Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Response On McGrath's Book Iustitia Dei

Recently I looked at Alister McGrath’s book Iustitia Dei, and Roman Catholic usage of this text:

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” [19].

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”[187]. .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" [15].


Apolonio said...


McGrath in 33-34 as you quoted said that later Augustinian soteriology has the element of deification. So there is certainly development here. The early Fathers before Augustine did not have the categories that we now have, but they certainly were Catholic in the sense that they were synergistic. I don't see why I have to track down how dikaioo is used before Augustine. Let's sake for the sake of the argument that, say, Ambrose was not discussing Paul's use of righteousness. But the context is certainly soteriological. So one cannot avoid the fact that Ambrose was emphasizing on works in his soteriological works. And this is how we see it in the Fathers before (and aftet) Augustine. That was my point. And I think one can clearly see how Augustine's teaching is a continuation and development of that. But when it comes to Protestantism and monergism and imputed righteousness, you see a clear contradiction. My argument is this: The Fathers contradicted the Protestant doctrine on justification. There is no development here.

Of course by using McGrath's book, it does not mean that I agree with everything he says. The purpose of using his work is to show that he believes that there was discontinuity. Now, from that point of view, I developed my *own argument*. Even if Mcgrath argues that Augustine misinterpreted or did not view dikaioo properly, it does not take away the fact that Protestant doctrine is new. How do you get monergism when the Fathers were clearly synergistic?

I also don't see a double standard. Some of the Fathers were *silent* on the Assumption, but did not contradict it.

thanks for the exchange

Apolonio said...

You said,

"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. "

Okay, good. Let us suppose that sola fide is not supported by the Early Church Fathers. But that has not been my contention. It was not simply absent, but contradicted. Now, if they contradict that notion, then you have to say that the early Christians have gone apostate until Luther. If you re-read my responses below, you will see how I anticipated this type of response.

As for McGrath's argument on dikaoo, I would first say that it is ridiculous how we would overemphasize on the meaning of the word without its historical context. If I get the chance, I will try to contact him on this issue rather than say things here.

As for the Fathers, I have already commented on that. But it is interesting how Engwer's "excellent synopsis" simply makes Clement self-contradictory: "Just after excluding works from the gospel, he goes on to encourage Christians to do those works he had just excluded." That's a bad analysis. In ch. 30 he explicitly speaks of being justified by works, then ch. 32 he excludes works, then ch. 33 he includes it. That type of interpretation makes Clement a schizophrenic idiot. If one reads Clement carefully, ch. 32 is speaking of "our own wisdom" works, etc. And by "faith" he does not simply mean an intellectual assent or simply accepting what Jesus has done for you. In fact, he gives the example of Isaac yielding himself to sacrifice. Faith is much broader in Clement's theological context. Faith is participating in God's action in history. The prophets and priests, etc of the Old Testament are honored and considered great because they come from God's will; Clement is clearly synergistic.

Iohannes said...


I do not want to take up much of your time since I know you are very busy, but there is a question your answer to which I would be eager to hear, and which may be relevant to this topic.

How do you understand 2 Cor. 5:21? as part of this: what do you think of NT Wright's reading of the verse, and what do you think of the use of the text by Protestants as a proof for their soteriology? also, does hamartian here mean sin-offering or sin?


FM483 said...

It is interesting that every believer always answers correctly based upon the faith in their heart, but when the mind gets involved confusion sets in. For example, if you ask any believer "When you get to heaven, to whom will your give all credit"? They will always answer "Jesus Christ". But right after saying this, many believers become synergistic in the thinking!

Frank Marron

Apolonio said...


I just skimmed through Wright's article and it's not bad. I'm in the middle of trying to understand the historical context of Paul's letters, read in the eyes of a second temple Jew, so I would rather not express my full opinion here until I am done with my study on that.

But apart from the historical context, one can see that becoming the righteousness of God means participating in the goodness and love of God. Man is now in communio (koinonia) with God which consists of being partakers of God's nature since God has reconciled man to Himself in Christ. Whoever is in Christ is not simply given the name "righteousness" but *is* a new creation.

As for Christ being "sin," I would suggest you read modern Catholic and Protestant theologians on this. You might like Balthasar's view on this. My view, with my limited knowledge on this, is that Christ died on our behalf. God's will is for His Son to become man; it is us who put us there and God did not spare His own Son. Christ did not come to this world with a cross, but we gave it to him; the cross is the incarnation of sin. So Christ assumed our sins, and the Father allowed Him to suffer *as if* He was a sinner.

