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.

Jerome

 

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.

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–368) on “the fear of the Lord”

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The “fear of the Lord” is a biblical expression that has often been a cause of confusion and misunderstanding. “Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.” Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–368) in his Treatise on the Psalms (Tractatus super Psalmos), Ps 127, 1-3, comments on what “fear of the Lord” means in Psalm 127, in the Book of Proverbs and elsewhere in the Psalms and Wisdom literature of the Old Testament Scriptures.  Perfect love of God brings the fear of the Lord to its perfection, and the Lord Jesus Christ is himself the way to this perfect, divine love:

“…’Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.’ Notice that when Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord it does not leave the phrase in isolation, as if it were a complete summary of faith. No, many things are added to it, or are presupposed by it. From these we may learn its meaning and excellence. In the book of Proverbs Solomon tells us: If you cry out for wisdom and raise your voice for understanding, if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord. We see here the difficult journey we must undertake before we can arrive at the fear of the Lord.

We must begin by crying out for wisdom. We must hand over to our intellect the duty of making every decision. We must look for wisdom and search for it. Then we must understand the fear of the Lord.

‘Fear’ is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.

But of the fear of the Lord this is what is written: ‘Come, my children, listen to me, I shall teach you the fear of the Lord.’ The fear of the Lord has then to be learned because it can be taught. It does not lie in terror, but in something that can be taught. It does not arise from the fearfulness of our nature; it has to be acquired by obedience to the commandments, by holiness of life and by knowledge of the truth.

For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection. Our love for God is entrusted with its own responsibility: to observe his counsels, to obey his laws, to trust his promises. Let us hear what Scripture says: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you except to fear the Lord your God and walk in his ways and love him and keep his commandments with your whole heart and your whole soul, so that it may be well for you?’

The ways of the Lord are many, though he is himself the way. When he speaks of himself he calls himself the way and shows us the reason why he called himself the way: ‘No one can come to the Father except through me.’

We must ask for these many ways, we must travel along these many ways, to find the one that is good. That is, we shall find the one way of eternal life through the guidance of many teachers. These ways are found in the law, in the prophets, in the gospels, in the writings of the apostles, in the different good works by which we fulfil the commandments. Blessed are those who walk these ways in the fear of the Lord.”