Justification in the Early Church, Origen and Augustine – James K. Beilby, Paul Rhodes Eddy & Steven E. Enderlein

June 8, 2012

Theological debates within scholarly quarters of the church are nothing new for the Christian faith. Occasionally, however, one of these debates spills over from the academic world and begins to ignite controversy within and among churches and para-church ministries, between pastors and friends. This was certainly the case with the “openness of God” debate that rocked the evangelical Christian world in the 1990s. At the opening of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it appears that another debate has reached similar proportions in evangelical circles and beyond, namely, the debate on the nature of justification and its proper place within Christian theology.

In an important sense, the church was handed the justification debate within the very texts that constitute its authoritative canon. There, the apostle Paul writes concerning the nature of grace, faith and works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NRSV). And concerning justification:

Because by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for through law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been manifested, although it is testified to by the law; the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith of Jesus Christ to all those who believe. For there is no distinction, for all sinned and are lacking the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
[Romans 3:20-24, authors' translation]

And then there is James:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
[James 2:18-24, 26 NSRV][The above is the authors own translation. They have provided it to preserve some of the ambiguities in the text, in order not to privilege any single interpretive option.]

Sixteen centuries later, the Protestant Reformers would seize upon Paul’s expression of justification as constituting the very essence of the gospel itself. Similar to traditional Lutherans, many Reformed evangelicals today view the doctrine of justification by faith as “the heart of the Gospel,” as “the article by which the church stands or falls.”[J. I. Packer, "Justification in Protestant Theology," in Here We Stand: Justification by Faith Today, by J. I. Packer et al.]

And so, it is not surprising to find a number of Reformed evangelicals making strong statements in defense of the centrality of justification over the last several decades . However, more recently the debate has intensified among evangelicals in that challenges to the traditional Reformed understanding of justification are increasingly arising from within the broader evangelical camp itself. From academic monographs to the popular pages of Christianity Today magazine, from the high-profile engagement of renowned pastor-scholars John Piper and N. T. Wright to controversy within campus para-church ministries, the justification debate is being felt throughout the evangelical world.

Unlike the “openness of God” debate, however, contemporary ferment related to justification ranges far beyond evangelical circles. For example, in the eyes of many, the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” has served largely to reverse the five-hundred-year split between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches on justification. In academic New Testament studies today, the “new perspective on Paul” has embroiled scholars of many stripes in both exegetical debates about justification and historical disagreements about the nature of Second Temple Judaism(s).

In fact, as one begins to canvas the various issues related to justification today, it quickly becomes apparent that almost every question is a contested one. Debate piles upon debate, layer upon layer. And like most theological  controversies of magnitude, the intensity of the contemporary justification debate(s) is in large part due to the fact that it is inherently tied to a number of other issues of significant import — issues exegetical and hermeneutical, soteriological and ecclesiological, methodological and historic ethical and practical. This post and the next offer an historical survey of the development of, and debates concerning, the doctrine of justification in its many permutations throughout church history.

The Early Church
The seemingly straightforward question of the status of the doctrine of justification in the early church is, in fact, a significant point of debate today. No one doubts that Pauline-like statements on justification are scattered throughout the early church writings. For instance, near the end of the first century, we find Clement of Rome professing:

And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
(1 Clement 32.4)

Similar statements throughout the next several centuries are common. But the question is: What is to be made of such statements? For some, despite statements such as these, the pre-Augustinian fathers show an unfortunate lack of truly independent interest in, or reflection upon, Pauline doctrines of original sin, grace and justification by faith alone. According to Alister McGrath, the limited amount of attention given to the topic in patristic literature is characterized by “inexactitude and occasional apparent naivety,” and reflects a “works-righteousness approach to justification.”

For others, early Christian statements on justification reflect a significant continuity not only between the patristic writers and Paul, but between patristic writers and the Reformers themselves. No one has argued this point more forcefully than Thomas Oden, who claims that “there is a full-orbed patristic consensus on justification that is virtually indistinguishable from the Reformer’s teaching.”

Between these two views, one finds a range of scholars who conclude for some form of a via media. Most emphasize that serious account must be taken of the historical, polemical and rhetorical particularities of the early church, that the richly textured images of salvation are many and varied within patristic literature, and that what Reformation-sensitive ears could easily hear as “justification by works” is better interpreted as an early Christian defense of the biblical notions of human freedom, moral responsibility and the goodness of God against the competing perspectives of astrology/fatalism, stoicism and Gnosticism.