Iohannes said...

[disclaimer: please do not feel obliged to read the message in full, esp. if you do not have time; with all the quoted passages, it became much longer than I intended]


Thanks for your courteous reply. The reason I asked about this verse in particular is that it yields some insights into the way the Protestants approach the church fathers.

I regret that I do not have time for a discussion at length about this subject, but I would recommend reading Martin Chemnitz's appraisal of the fathers' teaching on justification, which appears in the Loci Theologici. Here are a few selections:

We have made this point regarding the reading of the history of the church so that we might consider how the ancient writers, when they were involved in controversies on other articles of faith, failed to deal with the doctrine of justification carefully and circumspectly. For often, when they were occupied with something else, they made many unfortunate statements that later on gave occasion for a gradual and serious departure from the purity of this article. There are extant a great many imprecise, inadequate, and injudicious statements regarding this article in all of the writers, so that it would be an easy matter to put together a long list.

Chemnitz continues: it is not our purpose to be like Ham, who uncovered his father's shame. Thus we shall not deal with the lapses of those by whose labors we have been aided and whose gray hairs we ought to honor, but we will refer to them only as warnings so that we may be cautioned by their examples to be more careful and diligent in preserving the purity of this doctrine, so that we never give occasion to anyone to follow in these footsteps.

He then categorizes under seven heads what he understands as the main deficiencies in the fathers' treatment of justification. This part is a little too long for me to type out now, but if you would like to read it and cannot track down a copy of the book, please let me know, and I will transcribe the passage on Sunday and send it to you by e-mail. Although aware that I am not to most competent judge in matters like this, I do find his analysis to be very apt.

There is one other selection worth including here:

It is also useful to observe that the ancient writers spoke with the greatest security (as Augustine says)--and most unfortunately--concerning this article when they were engaging in general rhetoric in sermons and homilies, or when they were carrying on a debate with heretical adversaries. But when they were forced to deal with those passages in which we find the sedes doctrinae of the matter, then the actual evidence of the divine revelation convinced them to explain this doctrine more correctly and properly, as we can see in the commentaries of Origen, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, and others.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that sometimes others, sometimes even monks, who had preached at great length on merits and righteousness of works learned the correct understanding of the article of justification, not in their idle contemplations, their sharp disputations, or their rhetorical declamations, but in serious trials, when their conscience was pressed down by a true sense of sin and the wrath of God, as if it had been dragged before His tribunal. For there, as their conscience worriedly looks around and wonders how it can escape the judgment of damnation and stand in the sight of God, it learns to understand Paul's statement in Rom. 3:28.

Thus Anselm and Bonaventura speak entirely differently regarding the article of justification in their disputations than they do in their meditations. There are some lovely statements in the meditations of Augustine and Anselm and in the
Soliloquy of Bonaventura. Bernard also speaks far more fittingly than the others about the article of justification, because he is not carrying on some idle debate but is presenting his conscience before the judgment of God as if it were to state its case, and from this come the most beautiful thoughts. ...

[Quotations from Justification, extracted from the Loci Theologici of Martin Chemnitz, translated J.A.O. Preus, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1985.]

Chemnitz is arguing that the fathers, even individual fathers, do not speak with one voice on the doctrine of justification. Frank's comment about answering from the mind versus from the heart summarizes well what Chemnitz thinks about the fathers. As a reviewer on Amazon put it, Chemnitz holds regarding justification "that in their devotional works the fathers wrote far more correctly than they did in their philosophical works."

As a concrete example of this, I would point to Chrysostom's eleventh Homily on the Epistles to the Corinthians. I know the Chrysostom is considered a strong defender of the freedom of the will, and for that reason it may seem peculiar for a Calvinist to cite his teaching about salvation. Yet in this instance Chrysostom does a wonderful job explaining the meaning of the text.

He exhorts his hearers: Reflect therefore how great things He bestowed on thee. For a great thing indeed it were for even a sinner to die for any one whatever; but when He who undergoes this both is righteous and dieth for sinners; and not dieth only, but even as one cursed; and not as cursed [dieth] only, but thereby freely bestoweth upon us those great goods which we never looked for; (for he says, that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him;”) what words, what thought shall be adequate to realize these things? ‘For the righteous,’ saith he, ‘He made a sinner; that He might make the sinners righteous.’ Yea rather, he said not even so, but what was greater far; for the word he employed is not the habit, but the quality itself. For he said not “made” [Him] a sinner, but “sin;” not, ‘Him that had not sinned’ only, but “that had not even known sin; that we” also “might become,” he did not say ‘righteous,’ but, “righteousness,” and, “the righteousness of God.” For this is [the righteousness] “of God” when we are justified not by works, (in which case it were necessary that not a spot even should be found,) but by grace, in which case all sin is done away. And this at the same time that it suffers us not to be lifted up, (seeing the whole is the free gift of God,) teaches us also the greatness of that which is given. For that which was before was a righteousness of the Law and of works, but this is “the righteousness of God.”

