Basil the Great (c. 329-379) and Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395): We may know the attributes of God, but not His essence

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Basil the Great (c. 329-379), in Letter 234, argues that we cannot know God in his essence, as he is in himself, since he infinitely transcends us and dwells in light inapproachable. We can, however, know God by his revealed attributes. This is reminiscent of later distinctions between archetypal theology, or God’s perfect and infinite self-knowledge, and ectypal theology, or our finite knowledge of God derived from divine revelation. (See this previous post from Richard A. Muller):

“Do you worship what you know or what you do not know? If I answer, I worship what I know, they immediately reply, What is the essence of the object of worship? Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, So you worship you know not what. I answer that the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. But God, he says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.”

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Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395) argues along the same lines in Against Eunomius 2.3., while adding that, while not being able to comprehend the essence of God, the knowledge of God which has actually been bestowed upon us by divine revelation is sufficient for our salvation:

“And by this deliverance the Word seems to me to lay down for us this law, that we are to be persuaded that the Divine Essence is ineffable and incomprehensible: for it is plain that the title of Father does not present to us the Essence, but only indicates the relation to the Son. It follows, then, that if it were possible for human nature to be taught the essence of God, He “who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) would not have suppressed the knowledge upon this matter. But as it is, by saying nothing concerning the Divine Essence, He showed that the knowledge thereof is beyond our power, while when we have learned that of which we are capable, we stand in no need of the knowledge beyond our capacity, as we have in the profession of faith in the doctrine delivered to us what suffices for our salvation.”

Basil the Great (c. 329-379) on the distinction between οὐσία and ὑπόστασις

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“The distinction between οὐσία (ousia=essence/substance) and ὑπόστασις (hypostasis=person) is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man. Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give a variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear. If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but form our conception of God from the general idea of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith. We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common. The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say, I believe in God the Father. The like course must be pursued in the confession of the Son; we must combine the particular with the common and say I believe in God the Son, so in the case of the Holy Ghost we must make our utterance conform to the appellation and say in God the Holy Ghost. Hence it results that there is a satisfactory preservation of the unity by the confession of the one Godhead, while in the distinction of the individual properties regarded in each there is the confession of the peculiar properties of the Persons.”

– Basil the Great (c. 329-379), Letter 236.6

The Early Church Fathers on “Sola Fide”

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In an earlier post we looked at the early church fathers on the doctrine of “sola scriptura“, which can be found here:

https://deovivendiperchristum.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/the-early-church-fathers-on-sola-scriptura/

Now we turn our attention to the doctrine of Sola Fide. It is often thought by some that the doctrine of Sola Fide (justification by faith alone) only really started with the Reformers of the 16th century, who set forth the truth of this doctrine from Scripture. If this is true, why didn’t anyone realize it before? The answer is that while the Reformers may have better systematized, organized, and rendered consistent the doctrines known under the umbrella of “sola fide,” or justification by faith alone, they were not in uncharted territory. That is not to say that the church fathers were consistent or that they all taught the same thing. Nevertheless, the idea of justification by faith alone certainly wasn’t new to the Reformers, as can be shown below:

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Clement of Rome (1st century)

“Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognize the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. For from him have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, ‘Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.’ All these, therefore, were highly honored, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen”.

– First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter 32 

Though Clement of Rome does not use the term “faith alone,” he specifically rules out works.

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Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368)

“This was forgiven by Christ through faith, because the Law could not yield, for faith alone justifies.”

The Latin says “fides enim sola justificat.”

– In Evangelium Matthaei Commentarius, Caput VIII 

The above is pretty self-explanatory.

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Basil the Great (c. 329-379)

“[As the Apostle says,] Let him who boasts boast in the Lord, [I say that] Christ has been made by God for us righteousness, wisdom, justification, [and] redemption, that, as it is written, ‘he who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.’ [For] this is perfect and pure boasting in God, when one is not proud on account of his own righteousness but knows that he is indeed unworthy of the true righteousness and has been justified solely by faith in Christ.”

The Greek says: “πίστει δὲ μόνῃ τῇ εἰς Χριστὸν δεδικαιωμένον.”

– Homilia XX, Homilia De Humilitate, §3, PG 31:529.

In context, Basil appealed to the example of the Apostle Paul as a regenerate man. This quotation both speaks of justification solely by faith and contrasts that with works.

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Jerome (c. 347-420)

“God justifies by faith alone.”

The Latin says: “Deus ex sola fide justificat”

– In Epistolam Ad Romanos, Caput X, v. 3 (on Rom. 10:3)

The above speaks for itself, but note that the exact phrase “sola fide” is found.

“He who with all his spirit has placed his faith in Christ, even if he die in sin, shall by his faith live forever.”

The Latin says: “fide sua vivit in perpetuum”.

– Epistola CXIX, Ad Minervium et Alexandrum Monachos 

The above is an example of Jerome contrasting justification by faith with works.

