Mascall on Justification

E. L. Mascall has featured in three recent pieces on The North American Anglican, Clinton Collister’s “Year in Reading,” Gerald McDermott’s “E. L. Mascall: A Theologian in, from, and for the Church,” and Preston Hill’s review of Mascall’s book Christ the Christian, and the Church. Along with Preston Hill and Clinton Collister I have been participating in a reading discussion group at All Saints’ Church, St. Andrews focused on Christ, the Christian, and the Church. I echo Messrs. Hill and Collister in commending the book to the readers of The North American Anglican. In a 1948 review published in the Westminster Theological Journal, the Scots-American theologian John Murray aptly described Mascall’s book as “refreshing” and “provocative of fruitful thought.” My aim here is not to provide another review, but instead to pick up on a matter raised in the ante-penultimate paragraph of Hill’s review regarding Mascall’s description of the Protestant doctrine of justification. I look at section II of chapter five, “Incorporation into Christ” in relation to the Anglican formularies and the works of several early modern Protestant divines, which demonstrates the warrant for Hill’s claim that Mascall’s argument at this point “is either uninformed or severely overstated.”

Mascall begins this chapter very promisingly by correcting the common assumption that “becoming a Christian means in essence the adoption of a new set of beliefs or the initiation of a new mode of behavior” (p. 77). Creed and code are, of course, constitutive marks of the Christian, but they are the consequences, the effect of being a Christian, “an ontological fact, resulting from an act of God”; as Mascall explains, “the act of God precedes and is presupposed by the acts of man” (ibid). Mascall then turns to the question of how this act of God — the redemption accomplished in Christ — is applied to the human person. “It is,” Mascall explains, “necessary here to say something about the much disputed question whether the restoration of man in Christ is to be thought of in terms of imputation or impartation” (p. 79). It is at this point that the confusion begins.

Mascall characterizes the two positions this way: “does God, in view of the redeeming work of Christ, merely treat men as if they were what they are not, or does he make them in reality different from what they were?” (ibid). This characterization is, unfortunately, misleading; because, the disagreement isn’t whether or not God, in order to save people, makes them different than they are. On that point, all parties are absolutely agreed. The question is whether justification is the result of imputation or impartation. Justification — being “accounted righteous” as Article XI defines it — may be thought of as the keystone, so to speak, of soteriology, that is, of the teaching on salvation, but it is not the only stone. Because of its centrality in salvation, it sometimes is used as a synecdoche, to refer to the whole; but sometimes greater precision is called for, as in theological discourse, or else people will be doomed to talk past each other — which Mascall himself knew quite well.

The Bible uses a number of other words with interrelated meanings to describe the mystery of salvation, which results in a more multifaceted picture than justification alone. In a familiar passage from Romans, Paul situates justification within a larger sequence which has as its aim conformity to the image of Christ: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). Article XVII on Predestination and Election, reflects the language of this verse, those who are saved “be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.” In this sequence, justification is itself the consequence of a prevenient grace which enables embracing the Gospel, “they through Grace obey the calling.”

Mascall asserts that in Protestantism, “justification has been envisaged as simply an act of God by which man is accounted righteous without any ontological change being made in him” (p. 81). On the contrary, Article X teaches that “[t]he condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God” so there must be an ontological change without which faith is impossible — “the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” It seems strange to me, then, that Mascall would claim, “Protestantism, with its reluctance to admit that grace can produce a real supernaturalization of the soul in its ontological depths, has tended to discount the possibility and legitimacy of the systematic pursuit of supernatural sanctity” (p. 80). Mascall does not point to any specific writers here (as he so often does elsewhere), so I don’t know against whom he is arguing. In his 1595 Exposition of the Creed, William Perkins, one of the foremost Elizabethan divines, a conformist who argued for further reforms of the Elizabethan settlement wrote,

Among the blessings that are stored up in the manhood of Christ for our salvation, some are given unto us by imputation, as when we are justified by the righteousness indeed inherent in his manhood but imputed unto us: some by infusion, as when holiness is wrought in our hearts by the spirit, as a fruit of that holiness which is in the manhood of Christ, and derived from it as the light of one candle from another.

Perkins describes the ontological change of which faith is the fruit as a “mystical union.” No one would doubt that Perkins is a Protestant, and yet, he most certainly believes that “grace can produce a real supernaturalization of the soul in its ontological depths.” Mascall proceeds,

Because [Protestants] do not believe in a real communication of the life of God to the human soul, they are unable to see the man himself as being the subject of these acts [of supernatural virtue]. The soul subject, in any real sense, is God, although the merits of the acts are attributed to man by imputation. (p. 81)

This characterization of Protestant theology does not match up with Perkins at all. Quite the contrary, Perkins says, “everyone that believeth in Christ by reason of this union hath an unspeakable prerogative, for hereby he is first united to Christ, and by reason thereof is also joined to the whole Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and shall have eternal fellowship with them.” So, justification clearly follows from or may be conceived as a subset of incorporation into Christ in classical Reformed soteriology. Perkins answers those who deride the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness, saying,

There is a most near and straight union between Christ and all that believe in him: and in this union Christ with all his benefits according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, is made ours really: and therefore we may stand just before God by his righteousness; it being indeed his, because it is in him as in a subject; yet so, as it is also ours because it is given unto us of God. … [And] from this fountain springs our sanctification, whereby we die to sin & are renewed in righteousness and holiness. Worms and flies that have lain dead all winter, if they be laid in the sun in the springtime, begin to revive by virtue thereof: even so when we are united to Christ, and are as it were laid in the beams of this blessed son of righteousness virtue is derived thence which warms our benumbed hearts dead in sin, and revives us to newness of life.