Chrysostom goes on to apply the text, impressing on his hearers how much it should trouble us when we, who have received such amazing mercy from God, still disobey him:

Let us therefore not fear hell, but offending God; for it is more grievous than that when He turns away in wrath: this is worse than all, this heavier than all. And that thou mayest learn what a thing it is, consider this which I say. If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, (who was himself of no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse.

I think this is exactly the kind of passage that Chemnitz had in mind when he said that the fathers taught the doctrine better when they were concentrated on the scriptures themselves and when they were dealing with the concerns of the conscience.

It is worth adding how Augustine explains the passage in the Enchiridion:

Begotten and conceived, then, without any indulgence of carnal lust, and therefore bringing with Him no original sin, and by the grace of God joined and united in a wonderful and unspeakable way in one person with the Word, the Only-begotten of the Father, a son by nature, not by grace, and therefore having no sin of His own; nevertheless, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which He came, He was called sin, that He might be sacrificed to wash away sin. For, under the Old Covenant, sacrifices for sin were called sins. And He, of whom all these sacrifices were types and shadows, was Himself truly made sin. Hence the apostle, after saying, “We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God,” forthwith adds: “for He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” He does not say, as some incorrect copies read, “He who knew no sin did sin for us,” as if Christ had Himself sinned for our sakes; but he says, “Him who knew no sin,” that is, Christ, God, to whom we are to be reconciled, “hath made to be sin for us,” that is, hath made Him a sacrifice for our sins, by which we might be reconciled to God. He, then, being made sin, just as we are made righteousness (our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Him); He being made sin, not His own, but ours, not in Himself, but in us, showed, by the likeness of sinful flesh in which He was crucified, that though sin was not in Him, yet that in a certain sense He died to sin, by dying in the flesh which was the likeness of sin; and that although He Himself had never lived the old life of sin, yet by His resurrection He typified our new life springing up out of the old death in sin.

Augustine's explanation, even if not as accurate as Chrysostom's, presents an immense amount of truth. The parallel he draws between the manner in which Christ became sin and we become righteousness is an overarching theme in Protestant exegesis of the passage. I therefore suspect that this is another instance of what Chemnitz had in mind.

The reason I asked about NT Wright's view is that, while I believe he is a very bright and learned man, I believe this passage shows where his understanding of Paul runs into trouble. His reading is, as the recent Orthodox Presbyterian Church report on justification noted, "idiosyncratic."

There is another reason why I think Wright is mistaken here, but I will focus only on his reading of the second hamartian as sin-offering.

As the quotation from Augustine shows, this interpretation of the word is not new. But unlike Augustine's view, Wright's seems to require that the word be read this way, as opposed to the alternative.

On this point I will quote what the Puritan John Owen observed: But hamartia, absolutely, does nowhere, in any good author, nor in the Scripture, signify a sacrifice for sin, unless it may be allowed to do so in this one place alone. For whereas the LXX. do render חַטָּאת constantly by hamartia, where it signifies sin; where it denotes an offering for sin, and they retain that word, they do it by peri hamartias, an elliptical expression, which they invented for that which they knew hamartia of itself neither did nor could signify, Lev. iv. 3, 14, 32, 35; v. 6–11; vi. 30; viii. 2. And they never omit the preposition unless they name the sacrifice; as moschos tous hamartias. This is observed also by the apostle in the New Testament; for twice, expressing the sin-offering by this word, he uses that phrase peri hamartias, Rom. viii. 3, Heb. x. 6; but nowhere uses hamartia to that purpose. If it be, therefore, of that signification in this place, it is so here alone.

The idea of the sin-offering is certainly bound up with Christ's work in redemption (cf. Is. 53:10). In this case, however, we would be deviating from standard usage to restrict the meaning to the offering. We would also be breaking down the antithesis between sin and righteousness that is so prominent in the verse.

