Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Faith and Works in the ECFs

One popular way of reconciling justification by faith with judgment by works is to appeal to Augustine's double-justification scheme, whereby at conversion we are justified by faith then live subsequent spirit-empowered lives of holiness and are at the final judgment judged on our deeds.

My own interest lies in the pre-Nicene Fathers' theology, rather than Augustine's (which is very different on most issues). Offhand, I cannot think of any evidence in any of the pre-Nicene writers to suggest they held to Augustine's double-justification scheme. So how do the pre-Nicene writers reconcile faith and works? Unfortunately that's not a question that's very easy to answer.

Universally in pre-Nicene writers, a strong belief in a final and eternal judgment by works is attested to. It is stated multiple times in most surviving documents and never denied. It is listed time and again as one of the major and basic tenets of Christianity.

Mention of justification by faith however is quite erratic. It is generally not mentioned very often. The Shepherd of Hermas, the longest document of the Apostolic Fathers, is all about judgment by works and just doesn't mention faith. Justin Martyr time and again repeats there will be a final judgment according to our good or bad deeds, and then just occasionally uses the word "faith" where one has come to expect him to say "works". First Clement emphasizes the importance of good works and how a doctrine of final judgment by works is to be taught to Christian children.

The majority of writers of this period follow Justin Martyr's style: Most of the time a final judgment by works is heavily emphasized, but on random occasion this will be swapped with justification by faith without warning, as if there was no substantial difference between the two. This leads me to believe that by and large the ECFs saw them as in some way virtually equivalent or synonymous (the alternative thesis being that they just had no clue about how to reconcile faith and works so swapped arbitrarily between them in a cognitively dissonant way).

The theory that seems to me to make most sense out of what they say, is to see faithfulness as the underlying heart attitude which works flow from and that God judges our heart not our actions per se. Thus they can talk about the doing of good deeds, having the right heart, being a good person, and being faithful to God interchangeably as ways of speaking about the heart and character of a person which is what God judges.

Another line of evidence to follow is that there is to some degree a clear demarcation between those who only talk about works, and those who use "faith" regularly. Now if you are willing to hypothetically consider an opposition between Paul and James within the New Testament on the subject of faith vs works, you could potentially construe the second century writers as following one or the other of these traditions and thus see a serious rift dividing the Christian theology of the second century into two camps. (The division within the second century documents is even more severe than what is found within the NT.) But there is no documentary evidence that Christians in the second century ever got into any arguments with each other on faith vs works issues, no suggestion that any such lines were drawn within orthodoxy. Furthermore, the group of writers who do use 'faith' terminology also use works terminology regularly. But if we want to deny any massive rift within orthodoxy, we have to really conclude that the theology of the authors that didn't use the word faith is substantially identical to the theology of the authors that do. Therefore, we'd want to conclude: Whatever the authors using the word faith meant by it, their ideas and theology could be expressed in language that talked about works without substantial loss of meaning. In other words, we'd conclude that faith and works have some sort of pretty compatible and substantially similar meaning.

So, when I read scholarly word studies about how pistis ("faith") was actually used in ancient times and find them concluding that it generally meant things like loyal obedience and faithfulness, I'm inclined to think "case closed, problem solved: 'faith' when you translate it right means something pretty synonymous with works, and that's why the pre-Nicene Fathers are generally happy to swap between them or use one or the other."


Blogger Pontificator said...

Thank you for this article. A couple of comments. Unfortunately, most of my justification library, including McGrath's Iustia Dei are packed away in boxes, still waiting to be unpacked after our recent move, so I am forced to speak out of memory and ignorance.

I am confident that you are correct that the Church Fathers universally taught a final judgment by works. If there are any exceptions, I would love for someone to point them out to me.

I am confident that the Church Fathers understood salvation as a process, beginning with conversion/baptism and concluding in final justification and glorification. What I do not know is how many would have specified the beginning of this process as one of justification, as Augustine did. But I do believe, though I am certainly open a this point to contrary evidence, that even if the Fathers did not explicitly speak of initial justification, the notion was certainly present, though perhaps expressed in other terms--e.g., forgiveness of sins, regeneration in the Spirit, adoption as sons, incorporation into the body of Christ and therefore incorporation into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I am also fairly confident that the notion of imputational righteousness is not to be found in the Church Fathers.

Hence I am skeptical of the suggestion that Augustine's presentation of justification, which you call one of double justification, represents a significant departure from the tradition that he inherited. We do see in Augustine a cleaning up of the Western employment of merit, but I think that the underlying salvific model is one that he shared with most (all?) the Fathers that preceded him.

At least, that is my hypothesis.

Blogger Andrew said...

I agree with virtually all your comments here Pontificator. I have no quibble whatsoever with the systematic theology you give.

