Is Protestant justification really traceable to the theology of the apostolic era?
Early Trends in Christian JustificationIf we were to summarize roughly a Protestant theology of justification for purposes of comparison with the earliest Christian texts, we might note the following essentials drawn from such sources as the Westminster Catechism: that righteousness is a matter of pure pardon, and not of infusion, “or of anything wrought or done in humanity,” being only God’s imputation of Christ’s alien obedience and satisfaction to the elect. Consequently, faith (defined as the passive receiving and resting on Christ’s righteousness) becomes the sole instrument of the justification from which the elect can never fall. (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XI 6.068-6.073) In an admirable acknowledgement of the full account of Scripture, the Westminster Confession does allow that truly saving faith is “always accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” (6.069)
Some contemporary commentors on Christian justification have suggested that we find the earliest Christian theology and praxis affirming all that Protestants affirm with regard to justification, though not denying what Protestants deny (ie, that both faith and our cooperation may enact God’s will towards our salvation when these faculties are enlivened by His grace), and that it is these denials rather than constructive affirmations that perpetuate scandalous disputes in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. In other words, the idea goes that the idea of justification by faith has been held since the beginning, though in the Catholic tradition, this idea is held in full symbiosis with the hope that Christ’s righteousness might, in and by God’s grace, be formed within the elect in reality, such that by the infusion of grace and meritorious living we might be re- made as well as pardoned. I suggest here that if the interested reader considers even a very small sampling from the second century corpus, we find that the early Church allowed that regeneration and the fruits of the Spirit have a significant role to play in our justification.
A brief catalogue of second century statements on justification follows, from which it seems difficult to locate the Protestant notion of “faith alone.”
Didache, AD 70. This earliest manual of liturgy and discipline for the church instructs the faithful that “if you earned something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins” through charitable gifts to the poor. (4.5)
Epistle of Barnabus, AD 70-135. This text resounds with a sense of urgency to “make richer and loftier offerings to the Master,” (1) to “be on our guard,” and “to seek out the righteous requirements of the Lord… the things that are able to save us” (2, 4) by means of the virtues which are “our faith’s helpers.” Furthermore, “we ought to give very careful attention to our salvation, lest the evil one should cause some error to slip into our midst and thereby hurl us away from our life.” (2) Several explicit instructions that may be read as running contrary to the theology of both the Lutheran corpus and the Westminster Confession include the injunction to “be on guard… and do not continue to pile up your sins while claiming that your covenant is irrevocably yours,” (4) in light of the fact that the Israelites broke- and then “completely lost”- their own covenant by their presumption. (4) Again, we are told “be on guard in the last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good now… unless we resist the coming stumbling blocks as befits God’s children… do not withdraw within yourselves as though you were already justified, but gather together and seek good.” (4) Shortly following, the epistle speaks of meritorious activity: “each person will receive according to what he has done: if he is good, his righteousness will precede him; if he is evil, the wages of doing evil will go before him. Let us never fall asleep in our sins, as if being called was an excuse to rest, lest the evil ruler gain power us and thrust us out of the Kingdom of the Lord.” (4)
In a similar vein, the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians (AD 95) presents strikingly conditional language with regard to justification:
He who raised Christ from the dead will raise us also if we do His will and follow His commandments and love the things He loved, while avoiding every kind of unrighteousness…if we please Him in this present world, we will receive the world to come as well, inasmuch as He promised to raise us from the dead, if we prove to be citizens worthy of Him… if we continue to believe. (2,5)
It should be no small thing that tradition holds that Polycarp was instructed and formed in the Christian faith by the apostle John, who walked with Jesus.
Significantly, the Epistle of Barnabus also speaks (in language that would make Reformers such as Luther cringe) of “the new Law of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2) This new law “has its offering, one not made by man.” (2) Expounding on a theology of ontological re-creation rather than imputed justification, the Epistle continues that
We are cleansed by the forgiveness of sins, that is, by Christ’s blood… (5) so, since he renewed us by the forgiveness of sins, he made us persons of another type, so that we should have the soul of children, as if he were creating us all over again…He made a second creation in the last days. (6)
The author refers to the exemplary faith of Abraham and to his covenant with God, and describes God’s covenant in terms of circumcision and commandments in the Old Dispensation, and in terms of an “implanted gift” in the New; (9) Christ redeems us “so that He might establish a covenant in us by His word.” (14) Consequently, the transformed redeemed are given “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (14, quoting Isaiah 42) because God Himself dwells within His people after the advent of Christ. (16) Again, the emphasis seems to fall on ontological re-creation rather than imputed justification. This theme is echoed in later documents of the same period; for instance, The Shepherd of Hermas (AD 165) requires that the transformation of the person for salvation goes beyond the transformation of behavior to the ontological alteration of the heart itself.
I Clement, AD 95. Lastly, Clement’s Letter to the Romans from AD 95 provides another description of Christian justification from the earliest extant Christian documents outside of the New Testament. Having reminded the audience immediately that Christians must “fix their eyes on the blood of Christ… poured out for our salvation, (which) won for the whole world the grace of repentance,” (7) the author turns to the faith with which Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Taken in juxtaposition with Protestant statements, we note that the author explains that Abraham was found faithful not merely because of a declaration and imputation of alien righteousness, but “because he became obedient to the words of God” in leaving his homeland and in “showing hospitality.” (10) In the same way, Lot and Rahab were saved “because of faith and hospitality.” (11-12)
I Clement does speak of the juridical bond which our hope in Christ establishes between our souls and the God who is faithful to His promises (27), and also declares clearly that “we are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or works which we have done, but through faith, by which the almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning.” (32) However, the author also insists that “we are justified by works and not by words.” (30) In fact, the author urges the faithful to works of righteousness because good works “adorn” the righteous doer, and because God Himself rejoices in His own good works; furthermore, Christians must perform good works because “the Lord comes and His reward is with Him, to pay each one according to His work.” (34, quoting Revelation 22) The author concludes: “let us therefore make every effort to be found in the number of those who patiently wait for him, so that we may share in His promised gifts.” (35) Christ is thus not only the “Helper of our weaknesses,” He is also described as the “High Priest of our own offerings.” (36)
It is at this point that the author highlights the most glorious fruit of the Holy Spirit that was perhaps neglected in the solely juridical considerations of the high Reformation: for the author of I Clement, the effective “bond” that joins the redeemed to God for ultimate salvation is not one of faith, but of love; “love unites us with God… in love all the elect of God are made perfect. Without love nothing is pleasing to God. In love the Master received us.” (50) In the description of this text, it is ultimately neither the juridically justified nor the ontologically sanctified as categorically separate classes who enter Heaven; rather, it is “those who by God’s grace are perfected in love (who) have a place among the godly, who will be revealed when the Kingdom of Christ visits us.” (50) In the end, I Clement points Christians beyond the Reformation's denials of the Catholic synthesis of faith that merits salvation in works of love by means of these words:
Blessed are we, dear friends, if we continue to keep God’s commandments in the harmony of love, that our sins may be forgiven us through love. Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sins are covered. (50)
The author of I Clement seems to remind those in discussion about Christian justification that it is God’s love, rather than His legal fiction, which is given to “cover a multitude of sins.”