Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sola Fide in Patristic Literature

I have had numerous emails and comments about the sources I have recommended for seeing a "Lutheran" doctrine of justification in the Church Fathers. This is an attempt to put together a list of Patristic sources which I think approach a Lutheran doctrine of justification.

I had mentioned on my podcast, two apostolic fathers. First is Clement of Rome, who writes,

"All these, therefore were highly honored and made great, not for their own sake, or for their works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of his will. And we too, being called by his will in Jesus Christ, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men." (I Clement 32)

Second is the anonymous author of the Epistle to Diognetus who clearly teaches imputation of Christ's alien righteousness:

"This was not that he at all delighted in our sins, but that he simply endured them; nor that he approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that he sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached it’s height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting his own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great longsuffering and bore with us, he himself took on him the burden of our iniquities, he gave his son as a ransom for us, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible one for the corruptible, the immortal one for the mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than his righteousness? By what other thing was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hidden in a single righteous One, that the righteousness of one should justify the many transgressors." (Chapter IX)

The best resource for the Apostolic Fathers is the translation: Holmes, Michael. The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker, 2006) The old J.B. Phillips translations in the Schaff ANF series still hold up as well.

I would particularly point to the writings of St. Ambrose. His treatise On Jacob and the Happy Life is very significant in this regard. Look at the following quote for example,

"Nevertheless, the law was of help to me. I began to confess what I used to deny, I began to know my sin and not to cover over my injustice. I began to proclaim my injustice to the Lord against myself, and you forgave the impurities of my heart. But this too is of help to me, that we are not justified by the works of the law. Thus, I do not have the wherewithal to enable me to glory in my own works, I do not have the wherewithal to boast of myself, and so I will glory in Christ. I will not glory because I have been redeemed. I will not glory because I am free from sins, but because sins have been forgiven me. I will not glory because I am profitable or because anyone is profitable to me, but because Christ is an advocate in my behalf with the Father, because the blood of Christ has been poured out in my behalf. My guilt became for me the price of redemption, through which Christ came to me. On account of me, Christ tasted death." (On Jacob and the Happy Life, 133)

This quote is merely a sample of Ambrose's Christ-centered pastoral heart. You will find a lot of talk about justification by faith and the condemnatory use of the law. The English translation of this can be found in: McHugh, Michael P. St Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works (Washington D.C: Catholic University of America, 1972)

John Chrysostom's commentary on Galatians expounds upon the law/gospel distinction rather clearly. He defines the purpose of the law as follows,

"the Law commands all its precepts to be performed, and punishes the transgressor; therefore we are all dead to it, for no man has fulfilled it. Here observe, how guardedly he assails it; he says not, 'the Law is dead to me' but 'I am dead to the Law', the meaning of which is, that, as it is impossible for a dead corpse to obey the commandments of the Law, so also it is for me who have perished by its curse, for by its word am I slain." (Comments on Galatians 2:19)

He also writes,

"For the Law requires not only Faith but works also, but grace saves and justified by Faith." (Comments on Galatians 3:12)

Speaking of Abraham, Chrysostom states, "And if he who was before grace, was justified by Faith, although plentiful in works, much more are we. For what loss was it for him, not being under the Law? None, for his faith sufficed unto righteousness." (Comments on Galatians 3:6)

Chrysostom's Pauline commentaries can be found in the NPNF series edited by Phillip Schaff. There are numerous editions.

Other works I would point to are Augustine's treatise On the Spirit and the Letter, which demonstrates a pretty clear law/gospel distinction. This work was especially important for Luther, as was the work The Call of All Nations by Prosper of Aquitaine, which I have often referenced.

I will probably do a part two to this post, because there are so many resources that could be referenced. My upcoming book deals only with the Apostolic Fathers, but I would like to write one dealing with Chrysostom and Ambrose, who are two of my favorite writers and preachers.

Ultimately, isolated quotes are not enough. You will have to read the works themselves, look at the context, and place these ideas into the overall theological system of these particular writers. This is what I attempt to do with my work, and hopefully some others will take up the task as well, looking at other early writers who I have not had the time to study.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff, when does the book come out?

Jordan Cooper said...

