Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pre-Nicene Salvation By Effort

A key component of pre-Nicene Christian theology was a strong emphasis on human effort required to live virtuous lives and be saved. Christianity worldwide in the second and third centuries was a religion that put the strongest possible emphasis on the freedom of the will and the need to make an effort to live righteous lives in order to pass God's final eternal judgment that would be according to works. I find it fascinating how Christianity has changed over the centuries and how many modern Christians are precisely against the very doctrines that were originally considered the foundations stones of Christianity.

The following two ancient quotes capture the typical view nicely:
"Man was not created perfect, but created suitable for acquiring virtue... For God desires us to be saved by our own efforts." -Clement of Alexandria, ~200AD, Stromata 6.12.96

"I do not know if these commandments can be kept by man, because they are exceeding hard." [The Angel became extremely angry] and said to me, "If you lay it down as certain that they can be kept, then you will easily keep them, and they will not be hard. But if you come to imagine that they cannot be kept by man, then you will not keep them. Now I say to you, If you do not keep them, but neglect them, you will not be saved, nor your children, nor your house, since you have already determined for yourself that these commandments cannot be kept by man." -Shepherd of Hermas, ~150AD, Commandment 12.3-4


Blogger Mikey said...

I was just wondering how early church father's writtings can out weigh cannon. I beleive they are to be read, and understood, yet shouldn't they be viewed through a lense of the life and words of Jesus, and epsitles of the earliest followers; Peter, Paul etc.

Blogger Andrew said...

If someone has an interpretation of the New Testament which places the NT in direct opposition to the beliefs on the Christians throughout the world from 100-300+ AD then it's a pretty sure sign that that person's interpretation is wrong. (Unless they can explain why Christianity across the world instantaneously changed its entire nature at about 100AD)

Conservative Protestants have a tendency to try to ignore history and simply say "the NT alone is what counts" and then proceed to give an interpretation of the NT that is utterly at odds with the doctrine that is attested as standard Christian doctrine in the centuries following the NT. Whereas if you study the history of the church as I have, you see how doctrines slowly changed over the centuries, and see the historical circumstances which lead to modern conservative protestants having the doctrines they do.

Blogger squeezebox said...

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, 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; to whom be glory for ever and ever. -First epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

Blogger Andrew said...

1 Clement is choc-full of exhortations to moral effort and talk of a works-based judgment - the author writes that we are "justifed by works" (30:3) among his numerous comments to that effect.

"in [1] Clement the doctrine of justification by faith is interpreted to mean justification by works." (Rashdall, The Idea of the Atonement in Christian Theology, pg 196)

The section quoted by squeezebox is part of a section in the letter where the author is particularly heavy in his emphasis that God rewards good deeds and that we should do them. The author brings up Abraham as an example for us to imitate and starts waxing lyrical about the degree to which Abraham's goodness was rewarded immensely by God. He says that God blessed Abraham due to Abraham's goodness making him a promise about his descendants. Out of faithfulness to his promise to Abraham, God made Abraham's descendants a great nation and they were "glorified and magnified, not through themselves or the righteous actions that they did, but through his [God's] will" (32:3) all as part of God's reward to Abraham for Abraham's goodness. He then comments that we ourselves are likewise justified by God's faithfulness to Abraham (or possibly, God's faithfulness to Christ) in the section quoted above by squeezebox.

Upon finishing that excursion on the rewards given to Abraham the author launches in the next sentence back into his moral exhortation which climaxes two pages later with:
"Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those who wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised gifts. But how, beloved, shall this be done? If our understanding be fixed by faith rewards God; if we earnestly seek the things which are pleasing and acceptable to Him; if we do the things which are in harmony with His blameless will; and if we follow the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity, along with all covetousness, strife, evil practices, deceit, whispering, and evil-speaking, all hatred of God, pride and haughtiness, vainglory and ambition. For they that do such things are hateful to God; and not only they that do them, but also those who take pleasure in those who do them." (1 Clem 35:4-5)

And then the rest of the letter continues in the same vein - virtually all of 1 Clement's approximately forty pages are moral exhortation to do good works.

Blogger Blackhaw said...

The Church fathers as a whole (if something like that can be said) is probably best characterized by not just moral effort but a cooperation with God after His gracious revelation.

it is not just the effort of man but it is not sola gratia. Well of course salation for the church fathers did not end at justification. Many protestants think of sanctification as part of the Christian life instead of salation proper. The ECFs spoke of deification.

So it is a little more complicated than just comparing apples to apples. B/C it is not.

Blogger Reuben said...

Blackhaw: I agree with you that it is a kind of cooperation with God. Here is how I see it... The way in which the early Christians understood God's help in salvation was Jesus revealed to them the right way to live. This in no way reduces the need for people to choose to live in that way by their own free will.

I think Andrew has accurately pointed out that modern protestant Christianity has placed the onus for our behaviour more on God. It is thought that the transformation of our lives is through his doing and that we need not strive to live in the way Jesus taught, but that we should simply "let the Spirit work in us". I have seen many Christians use that idea as an excuse for not taking seriously the commands of Jesus and the early Christians to have Christ-like character and behaviour. Thus, there is a major difference between early and modern Christians concerning the importance of our own free will and effort in the salvation process.

Quotes like that given by Squeezebox need to be understood in the context of the whole writings of the early Christians. It does little good to look at that quote, interpret it in a way consistent with a preconcieved theology and then use it as a support for that theology. There is no doubt in my mind that the themes Andrew has outlined are far more dominant throughout the Christian writings of the first 3 centuries.

The point I see Clement making in that quote is to emphasise the wisdom, understanding and godliness God revealed through Jesus which God considers righteous; as opposed to all the other competing ideas of wisdom, understanding and godliness that they may have "wrought in holiness of heart", but that were ultimately misguided in God's eyes. He seems to describing the source and authority of the Christian way of life, and not describing the process by which people are transformed into that way of life. Many modern Christians are so used to assuming this kind of language referred to the latter that they fail to recognise the consequences of their pressupposed theologies, in my opinion.

Blogger steve ford said...

I believe that we can harmonize faith and works by a proper understanding of charis (grace). Protestants typically define grace as God's mercy towards sinners. While this is part of a proper understanding of grace, it misses it's most practically aspect; namely, grace, as the enabling power (provided by the Holy Spirit) to do what God commands. The apostle Paul spoke of this aspect of grace when he wrote, "For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace." Yet Paul also makes it clear that we must CHOOSE to "walk (live)in this grace when he wrote, "IF by the Spirit we are putting to death the deed of the body we will live... for as many as are led (choose,"by grace," to follow the leading of) the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God."


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home