I only mention this because I think there is grounds to be wary of any reading that insists on the technical meaning for hamartia. I have seen the technical meaning used before to criticize the traditional Protestant reading, and for that reason wanted to be sure that that pitfall is avoided.

I apologize for the length of this message, and also for the fact that I may not have time to continue a discussion on this matter. Please pardon my rambling; it is due mainly to time pressures. I only hope there may be something of value in it.



iohannes said...

btw, tous hamartias should be tes hamartias.

James Swan said...

John- Thank You for the work of putting these quotes together. I wouldn't mind making it an actual blog entry if you don't mind. Also, Frank Marron did an overview on Chemnitz here on the blog:

Guest Blog: Thoughts on “The Examination of the Council of Trent”

Iohannes said...

James--Please use the quotations as you see fit. The part about NT Wright is just an aside, so it's probably not worth including. Thanks for keeping such an interesting blog.

Apolonio said...


Briefly. I would simply refer to my previous statement. I would also recommend reading Catholic theologians on these issues, not apologists.

As for the Fathers and being more precise on devotional/spiritual works, I disagree with it. Chrysostom's homilies on Romans show, for example, that he rejected imputed righteousness. As for spiritual writings, you will even see me speak of "faith alone" can make a person persevere into the dark nights of the soul (John of the Cross). To take those statements out of the context of someone's theological understanding is a misinterpretation of someone's worldview. The dichotomy Chemnitz presents is a terrible way of interpreting someone's works. One can try to impose or eisegete their words so that they can somehow look like they believe in Protestant justification, but such an interpretation is simply implausible and that can lead to many absurd conclusions if we apply that "hermenuetic tool" to other historical works.

Iohannes said...


I am sorry that I do not have time for a discussion at length on this matter; this might have to be my terminal message about it, but I will try to address the issues you have raised.

First, Chemnitz did not say that the fathers were "more precise" in their spiritual or devotional works. He said that they were more correct. In other words, considerations that tended to obscure or distort the simplicity of the gospel were less likely to be present. That does not mean that the exposition of the gospel appears in a more exact form. It does mean that it appears in a purer form.

Second, what Chemnitz proposes would be a terrible way to interpret the fathers, were they perfectly consistent and definite in all their teaching. I do not think they were, and rather I think they were less consistent and definite on matters of soteriology, which were far from being their main concern, than they were on christology, which received much more attention.

Third, I do not claim that the Fathers taught all the precise details of the Protestant doctrine of justification. What I do contend is that their teaching, taken as a whole, was not so far from the truth, and their errors were not so central and prominent in their teaching, that they somehow fell away from the saving truth of the gospel.

Roman Catholic writers sometimes suggest that if the Protestants are correct, than everyone between Paul and Luther was an apostate (unfortunately, some rather shallow thinking Protestants may imply similar things). That is incorrect. Truth was gradually distorted, and though the effects (very generally speaking) became more pronounced with time, there have always been Christians, and there has always been a Christian church. Inconsistency can be a good thing, in that it often prevents people from fully realizing the negative consequences of errors in their beliefs.

Fourth, to the charge of eisegesis on the part of Protestants in dealing with the patristic literature. Let me quote Chrysostom again:

If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, (who was himself of no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen ten thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude?

This translation appears on the New Advent website. What does not appear is the (Protestant) editor's note on the passage:

The comparison here made shows clearly how the author understood the closing words of the fifth chapter of the Epistle. Indeed his treatment of the weighty 21st verse is very satisfactory. He does not with Augustin and others take ἀμαρτίαν in the sense of a sin-offering, a sense which it is very doubtful if the word ever has, and one that here would be inconsistent with the use of the same word in the clause immediately preceding as well as with the evidently designed antithesis between “sin” and “righteousness.” But he regards the abstract as used for the concrete, which is certainly the true view. The phrase is, as Beet says, “practically the same as, but stronger than, made to be a sinner. By laying upon Christ the punishment of our sin, God made him to be a visible embodiment of the deadly and far-reaching power of sin.” But Chrysostom shows by his comments his acceptance not only of the vicarious atonement, but also of the gratuitous justification, as set forth concisely yet distinctly in this pregnant utterance. There are passages in these and other Homilies which look as if the author held to justification by works, but here he is outspoken to the contrary. Justification comes by grace, not merit, and the righteousness required is the free gift of God.

You are welcome to disagree if you choose. For my part, the passage fits quite well into the way I understand the fathers. There certainly are major differences between Chrysostom and the Reformers. What he says here, however, is something which it would be hard to represent in a way that would remove the similarity between it and the Protestant conception of salvation.