Not sure yet. It is being published by Wipf & Stock; I need to pay for a copyeditor before publication, which I am currently trying to raise money for. I will let everyone know when I have a better idea of a publication date.

Steve Bricker said...

I am behind in my blog reading. Chrysostom is a delight to read. I cannot say the same for Ambrose only because I have not read much of his work--eventually though.

Anonymous said...

I am in the Graduate program at UD (University of Dayton). I am currently researching John Chrysostom's interpretation of Romans with respect to justification. I think evangelicals who use Chrysostom as somehow a precursor to Reformation dogma on justification are sorely mistaken. I hope to show this in my research (which I will be posting once I'm done at I like your blog though (especially the design! LoL!) and am interested in similar things as you are (Reformation doctrine, patristic precedents, etc.). Have you ever read Aquinas on justification? ****Bradley

David Beilstein said...

Mr Cooper,

My name is David Beilstein. I'm a confessional Presbyterian. I have been reading your blog for a couple weeks and had some questions. You mentioned in a podcast somewhere that when investigating the claims of Lutheranism while reformed, you read a Lutheran systematic theology along with Charles Hodge's systematic theology. You then went on to say the Lutheran ST was more convincing. I cannot remember the name of the Lutheran ST you mentioned. All I can remember is that you said it was originally published about the same time as Professor Hodge's ST.

Do you have the title of this Lutheran systematic theology? I would really enjoy perusing it.

I appreciate your time and consideration.


Jordan Cooper said...


I disagree with your assessment of Chrysostom and I plan on writing a book on Chrysostom's soteriology, but that won't be for some time. And yes, I have read Aquinas on justification.

Jordan Cooper said...


The work I mentioned is Christian Dogmatics by Franz Pieper.

David Beilstein said...

Hi Mr Cooper,


Franz Pieper, thanks. Is his Christian dogmatics a multi-volume set - four? - or is it one volume.

Also, when listening to some of your stuff on Jthe doctrine of Justification in reformed circles and Lutheran circles is interesting. What You often describe as the reformed doctrine of Justification is not what I've been taught.

I suppose, perhaps, interaction with Professor R. Scott Clark maybe of some clarification here. There are certainly reformed folks who think there are large differences between Lutheran & Reformed doctrines of Justifications - same with confessional Lutherans. In the circles I have run, however, we share a common bond on the doctrine of Justification and sanctification.

And I certainly - as a reformed Presbyterian - agree with You, sir, on St Paul's description of the Christian saint's Just And Sinner context in Romans 6-7. I'm not saying you're an idiot - that clearly is not true. But I pray you understand there are differing expressions of reformed Christianity.

There are Reformed who try (against reformed orthodoxy) to deny a law-gospel distinction. In my communion, we hold to a robust law-gospel distinction.

Just saying, my friend.


Jordan Cooper said...


Yes, it is a four volume set. The last volume is an index. You can get Mueller's one volume Dogmatics which is basically a shorter version of Pieper.

I'm not sure about the exact comments I made which you are referring to. You can read my LOGIA article responding to the book Justification: Five Views which deals with Horton and other perspectives on the issue.

I understand that there are different perspectives on justification within the Reformed camp. The Westminster East/West division, for example, is very familiar to me.

Nick said...

I don't think it is sufficient to say a Church Father's comments "approach" the Lutheran view of Sola Fide. That's because if a given quote is equally fitting in a Catholic framework, then it's not really proof in favor of Sola Fide. So I'm glad you said that the context of a given Father must also be examined to see what he said on related issues.

I would strongly object to classifying St Augustine's On the Spirit and Letter as Protestant or proto-Protestant. In fact, professor Robert Koons shows in his conversion story "A Lutheran's Case for Catholicism" how this work is the anti-thesis to Imputation.

Nathan Rinne said...


Is your email address public?


Jordan Cooper said...


Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I immediately saw your mistake in this blog. You give the term 'justification' a very narrow meaning in the way Lutherans use the term but this is not the case in the early church. All your quote can easily be understood in an Orthodox sense when justification is understood as something other than an 'event' or 'act '. Pelagius, the heretic, even used the term justifation by faith alone but I presume even you realise he was talking about something different as you didn't include him in your list. Keep looking.