NT Wright, following a long tradition, explains that justification is a declaratory act. It is a verdict of acquitted, cleared, vindicated in the view of the court. There is an immediate communal dimension to this: The acquitted person is “in good standing in the community as the result of the judge’s pronouncement” (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision). Think of an accused criminal, viewed with suspicion and fear by his neighbors; when he is found not guilty, the community acknowledges the verdict by re-accepting him into the neighborhood, greeting him on the street, inviting him over for cocktails, etc. Justification is the spoken verdict; community acceptance is the consequence.
In a 2012 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly Gerald Downing of Manchester argues that Wright and many others read back a modern court setting into the Bible. He finds virtually no evidence in the Old Testament or Jewish literature that zadak or dik- words are used to describe a performative utterance, a verdict of “not guilty.”
His argument has several parts.
First, he argues that ancient courts did not consider guilt or innocence. Rather, the purpose of a court assembly was to determine punishment: A court case “is between adversaries before an umpire with power to decide the form of punishment and to authorize it and have it inflicted” (303). The umpire or judge would not pronounce a verdict that would then have to be accepted by the community. Rather, if he determined the accused was innocent, he would simply refrain from punishing him. There would be no verbal verdict that would confer a status. The absence of punishment would be the “only significance of innocence,” and that absence of punishment would itself constitute the vindication/justification of the person. “Innocence is tacitly but eloquently ‘declared’ by a person remaining securely unpunished while the guilty, by contrast, suffer” (305). Citing 1 Kings 8:31-32, he claims that “punishment or reward constitutes condemnation or vindication/acquittal” (304). Joseph doesn’t declare his brothers innocent; he simply does not carry out any retribution.
Second, this means that the communal acceptance of the accused is not a secondary moment based on a prior verbal pronouncement. The acceptance of the accused by the community is the vindication of the accused: “Being in the right means being respected in a community in which people know one another and meet together. . . . Barring any accusation of wrongdoing brought against them, their place in the community is secure. And if an accusation against them . . . is not upheld, there is, of course, no punishment, and it is the whole community with its leaders who have affirmed their righteousness, by continuing to honor them in practice” (309).
Third, by the same token, it is God’s refusal to punish, or, positively, His gift of well-being, that constitutes His “declaration” of innocence. Downing cites Psalm 7 (a passage I’ve used to defend my notion of a “deliverdict”), and comments: “personal protection and the downfall of the poet’s enemies and all who are wicked . . . will establish innocence” and “It is well-being that establishes innocence, and punishment that indicates guilty.” When David is at fault, he confesses his sin and asks for forgiveness, and then asks for protection/vindication over against his enemies. Of course, the wicked prosper for a time. But the fact that they are guilty will eventually be declared in their downfall.
Downing applies all this to the case of Job, a book that Paul knew and alluded to. Job of course suffers, but insists on his innocence. He doesn’t search for a “spoken verdict of acquittal,” however. The whole community considers him guilty, precisely because he is under God’s rod, and the acquittal he eventually receives is “his social restoration” (309) and return to prosperity.
Applied to Paul, Downing suggests that justification means that “all punitive threats to present and future well-being with God” are removed. No formal status is conferred. “There is no warranted or unwarranted acquittal of guilty, nor its transfer (let alone any implicit substitutionary punishment).” God’s justification of the wicked is His sheer gracious, “divine royal prerogative” of not punishing those who have done things worthy of punishment.
There is a good bit to appreciate here. Downing tries to understand justification in real-life situations of threat and conflict. He comes close to my notion of “deliverdict” at various points.
But there are some serious problems here. First, there are examples of verbal declaration that a person is “right.” Downing says instead that there is “no spoken vindication of what Job has said about himself” (309). That flatly contradicts the text: ”Job has spoken what is right” (42:7-8).
Second, it’s not clear to me why Downing feels the need to excise the verbal element to thoroughly. If his point were only to say that verbal pronouncements are inseparable from deliverance and communal acceptance, I agree. but Downing goes further, and unnecessarily. Even if he is correct about the functioning of ancient courts, certainly there is a verbal component. An accused man goes unpunished; the community accepts him; but in accepting him, will they not say things like “he was accused, but he didn’t do it.” Someone goes to the judge and asks why the man was not punished, and the judge will say “Because he’s innocent.” We might refuse to use the admittedly anachronistic term “status” to describe that, but then it seems we’re straining semantic gnats.
Most seriously, it is not at all clear how this works out in Paul’s writings. Downing’s thesis would work, it seems, with a strong idea of penal substitution: The guilty are not punished/are justified because Jesus took the punishment for them. But when he combines his definition of justification (as the non-imposition of punishment) with a denial of penal atonement, it’s not clear what role the cross plays. If justification is a matter of sheer royal prerogative, presumably God can do that without sending His Son to death. But then why did He?
Any interpretation of Paul that leaves us wondering about the need for the cross has gone awry somewhere along the line.