Monday, October 24, 2011

Chrysostom on Justification by Faith Alone

More wholesome teaching from John Chrysostom, here expounding Acts ch. 15:

“But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that of old days God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the Gospel, and believe.” (v. 5–7.) Observe Peter from the first standing aloof (κεχωρισμένον) from the affair, and even to this time Judaizing. And yet (says he) “ye know.” (ch. x. 45; xi. 2.) Perhaps those were present who of old found fault with him in the matter of Cornelius, and went in with him (on that occasion): for this reason he brings them forward as witnesses. “From old days,” he says, “did choose among you.” What means, “Among you?” Either, in Palestine, or, you being present. “By my mouth.” Observe how he shows that it was God speaking by him, and no human utterance. “And God, that knoweth the hearts, gave testimony unto them:” he refers them to the spiritual testimony: “by giving them the Holy Ghost even as unto us.” (v. 8.) Everywhere he puts the Gentiles upon a thorough equality. “And put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith.” (v. 9.) From faith alone, he says, they obtained the same gifts. This is also meant as a lesson to those (objectors); this is able to teach even them that faith only is needed, not works nor circumcision. For indeed they do not say all this only by way of apology for the Gentiles, but to teach (the Jewish believers) also to abandon the Law. However, at present this is not said. “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples?” (v. 10.) What means, “Tempt ye God?” As if He had not power to save by faith. Consequently, it proceeds from a want of faith, this bringing in the Law. Then he shows that they themselves were nothing benefited by it, and he turns the whole (stress of his speech) against the Law, not against them, and (so) cuts short the accusation of them: “which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus we shall be saved, even as they.” (v. 11.) How full of power these words! The same that Paul says at large in the Epistle to the Romans, the same says Peter here. “For if Abraham,” says (Paul), “was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God.”
John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, NPNF1: Vol. XIII, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily 32 on Acts 15:1 [italics mine]


I just read on an Eastern Orthodox blog that justification by faith alone is a 'Protestant heresy'. That may well be a justifiable (sic!) Orthodox view if one is guided by post-Reformation Orthodox polemics on the subject...but then, what to do with statements like this from one of the Fathers whom Orthodoxy most reveres? The only solution would appear to be a doctrine of 'double justification', initially by faith and subsequently by works (not unknown in the West, either!). Among the Orthodox, this position is usually accompanied by a polemic against the 'overly juridical' bent of 'Western theology' since Augustine which Luther subsequently inherited (a curious view, since Augustine certainly did not hold to a juridical/forensic doctrine of justification). Here's an example from a modern Orthodox theologian:
'In summary, it is not an antagonistic attitude that causes the eastern Christian and patristic scholar to recoil at some notions of western and Protestant theology, it is simply that the approach employed by many western scholars (inherited from the likes of Augustine, Anselm and Luther) seems at odds with what eastern Christians believe has been safeguarded since the foundation of the Church at Pentecost. The traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works... Because of its less juridical exegesis of Pauline soteriological statements, Eastern Christianity has never had anything approaching the kind of faith v. works controversies that have enveloped and (for both good and ill) theologically shaped the Christian West... Rather, the East has maintained a somewhat distant and even puzzled attitude toward the theological polemics which have raged over justification in terms of faith or works.'
Valerie Karras, in Justification and the Future of the Ecumenical Movement (Liturgical Press – Collegeville, MN)

It is certainly true, as Dr Karras maintains, that Orthodox theology and doctrine followed quite a different trajectory from that of the Western church - to the extent, that is, that the latter has been guided by Augustine's anti-Pelagianism. To my mind Orthodox theology represents a development of the theology of the early semi-Pelagian ascetics, some of whom brought monasticism from the East to southern Gaul (see the life and influence of John Cassian, seminal to the development of monasticism in both East and West). The West officially rejected the theology of this movement at the 2nd Council of Orange (529AD), although its influence was never expunged, principally due to the rise and rise of monasticism into the Middle Ages courtesy the Benedictine movement and its offshoots.

Tellingly, the Christian East has never rejected semi-Pelagianism; from that perspective the centrality of disputes about justification and works in Western theology over the last 500 years must indeed seem inexplicable. But can it really be said that justification by faith alone 'has little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church'!? Granted, the full exposition of the Biblical doctrine had to await the Lutheran Reformation, but there is ample evidence that the Fathers who closely expounded the New Testament in their homilies knew the doctrine. The problem is that they never succeeded in integrating it into their theology of the Christian life as a whole (for various reasons which we might explore in further posts on the subject). That task that was God-given to Blessed Martin Luther, Melanchthon, Martin Chemnitz and other luminaries of the Lutheran Reformation. SDG!

Thank you to Pr Mark Henderson over at Lutheran Catholicity blog for allowing this repost.