Nov 22, 2008

Justification: Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed

This essay is designed to show that the ancient fathers taught a doctrine of Justification based on a non-meritorious faith and that the reformers were correcting Roman errors by returning to the doctrines taught by the ancient Church and Holy Scripture.
The Early Church
The early Church’s teaching concerning the nature and purpose of Christ’s work of redemption can be summarized in the following points:
1. They relied solely on the mercy of God through the merit of Christ for salvation.
2. They believed that all the baptized who continued in faith and repentance were members of the body of Christ and in a state of grace.
3. They also taught that faith is that state of salvation in which we receive justification and life.
4. As will be shown later, the fathers taught what the reformers believed to be the teaching of Scripture: that (in the words of the Thirty-nine Articles) "we are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not for our own work or deservings."
The preceding summary is substantiated by the following quotes from the early Church fathers with comments relevant to the question at hand.
Ante-Nicene Fathers
St. Clement of Rome
"They were all therefore greatly glorified, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness that they themselves wrought; but through His will. And we also, being called by the same will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our own wisdom, or knowledge, or piety, or any works which we did in holiness of heart, but by that faith by which God Almighty has justified all men from the beginning: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."
This is the earliest as well as the most explicit statement concerning Christ’s redemptive work.
Concerning the nature of justifying faith, it is clear in this statement from St. Clement that there is no element of merit on the part of the sinner.
St. Polycarp
"Let us without ceasing hold steadfastly to Him, who is our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, even Jesus Christ, who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree; who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; but suffered all for us that we might live through Him."
St. Polycarp insists that our only hope of obtaining righteousness is found in the merit of Jesus Christ.
"For this cause did our Lord vouchsafe to give up His Body to destruction, that through the forgiveness of our sins we might be sanctified; that is, by the sprinkling of His Blood."
Again, there is no mention of any merit on the part of the sinner.
"By His stripes healing is conferred on all who come to the Father by Him."
Justin is using language from Isaiah 53 which speaks of the death of Christ as the ground of justification.
"All men fall short of the glory of God, and are justified not by themselves, but by the coming of the Lord."
It is explicitly stated that men are not justified by themselves but by the Lord.
Implicit in this statement is that justifying faith does not contain any merit on the part of man.
Post-Nicene Fathers
"I will not glory because I am righteous, but because I am redeemed. I will glory, not because I am free from sins, but because my sins are forgiven me; not because I have profited, nor because any one hath profited me, but because Christ is my Advocate with the Father, and because Christ’s Blood hath been shed for me."
St. Ambrose gives all the glory to God for his redemption.
He excludes any credit (profit) for himself but gives all credit to Christ.
It is implied here that only because of the atoning work of Christ is man justified before the tribunal of God.
St. Augustine
"Our righteousness . . . . is such in this life that it consists rather in remission of sins than in perfection of virtue."
The righteousness that man receives from God is due not to any degree of holiness (perfection of virtue) on man’s part, but rather to God’s grace and mercy through Christ.
St. Bernard
"Not to commit sin, is the righteousness of God; but man’s righteousness consists in the mercy of God."
Again, merit on the part of man is excluded and God’s mercy is stated as the ground for man’s righteousness.
The following observations should be noted concerning the teaching of the ancient fathers on the nature and purpose of Christ’s work of redemption before we proceed to a discussion of the teachings of Medieval Scholasticism.
1. They did not use the precise language of controversy. Rather, they spoke in a manner very close to that of Scripture. Their language is pastoral as opposed to polemical.
2. They did not distinctly separate justification and sanctification. Although justification is a declarative act on God’s part and sanctification is a progressive work in which both God and man cooperate, in point of time they occur definitively and simultaneously at baptism. Thus the fathers were not compelled to make precise distinctions as would be necessary if they were embroiled in controversy.
The Romanist Innovations
Medieval Scholasticism
The following five doctrines of Medieval Scholasticism form the basis for the Romanist innovations in regard to the redemptive work of Christ.
1. The doctrine of Meritum de Congruo: merit of fitness. According to this doctrine God is just and good. Therefore, He is predisposed and even obligated to grant grace to the sinner in spite of the fact that these good works are performed in a state of mortal sin.
2. The doctrine of Meritum de Condigno: merit of debt. The sinner, having obtained grace through works of congruity and thus made acceptable to God, God Himself becomes a debtor and is again obligated on the principle of duty to grant grace leading to eternal life.
3. The doctrine of the efficacy of attrition: Attrition has reference to the feeling of guilt and remorse for sin before grace is given. It is distinguished from contrition which is remorse caused by the work of God’s Spirit. It was taught by the Scholastics that God uses attrition as a means to incline the sinner to receive grace. Thus, attrition earned merit de congruo.
4. The doctrine of Satisfaction: works of satisfaction were those works done in order to ease ones conscience, avert God’s temporal punishment, and to achieve a degree of assurance that there was in fact genuine contrition on the part of the sinner.
5. The doctrine of Ex opere operato: according to this doctrine, the sacraments work in such a way as to exclude the necessity of faith on the part of the recipient and thus grace came automatically merely by the performance of administering the sacraments.
Although The Council of Trent adopted these doctrines as their own, it did not come without some debate.

