Saturday, January 6, 2007

Justification by Faith - Is This Really an Ancient Teaching?

One of the recent Concordia Theological Quarterly issues that arrived in my mailbox not long ago (yet dated July/October 2004) contained an article that caught my attention, entitled "Martin Chemnitz' Use of the Church Fathers." In reading through the article there was a discussion of Chemnitz' critique of the Fathers and the Doctrine of Justification, which got me to thinking about an article I wrote back in February 2005 on a different blog, by the title listed above. What follows is that article (slightly edited from its original state):

Both the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church appear to have had limited interest in what is for Lutherans the doctrine upon which the church either stands or falls: Justification by faith. Even when they refer to justification they interpret it in a different way that most Protestants would recognize (intrinsic change vs. forensic declaration.) In the Christian News issue of Monday, February 13, Todd Wilken's interview with Orthodox priest Father John Matusiak brought to my attention this very point, showing forth clearly not just their relative disinterest, but their very challenge of this doctrine as both scriptural and apostolic. Fr. Matusiak comments in this interview on "the over-emphasis that is placed in Western Christianity on one single word that's found a few times in Saint Paul, namely the word 'justified.'"

In another letter printed by Rev. Otten in this issue, Lazar, Orthodox bishop of Vancouver, goes even further in claiming that the Reformation doctrine of Justification is essentially "pagan" and a development from the medieval era.

Lutherans and other Reformed Christians will readily admit that Luther is largely credited with a rediscovery of Justication as the central doctrine of the church. But did it all begin with him, or was this taught long before Luther came along? In other words, is Justification by faith a novelty of history from the 16th century on?

On the WELS website there is a nice article referencing the seminal work on Justification by Dr. James Buchanan (1804-1870), a minister in the Scottish Prebyterian Church. They note: "Buchanan reckoned that there were at least 28 Fathers of the Church who taught justification through faith alone. At least until the 1100s there was always at least one theologian teaching the doctrine in a systematic way."

If you would like to read more of what Dr. Buchanan wrote, his chapter on the history of this doctrine is on the web and located here at Modern Reformation.

Obviously Justification by Faith is not a novelty of the modern era, nor is it "pagan."

In fact, Dr. Lowell Green in the article "The Question of Theosis in the Perspective of Lutheran Christology" (from All Theology is Christology: Essays in Honor of David P. Scaer), notes that the Orthodox teaching of "theosis," rather than being truly biblical and in accord with orthodox teaching, is more akin to Neo-Plantonic philosophy. He also challenges the idea that the "high point" of theology was necessarily the first five centuries. "Gerhard Muller points out, to the contrary, the Ancient Church lost sight of the all-important doctrine of justification and that, between the time of Paul and Augustine, the distinction of law and gospel was lost in the ancient church, partially recovered under Augustine, and had to await its full explication until the appearance of Luther. Early Christian theology was misled by Neo-Platonic dualism to confound the doctrine of salvation with notions of deification or inward renewal of the believer."

He then adds, in reference to the fascination some have with Constantinople: "Moreover, the opinion of some that the Lutheran Church should turn away from its confessional theology and seek solutions in the Neo-Platonism of Eastern Orthodoxy is dangerous and needs thorough discussion today." (page 165) In a footnote he also notes: "Muller shows that Greek as well as Latin fathers failed to understand law and gospel and that works righteousness prevailed among such prominent writers as Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, and Ambrosius." (page 177)

DVE, February 15, 2005.
I will probably add some comments later when I finish working through the CTQ article referenced above that dovetails beautifully with this subject.


318@NICE said...

Interesting. I just read the same article a few days ago. I guess I would say this, from my study of the ancient Church: They did not try to narrowly define doctrine as they did in the Reformation and afterwards. For the Fathers, the Bible itself was systematic, edited and purposely written in its specific order by the Holy Spirit for our instruction. Therefore, they seemed to take the "Way" of salvation in its entirety instead of chopping things up and resting on one thing. Sometimes it seems Lutheran (and I am one) follow St. Paul more than we do Christ and his teachings in the Gospels. I don't put Paul against Jesus, but I think sometimes the emphasis on one part surely can be unbiblical?
See my post on my blog, "If I have not love." I understand what that article said, I'm not so sure I agree with the idea that the ancient Church was in error until Luther, or that Luther re-discovered something. You know there are Lutheran scholars right now preparing Luthers work for the East showing that Luther himself believed in Theosis. I find that interesting. I think the mere forensic idea of justification is not "all" the way biblical and is too Calvinistic for me. But good post, a lot to think about.

D. Engebretson said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments! I'm not sure that as Lutherans we would say that "the church was in error until Luther," in the sense like the Baptists who see nothing good between the close of the NT and the beginning of the Reformation. We honor the Fathers and yet treat them critically, understanding, as Luther said, that "Poper and councils do err."