A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification as opposed to its mode must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum." (Alister McGrath - Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Vol. I. .....Pg. 186)
The point being made by this quote via Catholic apologists is that the Protestant understanding of justification was unknown in church history previous to the Reformation. Further, it is not a Roman Catholic saying this, it is Alister McGrath, a well respected Protestant theologian. The argument also implicitly assumes the Roman Church has always taught the same thing on justification. This similar quote was cited by another Roman apologist:
Whereas Augustine taught that the sinner is made righteous in justification, Melanchthon taught that he is counted as righteous or pronounced to be righteous. For Augustine, 'justifying righteousness' is imparted; for Melanchthon, it is imputed in the sense of being declared or pronounced to be righteous. Melanchthon drew a sharp distinction between the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous, designating the former 'justification' and the latter 'sanctification' or 'regeneration.' For Augustine, these were simply different aspects of the same thing . . . The importance of this development lies in the fact that it marks a complete break with the teaching of the church up to that point. From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous. Melanchthon's concept of forensic justification diverged radically from this. As it was taken up by virtually all the major reformers subsequently, it came to represent a standard difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic from then on. In addition to differences regarding how the sinner was justified, there was now an additional disagreement on what the word 'justification' designated in the first place. The Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church's definitive response to the Protestant challenge, reaffirmed the views of Augustine on the nature of justification, and censured the views of Melanchthon as woefully inadequate . . . the concept of forensic justification actually represents a development in Luther's thought . . . .(Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993, 108-109; emphasis in original)
Note what the quote said, "From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous."
There are a few things that should be pointed out about Alister McGrath and his explanation of Augustine and justification, which I'd like to reference from Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. This book is his magnum opus on the topic of justification.
Historically, one can make a case that Augustine didn't know Greek and the entire direction of the Church was redirected away from what the Bible means by justification. Commenting on a point made by Alister McGrath, R.C. Sproul notes, “McGrath sees Augustine’s treatment of justification as pivotal to the subsequent development of the doctrine of justification in the Roman Catholic Church..." Sproul then quotes Mcgrath:
Augustine understands the verb iustificare to mean ‘to make righteous,’ an understanding of the term which he appears to have held throughout his working life. In arriving at this understanding, he appears to have interpreted -ficare as the unstressed form of facere, by analogy with vivificare and mortificare. Although this is a permissible interpretation of the Latin word, it is unacceptable as an interpretation of the Hebrew concept which underlies it. [R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone : The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, (Grand Rapids: Baker books, 1999), 99].In other words, McGrath is saying that Augustine misunderstood the term justification. He used it in its Latin sense, not in a Hebrew sense. Since he didn't know Greek, how could Augustine arrive at an accurate interpretation? McGrath goes onto say:
The term iustificare is, or course, post-classical, having been introduced through the Latin translation of the bible, and thus restricted to Christian writers of the Latin west. Augustine was thus unable to turn to classical authors in an effort to clarrify its meraning, and was thus obliged to interpret the term himself. His establishment of a relationship between iustificare and iustitia is of enormous significance, as will become clear[Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 31].McGrath also points out:
[For Augustine]...[t]he righteousness which man thus receives, although originating from God, is nevertheless located within man, and can be said to be his, part of his being and intrinsic to his person. An element which underlies this understanding of the nature of justifying righteousness is the Greek concept of deification, which makes its appearance in the later Augustinian soteriology [Ibid, 31-32].McGrath notes in his introduction,
As we begin our study of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification, it is necessary to observe that the early theologians of the western church were dependent upon Latin versions of the Bible, and approached their texts and their subject with a set of presuppositions which owed more to the Latin language and culture than to Christianity itself. The initial transference of a Hebrew concept to a Greek, and subsequently to a Latin, context point to a fundamental alteration in the concept of 'justification' and 'righteousness' as the gospel spread from its Palestinian source to the western world [Ibid, 15].What conclusions can be made?
First, one must wonder about unquestioned Roman Catholic allegiance to Augustine’s understanding of the term justification. They’re putting all their chips with a guy who didn’t know Hebrew (or Greek on level needed to do Biblical exegesis), and simply used private interpretation to arrive at his etymological understanding.
Second, was Augustine’s view a “theological novum” (a favorite phrase Roman Catholics culled from McGrath)? Who previous to Augustine understood the term the way he did? Consider what McGrath notes: "The pre-Augustinian theological tradition, however, may be regarded as having taken a highly questionable path in its articulation of the doctrine of justification in the face of pagan opposition" [ibid. 18-19]. McGrath mentions that "For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate and ill-defined"[ Ibid. 23]. So, where is Augustine's view in the early church?
Third, McGrath notes that "...Tertullian has frequently been singled out as the thinker who shackled the theology of the western church to a theology of 'works' and 'merit'..." but notes the blame for this is probably due to the "Latin language itself" [Ibid. 14]. In other words, the concept of merit that means "to be worthy of something" is a Latin meaning, not a Greek meaning. This concept was linked to the word iustitia previous to Augustine. On what basis does a Roman Catholic pick Augustine as interpreting the Bible correctly, rather than the pre-Augustinian theology?
Fourth, that there was a great ambiguity as to what exactly "justification" was even at Trent is documented by Alister McGrath:"The Council of Trent was faced with a group of formidable problems as it assembled to debate the question of justification in June 1546. The medieval period had witnessed the emergence of a number of quite distinct schools of thought on justification, clearly incompatible at points, all of which could lay claim to represent the teaching of the Catholic church." [Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 259)]. McGrath goes on to point out "...[T]here was considerable disagreement in the immediate post-Tridentine period concerning the precise interpretation of the decretum de iustificatione" [ibid. 268]. In other words, even after Trent made its decree on Justification, Catholics were confused as to how to interpret it!
Fifth, one must question the infallibility of Trent who "reaffirmed" Augustine's view, when Augustine put forth a misinterpretation of a Hebrew concept, and also put forth a "theological novum".
Sixth, there is also the problem of Roman Catholic apologetic double standards. The Roman Catholic apologists assume Trent was following the tradition of the church, and there was no teaching of “faith alone” previous to Luther. In other words, Luther invented “justification by faith alone”. It didn’t exist until Luther. It can’t be verified in church history. It can’t be true. On the other hand, when the same historical standard is applied to certain Roman Catholic dogmas, like Mary’s Bodily Assumption, Purgatory, Indulgences, etc., this same historical standard is swept under the rug and hidden. One has to seriously question why a standard that Catholic apologists hold Protestants to is not likewise applied to their own beliefs. Wade through the corridors of church history and search for the threads of all Roman Catholic dogma. One falls flat of linking many of them back to the early church, or in some instances, even the Bible.
Now some of you may think that all I've done here is point out this historical debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants is at a standstill. This might sound shocking, but in my opinion, it really ultimately doesn't matter if I were to conclude that sola fide finds no support in any of the Early Church Fathers. Sola Fide is based on grammatical and exegetical work on the Biblical text, not on the testimony of history. In speaking of the word iustificari, McGrath notes: "...[I]t would appear that the Greek verb has the primary sense of being considered or estimated as righteous, whereas the Latin verb denotes being righteous, the reason why one is considered righteous by others. Although the two are clearly related, they have quite distinct points of reference" [Ibid. 15].