I had a short discussion with atheist apologist Gary from Escaping Christian Fundamentalism. He was going about asking evangelicals to name one Church Father who taught justification via imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith alone, commonly shortened to Justification by Faith Alone. The Protestants were unresponsive. However, apparently some Protestant apologists have attempted to answer this question. Today I am going to answer the Fathers whom Protestant apologist Matt Slick has brought up here. I had never heard that surname before, so I looked it up. Slick is apparently a surname first found in Essex, England, where Walter Sleh was listed in the Feet of Fines in 1219. As the name implies, it refers to skillful men, cunning of hand, although it did not have as negative a connotation as nowadays. I am sure he is a somewhat skillful and clever apologist—evidently more qualified than I. Still, the Church Fathers either taught something or they did not. I seek to argue that they did not. “This is important,” Mr. Slick argues, “because Catholics and Eastern Orthodox both teach that the church fathers rejected faith alone and required either works or baptism to complete the saving work of God.” I do undoubtedly affirm that Sola Fide was invented by Martin Luther. Mr. Slick believes he has found some testimonials. I will respond to them.
1. Novatian, 200-258
“For Zecharias also tells us, saying: ‘If ye eat or drink, is it not ye that eat or drink?’—declaring thereby that meat or drink attain not unto God, but unto man: for neither is God fleshly, so as to be pleased with flesh; nor is He careful for these pleasures, so as to rejoice in our food. God rejoices in our faith alone, in our innocency alone, in our truth alone, in our virtues alone. And these dwell not in our belly, but in our soul; and these are acquired for us by divine awe and heavenly fear, and not by earthly food.” (Novatian, On the Jewish Meats, Chapter V, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0512.htm)
It is interesting that Mr. Slick underlines “faith alone”. Novatian says very specifically in the same breath that God rejoices “in our faith alone, in our innocency alone, in our truth alone, in our virtues alone.” It seems that Novatian is lumping faith, innocency, truth, and virtues together as all necessary for salvation. If anything, it seems to me that Novatian is supporting Catholic justification.
2. Aristides, Second Century
II. Having thus spoken concerning God, so far as it was possible for me to speak of Him, let us next proceed to the human race, that we may see which of them participate in the truth and which of them in error.”
“The Greek might be rendered, ‘so far as there was room for me to speak of Him,’ i.e., the attributes of the Deity are not further relevant to the discussion—as the translator into Syriac takes it. The Armenian adopts the other meaning, viz., the theme is beyond man’s power to discuss. As translated by F. C. Conybeare, the Armenian is in these words: ‘Now by the grace of God it was given me to speak wisely concerning Him. So far as I have received the faculty I will speak, yet not according to the measure of the inscrutability of His greatness shall I be able to do so, but by faith alone do I glorify and adore Him.” (The Apology of Aristides, Introduction)
So the phrase “faith alone” seems not even to be present in all translations of the text. I am not sure exactly if we even know that this is what he wrote. However, he is still not testifying to Sola Fide. Aristides is not referring to how he is justified. All he is saying is that no one can, of course, properly and fully express the greatness of God by his words. He will therefore glorify God (and more properly do credit to His greatness) by his faith. Alone excludes words, not love. This has nothing to do with other virtues.