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Ambrosiaster (unknown author who wrote a commentary on Paul’s epistles c. 366-384)

“Paul backs this up by the example of the prophet David, who says that those are blessed of whom God has decreed that, without work or any keeping of the law, they are justified before God by faith alone.”

The Latin says: “sola fide justificentur apud Deum.”

– In Epistolam Ad Romanos, PL 17:83. (On Rom. 4:6)

Here Ambrosiaster explicitly denies justification by works, while explicitly affirming justification by faith alone – using the exact phrase “sola fide”.

“They are justified freely because they have not done anything nor given anything in return, but by faith alone they have been made holy by the gift of God.”

The Latin says: “sola fide justificati sunt dono Dei.”

– In Epistolam Ad Romanos, PL 17:79. (On Rom. 3:24)

This is similar to the previous one, and again the exact phrase “sola fide” is used.

“Paul tells those who live under the law that they have no reason to boast basing themselves on the law and claiming to be of the race of Abraham, seeing that no one is justified before God except by faith.”

The Latin says: “videntes non justificari hominem apud Deum, nisi per fidem.”

– In Epistolam Ad Romanos, PL 17:80. (On Rom. 3:27) 

Again, Ambrosiaster is affirming justification by faith alone. Here, he’s providing the perspective that there is no alternative way of being justified. It’s not like some people are justified by faith, and others are justified by works – it is only by faith.

“How then can the Jews think that they have been justified by the works of the law in the same way as Abraham, when they see that Abraham was not justified by the works of the law but by faith alone? Therefore there is no need of the law when the ungodly is justified before God by faith alone.”

The Latin says: “quando impius per solam fidem justificatur apud Deum.”

– In Epistolam Ad Romanos, PL 17:82-83. (On Rom. 4:5)

Again, Ambrosiaster makes it clear that faith alone justifies.

“For if the law is given not for the righteous but for the unrighteous, whoever does not sin is a friend of the law. For him faith alone is the way by which he is made perfect. For others mere avoidance of evil will not gain them any advantage with God unless they also believe in God, so that they may be righteous on both counts. For the one righteousness is temporal; the other is eternal.”

The Latin says: “Huic sola fides deest, per quam fiat perfectus.”

– In Epistolam Ad Romanos, PL 17:67. (On Rom. 2:12)

“God has decreed that a person who believes in Christ can be saved without works. By faith alone he receives the forgiveness of sins.”

The Latin says: “sola fide gratis accipit remissionem peccatorum.”

– In Epistolam B. Pauli Ad Corinthios Primam, PL 17:185. (On 1 Cor. 1:4b)

The above quotation puts another nail in the coffin of any attempted Romanist wriggling, in that here Ambrosiaster makes it explicit not only that a person can be saved without works, but that forgiveness [read: justification] is by faith alone.

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John Chrysostom (c. 347-407)

Attend to this, ye who come to baptism at the close of life, for we indeed pray that after baptism ye may have also this deportment, but thou art seeking and doing thy utmost to depart without it. For, what though thou be justified: yet is it of faith only. But we pray that thou shouldest have as well the confidence that cometh of good works.”

– On the Second Epistle of St. Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians, Homily 2

What is interesting about the above is that Chrysostom is denying the necessity of baptism for justification. He’s saying that good works provide confidence but that nevertheless one is justified by faith alone.

“That those who were enemies, and sinners, neither justified by the law, nor by works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. Upon this head accordingly Paul has discoursed at length in his Epistle to the Romans, and here again at length. ‘This is a faithful saying,’ he says, ‘and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ As the Jews were chiefly attracted by this, he persuades them not to give heed to the law, since they could not attain salvation by it without faith. Against this he contends; for it seemed to them incredible, that a man who had mis-spent all his former life in vain and wicked actions, should afterwards be saved by his faith alone. On this account he says, ‘It is a saying to be believed.’ But some not only disbelieved but even objected, as the Greeks do now. ‘Let us then do evil, that good may come.’ This was the consequence they drew in derision of our faith, from his words, ‘Where sin abounded grace did much more abound’.”

– Homilies on First Timothy, Homily 4, 1 Timothy 1:15, 16

The reason for including the quotation above is the fact that it refers to salvation by faith alone, and this is explicitly contrasted with good works.

“God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.”

– Homily on Ephesians 4.2.9.

Here Chrysostom explains that faith justifies and faith produces works, but still insists that works do not justify us.

“For a person who had no works, to be justified by faith, was nothing unlikely. But for a person richly adorned with good deeds, not to be made just from hence, but from faith, this is the thing to cause wonder, and to set the power of faith in a strong light.”

– Homilies on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily 8, Rom. 4:1, 2. 

This is a powerful statement for justification by faith alone. Chrysostom is arguing that even for those with works in addition to faith, those works do not justify them.

