Saturday, June 8, 2013

Midway Recap: Early Church to Eve of Reformation

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It has been quite a journey thus far. It began with a somewhat vague question – what has the doctrine of justification looked like throughout the history of the Church, especially in regards to faith and works? I have surveyed The Shepherd of Hermas, Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury and finally Thomas Aquinas. I have read numerous articles to help fill in the gaps as well as read the portions of The History of Justification by Alistair McGrath that covered the early church to the eve of the Reformation. Through this I have now been able to whittle things down to two different Protestant doctrines– 1) the sharp distinction between justification and sanctification and 2) the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. My reworked question is this – has the historic church held to these views before Luther or did Luther and company bring in teachings that the church had never seen before? This paper will attempt to summarize my findings and explain their implications.   


                The earliest Church documents we have outside of the Bible are the Apostolic Fathers. Unfortunately, there is not much data found in this collection and the corpus is far from presenting systematic discussion on any doctrine, much less justification. The Shepherd of Hermas does give us a glimpse however. The main point of this prophecy is to communicate to the believers that the saints do indeed have one more time of repentance for the sins committed after the initial remission of sins, which had only forgiven sins committed in the past.[1][2] In the Shepherd, for one to be saved, a saint must not only bear the name of Jesus, but he must also walk in virtue.[3] The Shepherd does make it clear that it is possible for one who truly bears the name of Jesus and walks in virtue to stop walking in virtue and therefore disqualify himself from the kingdom of heaven.[4]
 
                Though it is hard to work with such limited data, I do think that it is more than possible to assert that the idea that Christ’s righteousness alone is what qualifies one for the kingdom of heaven is foreign to the writer of the Shepherd. This can be argued from the message of the prophecy itself, for it would not be necessary to even worry about believers’ sins after the remission of sins because God would see Christ’s righteousness, not our own. The idea that salvation consists of bearing the name of Jesus and constantly walking in virtue seems to blur the distinction between justification and sanctification as well.

                Origen also does not seem to uphold the two doctrines in question. Following and enlarging upon the Shepherd, he taught that being “in Christ” equates to being in virtue,[5] the remission of sins applies only to past sins,[6] works do indeed determine a believer’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven,[7] and, most importantly, faith is the “beginning of being justified.” All four of these teachings speak against the two Protestant doctrines, but it is that last teaching that deserves the most recognition as it most clearly is in contradiction. To even speak of a beginning to being justified goes against the idea that justification happens instantly, in one moment. This idea that a believer’s works do determine their entrance into the kingdom of heaven necessitates future research, especially since Origen asserts that this is part of the teaching of the Church,[8] but for now, it can be determined that such a teaching is in opposition to a believer gaining entrance solely by the righteousness of Christ. 

                Since Jerome was highly influenced by Origen’s commentaries, it comes as no surprise that he continued much of his teaching regarding justification. He too identifies being “in Christ” to being “in virtue.”[9] He also teaches that the remission of sins is for past sins only,[10] as well as the fact that a believer’s works can exclude him from the kingdom of heaven.[11]            It seems like the doctrine of justification hadn’t changed since it was espoused in Alexandria by Origen at the end of the second century. With Jerome’s renown as the foremost Biblical scholar of the Church, his affirmation of this doctrine would have meant that many in the west would also have accepted this view of justification. This leaves us with no affirmative to either Protestant doctrine by the time of Augustine, either in the East or West.

                With Augustine, innovation is brought in to the church, but only with his doctrine of grace.[12] His doctrine of justification seems quite similar to Jerome’s in its main points.[13] Augustine teaches that justification is a process, which also incorporates the event of justification, and that justification means “being made righteous.”[14] There are scholars who claim that Augustine teaches that justification is only an act and not a process. This is because there are many places that Augustine does refer to justification as a one-time event.[15] Alistair McGrath explains that Augustine never distinguishes between the event and the process. This is because of Augustine’s view of operating and cooperating grace. There is an initial justification that happens in an instant. However, this new man is not yet complete during this time, and is only perfected through cooperating grace working with mans liberated free will.[16]

                This can be seen in Man’s Perfection in Righteousness where Augustine describes the man who in this present struggle, sins less and less, though he may stumble. He is distinguished from the one who gives up and “becomes an apostate at last.”[17] Augustine then states, “Well now, it is in our present struggle therewith that we are clothed with the righteousness in which we here live by faith.” This concept seems to be repeated in section 18, where the struggle is clearly called “our righteousness in this pilgrimage.”[18] This not only points to justification as a process which includes the Protestant understanding of sanctification, but obviously speaks against the idea of imputation.

                Skipping ahead now to Thomas Aquinas, we see this idea of justification as an event and a process is continued. Living at the height of scholasticism, Aquinas taught a fourfold structure to the event of justification.[19] What is fascinating and reminiscent of Augustine is that Aquinas clearly taught that this aspect of justification was instantaneous.[20] However, also similar to Augustine is the relationship of Aquinas’s dichotomy of grace and justification. Aquinas splits grace up into two categories,[21]  gratuitous grace and sanctifying grace.[22] It is this sanctifying grace which makes man made worthy to be called pleasing to God,”[23] and justifies the individual.[24] Sanctifying grace is habitual grace, which “heals and justifies the soul.”[25] Francis Beckwith summarizes Aquinas’ view well:
For Aquinas, justification and sanctification are not different events, one extrinsic and the other intrinsic, as the Protestant Augusburg (1530) and Westminster (1646) confessions teach. Rather, “sanctification” is the ongoing intrinsic work of justifying, or making the Christian rightly-ordered by means of God’s grace, the same grace that intrinsically changed the believer at the moment of her initial “justification” (i.e., at Baptism) into an adopted child of the Father[…it] is as much about getting heaven into us as it is about getting us into heaven.[26]

For Aquinas, like for Augustine, it seems justification, which is equated to “being made righteous,” is both an event and a process, which is counter to both Protestant doctrines we are examining.