3. Chrysostom (347-407)
1. “Have ye been vouchsafed, he says, so great a gift, and achieved such wonders, because ye observed the Law, or because ye adhered to Faith? plainly on account of Faith. Seeing that they played this argument to and fro, that apart from the Law, Faith had no force, he proves the contrary, viz., that if the Commandments be added, Faith no longer avails; for Faith then has efficacy when things from the Law are not added to it. ‘Ye who would be justified by the Law, ye are fallen away from grace:’ (Gal. 5:4).” (Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians – on Gal. 3:5, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/23103.htm)
Chrysostom did not believe Sola Fide. At another time, Chrysostom argues: “ ‘He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.’ ‘Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the blasphemy against the Spirit is enough of itself to cast a man into hell. But why speak I of a portion of doctrine? Though a man believe rightly on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, yet if he lead not a right life, his faith will avail nothing towards his salvation.” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 31:1)
Concerning the text Mr. Slick puts forth, this is a commentary on Galatians, so obviously by “the Law” Chrysostom means the Law of Moses. Galatians was written to address the Judaizers. Even an evangelical would admit that although a Christian need not follow the mandates of the Law of Moses, he at very least ought to strive to do acts of virtue, even if it is not strictly necessary for salvation. By Faith or the Faith, Chrysostom may have meant the general saving faith, a full embracing of the Christian life, not to the exclusion of virtue. The fact that I deny Sola Fide would not keep me from referring to Christianity as “my Faith”. At least in this translation (I do not have access to the original text), the word faith is capitalized and I would imagine that it could be translated as “the Faith”. However, even if we are to suppose that Chrysostom did mean the theological virtue of Faith by itself, it still does not mean Sola Fide. We cannot work for our salvation. As soon as anyone believes and is baptized (and no, baptism is not a “good work” but a sacrament ex opere operato), he has salvation and he maintains it forever unless it is forfeited by mortal sin, a grave sin committed with full knowledge and consent. The “beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called.” (Trent, Decree on Justification, Ch. V)
2. “Even the miracles done by themselves, he says, declare the power of Faith, but I shall attempt if you will suffer me to draw my proofs from ancient narratives also. Then, as they made great account of the Patriarch, he brings his example forward, and shows that he too was justified by Faith. And if he who was before grace, was justified by Faith, although plentiful in works, much more we. For what loss was it to him, not being under the Law? None, for his faith sufficed unto righteousness.” (Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians – on Gal. 3:6, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/23103.htm)
Again, he is obviously talking about the Law of Moses. Chysostom says that Abraham “who was before grace, was justified by Faith, although plentiful in works, much more we” because no one can achieve any merit before he is justified. Catholics, of course, agree that no merit precedes justification. The fact that Chrysostom is talking about the law of Moses is made clear by the words that follow: “The Law did not then exist, he says, neither does it now exist, any more than then. In disproving the need of the Law, he introduces one who was justified before the Law, lest an objection should also be made to him; for as then it was not yet given, so now, having been given, it was abrogated.”
3. “Attend to this point. He Himself who gave the Law, had decreed, before He gave it, that the heathen should be justified by Faith. And he says not “revealed,” but, “preached the Gospel,” to signify that the patriarch was in joy at this method of justification, and in great desire for its accomplishment…” Further, they were possessed with another apprehension; it was written, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the Law, to do them.” (Deut. 27:26.) And this he removes, with great skill and prudence, turning their argument against themselves, and showing that those who relinquish the Law are not only not cursed, but blessed; and they who keep it, not only not blessed but cursed. They said that he who kept not the Law was cursed, but he proves that he who kept it was cursed, and he who kept it not, blessed. Again, they said that he who adhered to Faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to Faith alone, is blessed. And how does he prove all this? for it is no common thing which we have promised; wherefore it is necessary to give close attention to what follows. He had already shown this, by referring to the words spoken to the Patriarch, “In thee shall all nations be blessed,” (Gen. 12:4.) at a time, that is, when Faith existed, not the Law; so he adds by way of conclusion,” (Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians – on Gal. 3:8, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/23103.htm)
By Chrysostom’s words, “showing that those who relinquish the Law are not only not cursed, but blessed; and they who keep it, not only not blessed but cursed” and “at a time, that is, when Faith existed, not the Law” we can know with certainty that the works to which he is referring ought not to be done at all. So by “Faith alone” he shows that he means Faith apart from works of the Law of Moses not Faith apart from works of the commandments of Jesus Christ.
4. “THE favors of God so far exceed human hope and expectation, that often they are not believed. For God has bestowed upon us such things as the mind of man never looked for, never thought of. It is for this reason that the Apostles spend much discourse in securing a belief of the gifts that are granted us of God. For as men, upon receiving some great good, ask themselves if it is not a dream, as not believing it; so it is with respect to the gifts of God. What then was it that was thought incredible? That those who were enemies, and sinners, neither justified by the law, nor by works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. Upon this head accordingly Paul has discoursed at length in his Epistle to the Romans, and here again at length. “This is a faithful saying,” he says, “and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (Chyrsostom, Homilies on the First Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy, Homily IV, on 1 Tim. 1:15, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230604.htm)
Catholics do not believe we are justified by works exactly. A person obtains the initial graces for justification by faith alone. There is no merit which precedes justification. I might be more specific if I were writing on that now, but Chrysostom must have been completely unaware that his words would be misinterpreted in such a way because no one, at that point, believed in Sola Fide. Baptism would be implied, but since it is not a work, in the sense that it is not a work of virtue but a sacrament ex opere opertato, Chrysostom does not include it. At another time, however, Chrysostom was willing to write: “Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is the taking away of sins and a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul, and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood.” (Panegyric on St. Lucian 2) And at another time he wrote: “And for what reason, says one, if the laver take away all our sins, is it called, not a laver of remission of sins, nor a laver of cleansing, but a laver of regeneration? Because it does not simply take away our sins, nor simply cleanse us from our faults, but so as if we were born again.” (Instructions to Catechumens 3) So he definitely believed in the necessity of baptism as well.
