Alister McGrath on Augustine and Justification
The Alleged Roman Catholic Tradition on 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.
There is a major problem of Catholic apologetic double standards in this type of argument. 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.
Even more troubling is the double standard of the Roman Catholic usage of McGrath’s book Iustitia Dei. 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]. And also, “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” .
Apolonio Latar, a Roman Catholic whom I mentioned in this series, provided some blog-back counter-responses to the points I made in the above two links. I would like to take a closer look at his points, and provide some brief counter-responses.
Apolonio Latar stated:
“The passage you quoted says that there is discontinuity between the reformer's understanding of justification with that of the western tradition (the west followed Augustine). That's why he calls it a theological novum and "new understanding."
McGrath shows that the Reformers demonstrated both continuity and discontinuity with the period which immediately preceded it, and he notes this is true of “all periods in the history of doctrine”. .McGrath notes “The protestant understanding of the nature of justification represents a theological novum, whereas its understanding of its mode does not” (184). Note there are two aspects to McGrath’s point: nature and mode. One aspect was a discontinuity, the other continuity. If one is to use McGrath’s insight, at least use it correctly. Be willing to put forth the actual position he presents.
Apolonio Latar stated:
“Infused righteousness and imputed righteousness are contradictory aren't they? So if they are, then that shows that the reformers contradicted the Fathers.”
Be sure to understand the Reformation position as put forth by McGrath when he explains the distinction between justification and regeneration: “Although it must be emphasized that this distinction is purely notional, in that it is impossible to separate the two within the context of the ordo salutis, the essential point is that a notional distinction is made where none had been acknowledged before in the history of Christian doctrine” (186). Keep in mind, the “history of Christian doctrine” is that period begun by Augustine. Note especially the first part of McGrath’s statement above. Protestant theology does not deny sanctification. It is impossible to separate it from justification. The two are linked together in such a way that it is impossible to have one without the other. For a helpful look at the Reformers view on the relationship between justification and sanctification see the article by William Webster:
The Reformers on the Necessity for Repentance and Sanctification
A Refutation of the Misrepresentations of the Teaching of the Reformation by Roman Catholic Apologists
Apolonio Latar stated:
“…you made the argument about justification prior or Augustine. I have two responses. First, my argument was not from silence or "absence" of the teaching. My argument was that the tradition clearly ***contradicts*** the reformers' understanding of justification.”
If you would concede your “tradition” begins with Augustine, then I would agree (as McGrath says) the Reformation period has both continuity and discontinuity with the period which immediately preceded it. But, this doesn’t in any way historically validate the Roman Catholic position on justifiaction. Your position has not escaped your own charge of theological “novum”.
Apolonio Latar stated:
“Two, there *is* development in Augustine just like there was development with the doctrine on hypostatic union, using Greek terminology. In the East, we have the doctrine of deification: "And we have learned that those only are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue; and we believe that those who live wickedly and do not repent are punished in everlasting fire" (Justin Martyr, Apology 1 ch. 21). Deification in Eastern theology is a process (see also Gregory of Nyssa's epektasis doctrine).”
Indeed, there is development in Augustine, even within his own lifetime. McGrath states: “It is important to appreciate that Augustine’s doctrine of justification underwent significant development” (p.24). McGrath doesn’t mean “development of Western Tradition”, McGrath means development of Augustine himself! McGrath notes that Augustine’s earlier position on the freedom of the will later met his condemnation. This subsequently changed the way he understood justification. In other words, if a “tradition” on the interpretation of justification existed previous to Augustine, why did his position on it need to develop? How could the church not have an understanding of justification?
In regard to deification, McGrath states "[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].
Next Apolonio Latar quoted a few Church fathers. Recall, I mentioned that 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]. Despite this, Apolonio quotes Fathers. One has to question Apolonio’s reasoning here. Is he saying McGrath is mistaken? Is Latar able to navigate a path from Augustine back to the 1st Century? Do the citations he uses prove that dikaioo ("to justify") means "to make one righteous" ? No the citations do not.
His first citations are from Clement’s Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians (chapter 48 and 30). In the passages Apolonio uses, Clement exhorts the Corinthians to root out sin in their lives and church. Missing is any discussion of Paul’s understanding of Justification.
That being said, In chapter 32, Clement excludes works from the gospel, including: “…works done through ourselves, or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we have done in holiness of heart”. Clement notes we have been called through God’s will in Christ Jesus “through faith, by which the almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning…” Then, Clement continues in chapter 33 to encourage his readers to do the works he had just excluded from the gospel: “What shall we do, brothers? Shall we idly abstain from doing good, and forsake love? May the Master never allow this to happen…. Let us hasten with earnestness and zeal to accomplish every good work.”