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Pseudo-Oecumenius (Late 7th or Early 8th Century)

Abraham is the image of someone who is justified by faith alone, since what he believed was credited to him as righteousness. But he is also approved because of his works, since he offered up his son Isaac on the altar. Of course he did not do this work by itself; in doing it, he remained firmly anchored in his faith, believing that through Isaac his seed would be multiplied until it was as numerous as the stars.”

– Commentary on James 2:23

Notice how here Pseudo-Oecumenius addresses Abraham’s justification. He affirms that Abraham is justified by faith alone, but then explains that the works provide him with approval because of their connection to his faith.

So, as stated in the beginning, we see then that while the Reformers may have better systematized, organized, and rendered consistent the doctrine of “sola fide,” or justification by faith alone, they were not in uncharted territory. That is not to say that the church fathers were consistent or that they all taught the same thing. Nevertheless, the idea of justification by faith alone certainly wasn’t new to the Reformers.

The Early Church Fathers on “Sola Scriptura”

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The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (the doctrine that Scripture alone is to be the final authority on all Christian doctrine and praxis) lies at the very heart of Reformation theology. But was this doctrine invented by the Reformers? Besides Scripture itself giving testimony to its own ultimate authority (“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” – 2 Tim. 3:16), the early church fathers also give ample testimony to this doctrine, showing that the Reformers did not invent Sola Scriptura:

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Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202):

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”

Adversus Haereses, 3:1.1

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 Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373):

“The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.”

Against the Heathen, I:3

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Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386):

“For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless you receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”

Catechetical Lectures, IV:17

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Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395):

“…we are not entitled to such license, namely, of affirming whatever we please. For we make Sacred Scripture the rule and the norm of every doctrine. Upon that we are obliged to fix our eyes, and we approve only whatever can be brought into harmony with the intent of these writings.”

On the Soul and the Resurrection

“Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.”

On the Holy Trinity

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Augustine of Hippo (354-430):

“Let them show their church if they can, not by the speeches and mumblings of the Africans, not by the councils of their bishops, not by the writings of any of their champions, not by fraudulent signs and wonders, because we have been prepared and made cautious also against these things by the Word of the Lord; but [let them show their church] by a command of the Law, by the predictions of the prophets, by songs from the Psalms, by the words of the Shepherd Himself, by the preaching and labors of the evangelists; that is, by all the canonical authorities of the sacred books.”

On the Unity of the Church, 16

“What more can I teach you, than what we read in the Apostle? For Holy Scripture sets a rule to our teaching, that we dare not ‘be wise more than it behoves to be wise,’ but be wise, as he says, ‘unto soberness, according as unto each God has allotted the measure of faith’.”

On the Good of Widowhood (De bono viduitatis), 2

“We may not assent to the teaching even of the Catholic bishops, if at any time they are deceived into opinions contrary to the canonical Scriptures of God…”

Contra Faustum, book 11, 5

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John Chrysostom (c. 347-407):

“Let us not therefore carry about the notions of the many, but examine into the facts. For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer to [our own] calculation; but in calculating upon [theological] facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rule for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learned what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things…”

Homily 13 on 2 Corinthians

“Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast.”

Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church

“They say that we are to understand the things concerning Paradise not as they are written but in a different way. But when Scripture wants to teach us something like that, it interprets itself and does not permit the hearer to err. I therefore beg and entreat that we close our eyes to all things and follow the canon of Holy Scripture exactly.”

Homily 13 on Genesis

“There comes a heathen and says, ‘I wish to become a Christian, but I know not whom to join: there is much fighting and faction among you, much confusion: which doctrine am I to choose?’ How shall we answer him? ‘Each of you’ (says he) asserts, ‘I speak the truth.’ No doubt: this is in our favor. For if we told you to be persuaded by arguments, you might well be perplexed: but if we bid you believe the Scriptures, and these are simple and true, the decision is easy for you. If any agree with the Scriptures, he is the Christian; if any fight against them, he is far from this rule.”

Homily 33 on the Acts of the Apostles

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Basil the Great (c. 329-379):

“They are charging me with innovation, and base their charge on my confession of three hypostases [persons], and blame me for asserting one Goodness, one Power, one Godhead. In this they are not wide of the truth, for I do so assert. Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.”

Letter 189 [to Eustathius the physician], 3

“What is the mark of a faithful soul? To be in these dispositions of full acceptance on the authority of the words of Scripture, not venturing to reject anything nor making additions. For, if ‘all that is not of faith is sin’ as the Apostle says, and ‘faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God,’ everything outside Holy Scripture, not being of faith, is sin.”

The Morals

“We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture.”

On the Holy Spirit, 7:16

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John of Damascus (c. 675-749):

“It is impossible either to say or fully to understand anything about God beyond what has been divinely proclaimed to us, whether told or revealed, by the sacred declarations of the Old and New Testaments.”

On the Orthodox Faith, I:2