Did the Church Fathers teach Justification by Faith Alone (Answer: No!)

I’m getting tagged up and mocked over at the Calvinistic blog GreenBaggins for my assertion that Martin Luther invented the doctrine of justification by faith alone via imputation of alien righteousness of Christ (that’s a mouthful isn’t it?). They’re ready to tar and feather me over there! I graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) in 2003 and so I know two things about these guys. First, they are mean-spirited. Second, I’ve heard all the same arguments and read all the same books that they have. The difference is that I’m now a Catholic and they are still Protestants. If you’re Catholic and reading this, please say a Hail Mary for their eventual conversion to the Catholic Faith.

Their ire was sparked by my claim against Luther in this YouTube video:

The Calvinists have thrown up eight Catholic authors that supposedly affirm the condemned doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” Their source for these citations are…drumroll please…the Catholic saint and doctor Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621)! Saint Bellarmine is THE most esteemed apologist against Protestantism (read: “against justification by faith alone”).

What the Protestants don’t realize is that St Bellarmine generated that list of “sola fide” Catholic quotes in order to refute the Protestant position. Bellarmine was hammering the Protestants and he beat them at their own game.* Unfortunately, the Protestants at Green Baggins don’t know that they’re playing with fire.

Here are the eight Church Fathers and the supposed “justification by faith alone” citations:

  1. Origen, Commentarius in Ep. ad Romanos, cap. 3 (PG 14.952).
  2. Hilary, Commentarius in Matthaeum 8:6 (PL 9.961).
  3. Basil, Hom. de humilitate 20.3 (PG 31.529C).
  4. Ambrosiaster, In Ep. ad Romanos 3.24 (CSEL 81.1.119): “sola fide justificati sunt dono Dei,” through faith alone they are justified by a gift of God; 4.5 (CSEL 81.1.130).
  5. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Ep. ad Titum 3.3 (PG 62.679 [not in Greek text]).
  6. Cyril of Alexandria, In Joannis Evangelium 10.15.7 (PG 74.368 [but alludes to Jas 2:19]).
  7. Bernard, In Canticum serm. 22.8 (PL 183.881): “solam justificatur per fidem,” is justified by faith alone.
  8. Theophylact, Expositio in ep. ad Galatas 3.12-13 (PG 124.988).

I’ve been examining the quotes above in the Latin and Greek by employing the Patrologia Latina and the Patrologia Graeca. Nearly all the quotes refer to a contrast between Mosaic Law and saving faith — not one of them approximates Luther’s solafideism.

Take, for example, the quote listed above from Saint Hilary. Instead of quoting all the Latin and making too difficult to understand, let me explain the passage.

St Hilary comments on Matthew 9:2 which reads: “And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.’”

Hilary explains how the Old Mosaic Law was not able to remit the paralytic’s sins, but only faith (“et remissum est ab eo quod lex laxare non poterat; fides enim sola justificat”). This is why the Pharisees grumbled. Here, Hilary contrasts faith with the old Mosaic law. In the context, sola excludes law (lex), not good works in general—and this has been the argument of Catholics since the time of Trent. To claim that this passage in Hilary’s commentary somehow anticipates Luther’s solafideism is not responsible as can be seen from the context.

This is the sort of thing that has been repeated over and over by Catholic theologians, but Protestants don’t seem to pick up on it. Believe it or not, the Catholic Church actually allows Catholics to use the word “alone” and the word “faith” in the same sentence. It’s okay. The problem isn’t with those two words per se, but the heretical Lutheran doctrine that excludes works absolutely from justification. This is what Trent condemns and anathematizes – that and also the extrinsic notion of justification by means of imputation.

The Calvinist guys over at GreenBaggins may be bummed to learn all this – but we papists have been up on these passages. The proof is in the pudding. The very fact that Protestants are quoting a Catholic doctor of the Church (who specialized in refuting Protestants) further reveals the soft underbelly of their argument.

Godspeed,
Taylor Marshall

Saint Robert Bellarmine, pray for us against the wiles of the heretics.

   *Robert Bellarmine listed eight earlier authors who used sola (Disputatio de controversiis: De justificatione 1.25 [Naples: G. Giuliano, 1856], 4.501-3):

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  • http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com

    Are you seriously suggesting that Rev. King and myself didn’t realize why Bellarmine quoted those passages? The mere fact that he quoted them has nothing to do with whether his arguments were cogent or not.