Perkins compares the grace of sanctification — which he says comes by “infusion” not “imputation” — to the warmth of the sun. It is interesting to note a similar comparison in Calvin:

Christ by justifying us becomes ours by an essential union, and that he is our head not only in so far as he is man, but that as the essence of the divine nature is diffused into us… [A]s Christ cannot be divided into parts, so the two things, justification and sanctification, which we perceive to be united together in him, are inseparable. Whomsoever, therefore, God receives into his favor, he presents with the Spirit of adoption, whose agency forms them anew into his image. But if the brightness of the sun cannot be separated from its heat, are we therefore to say, that the earth is warmed by light and illumined by heat? Nothing can be more apposite to the matter in hand than this simile. The sun by its heat quickens and fertilizes the earth; by its rays enlightens and illumines it. Here is a mutual and undivided connection, and yet reason itself prohibits us from transferring the peculiar properties of the one to the other. (Institutes III.11.6)

Just as we saw in Perkins, Calvin conceives of justification as a subset of incorporation or essential union. If Christ is the sun, justification and sanctification are the light and heat derived from the sun, inseparable yet distinct. This characterization sounds very Chalcedonian. The two natures of Christ are neither confused nor divided. Diarmaid MacCulloch argues (rightly, I think) that “Chalcedon might almost be seen as an organizing hermeneutic for [Calvin’s] developed theology.” The same might be said for Mascall, as the earlier chapters of Christ, the Christian, and the Church suggest, so it is a surprise to me that Mascall fails to recognize the Chalcedonian influence on the classical Protestant distinction between justification by imputation and sanctification by infusion, unconfused and undivided. To attribute justification to infused or inherent righteousness means to be justified on the basis of incomplete righteousness, since the transformation of our nature into the likeness of Christ remains incomplete on this side of the grave. What this distinction guards against is the notion that imperfect righteousness is the basis for our vindication before the judgement seat of God: So, Bishop Beveridge (writing at the end of the seventeenth century) asks in his exposition on Article XI,

For how is it possible that the works of finite creatures, or any thing but the merits of Christ, should be able to blot out the sins that are committed against an infinite Creator, or that the fig-leaves of our own pretended merits should hide our nakedness from the eyes of an all-seeing God? We cannot expiate our sins, how can we justify our persons?

This, by no means, reflects poorly on or discredits sanctification, by which that very same righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us, is also gradually transforming us, renewing our minds, and conforming us to his image, but rather it distinguishes. As Beveridge says,

And this is the right notion of justification as distinguished from sanctification. Not as if these two were ever severed or divided in their subjects; no, every one that is justified is also sanctified, and everyone one that is sanctified is also justified. But yet the acts of justification and sanctification are two distinct things: for the one denotes the imputation of righteousness to us; the other denotes the implantation of righteousness in us.

Hooker, of whom Mascall is fond of quoting, makes precisely this distinction in his 1585 Sermon on Justification,

The righteousness wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent: that whereby here we are justified is perfect but not inherent: that whereby we are sanctified, inherent but not perfect. But the righteousness wherein we must be found if we will be justified, is not our own, therefore we cannot be justified by any inherent quality. Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in him. Now concerning the righteousness of sanctification, we deny it not to be inherent, we grant that without we work we have it not, only we distinguish it as a thing in nature different from the righteousness of justification.

Mascall, fully aware of the potential of this consideration “to be turned into a merely verbal quibble,” therefore, homes in on the “real question” as he calls it, “whether or not the justification and regeneration of the sinner bring about a real change in him.” The classically Protestant answer — and the answer of the Articles — is that in order to save man, God brings about a real change within him. But, justification and regeneration are not synonymous, as Mascall’s framing of the question suggests, and treating them as synonymous introduces unhelpful confusion into the conversation. Justification, strictly speaking, does not bring about a change in the human person; rather, it is the result of a change in the human person, brought about by an essential identification with Christ, of which repentance, faith, and sanctification are the fruits. The Lord is our righteousness: his light shining upon us dispels at once all trace of darkness and by its heat warms us through and through.

Drew Keane

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews, writing a thesis (tentatively) titled The Use of the Prayer Book: The Book of Common Prayer (1549-1604) as Technical Writing for an Oral-Aural Culture. With Samuel L. Bray, he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021). From 2012 to 2018 he served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. More of his work is available at

'Mascall on Justification' has 1 comment

  1. February 16, 2020 @ 5:57 am Preston Hill

    Excellent, Drew! Thanks for these thoughtful reflections. I think you are correct in seeing the answer to Mascall’s questions, from the Reformed side, as a resounding “Yes”: God brings about a real change in saving us. I enjoyed how you gesture in this respect toward union with Christ as the fount of the two blessings of justification and sanctification. I suppose now the real question is what Mascall means by “Protestant.” Whatever his answer, his remarks about “the Reformers” are certainly only warranted through an anachronistic reading of the history of theology, as you have aptly shown through these illuminating remarks. Many thanks again!


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