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.

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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