For Augustine, and the theological tradition that is heir to his work,
justification is an event that recurs many times in life, beginning with baptism and repeated every time we truly repent of our sins and are forgiven—in contrast to the classic Protestant doctrine of a single event of justification that is closely connected with, if not identical to, a once-in-a-lifetime conversion.
Cary argues that, Luther, like Aquinas, understands justification as a “repeated event in which the righteousness of God [to quote Luther] ‘is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant’ (from his famous sermon “On Two Kinds of Righteousness,” LW 31:297).” One this score, at least, Cary argues “that Luther is, . . . , not quite Protestant (cf. Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005),” and I would suggest compatible with Orthodox anthropology. Like Aquinas, Luther teaches that
the first time one is justified is in baptism (which is itself a form of repentance) and then all subsequent events of justification are also results of repentance . . . consists of nothing other than a “return to baptism.”
As I have alluded to in the past, I think that one of the great shortcomings of Orthodox Christian scholarship is our neglect of what David Tracy calls fundamental theology, or that area of theology that “deals with the most basic questions. How is God revealed in nature and human experience? Is the reality and nature of God, which Christian faith claims has been revealed, true?” Especially important here is comparative work in theological anthropology.
For reasons which are not clear to me, there is a curious indifference, and at times open hostility, to conversations about anthropology and psychology. Combine this with a generally lack of a sound intellectual formation in philosophy, and it not surprising at all that, like many contemporary readers of Augustine, Orthodox Christians are often blind to our own “hidden assumptions.” Cary’s observation about justification in Augustine and later Western theology is, I suspect, new information for many Orthodox Christians:
So when someone asks whether justification is an event or a process, the first thing to notice is what the question implicitly leaves out. Typically the hidden assumption is that “event” means a once-in-a-lifetime conversion, not repeated events of repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, typically the default position is assumed to be that justification is a one-time event, and the person asking the question wants to know whether justification might also involve a process stretching beyond the one-time event. So the first thing to say to such a question is that it takes for granted the novel Protestant view that justification is a one-time event, which is not even shared by Luther, much less by Aquinas or Augustine or any previous Christian theologian.
If Cary’s essay on Augustine is any indication, while there are difference between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, and between Orthodox and Protestant and Evangelical Christians, the differences are not as absolute as we often assume. Again Cary:
Having clarified that point, you can say: yes, justification is an event, but one that happens many times in life, just like Aquinas and Luther teach. But it’s best to leave Augustine out of this discussion. If you asked him whether justification was a process or an event, he’d be utterly baffled, since he shares none of the key assumptions lurking behind the question. If you wanted to give him a sense of what the 16th-century questions mean, you’d need to take a different approach. You could ask, for instance: when you pray for grace or forgiveness of sins, how do you know God will give it to you? Do you know? These are not the kind of questions Augustine actually asked, but they make good sense in an Augustinian context, and it was such questions that drove Luther to the doctrine of justification and the promises of the Gospel, which he first found in sacramental absolution.
Often I am told by my Greek friends that there are things in the liturgical tradition that can only be expressed in Greek. For this reason translation of the liturgical texts is not possible since translation would means losing some its theological richness. This is no doubt true, but it leaves examined the possibility that, as with the introduction of the term homousian, translation also brings with it the possibility of discovering a new richness in the tradition. Yes, there are some things that can only be expressed in Greek, but there are also some things which we may only be able to express in English. Likewise I think we must entertain the possibility that there are some things which only Augustine and his theological heirs, we able to give expression.
A vision of justification and sanctification ground in the sacraments, but sensitive to human psychology and our response to grace, is one of those things, or so it seems to me.