The charge is a common one toward Protestants: “No one taught justification by faith alone before Martin Luther!” Often protestants concede to this as historical fact and have no way to rebut it. I will be arguing that the Protestant understanding of justification was not a theological novum, but was the logical outcome, and further definition of what earlier writers had taught. These ideas are seen, at least in seed form in the writings of the Apostolic fathers.
First, it must be remarked that the patristics did not have a consistent and thorough understanding of the doctrine of justification. As with other doctrines, the fathers differed from one another in their understanding of justification. They also, sometimes, are inconsistent within their own writings in their use of the term. This is due to the fact that the battles fought before the time of Augustine were not primarily soteriological. The big issues were first, apologetic, and secondly, Christological. Unfortunately this pushed the soteriology of the New Testament in the background. This does not mean, however, that the fathers had no thoughts on soteriology. One thing to remember is that if one looks at the patristics, thinking that they will find definitions of justification in the church fathers identical with those of the Formula of Concord and The Westminster Confession of Faith, he will be very disappointed. People often go either one of two very wrong directions. Some ignore the fathers altogether as if no one understood the work of Christ until the protestant reformation, while others try and twist the fathers so that they all believed in later Protestant theology. The patristics were not protestants, nor were they tridentine Catholics. They fought very different battles than those of the 16th century.
Let us begin examining the writings of the apostolic fathers. It is difficult to obtain concrete statements about doctrine from these fathers because that was not their primary goal in their writings. Therefore, we must examine statements made mostly in passing about their doctrine. T. F. Torrence, in his book The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers comes to the conclusion that by this time, Pauline thought had been replaced in large by a theology of “works.” I would like to argue against that point as I do not think the Pauline emphasis on grace has ever been completely ignored in the church.
Polycarp says virtually nothing concrete soteriologicaly in his one extant letter to the Philippians. Therefore we must examine a few ambiguous statements if we wish to construct a possible soteriology of Polycarp. The first thing to notice is his use of the term “elect” when referring to the church. While we can not determine exactly what he means by this term, it is an essentially Pauline term, not used much by the later apologists of the 2nd century. He writes at the beginning of his letter, “By grace ye are saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” This is of course an illusion to Ephesians chapter 2. After this positive assessment of God’s grace which saves us not by our works, he seems to say something quite contrary to this in a few different places. “But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise us up also, if we do his will, and walk in his commandments, and love what he loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness, etc.” It seems here that our being raised is conditioned upon our obedience. A similar statement comes later, “If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future word, according as he has promised to us that he will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of him, we shall also reign with him, provided only we believe.” Again, our being raised seems conditioned upon our living worthily. However, here an emphasis on faith is also present. A curious statement comes later which may point toward a more Pauline understanding of righteousness. “Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in his own body on the tree.” Polycarp here connects righteousness, not to ourselves but to Christ Himself and His salvific work on the cross. Of course the question that comes to mind now is, what does Polycarp mean that Christ is the earnest of our righteousness? Is it that he is our righteousness in an imputational sense? Or is he our righteousness in that he set a good example for us to follow? Immediately after this statement, he urges us to imitate the life of Christ in his patience. It seems that Jesus Christ being the earnest of our righteousness is the motive for our obedience in Polycarp’s mind. After describing his work on the cross for us he goes on to say “Let us then be imitators of him…” (p.35) It may be a case of a use of the indicative and imperative. In other words, Polycarp may be saying, “because Christ has become our righteousness and has paid for our sins upon the cross, go and imitate him.” This would be a consistently Pauline way of speaking. It may possibly also be saying that our imitation defines what the righteousness of Christ is. This would mean that Polycarp sees righteousness either as something infused or something to be imitated. The idea of Christ being our righteousness in an imputational sense, and of imitation flowing from that state of “being in the right” seems more likely, however, not conclusively. I say this because righteousness is immediately connected with Christ’s person and work, not primarily with our work.
All in all, Polycarp does not help us much in understanding early Christian teaching concerning justification and righteousness. His statements about good works may be saying that they earn our righteousness, or they may simply be saying that without good works no one will be vindicated on the last day (not that our works earn anything, rather that they are fruits of our faith.) The purpose of this letter we must remember is the exhortation of believers. They may already understand the doctrine of justification by faith, which is why Polycarp only includes two brief allusions to it. That is also why Polycarp may not be that careful in his wording about good works and the resurrection. Perhaps he did not need to be. I am not here saying that Polycarp did have a complete understanding of Pauline soteriology, however, I am saying that it is one possible reading of the text. The evidence is not great enough for us to concede exactly what he did believe.