The Council of Trent: Two main parties.
The Franciscans.
1. Maintained the doctrine of merit de congruo.
2. Denied the forensic sense of justification.
The Dominicans.
1. Denied the doctrine of merit de congruo.
2. Accepted the term to impute as it related to justification.
The Franciscans, being the majority and sharing a common enemy with their rival party, won the day.

The Council of Trent: Decrees on faith and justification.
An examination of the Canons of the Council of Trent reveals that Rome adopted a doctrine of Pelagian works-righteousness and Forgiveness through Sanctification.
While many ambiguities exist in the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Seventh decree states somewhat explicitly the Roman position: "Justification consists not in the mere remission of sins, but in the sanctification and renewal of the inner man by the voluntary reception of God’s grace and gifts."

Rome’s problems begin with a failure to adequately distinguish Justification from Sanctification.
This confusion stems from the doctrine that Justification is brought about by the infusion of grace and includes both remission and renovation.
The failure to distinguish between Justification and Sanctification leads to:
1. The obliteration of the objective ground of Justification which is Christ’s imputed righteousness and consequently a confusion between spiritual acceptance and spiritual attainment.
2. A tendency to base Justification on our own merit.
3. A denial of the Biblical doctrine which affirms that Justification in the Scriptural sense is independent of the spiritual state and condition of the one being justified.
4. The doctrine that Justification is not a change of position, but rather the actual conversion of a sinner into a righteous man.
5. A complete reversal of the Scriptural teaching of Sanctification through Forgiveness.

The Reformers Recovery

The Continental Reformers.

Luther reacted against a distinction made by the Scholastics between fides informis and fides formata. A summary of Luther’s concerns can be stated under these two heads:
1. Fides informis: a faith that is speculative in nature and in no way connected to love and holiness. Luther, because of his fiery temperament sometimes sounds as if he embraced something similar to this kind of faith as justifying faith. However, a closer look at Luther’s views will reveal otherwise.
2. Fides formata: a faith perfected by love and the good works that spring from it. The Scholastics affirmed that it was this kind of faith that justified. While not embracing fides informis as justifying faith, his strongest objection was against the doctrine which affirmed that fides formata was the faith that justified.

Luther observed that the Scholastics and the Romanist that followed them taught that:
1. Faith indeed justifies.
2. Faith, however, in order to justify must be perfected by charity.
3. Charity and good works thus embellishes faith and adds efficacy to it.

Luther countered by insisting that:
1. Jesus Christ rather than good works adorns and perfects faith.
2. Faith not charity apprehends Christ.
3. Thus he says: "Christ apprehended by faith and dwelling in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, for which God counteth us righteous, and giveth us eternal life."

Unlike Luther, Bucer was much more moderate in his a approach. This is evident in that he lamented the fact that faith and love or faith and holiness should even be separated at all. In light of the teaching of St. Paul that true faith is a "lively" faith he did not object to formata being applied to justifying faith.

The English Reformers.
Thomas Cranmer.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer expressed his belief in the doctrine of Justification by faith alone in his Homily of Salvation citing three things which must coincide in the justification of man:
1. God’s part: "His great mercy and grace."
2. Christ’s part: "the satisfaction of God’s justice."
3. Man’s part: "faith in the merits of Jesus Christ."

In stating his views on justification, Cranmer was self-consciously stating what he believed was not only the teaching of Scripture, but that of the early fathers as well: "This faith the Holy Scripture teacheth ... this doctrine all old and ancient authors of Christ’s Church do approve."

John Jewel
Bishop Jewel stressed in his Apology of the Church of England the necessary assertion that, while good works cannot precede justification, they must follow it: "Though we say we have no meed at all by our own works and deeds, but appoint all the means of our salvation to be in Christ alone, yet say we not that for this cause men ought to live loosely and dissolutely, nor that it is enough for a Christian to be baptized only and to believe, as though there were nothing else required at his hand. For true faith is lively, and can in no wise be idle."

Richard Hooker.
Richard Hooker portrayed the doctrine of justification in poetic fashion using Scriptural language: he pictured faith as "the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification; and Christ the only garment, which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled nature ..."

A summary of the English Reformers’ recovery of the early Church’s teaching on justification:
1. They were self-consciously and deliberately returning to the doctrines taught in the Scriptures as understood by the ancient fathers.
2. They followed the example of the ancient fathers in that they held closely to the language of Scripture as they formulated doctrinal statements.
3. In classic Anglican fashion, they were careful to avoid extremes. They were able to avoid the extremes of Solifidianism, Antinomianism and Legalism, some of which appeared from time to time in the Continental Reformation.

We can only conclude then, that the English reformers were not teaching new (sectarian) doctrines, but simply returning to the old (catholic) doctrines that were held by the Church from the beginning.

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