Both Judge and Justifier

Biblical Legal Language and the Act of Justifying in Paul

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James B. Prothro
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , April
     2018.
     280 pages.
     $91.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9783161561160.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his monograph Both Judge and Justifier: Biblical Legal Language and the Act of Justifying in Paul, James B. Prothro seeks to answer the question: What constitutes the act of justifying for the apostle Paul? Prothro attempts to show that, rather than redefining the concept, Paul assumed the meaning of the act of justification from Greek-speaking Judaism. As Prothro writes, “My thesis is that, when the contours of the theologized legal conceptualization of justification before Paul are properly understood, Paul’s use of it—within his Christian theology—is fundamentally continuous with that of his forebears” (42).

Prothro begins making his case by examining the use of dikaioô (to make right, justify) in quotidian contexts within Greek-speaking Judaism. On the one hand, the verb can be used in bilateral contentions, wherein “two parties simply contend over a perceived wrong” without recourse to a judge (44). In these situations, to “justify” is to maintain or consider something or someone to be in the right (50). On the other hand, dikaioô also occurs in trilateral contentions, in which the two parties take the case to an authority figure (i.e., the judge) who then decides the matter by taking the side of the one perceived to be in the right (53–54). According to Prothro, the act of “justifying” in a trilateral contention refers to the judge’s whole task, which “was not merely to determine guilt and innocence but to enact justice by actively vindicating the one and condemning the other, siding with one and exacting restitution from or punishing the other” (58).

After exploring the function of dikaioô in quotidian contexts, Prothro examines how Jewish texts (mainly the Septuagint) use the verb with reference to God. Prothro maintains that these texts predicate dikaioô of God in both bilateral and trilateral contentions. First, they frequently depict God as bringing a charge of wrongdoing against God’s own people. According to Prothro, these scenarios resemble quotidian bilateral contentions, although God does not cease being the sovereign judge even when God is the claimant (63). Prothro then contends that “within the bilateral contention, what the legal conceptualization of God justifying a guilty Israel communicates is forgiveness and reconciliation” (79, italics original). Second, Jewish texts also describe God as a judge deciding a case between two parties (i.e., a trilateral contention). These texts demonstrate a close relation between bilateral and trilateral theological contentions, as the former can often transition into the latter (94). Prothro then concludes from his survey that, in trilateral contentions, God “justifies” by vindicating the righteous and punishing the wicked (103–104). 

After a brief discussion regarding how theological contention scenarios remained relevant during Paul’s own time (107–114), Prothro turns to the use of dikaioô within Paul’s letters. He explores the two occurrences of the verb in 1 Corinthians (4:4; 6:11) and concludes that justification here refers to an act in which God holds someone to be in the right, either during the future eschatological judgment or in the present with the future eschatological judgment in view (126). Within Galatians, Prothro maintains that dikaioô functioned as part of a bilateral theological contention; as such, “to justify” here refers to “God holding one to be in the right in view of his judgment and accusation . . . which would then entail forgiveness and reconciliation” (141; see also 154).

Lastly, Prothro looks to Romans and posits that Paul here conceives of justification within both bilateral (Rom 1:18–5:11) and trilateral (Rom 6:7; 8:33) contention scenarios. On the one hand, when Paul speaks of justification from a bilateral perspective, the verb dikaioô “keeps its denotation of ‘hold to be in the right,’ particularly . . . against God’s charge and in his judgment” (172); in these cases, justifying “conceptually entail[s] forgiveness” and “effect[s] reconciliation between disputants” (172). On the other hand, justification in the trilateral scenario refers to divine vindication, whether that be God’s vindication of Christ against sin (Rom 6:7; see 186–98) or God’s vindication of believers against all accusers (Rom 8:33; see 198–205). Prothro therefore concludes that “Paul’s talk of justification is fundamentally continuous with foregoing legal conceptualizations of God as justifier” (210).

Overall, I found much to appreciate about Both Judge and Justifier. Prothro’s mastery of secondary material and the sensibility of his approach commend themselves. Moreover, Prothro largely demonstrates that Paul’s use of dikaioô stands in continuity with that of his Jewish forebears; as such, Prothro provides a serious challenge to those who claim that the apostle redefined justification (J. Louis Martyn, Martinus C. de Boer, Douglas A. Campbell). Prothro also shows that the legal connotation of dikaioô remains consistent throughout Paul’s letters; therefore, it seems unlikely that Paul’s framework for justification changed from being covenantal to being forensic (contra N. T. Wright).

That said, some aspects of Prothro’s argumentation remain open to criticism. For instance, Prothro fails to convince when he argues for trilateral contentions within Romans; I find it unlikely that Rom 6:7 refers to Christ’s vindication and Rom 8:33 allows for interpretations that Prothro fails to consider. As a result, Prothro is unable to establish that Paul used dikaioô to speak of “God’s vindication for his own over against adversaries” (186). Some might also question the significance of the distinction between bilateral and trilateral theological contentions. On the one hand, even within bilateral contentions, all three roles of the trilateral contention are fulfilled since God acts as both claimant and judge against his opponent. On the other hand, when God “sides” with people against their opponents in a trilateral contention, God’s actions could also be conceptualized as the beginning of a new bilateral contention within which God brings charges against the guilty party.

Finally, Prothro’s characterization of the traditional, “forensic” view of justification is inconsistent; his own survey of the position (7–8) calls into question the claim that proponents of the view put the legal and relational aspects of justification at cross-purposes (211). Despite these shortcomings, Both Judge and Justifier remains a significant contribution to the study of Pauline justification; as such, it deserves a wide reading among those interested in the subject.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard M. Blaylock is an online teaching assistant and doctoral candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James B. Prothro is Assistant Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida.

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