Jason Engwer provides an excellent synopsis of Clement point on faith and works:
“Clement, a first century Roman bishop, wrote that we're saved through faith, apart from works. He excludes all works, even "works that we have done in holiness of heart" (First Clement, 32). Just after excluding works from the gospel, he goes on to encourage Christians to do those works he had just excluded. Thus, it can't be argued that he was only excluding bad works, graceless works, faithless works, etc. He was excluding all works, including good works…”
“For a Roman bishop to advocate salvation through faith alone has devastating implications for Roman Catholicism. Thus, Roman Catholics have put forward various arguments in an attempt to prove that Clement didn't advocate the doctrine.
For example, it's sometimes argued that Clement was only excluding works we do in our own strength, not works God empowers us to do… Clement encourages people to do works "with all our strength". In the previous chapter, he had excluded from the gospel works "done in holiness of heart", which can only be good works. Therefore, this popular argument used to reconcile Clement with Roman Catholicism fails.”
Next Apolonio Latar quotes Cyprian: “The remedies for propitiating God are given in the words of God Himself; the divine instructions have taught what sinners ought to do, that by works of righteousness God is satisfied, that with the deserts of mercy sins are cleansed. (Treatise 8)”
Is Cyprian discussing what Paul means by “righteousness”? No. Neither do we find any discussion of what Paul meant by the term “justification.” Cyprian doesn’t even discuss “infused righteousness.” Treatise VIII simply points out that if you commit sin, you’d better be doing “good works” to restore yourself. Cyprian repeatedly says sins after baptism are purged by almsgiving and works of mercy. These are the “works of righteousness.” Note, the “righteousness” being discussed here is not the “righteousness” that concerned Augustine and Luther.
Interestingly, Cyprian’s view on baptism was in flux throughout his career. He held that mortal sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven. Later, he said that deathbed repentance could be sufficient in such a case. So much for Cyprian knowing what the “clear” relationship on baptism and forgiveness was. Add to this Cyprian’s other opinions on the “Traditions” of the church, like his interpretation of Matthew 16 and his understanding of transubstantiation. I would be hesitant if I were Roman Catholic to cite him on just what an actual infallible Tradition is. Further, Cyprian argued that certain baptisms by the lapsed were invalid. Augustine disagreed.
Next Apolonio Latar quotes Ambrose:
Duties of the Clergy, Book 1, 11.39 - "Further, he bestows more on thee than thou on him, since he is thy debtor in regard to thy salvation. If thou clothe the naked, thou clothest thyself with righteousness; if thou bring the stranger under thy roof, if thou support the needy, he procures for thee the friendship of the saints and eternal habitations. That is no small recompense. Thou sowest earthly things and receivest heavenly... Not again is nay one more blessed than he who is sensible to the needs of the poor, and the hardships of the weak and helpless. In the day of judgment he will receive salvation from the Lord. Whom he will have as his debtor for the mercy he has shown (NPNP2, vol. 10, p. 7).
I’m guessing the key phrase Latar wants me to see is “If thou clothe the naked, thou clothest thyself with righteousness”. Well, Is Ambrose discussing what Paul means by “righteousness”? No. Neither do we find any discussion of what Paul meant by the term “justification.” Note that for Ambrose, the “righteousness” given is received in Heaven:
(58)….“Paul writes well; He says: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing." "In that day," he says, He will give it-not here. Here he fought, in labours, in dangers, in shipwrecks, like a good wrestler; for he knew how that "through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God." Therefore no one can receive a reward, unless he has striven lawfully; nor is the victory a glorious one, unless the contest also has been toilsome.”
Ambrose later says, “In our works, then, if they are evil, there appears unrighteousness; if they are good, justice.”
In his concluding comment, Apolonio Latar stated of these quotes from Clement, Cyprian, and Ambrose:
“Now, did they use the same terminology? No, but it can be seen that they *do* speak of becoming holy and that's the only way to be saved. They ddi not make a radical distinction between justification and sanctification. Now, Augustine simply said things more precisely just as Athanasius said things more precisely and better than others.”
Is this Latar’s private opinion, or an official statement from the Roman Catholic Church? Have they stated that Clement, Cyprian, and Ambrose were saying the same thing as Augustine, but Augustine was saying it “more precisely”? Or, are the Church Fathers quoted by Latar saying different things? Indeed, Clement is saying something much different than both Cyprian and Ambrose.
Is Latar saying that McGrath is wrong in his opinion on the theological understanding of justification previous to Augustine? Or, is it the fact that the fathers were not discussing what the terms justification and righteousness meant in the Pauline corpus? Why does Latar see Cyprian and Ambrose as not saying something similar to that espoused in more detail later by Pelagius?
Of course, Latar is welcome to respond. I would prefer he stick with McGrath’s book, or simply concede he used it inapropriately, or at least admit a double standard as I’ve outlined does indeed exist. We could probably quibble over church fathers indefinately. As i've mentioned previously, 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" .