As a closing thought, I will make a comparison.

Here are a couple of selections from Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity:

From pp. 213f:

To many Christians, and especially to those who only know the faith from a fair distance, it looks as if the cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right. It is the form, so it seems, in which the infinitely offended righteousness of God was propitiated again by means of an infinite expiation. It thus appears to people as the expression of an attitude which insists on a precise balance between debit and credit; at the same time one gets the feeling that this balance is based nevertheless on a fiction. One gives first secretly with the left hand what one takes back again ceremonially with the right. The “infinite expiation” on which God seems to insist thus moves into a doubly sinister light. Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the cross visualizes a God whose unrelenting righteousness demands a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, and one turns away in horror from a righteousness whose sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.

This picture is as false as it is widespread. In the Bible the cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others…

From pp. 264f:

That is why the aspect of Christ’s holiness that upset his contemporaries was the complete absence of this condemnatory note—fire did not fall on the unworthy nor were the zealous allowed to pull up the weeds which they saw growing luxuriantly on all sides. One the contrary, this holiness expressed itself precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity; as mingling to the point where he himself was made “to be sin” and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal—complete community of fate with the lost (cf. 2 Cor. 5.21; Gal. 3.13). He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot and so revealed what true “holiness” is: not separation but union, not judgment but redeeming love. Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is it not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight?

[Joseph Ratzinger. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J. R. Foster. Ignatius: San Francisco, 1990.]

Now please do not misunderstand me. My reaction on reading that work was that the current pope might perhaps be the greatest thinker alive in Europe today. Nevertheless, I would respond to these passages as J. Gresham Machen did to the modern theories of the atonement:

They do indeed all contain an element of truth: it is true that the death of Christ is an example of self-sacrifice which may inspire self-sacrifice in others; it is true that the death of Christ shows how much God hates sin; it is true that the death of Christ displays the love of God. All of these truths are found plainly in the New Testament. But they are swallowed up in a far greater truth—that Christ died instead of us to present us faultless before the throne of God. Without that central truth, all the rest is devoid of real meaning: an example of self-sacrifice is useless to those who are under both the guilt and thralldom of sin; the knowledge of God's hatred of sin can in itself bring only despair; an exhibition of the love of God is a mere display unless there was some underlying reason for the sacrifice. If the Cross is to be restored to its rightful place in Christian life, we shall have to penetrate far beneath the modern theories to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.

[J. G. Machen. Christianity & Liberalism, p. 119. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1923]

In any event, below is the conclusion of Calvin’s commentary on the passage in Second Corinthians.

How are we righteous in the sight of God? It is assuredly in the same respect in which Christ was a sinner. For he assumed in a manner our place, that he might be a criminal in our room, and might be dealt with as a sinner, not for his own offenses, but for those of others, inasmuch as he was pure and exempt from every fault, and might endure the punishment that was due to us—not to himself. It is in the same manner, assuredly, that we are now righteous in him—not in respect of our rendering satisfaction to the justice of God by our own works, but because we are judged of in connection with Christ's righteousness, which we have put on by faith, that it might become ours.

Chrysostom is of course not Calvin. Yet putting Chrysostom’s exposition side by side with Calvin and then with current Pope, the relationship with the one looks much clearer than the relationship with the other.

All the best,


Apolonio said...


The reason why I recommended Balthasar was that his view on Good Friday and Holy Saturday might actually surprise you. I do not disagree with what Pope Benedict or what Chrysostome said. None of them, however, believes Christ was a sinner. In fact, Chrysostom said,

"He being made sin, not His own, but ours, not in Himself, but in us, showed, by the likeness of sinful flesh in which He was crucified, that though sin was not in Him, yet that in a certain sense He died to sin..."

As you quoted. Compare that with Augustine, Enchiridion of faith, hopy, and love 13.41 and you will see it is similar.

You also said that the Fathers' "errors were not so central and prominent in their teaching, that they somehow fell away from the saving truth of the gospel." If that is true, then how can a Protestant condemn the Council of Trent? The Fathers were clearly and explicitly synergistic. And it is true that their main concern was christology, but they did not separate them from the economy of salvation. They did not separate the Incarnation from the Cross; in fact, some say that if man had not sinned, God would not have become man. "God became man so that man can become God" is one of their central teachings.

Both of us are busy so I don't know how and when we will continue this discussion. May God keep us close to Him.