Justification and the Gospel: An Interview with Dr. Michael Allen

Dr. Michael Allen, Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and dean of faculty at Knox Theological Seminary, has just released his new book Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies with Baker Academic. His book provides a synopsis of the debate over justification and offers a fresh and insightful way forward. We recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Allen and getting to know more about him and his remarkable new book.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Can you tell me a bit of your story?

I grew up as a pastor’s kid in a family where worship and education were valued very highly. I did my schooling at Wheaton College, where I studied ancient languages and literature and then historical and systematic theology. I have now been teaching theology at Knox Theological Seminary for over four years, mostly focusing on systematic theology courses but also offering classes in historical theology and in theological exegesis. It’s my privilege and delight to help men and women see intellectual engagement with the Christian tradition and ultimately with Christian Scripture as a constitutive part of their discipleship and a key element of any ministry they will have in the future.

What need did you see in the church or in the academy that led you to writing this book?

Debates on justification have dominated the world of academic theology for twenty years. They have been mostly focused on exegetical-historical (the legacy of second temple Judaism) and ecumenical concerns (the legacy of the Reformation). I believe the debates have been incredibly important, but they have also suffered greatly from their sometimes myopic nature. I believe that a larger portrait of the gospel which located these various debates on justification in that broader picture would be helpful.

In your book, do you land on one side of the fence in the debate, or do you only provide a synopsis of the issues?

It’s certainly a proposal for a particular way forward rather than a mere survey. I don’t address every issue pertaining to justification, but on several of the most debated topics I propose what I believe to be a way forward. Of course, in many ways, the way forward, I believe, is best traveled by returning to the past: the catholic and Reformational heritage that we have too long forgotten.

What do you feel sets this book apart from all the rest on the topic?

Most books allow the pertinent dichotomies to stand: are you in favor of justification or participation? The faith of Christ or faith in Christ? An anthropological or a Christological view of Paul’s theology? Good books have been written on either side of each of those debates.

But I believe that each of those debates needed to be recontextualized. Each of them falls apart at a certain point. I argue that justification is for the sake of participation, that we must believe in the Christ who exercised faith, and that the Christological core of the gospel has massive anthropological implications. On particular questions one has to take sides, but one also has to exercise the intellectual imagination to see that multiple questions are in play at the same time.

Has writing this book changed or solidified your views on any aspect of the debate?

I’ve become more convinced that one common critique of classic Protestantism just isn’t right. Oftentimes we hear it said that Luther and his generation were the first to concern themselves with detailed reflection on justification or to treat it as central to the gospel. Forgetting for the moment how late medieval scholastic theology spent quite a bit of time on justification, we can see that this objection fails to note the way that theological development occurs throughout history. During the patristic and medieval eras there was a great deal of talk about sacrifice offered by Jesus the Messiah (drawn from the conceptual world of the Israelite Scriptures). Eventually, though, the question would arise how one can know that the sacrifice is effective for them. It is only when the question of assurance became pronounced during the late medieval period (for a variety of contextual reasons) that justification became an incredibly pertinent doctrine to be developed. It helped state how sacrifice works for particular people. So the objection falls flat, not because we’ve somehow found scores of texts where Athanasius talks about justification, but because it fails to see how the church gradually develops its mind at work with Scripture.

What do you hope this book will accomplish?

I hope that it shows how the exegetical and doctrinal moves of the Protestant Reformation were an attempt to hone the catholic faith, not to reverse it. And, having done so, I hope it shows how certain more recent arguments might fit alongside that Protestant consensus rather than being viewed as alternatives to it.

What are some of the key works on the subject that have influenced you?

I found great help in reading Scripture with the confessions of the early Reformed churches, which guided me along my way. I might mention in particular the ways that the Heidelberg Catechism addresses the doctrine of justification in its broader portrait of the Christian life. Similarly, I found the exegetical works of classic theologians to be great prompts: Augustine, Didymus the Blind, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin chief among them.

Last question: If you had to recommend two books (aside from your own) on justification, what would they be?

For an introduction to the shape of the classic protestant perspective, one will always be helped by James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification. For further development of some key issues, read G. C. Berkouwer’s Faith and Justification.

You can get Dr. Allen’s new book on Pre-Pub as part of the Baker Academic Theological Studies Update (3 vols.), which also includes God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation by Jonathan R. Wilson and Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church by J. Todd Billings. Get 25% off by pre-ordering this collection.

Written by
Jonathan Watson

Jon Watson is a minister in training with St. Columbia's Free Church in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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