  • Elizabeth

    Went over to Green Baggins for a peak and retreated with a spinning head.  Should it all be so complicated?  I guess I’m no scripture scholar or expert in the Protestant Reformation.  Didn’t the joint Lutheran and Catholic commission come to an agreement on justification a few years ago?  Aren’t we agreed that we are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ, but that our salvation also depends on how we live our lives after conversion? If you really believe in Jesus won’t you want to let him transform your life and live accordingly….loving God and loving your neighbour by your actions?  I mean do Lutherans really believe that one can say yes I believe and then do absolutely nothing to live that faith and still be saved…..(“Faith without works is dead”.  James)  and does anyone really still believe that Catholics don’t believe that we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross?  That’s what the Mass is all about.
    I went over to the Coming Home network and read your conversion story.  What an exiting adventure that was.  I had tears in my eyes towards the end.  I’ve spent my allowance on books for the time being but a couple of yours are on my list:  The one about Paul and the Crucified Rabbi.  We should really have a Catholic lending library here in Canada like they do in England.  I can’t afford all the books I would like to read!
    P.S. Didn’t Luther throw out Jame’s letter because he didn’t like it?

  • Mark Windsor

    Elizabeth – Luther tried to throw out James as an “epistle of straw”, but his followers wouldn’t let him.

  • Mark Windsor

    Elizabeth – Luther tried to throw out James as an “epistle of straw”, but his followers wouldn’t let him.

  • Joe

    “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

    James 2:24

     

     

    I think it pretty much says it all.  Every verse I have been shown to the ‘contrary’ has always proved to be talking about Old Testament works of the Law as being dead…. which they are.  Faith is like a mustard seed, and good works are the waters that make it grow and take root.

     

  • Joe

    He didn’t just quote them. Sounds like you were caught without your thinking cap on. 

  • Tom

    Orthodox Protestants believe that a person is justified by faith alone, but they don’t believe that they are saved by faith alone. Justification isn’t all there is to salvation. These conditionals are (ordinarily) true even according to historically reformed protestants:

    1. An individual is saved only if the individual pursues actual holiness in his life.
    2. An individual is saved only if the individual possesses the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit.
    3. An individual is saved only if the individual perseveres to the end.

    The following is also true:

    4. An individual is saved not by faith alone.

    The trick is what we mean by “saved”, here. If a person is “saved” only if s/he possesses the whole package of salvation, then someone is saved only if (i) s/he has a right standing with God (through faith alone one is justified), (ii) s/he pursues holiness of life (working out his or her salvation with fear and trembling), and (iii) ultimately enters eternal glory. So, it is far more complicated than just looking at the church fathers and asking, “Did they express the doctrine of justification by faith alone exactly as Luther did?” Of course they didn’t. The church is responsible for clarifying and defining doctrines throughout history, especially as controversies arise. It is probably true that both Protestants and Papists can sound a lot like the church fathers when they speak given their complete soteriologies. The difficulty is this: as we come to grasp the faith better, who got it right? It is at this point that I think the debate favors Protestants. But that takes too long to develop in a post or two, so I won’t bother trying.

    Cheers,
    Tom 

  • Joe

    Orthodox Protestants believe that a person is justified by faith alone, but they don’t believe that they are saved by faith alone.”

    “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  
    James 2:24  

  • Ron Henzel

    Taylor,

    You wrote:

    “I graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) in 2003 and so I know two things about these guys. First, they are mean-spirited. Second, I’ve heard all the same arguments and read all the same books that they have. The difference is that I’m now a Catholic and they are still Protestants.” (Italics added)

    So apparently, you admit that one of the differences between you and “these guys” is not that you are no longer mean spirited. I would agree with you. But if you really want to see “mean spirited,” you need to spend a minute or two squinting at the visual acid poured out by Roman Catholic apologists like Art Sippo.

  • Blogahon

    Ron. 

    Unfortunately a ‘mean spirit’ takes hold of people on both sides.  There are certain prominent Reformed bloggers that consistently spout the most hateful falsities about the Catholic Church day in and day out.  Take a look at Triablogue and ‘Turretin Fan’ on any given day for Exhibit A.  

    That does not excuse it when we do it.  Lord have mercy and grant us charity at all times.  