While concern with Paul broadly, and justification by faith specifically, can be found in the early church, we cannot thereby conclude that they meant by these statements what the later Reformers would mean. What does seem clear is that when the pre-Augustinian fathers wrote of the gracious, works-free nature of salvation/justification, many of them indexed this to initial justification, which itself was connected to conversion and/ or baptism. Once initial justification had taken place, believers were expected to be caught up in a transformative process of growth in grace, virtue and good works.

Assessments of the distance between patristic and later Protestant conceptions of justification vary. Again, Oden argues that a robust patristic “consensus” on justification existed and is in substantial continuity with the later Reformers. For others, certain early writers stand out as significantly “more Protestant,” whether Clement of Rome, Marius Victorinus, Augustine of course, or even — in terms of an emphasis on “faith alone “Pelagius himself. And then there is Origen.

Much of the debate about the fate of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith in the pre-Augustinian church has centered on Origen and his Commentary on Romans. Here, Origen expounds on Paul’s teaching on justification:

A human being is justified through faith; the works of the law contribute nothing to his being justified. But where there is no faith which justifies the believer, even if one possesses works from the law, nevertheless because they have not been built upon the foundation of faith, although they appear to be good things, nevertheless they are not able to justify the one doing them, because from them faith is absent, which is the sign of those who are justified by God.
Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

And yet, despite such statements, Origen’s view of justification has not infrequently come under strong suspicion. Owing in no small part to Melanchthon, many within the Reformation tradition have come to see Origen as an early corrupter of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith — even as something of a pre-Pelagian “Pelagian.”

From this perspective, it is only with Augustine that we finally arrive at the “fountainhead” of the doctrine of justification in the post-New Testament church. Others, however, offer more complex assessments of Origen and the import of his doctrine of justification — including his influence upon Augustine’s later formulation. Rowan Williams, for example, proposes that Origen is “very close to Pauline thinking in his commentary on Romans,” while Eric Osborn concludes that the “gospel of justification by grace was still [Origen's] chief concern. Mark Reasoner has argued for a significant conceptual continuity between Origen’s understanding of Paul’s thought in Romans and the new perspective on Paul.

In the most comprehensive study of Origen’s doctrine of justification to’ date, Thomas Scheck argues that Origen’s commentary was not simply motivated by anti-Gnostic, anti-Marcionite concerns, but also by a real desire to understand Paul. This being said, Scheck reveals the importance of the anti-Marcionite factor. Given that Marcion was the first Christian to claim that the “works” of the believer will not be weighed by God in the final judgment, it is not surprising to find Origen (and not only Origen) arguing – in defense of the orthodox Rule of Faith, against Marcion – that faith and good works are “two complementary conditions of salvation that must not be separated.” Scheck concludes that “on the theme of justification, faith, and works, Augustine does not differ substantially from Origen.

In turning to Augustine, there is wide agreement that his mature understanding of justification is indebted to a significant theological shift that came with a letter written in 396 to his former mentor, Simplicianus. In the years leading up to this, Augustine had wrestled with key Pauline texts from Romans concerning the nature of grace, election and salvation. Prior to his Letter to Simplicianus, his conclusions on these questions reflected the wide-ranging patristic consensus — that is, he maintained a strong doctrine of human freedom, and explained God’s election as predicated upon divine foreknowledge of future human choices, as opposed to divine pre-determinism.

However, with his 396 response to Simplicianus’ questions on these matters, Augustine essentially rejects his earlier approach — and with it the patristic consensus — and instead locates the reason for the divide between the elect and the reprobate as, ultimately, residing within God’s own mysterious will. Decades later, Augustine would explain this 396 reversal: “I, indeed, labored in defense of the free choice of the human will; but the grace of God conquered, and finally I was able to understand, with full clarity, the meaning of the Apostle:’. . . what hast thou that thou hast not received?”

It is important to consider Augustine’s series of reflections on Pauline themes such as grace, election and justification in the context of the wider fourth-century renaissance in the study of Paul’s letters. Some scholars see Augustine’s study of Paul in the 390s as born of a “non-polemical context,” and motivated primarily by a straightforward interest in Paul. Increasingly however, the fourth-century renewal of interest in Paul — Augustine’s own interest included and perhaps especially — is seen as directly tied to the spread of Manichaeism.

The Manichees had made tireless use of Paul, particularly the very texts (Romans 7 and 9) with which Augustine wrestled — texts that could easily be read as supporting a robust anthropological dualism and predestinarian election that characterized Manichaean theology. In fact, it has been argued that Augustine’s 396 shift was very likely directly — if unconsciously — related to his previous public polemical engagement with the Manichaean apologist, Fortunatus, in 392.

