During this past week, three new threads, by Dr. Michael Liccione, concerning the development of doctrine (DD), have been posted at Philosophia Perennis: FIRST ; SECOND ; THIRD.These three new threads have, to date, generated some 92 comments. The level of the content and dialogue is quite high, and intellectually stimulating; as such, I would like to recommend all three threads to those with any interest in DD.
Obviously, these new threads have caused yours truly to reflect a bit further on DD. Rather than duplicate the material that has already been presented, I would like to explore a specific facet of DD, the development of the doctrine justification, and how it raises some serious questions concerning sola scriptura and perspicuity. I shall begin my foray into this topic by asking three questions: first, what line of development did the early post-apostolic Church proceed on; second, how does this direction relate to the original revelatory deposit; and third can 21st century Christians gain some important insights on how this development took place.
What line of development did the early post-apostolic Church proceed on?
Two dominant themes are to be found in the early Church Fathers concerning justification/soteriology: interior regeneration of the believer, and the ex opera operato nature of the sacraments. One is at a loss to find a line of development that proceeds along the line of “salvation by faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone”—such a line of development did not exist, and does not appear until the 16th century (A.N.S. Lane postulates that Bernard of Clairvaux may be an exception). Many patristic scholars are keenly aware of this historical fact (e.g. Alister McGrath, A.N.S. Lane, Jaroslav Pelikan , Thomas F. Torrance, H.E.W. Turner, William Cunningham), however some contemporary Reformed apologists are not comfortable with this, and have attempted to read post-Reformation developments into some of the early Church Fathers. Before I proceed any further, the very nature of the question I am fleshing out demands that I address this recent polemic. One representative of this school of thought is James R. White. Mr. White delineated his position in his book, The God Who Justifies (Bethany House, 2001). In an attempt to avoid charges of misrepresentation, I shall provide copious quotations from the book to establish Mr. White’s position:
SO WHAT ABOUT THE EARLY CHURCH?
There are only a few valid contextual citations—that is, citations that are fair to the context of the author and the author’s expressed beliefs and theology—that can be mustered in reference to justification by grace through faith alone in the writings of the early church. Ironically, one is from one of the earliest non-scriptural writings, traditionally identified with Clement, bishop of Rome, around the turn of the first century. The work more probably produced by the elders of the church at Rome (the monarchical or one-man episcopate did not develop until the middle of the second century, so the church at Rome at that time would have been led by a group of elders, as is the biblical pattern), speaks often of God’s work of saving His elect people. In section 32, the epistle makes this bold statement:
Therefore, all these were glorified and magnified, not because of themselves, or through their own works, or for the righteous deeds they performed, but by His will. And we also, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by means ourselves, nor by our own wisdom or understanding or godliness or works which we have done in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which the Almighty God has justified all those believing from the beginning. To whom be glory for ever and ever, amen.
This statement is surely in harmony with orthodox Protestant understanding of justification, and it can only be made to fit other systems by some imaginative (and anachronistic) redefinition of the terms.(TGWJ, p. 130.)
In another very orthodox (i.e. biblically based) reference, the anonymous author (sometimes called Mathetes, the Greek term for “disciple”) writes to Diognetius[sic] and explains the leading elements of the Christian faith. In section 9 the author shows the depth of his familiarity with the writings of the apostle Paul:
This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counselor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honor, Glory, Power, and Life.
Aside from these brief glimpses into a period when apostolic teaching continued without philosophical and traditional accretions, most of the discussion one finds of the topic is either based upon considerations far removed from the biblical text or is so shallow and surface-level as to give the reader no real insight into the beliefs of the author.(TGWJ, pp. 130, 131.)
First off, I have attempted to pin down the English translation of the text utilized by Mr. White, but alas, among the 9 translations of Clement (Lake, Richardson, Sparks, Kleist, Staniforth, Lightfoot, Grant, Glimm, Roberts & Donaldson), that I possess within my library, none matched Mr. White’s text. And unfortunately, he does not tell his readers which translation he used (it may, in fact, be he own).