The issue only concerns the terminology of the words "justification" and "faith". ie Is faith something significantly different to works, or substantially similar? Because the common route of many recent scholars is to say that:
1) faith means belief, and hence faith and works are not substantially similar
2) "justification by faith" is hence an event that happens at conversion, whereby we come to faith (belief) in God and Christ and that thereby we are justified (either instantly or progressively).
3) When we die and are judged by our works, not our faith.

That terminology clearly cordons off faith from works, and connects faith with justification and conversion, and separates that from the final judgment which is about works. It is that which I don't see evidence for in the pre-Nicene writers, and everyone says it is Augustine's system.

The idea that after conversion we are forgiven, sanctified, and eventually pass a final judgment by works is something everyone seems to agree on. The question is only about what the phrase "justification by faith" means in the context of that systematic theology. Most people who have studied the issue want to make it equivalent to the "at conversion we are forgiven" part of the system and keep it firmly away from the "final judgment by works" part in the belief that the two are not compatible, whereas I prefer to distribute it over the whole system and say its a principle that underlies the whole system - that what underlies conversion, sanctification, and final judgment is our faithfulness to God and faithful obedience to his will and that this is what leads God to forgive our sins at conversion and count us righteous at the judgment and that thus 'faith' is in every way compatible with works.

The argument is mainly about interpreting what was in Paul's head and what he meant when he wrote the phrase "justification by faith". If you say it means the conversion event only (or, a process that starts at conversion but ends before final judgment), as many scholars seem to want to do, then it seems to me you start losing coherency in your theological system: You've got to invent some other premise to try to hold it all together. NT Wright for example does this by redefining 'justification' as "becoming part of the church", and VanLandingham does it by redefining 'justification by faith' effectively as "repentance and forgiveness". Such attempts seem ad hoc and unwarranted.

I have yet to see a way of limiting justification by faith to conversion that doesn't mess up the rest of the systematic theology and require arbitrary ideas to be added to fix it up, and I am also skeptical of idea that faith and works are antithetical, and I see evidence for neither of these two ideas in the pre-Nicenes.

Blogger Pontificator said...

Andrew, perhaps the reason why you do not have any quibbles with my theological understanding of justification is because I have not yet fully presented it. :-)

I do think we need to make a distinction between what St Paul thought about justification by faith and the Church's doctrine of justification. I do not believe that the latter is a simple reiteration of the former, as it seems to me that different concerns and questions may have been driving, e.g., St Paul and St Augustine. Nor is it clear to me that Paul himself has a clear systematic understanding of justification. If it were clear, surely the scholarly consensus would be stronger, yet scholars disagree emphatically, with equal conviction.

I am not a biblical scholar. I do not read Greek, and so I am dependent upon English translations and all the conflicting opinions of the scholars. But I have long believed that the heart of Paul's soteriology is union with Christ. I know, though, that this is a controversial point and am willing to concede, if pressed, that I may be reading Paul through the theosis-lens of the Eastern Fathers, which to my mind is not a bad way to read him. I also believe that justification in Augustine is also connected to theosis:

"It is clear that He calls men gods through their being deified by His grace and not born of His substance. For He justifies, who is just of Himself and not of another; and He deifies, who is God of Himself and not by participation in another. Now He who justifies, Himself deifies, because by justifying He makes sons of God. For to them gave He power to become the sons of God. If we are made sons of God, we are also made gods; but this is by grace of adoption, and not by generation" (Ennar. In Ps. 49.2).

This is one reason why I find the Reformed preoccupation with forensic imputation unbiblical and implausible. I understand why forensic imputation was invented in the 16th century, but I not believe that it represents a faithful exegesis of Paul or the New Testament.

I also appreciate Wright's ecclesiological reading of justification in Paul. It chimes in nicely with the patristic insistence that salvation is found within the Church. This patristic claim can only be true if the Church is the Body of Christ constituted by the eucharistic body and blood of Christ.

Wright's interpretation at least has the benefit of connecting Paul's discussion of justification by faith with the critical question of the apostolic Church, viz., the status of Gentiles within the New Covenant community. I do not know if Wright's interpretation of justification will prove adequate in the end, but I think that he (and others) have at least forced most Pauline scholars to acknowledge that the old confessional Protestant exegesis of Paul is anachronistic and ahistorical. If scholars would stop worrying about whether Wright's (or Dunn's or Sanders's) interpretation of Paul accords with the Westminster Confession, or whatever confession, and simply do their best to understand Paul within his historical context, we will all be better off.

But I am rambling. I appreciate your efforts, Andrew, to force us to ask, What did Paul really teach about justification?

My own incoherent reflections on justification can be found at my old blog site Pontifications.


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