Previously, I addressed Roman Catholic citations of Alister McGrath’s book Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. In their usage of this book, they attempt to show that that the protestant understanding of justification was unknown in church history previous to the Reformation. Further, this “fact” is supposed to “prove” that the Reformers deviated from the historical Catholic understanding of justification. Implied in this argument is the proposition that the Roman Catholic Church received their understanding of Justification from the Apostles, and subsequent Church history records the passing on of its understanding to the Church Fathers, and then ultimately to its dogmatic proclamation at the Council of Trent.
McGrath’s book is cited because he says:
“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 [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 186-187].
A key phrase in the above quote is “western theological tradition”. What does McGrath mean by this? I would assume Roman Catholics think it means their “tradition”- that is, the Roman Catholic Church received their understanding of Justification from the Apostles, and subsequent Church history records the passing on of its understanding to the Church Fathers. Luther then came along “out of the blue” and proclaimed sola fide, quite against the "apostolic tradition."
For instance, our recent Roman Catholic visitor Apolonio Latar says of the McGrath quote:
“We also have to note that this doctrine of Sola fide is not an apostolic tradition. We have a Protestant scholar has admitted that Sola fide is not an apostolic tradition.”
I wonder if Latar has actually read McGrath’s book. McGrath implies no such thing. McGrath begins his book by studying the Pre-Augustinian “tradition”. He states of this period that "For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate and ill-defined" [Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 23].
McGrath says of this period:
“The history of early Christian doctrine is basically the history of the emergence of the Christological and Trinitarian dogmas. Whilst the importance of soteriological considerations, both in the motivation of the development of early Christian doctrine and as a normative principle during the course of that development, is generally conceded, it is equally evident that the early Christian writers did not choose to express their soteriological convictions in terms of the concept of justification. This is not to say that the fathers avoid the term 'justification': their interest in the concept is, however, minimal, and the term generally occurs in their writings as a direct citation from, or a recognisable allusion to, the epistles of Paul, generally employed for some purpose other than a discussion of the concept of justification itself. Furthermore, the few occasions upon which a specific discussion of justification can be found generally involve no interpretation of the matter other than a mere paraphrase of a Pauline statement. Justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition. The emerging patristic understanding of matters such as predestination, grace and free will is somewhat confused, and would remain so until controversy forced a full discussion of the issue upon the church. Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalisms of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil. It is with the Latin fathers that we observe the beginnings of speculation on the nature of original sin and corruption, and the implications which thismay have for man's moral faculties.
'It has always been a puzzling fact that Paul meant so relatively little for the thinking of the church during the first 350 years of its history. To be sure, he is honored and quoted, but - in the theological perspective of the west - it seems that Paul's great insight into justification by faith was forgotten.'” [Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 19].
Far from denying Justification by faith as an apostolic teaching, McGrath notes the early church never discusses in any detail what Justification means, and then he posits (via a quote) that the church “forgot” Paul’s teaching for 350 years! Now, is McGrath concluding that Augustine came along and set the record straight on the Biblical term “justification”? No, he’s not, and my previous entry documents this.
Latar has read into McGrath what he wants him to say. There is no unified “Tradition” of the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of Justification that can be historically linked back to Paul via the Church Fathers. Nor does McGrath state this. What McGrath’s book does is record the church’s struggle to understand the biblical term “Justification.” McGrath never posits a unified Roman Catholic Church “tradition” that emerges from the Apostles.
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].
Roman Catholics: be careful which books you cite to prove your case. Ask yourself, Why would Alister McGrath want to defend your church? McGrath is not a Catholic scholar, nor is he a liberal scholar. Read a text for what it says, not what you want it to say.
So what of McGrath's "theological novum" statement? After he said this, McGrath goes on to say in in the very next paragraph:
"Like all periods in the history of doctrine, the Reformation demonstrates both continuity and discontinuity with the period which immediately preceded it. Chief among these discontinuities is the new understanding of the nature of justification, whereas there are clearly extensive areas of continuity with the late medieval theological movement as a whole, or well-defined sections of the movement, in relation to other aspects of the doctrine, as noted above. That there are no 'Forerunners of the Reformation doctrines of justification' has little theological significance today, given current thinking on the nature of the development of doctrine, which renders Bossuet's static model, on which he based his critique of Protestantism, obsolete. Nevertheless, the historical aspects of the question Continue to have relevance. For what reasons did the Reformers abandon the catholic consensus on the nature of justification? We shall discuss this matter in our study of the development of the doctrine from the Reformation to the present day." [Ibid.187].