfect love. There are assurances in scripture that God will hold close to himself those who are of his fold, and the Christian can rest confidently in this fact. But, we are just as free to reject God and his love as we are to embrace him.
Western v. Eastern Concepts - Implications
While the western approach to theology seems to help our western minds, so used to a scientific model of reasoning, “understand God,” the Eastern approach seems to organically synthesize the multi-faceted nature of theological truth. Eastern Theology is far from systematic, but it takes into account and embraces all that has been handed down to us from Christ, to his apostles through the Church via the Holy Spirit.
Paul Negrut defines the tension that exists when trying to understand western theological concepts in light of early Christian and eastern theology. He says, “Much of this sounds strange to Western ears, both Protestant and Catholic, because the historical development of Western theology has been quite different. Patience is therefore required to penetrate this strangeness, but that is a necessary prelude to any real understanding, dialogue or critique!” This patience is, however necessary and would, if employed in theological dialog between the east and west, yield much fruit.
It would serve the western Christian well to bear in mind that the juridical concepts of salvation, substitutionary atonement, et. al. were foreign to not only the eastern Church but also the western Church (Catholic and Protestant) until the time of Augustine. Even then these concepts were vague and undefined; they were not universal doctrines in the Church anywhere. Anselm further developed these ideas some 600 years later, and Luther built on the work of Anselm about 500 years after that. Is it any wonder that these concepts which seem to the Protestant an integral part of historical Christian theology (which are, in actuality, rather new) baffle the eastern Christian mind? These categories and concepts are somewhat unique and have existed in their present form for a relatively short period of time. To the eastern Christian, Theology is not something that improves with age – it is something to be internalized, and it can best be understood by journeying as close to the roots of our faith as possible. Reason and logic [read: the enlightenment] cannot guarantee a better understanding of God, his Son or our faith.
Some Helpful Quotations
In summary, it is not an antagonistic attitude that causes the eastern Christian and patristic scholar to recoil at some notions of western and Protestant theology, it is simply that the approach employed by many western scholars (inherited from the likes of Augustine, Anselm and Luther) seems at odds with what eastern Christians believe has been safeguarded since the foundation of the Church at Pentecost. The traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works. … This of course does not mean that the Orthodox do not believe that each generation of Christians may receive new insights into Scripture, especially insights relevant in a given cultural context. However, it does mean that the new insights must remain consistent with earlier ones, and that one or two Pauline passages (and one specific interpretation of those passages) are not considered theologically normative – particularly as a foundation for a soteriological dogma – unless the early and continuing tradition of the Church show them consistently to have been viewed as such. … Because of its less juridical exegesis of Pauline soteriological statements, Eastern Christianity has never had anything approaching the kind of faith v. works controversies that have enveloped and (for both good and ill) theologically shaped the Christian West, whether one considers the late fourth-/early fifth-century Pelagian controversy or the 16th-century Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther. Rather, the East has maintained a somewhat distant and even puzzled attitude toward the theological polemics which have raged over justification in terms of faith or works. - Valerie Karras
This paganistic conception of God’s justice which demands infinite sacrifices in order to be appeased clearly makes God our real enemy and the cause of all our misfortunes. Moreover, it is a justice which is not at all just since it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons which were not at all responsible for the sin of their forefathers. In other words, what Westerners call justice ought rather to be called resentment and vengeance of the worst kind. Even Christ’s love and sacrifice loses its significance and logic in this schizoid notion of a God who kills God in order to satisfy the so-called justice of God. Does this concept of justice have anything to do with the justice that God revealed to us? Does the phrase “justice of God” have this meaning in the Old and New Testaments? Perhaps the beginning of the mistaken interpretation of the word justice in the Holy Scriptures was its translation by the Greek word dikaiosune. Not that it is a mistaken translation, but because this word, being a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, was charged with human notions which could easily lead to misunderstandings. First of all, the word dikaiosune brings to mind an equal distribution. This is why it is represented by a balance. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. This is human justice. - Kalomiros
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America - Service of Holy Baptism
Karras, Valerie A. – Justification and the Future of the Ecumenical Movement (Liturgical Press – Collegeville, MN)
Kalomiros, Dr. Alexandre – Saint Nektarios Orthodox Conference: The River of Fire (Seattle, St. Nektarios Press, 1980)
Pollard, Aurthur - Anselm’s Doctrine of the Atonement: An Exegesis and Critique of Cur Deus Homo, Churchman Volume 109, Number 4, 1995