4. Theodoret, 393-458
“All this I say not for the sake of boasting, but because I am forced to defend myself. It is not the fame of my sermons to which I am calling attention; it is their orthodoxy alone. Even the great teacher of the world who is wont to style himself last of saints and first of sinners, that he might stop the mouths of liars was compelled to set forth a list of his own labours; and in shewing that this account of his sufferings was of necessity, not of free will, he added “I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me.” I own myself wretched—aye thrice wretched. I am guilty of many errors. Through faith alone I look for finding some mercy in the day of the Lord’s appearing. I wish and I pray that I may follow the footprints of the holy Fathers, and I earnestly desire to keep undefiled the evangelic teaching which was in sum delivered to us by the holy Fathers assembled in council at the Bithynian Nicæa.” (Of Theodoretus, Bishop of Cyrus, to Dioscorus, Archbishop of Alexandria, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2707083.htm)
This does not say that we are justified by faith alone to the exclusion of other virtues. I do not have access to the Greek text, but by “faith” I think it means “trust”, as in trust in God’s mercy. Notice that the phrase through faith alone is used rather than justified by faith alone. Catholics do not believe that God is compelled to reward us by our own virtue, but that He does so willingly we act with God’s grace working within us. We are sinners and must trust that God will make up what we lack and I think that is what Theodoret is saying.
5.Vincent of Lerins, d. 445
“To this most noteworthy example he adds the authority of two bishops of Rome, Sixtus III., then occupying the Papal Chair, and Celestine, his immediate predecessor,—the gist of the whole being the confirmation of the rule which it had been his object to enforce throughout the Treatise—that profane novelties must be rejected, and that faith alone adhered to which the universal Church has held consentiently from the earliest times, QUOD UBIQUE, QUOD SEMPER, QUOD AB OMNIBUS.” (Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory, Introduction, http://encyclopedia.kids.net.au/page/vi/Vincent_of_Lerins)
I have two points here. First of all, this is not a quotation from St. Vincent of Lérins at all. This is a quotation from an encyclopedia entry about St. Vincent of Lérins. If Mr. Slick had actually read Vincent’s Commonitory, he would have found that the combination “faith alone” appears nowhere. I grant that this does not mean that necessarily he is not referring to Sola Fide any more than the fact that 1 Corinthians 11:24 does not use the term transubstantiation does not mean that it is not referring to it. However, if Mr. Slick believes Vincent testifies to Justification by Imputation, let him quote St. Vincent and not someone else writing about him. Furthermore, even if this were written by Vincent, it still is not very good evidence that he actually adhered to Sola Fide. The Commonitory was written to deal with heresies of all sorts, including Arianism, Donatism, and Nestorianism. By “faith alone adhered to which the universal Church has held consentiently from the earliest times”, faith means a set of beliefs. In other words, all this is saying is that Vincent taught that we must adhere to the perennial teachings of the Catholic Church.
I am surprised that they did not quote St. Augustine. Most evangelicals claim that he taught Justification by Faith Alone (along with double predestination). Believe me, he did not. “During the time, moreover,” says Augustine, “which intervenes between a man’s death and the final resurrection, the soul dwells in a hidden retreat, where it enjoys rest or suffers affliction just in proportion to the merit it has earned by the life which it led on earth. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit, that services of this kind can help them.” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love 109-110) How could he be clearer than that that there is a purgatory?
It seems that Sola Fide did not exist prior to Martin Luther. Luther called it “chief article of the whole Christian doctrine”—although I would think that would be the divinity of Christ—but as far as I can tell, no one believed it prior to him.
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