In any case, Augustine’s post-396 perspective on the workings of grace led him to a conception of salvation — including justification — that is solely indebted to God’s sovereign grace and particular election, and in this sense Augustine can be seen as pre-shadowing the Reformation doctrine of justification. In Augustine’s words:

“What have you that you did not receive?” (1Corinthians 4:7). If, therefore, faith entreats and receives justification, according as God has apportioned to each in the measure of his faith (Romans 12:3), nothing of human merit precedes the grace of God, but grace itself merits increase … with the will accompanying but not leading, following along but not going in advance.

On the other hand, in contrast to what would emerge as the standard Reformation doctrine, Augustine often states that justification includes the idea of “making righteous,” not simply “declaring/reckoning as righteous.” This has led to a debate concerning just how closely Augustine’s view of justification anticipates that of Martin Luther’s. While some propose a close affinity, others, such as McGrath, emphasize an important distinction:

Augustine has an all-embracing transformative understanding of justification, which includes both the event of justification (brought about by operative grace) and the process of justification (brought about by cooperative grace). Augustine himself does not, in fact, see any need to distinguish between these two aspects of justification; the distinction dates from the sixteenth century.

The Latin Middle Ages
“All medieval theology is `Augustinian’ to a greater or lesser extent,” notes McGrath. And such is the case with the doctrine of justification in the Western/Latin context. Reflecting the thought of Augustine, the standard view of the medieval Catholic Church is that “justification refers not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which Christians are made righteous in the sight of God and of humanity through a fundamental change in their nature, and not merely in their status.” It is not surprising to find the concept of justification taking on a new importance during this period of the Western church.

In the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury constructed a critique of the Christus Victor model of the atonement, which had dominated the church throughout its first millennium. In its place, Anselm offered his satisfaction theory in his work Cur Deus Homo? (Why God Became Human). The attractiveness of Anselm’s theory in the Middle Ages is connected to the fact that it capitalized on an idea that was tied both to the Catholic practice of penance and to the recently arisen feudal system — the idea of satisfaction.

This theory had the advantages of avoiding some of the eccentricities of the Christus Victor model (i.e., the ransom theory with its “bait and switch” images), while providing an explication of the work of Christ that takes human sin seriously and offers a reasonable explanation of how Jesus’ death satisfies the demands of God’s honor. With Anselm’s new approach to the atonement came a turn from the “Satanward” paradigm of the Christus Victor model (i.e., atonement as Jesus’ victory over Satan via cosmic battle) to an “objective” paradigm wherein legal and moral categories now took center stage. Within this theological context, the concept of “justification” and its juridical entailments found a natural home.

Taking Augustine’s concept of God’s indwelling presence in justified persons as a starting point, much of medieval theology’s reflection on justification can be seen, broadly speaking, as exploring the question of the “effect produced by that presence.” With Thomas Aquinas, we find a classic medieval expression of the four-stage process of justification in the life of the Christian:

(1)     the infusion of grace,
(2)     the movement of the free will directed toward God through faith,
(3)     the movement of the free will directed against sin, and finally
(4)     the remission of sin.

Aquinas continues to reflect Augustine when he insists that justification includes both forgiveness of sins and the actual transformation of the sinner’s life: “in justification of souls, two things occur together, namely, the remission of guilt and the newness of life through grace.

With High Scholasticism (e.g., the mid-thirteenth-century Summa Fratris Alexandri) came the idea that the unique presence of God within the justified sinner necessarily brings with it “created grace,” that is, grace that produces an ontological change in the soul of the Christian that conforms them to God. While God is seen as the sole author of this internal change of the soul, the change itself is real and transformative.

Later medieval theology saw the rise of the via moderna (i.e., “Nominalism”) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, associated with such scholars as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Following the prior work of Duns Scotus, a strong emphasis on the absolute freedom of God’s gracious initiative characterizes this approach, one designed to make it abundantly clear that no human moral achievement of any sort ever obligates God to any particular response.

In regard to justification, this emphasis on God’s absolute, nonobligatory freedom in the salvation process eventually manifested itself in the concept of God’s “two powers” — that is, his “absolute power” to do whatever he pleases, on the one hand, and the power of his radically contingent, self-imposed decision to (in this case) graciously produce the effects of justification in the Christian’s life, on the other.

Nonetheless, in his comprehensive survey of the doctrine of justification in the Latin Middle Ages, McGrath concludes that “the entire medieval discussion of justification proceeds upon the assumption that a real change in the sinner is effected thereby. This observation is as true of the via moderna as it is for the earlier period.” Among the various ways of expressing justification on the eve of the Reformation, the broad common ground held that justification was a process, one that began at baptism and continued on, and one that involved actual intrinsic righteousness, made possible by God’s initiating grace and subsequent human cooperation with that grace.

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