From here, McGrath fills in many of the obvious gaps left in the Middle Ages. He traces the views of both the early medieval theologians who emphasized ontology and the later theologians who saw justification within a covenant framework. He describes the Domincans, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, and the Via Moderna movement. According to McGrath the characteristic view of all of these groups, along with everyone in between, was that justification was not just the beginning, but the middle and end of being made right in God’s sight.[27] This was a change not simply in status, but in ontology, the actual essence of man. Therefore, both imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the distinction between justification and sanctification is not found in the Middle Ages anywhere. 

So far, we have seen that the two Protestant doctrines of imputation and the distinction between justification and sanctification are not found in The Shepherd of Hermas, Origen, Jerome, Augustine, or Aquinas and the Middle Ages. Instead, we see justification as man being made righteous, and justification being a process that includes sanctification. The implications of this conclusion are massive. If this analysis is found to be correct after deeper research, Luther and the Reformation did indeed bring in two doctrines that had not been in the mainstream church for 1400 years, at the very least. McGrath says it much more eloquently, “[Luther] introduced a decisive break with the western theological tradition as a whole by insisting that, through his justification, man is intrinsically sinful yet extrinsically righteous.”[28] McGrath goes on to say that the distinction between justification and sanctification that Luther introduced was a “fundamental discontinuity […] where none had existed before.”[29]

How many of us can truly affirm this fact with pride? One of the primary characteristics of the Reformation is complete innovation. This, again, is where I see us backed into a corner. What are our options? After giving a brief survey of the importance of continuity in the history of the Church, McGrath declares that this is no longer an issue for us today, “given current thinking on the nature of the development of doctrine.”[30] This, of course, is a reference to the idea that doctrine can and should develop over time. However, I have one problem with such a course. The primary reason Phillip Schaff was able to guard himself from liberalism was that he declared that no development could ever contradict the initial doctrine. In the situation with justification, I see utter contradiction. The Church for 1500 years declared that justification was a process and that one was actually made righteous. Luther “developed” the doctrine that justification is not a process but an event, and one is not made righteous but simply called righteous. I feel it dishonest to call this anything besides a contradiction. 

While I agree with McGrath on his observations, I feel like his conclusion, which is so vital to this issue, misses the mark by quite some bit. I myself do not have much of an answer, other than this gives me much motivation to look into this doctrine further and look at Scripture with a new mindset, to see if the historical position is indeed more faithful to the Word.


[1] Shepherd 6:4-8: For after you have made known to them these words which my Lord has commanded me to reveal to you, then shall they be forgiven all the sins which in former times they committed, and forgiveness will be granted to all the saints who have sinned even to the present day, if they repent with all their heart, and drive all doubts from their minds. For the Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he shall not be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits. Filled up are the days of repentance to all the saints; but to the heathen, repentance will be possible even to the last day.  6 You will tell, therefore, those who preside over the Church, to direct their ways in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with great glory. 
Stand steadfast, therefore, ye who work righteousness, and doubt not, that your passage may be with the holy angels. Happy ye who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and happy they who shall not deny their own life.  For the Lord hath sworn by His Son, that those who denied their Lord have abandoned their life in despair, for even now these are to deny Him in the days that are coming. To those who denied in earlier times, God became gracious, on account of His exceeding tender mercy.
[2] What is very interesting about this is that others in the church viewed Hermas as being too lax, showing that such ideas were common place and even more strict!
[3] Shepherd 92:2ff
[4] Ibid 90:2,7-9
[5] CRom 5.10.18
[6] 3.9.4. See also 3.8.1
[7] 2.4.7
[8] Scheck, Thomas. Origen and the History of Justification. Page 21
[9] St. Jerome 108
[10] Ibid 58
[11] See pp. 233-241. Jerome speaks using “we” implying that if even he should do such things, he would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. See also 258.
[12] I learned this only recently, but the famous dictum of Vincent of Lerins, "what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true,” is thought to may have been directed against Augustine.
[13] Augustine does actually seem to speak against the idea that remission of sins is only for past sins (On Grace and Free Will chapter 26), but this needs to be further researched.
[14] Augustine. The Spirit and the Letter. Chapter 45.
[15] See On Grace and Free Will Chapter 13 for an example.
[16] McGrath 31,32
[17] Augustine. Man’s Perfection in Righteousness. Section 27.
[18] Augustine states at the end of this section, “This is now our righteousness, in which we pass through our course hungering and thirsting after the perfect and full righteousness, in order that we may hereafter be satisfied therewith.”
[19] Summa IaIIae q.113 a.8 ­
[20] Ibid IaIIae q.113 a.7
[21] Aquinas also splits grace into operating and cooperating grace, and prevenient and subsequent grace as well.
[22] Summa IaIIae q.111 a.1
[23] ibid
[24] ibid
[25] Ibid IaIIae q.111 a.2
[26] http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2010/was-aquinas-a-proto-protestant.html
[27] McGrath 41
[28] Ibid 182-3
[29] Ibid 184
[30] Ibid 187

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