Second, Mr. White’s remarks that the above selection from Clement “is surely in harmony with orthodox Protestant understanding of justification, and it can only be made to fit other systems by some imaginative (and anachronistic) redefinition of the terms” is highly suspect; one will gain an entirely different outlook from the following patristic scholars:
It is obvious that in asserting justification by faith Clement was simply reproducing Paul’s idea without appreciating what it involved, and that he really agreed with the other Christians of his day that salvation is to be had only by obeying God and his will. That the early Christians should have departed from Paul in this matter is not surprising at all. (Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1. 85.)
The fundamental idea at the back of the words dikaiosunē, dikaioumai seems to be the moral qualification which avails before God conceived as a quality of the soul. That is achieved by faith which is fear of God working itself out in obedience. And so Clement can say that we are “justified by works, not by words” ergois dikaioumenoi, mē logois, and insists that we are not justified by pistis alone but by pistis and eusebeia, by pistis and philozenia, by pistis and alētheia. (Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace In the Apostolic Fathers, p. 49 – note: I have transliterated the Greek for my readers.)
…while sometimes Clement speaks in the very tones of Paul, as for instance on justification by faith (ch. 32:4), his leading convictions are somewhat different…Clement has moved away from the Pauline gospel into an atmosphere more concerned with moral life, and in particular with virtues of humility and order. Where ethical injunctions are secondary to Paul’s letters, they are primary in Clement. (Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, p, 38.)
And Clement himself wrote:
Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandments of God in the harmony of love; that so through love our sins may be forgiven us. For it is written, “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not impute to him, and in whose mouth there is no guile.” (ch. 50, Donaldson & Roberts trans. – in ANF 1.18, 19.)
[Also: “Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words.” (ch. 30 – ANF 1.13); “We see, then, how all righteous men have been adorned with good works, and how the Lord Himself, adorning Himself with His works, rejoiced. Having therefore such an example, let us without delay accede to His will, and let us work the work of righteousness with our whole strength.” (ch. 33) – ANF 1.14; “Let him who has love in Christ keep the commandments of Christ. Who can describe the [blessed] bond of the love of God? What man is able to tell the excellence of its beauty, as it ought to be told? The height to which love exalts is unspeakable. Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love beareth all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God.” (ch. 49 – ANF 1.18.]
IMHO, an objective reading of Clement’s ENTIRE epistle to the Corinthians forces one to reject Mr. White's assessment; Clement is not a proto-Protestant; but rather, he is a proto-Catholic.
Now to The Epistle To Diognetus. Once again, Mr. White did not inform his readers whose English translation he was citing/using. However, unlike the Clement passage, I was able to find the actual source: Donaldson & Roberts translation – in ANF 1.28.
We know Mr. White’s position on this selection from the epistle, but what do patristic scholars have to say? The most definitive study of the epistle to date is Henry G. Meecham’s, The Epistle To Diognetus – The Greek Text With Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Manchester Univ. Press, 1949). Note what Meecham wrote:
By righteousness of the Son man’s sins are ‘covered’ (see note on ix. 3). “In that righteousness we are justified. The Pauline term is used, but the meaning has become much less forensic. The thought is not that of an externally imputed righteousness, but of a real change in the sinful heart of man, and the writer seems to feel that the righteousness of Christ actually becomes ours” (Grensted). (Page 25.)
Now, when one takes into consideration the rest of writings of the early Church Fathers who wrote on the doctrine of justification/soteriology, I believe that one is forced to conclude with Dr. McGrath, “that there are no ‘Forerunners of the Reformation doctrines of justification’”; and that the Reformation understanding of justification was “a genuine theological novum” (Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, vol. 1, p. 187 – 1986 ed.). [For a very recent informative study on the doctrine of justification in the early Church see Thomas P. Scheck’s, Origen and the History of Justification, (2008).]
More on the line of development of the early post-apostolic Church in my next thread, the Lord willing.
Grace and peace,