The Amnesty of Grace

Elsa Tamez, and a Contemporary Interpretation of the Doctrine of Justification

Debates surrounding doctrines tend to stay in the pastness of the past. As it happens, most scholars participating in such debates focus on the pastness of the past (i.e., historical theologians, historians, and biblical scholars), rather than how such pastness could be persuasively retrieved for contemporary audience. They concentrate on doing research for the texts of the past and what meanings they had in their pastness. For this reason, contemporary debates on the doctrine of justification are likely to fall on this default mode, engaging in arguments regarding whether Judaism was a legalistic religion or not on the one hand, and in defending the appositeness of the Reformation understanding of the doctrine. This is an enormous sum of energy wasted, I diagnose, for we lose sight of the issue of communicating the doctrine of justification HERE and NOW, rather than THERE and THEN.

Elsa Tamez, a Mexican biblical scholar with a strong liberationist bent, asks precisely this question. First off, she lists the three dominant metaphors of the doctrine—forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and liberation from the guilt of sins—to lose its meaning for contemporary persons. In particular, she reads the doctrine in the context of Latin American society, focusing on the poor and marginalized. She tentatively concludes that the doctrine says nothing beneficial, if not something harmful, to the poor and marginalized.  What needs to be paid attention to is Tamez’ reconstruction of sin. Rather than limiting herself to the individual person as the agent of sin, Tamez sees beyond the individual, which is sin as corporate, sin as powers and principalities infiltrating into every dimension of human life, including socio-political structure and individual life. Here Tamez especially zooms in on the effects of sin on the poor and marginalized. Drawing upon Hong Kong’s Baptist lay mission worker Raymond Fung, Tamez shrewdly points out that a certain understanding of sin intimately connected with the doctrine has been focusing upon the capability of the agent who sins, rather than those victimized by sin as structure, sin as powers and principalities. If this understanding of sin is juxtaposed with contemporary context of meritocracy, the most harmed will be those pushed to the corners of society because of their failures, because of the unequal treatment society has treated them with. An important theological term Tamez brought up here is a Greek term hilasterion, referring to the sacrifice and sacrificial victim at once.  Aside from all the complicated and convoluted controversies, Tamez loathes the Western theologians’ tendency confining the interpretation of the term only to Romans 3:25. She also tries to make a case that hilasterion should be approached from the more wholesome framework of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection (and from it nexus to the Hebrew Bible). Just as the Roman empire had produced endless number of innocent victim, not only did Jesus become one of the innocent victims, he also stood in solidarity with them to end such victimizing of the power of sin. While this particular interpretation could be lent to scrutiny over its theological persuasiveness, it goes without question that her interpretation is one justifiable interpretation.

Seen in this lens, the answer for the question of interpreting the doctrine looms more positively.  Tamez proclaims that the doctrine is God’s affirmation for the human worth of every person, believers and nonbelievers alike. The appeal of this interpretation to contemporary society is that ours is one percolated with meritocracy. Meritocratic society tells every one of its members, “sell your abilities, prove and legitimize your existence.” Oh well, it rather compels everyone to do so. Rather than an intrinsic worth of each individual as person, meritocracy treats people of desirable capabilities well, trashing failed ones to the bottomless pits of life. Tamez sees that to this aspect of contemporary society the doctrine powerfully addresses God’s mercy. She ends the book with asserting the message of doctrine once again.

As I mentioned earlier, the most promising strength of this book is Tamez’s attempt to interpret the doctrine itself for contemporary audience. Her take on the doctrine looks quite fresh in the current scholarly landscape of shying away from contemporary interpretation of doctrines. At the same time, it is a little too hard to dismiss Tamez’s take on the doctrine as insular and prejudiced, for Tim Keller gives the identical diagnosis in his book Generous Justice. Given that Tamez comes from more progressive side of the spectrum, and Keller from more conservative side, the diagnosis of the doctrine as losing its communicability is not to be easily dispensed with.

One unfortunate aspect of this book is Tamez gives insufficient attention to the incommunicability of the three dominant metaphors of the doctrine. She nevertheless delves into the sacrifice metaphor and its language, this still seems to be lacking. Moreover, I think Tamez should have moved her chapter on the analysis of the sacrificial language to the earlier part of the book in order to gain more momentum for her arguments.

Nonetheless, this book could play a good role model for interpreting doctrines contemporaneously.  The question is of high value and needs to be contemplated more by scholars, pastors, and lay persons. I hope that more books asking similar questions will be coming out in the near future.