  • Tom

    Joe,

    There are different uses and applications of the term justification. Therefore, putting Jams 2:24–a profound and wonderful passage–besides my comment isn’t sufficient to show that what I said was inconsistent with Scripture. As Protestants use the word ‘justification’ in the familiar theological formulation of “justification by faith alone,” they are making reference to the believer’s spiritual status as righteous. That is, it is by faith alone that one has the status of “righteous” in the sight of God. But since those who have this status will also be made objectively holy in their lives, the reality of their change in status can be judged by their deeds. If they pass this test (as Abraham did when he, in Gen. 21 or 22, was willing to sacrifice his son long after he was justified by faith in Gen. 15), then they will be acquitted (or justified) of the charge that they don’t have genuine faith and justification. So, while it is true that it is through faith alone that we have the status that is necessary and sufficient for entrance into eternal life, it is by our works that we are cleared of the charge that we are hypocrites with a dead faith. In other words, we can be justified when accused of not being justified. The familiar theological conception of justification is a first-order justification, while the justification discussed by James in James 2:24 is–it seems–a second-order justification. It is a necessary accidental property of first-order justification that the person so justified will be justified in the second-order sense.

    Regards,
    John

  • E.Lee

    On November 8, 2006 Pope Benedict stated the following about justification:
    “In the first place, Paul helps us to understand the absolutely basic and irreplaceable value of faith. This is what he wrote in his Letter to the Romans: “We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3: 28).

    This is what he also wrote in his Letter to the Galatians: “[M]an is not justified by works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ; even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified” (2: 16).
    “Being justified” means being made righteous, that is, being accepted by God’s merciful justice to enter into communion with him and, consequently, to be able to establish a far more genuine relationship with all our brethren: and this takes place on the basis of the complete forgiveness of our sins.
    Well, Paul states with absolute clarity that this condition of life does not depend on our possible good works but on the pure grace of God: “[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3: 24). With these words St Paul expressed the fundamental content of his conversion, the new direction his life took as a result of his encounter with the Risen Christ.”   —General Audience, Rome. 11/8/06
    Hope this helps!

  • Mary Ellen

    I love that you take on these misguided, and perhaps decieved notions put out there by Protestants. Certainly these folks who are attacking your arguments will eventually see the truth. After 20+ years away from the church, it was Evangelical attitudes and attacks that let me know they were clinging desperately to ideas which they knew were wrong, down deep in their hearts. It was those same venemous attacks, which caused me to check out if/why Catholics believed what Evangelicals stated, and brought me home to my Catholic faith. Fortunately Millenials are looking at behavior/lifestyle/service more than Bible wars to determine what to believe. Keep working with these folks Taylor. If they are that mean, they are on the verge of conversion.

  • Joe

    “Man is not justified by works of the Law

    Exactly. Man is not justified by works of the [old Mosaic] Law. That has always been the orthodox Catholic position.

  • Keith

    You all have far more courage than I, saying you will present a big bag of filthy rags you created as a reason to be admitted into heaven - as for me, I’m sticking to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ – and that alone.  

  • Taylor Marshall

    Keith
    Christ teaches: Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you ahall
    have no life in you. John 6:54
    How can you mock the only Church who offers this true sacrament of her
    Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity? How can you have life if you
    blaspheme this gift of Christ?
    My works apart from Christ are rags indeed. However, in union with
    Christ, my works become like treasure laid up in Heaven where they are
    protected by Christ. All good works begin and end with the grace of
    God. Our works are NOTHING without faith in Christ.
    May the Holy Spirit lead us to know Christ in this way.
    Godspeed
    Taylor
    Sent from my iPhone. Please pardon the brevity of this response.

  • Michael

    The Book of James, in the Bible, says that your faith must be justified by works (James 2:24), which is much different from what Paul says in Galatians 2:16 about “We may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law (In the former, James refers to faith being justified by works; In the latter, Paul says that we are justified by faith. So, once you have the faith and are justified by it, then your faith in turn must then be justified by works).” 

     

    Just as it’s not enough to tell your wife that you love her, and never do anything for her, it’s also true of your faith relationship with Jesus. Faith and performing good works for your fellow man go together like body and soul.  You simply aren’t alive unless both body and soul are united (James 2:26). 

  • Michael

    The Book of James, in the Bible, says that your faith must be justified by works (James 2:24), which is much different from what Paul says in Galatians 2:16 about “We may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law (In the former, James refers to faith being justified by works; In the latter, Paul says that we are justified by faith. So, once you have the faith and are justified by it, then your faith in turn must then be justified by works).” 

     Just as it’s not enough to tell your wife that you love her, and never do anything for her, it’s also true of your faith relationship with Jesus. Faith and performing good works for your fellow man go together like body and soul.  You simply aren’t alive unless both body and soul are united (James 2:26).