Patristric Texts on Justification

Thomas Oden
Friday, August 31st 2007
Sep/Oct 2007

Out of an abundance of patristic texts on justification, I have selected a few typical examples from the East and a few from the West to show exemplary expressions of clear, explicit pre-Protestant, authentically Pauline justification teaching.

Early Eastern Voices on Justification

Key textual evidences from Origen, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus show that leading eastern patristic writers anticipated standard classic Reformation teaching on justification:

The leading biblical interpreter from the great school of Antioch, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, in his fourth-century commentary on the Epistles of Paul, reflected on Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith," in this way: "All we bring to grace is our faith. But even in this faith, divine grace itself has become our enabler. For [Paul] adds, 'And this is not of yourselves but it is a gift from God; not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8-9).' It is not of our own accord that we have believed, but we have come to belief after having been called; and even when we had come to believe, He did not require of us purity of life, but approving mere faith, God bestowed on us forgiveness of sins" (Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul). (1) A thousand years before Luther.

A generation before Theodoret, John Chrysostom had expressly stated: "So that you may not be elated by the magnitude of these benefits, see how Paul puts you in your place. For 'by grace you have been saved,' he says 'through faith.' Then, so as to do no injury to free will, he allots a role to us, then takes it away again, saying 'and this not of ourselves'…Even faith, he says, is not from us. For if the Lord had not come, if he had not called us, how should we have been able to believe? 'For how,' [Paul] says, 'shall they believe if they have not heard?' (Rom. 10:14). So even the act of faith is not self-initiated. It is, he says, 'the gift of God' (Eph. 2:8c)." So writes Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century (Hom. on Ephesians 2.8). (2) Luther conserved this previous tradition.

In asking why boasting is excluded, Origen commented on Romans 3:28, "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law." "If an example is required," remarked Origen, "I think it must suffice to mention the thief on the cross, who asked Christ to save him and was told, 'Truly, this day you will be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43)….A man is justified by faith. The works of the law can make no contribution to this. Where there is no faith which might justify the believer, even if there are works of the law these are not based on the foundation of faith. Even if they are good in themselves they cannot justify the one who does them, because faith is lacking, and faith is the mark of those who are justified by God" (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans). (3) So was justification by faith alone understood before the Reformers? The texts make this undeniable. These examples make it clear that justification teaching was rightly understood among the eastern patristic writers in a way that classic Reformation writers would have every reason to respect. But what of the West? Equally strong in these points.

Early Western Voices on Justification

Key texts from the West by Clement of Rome, Augustine, Prosper, and Fulgentius demonstrate patristic anticipations of Reformation teaching on justification, in substantial agreement with the East.

The earliest of Paul's interpreters, Clement of Rome, 95 A.D., in his Letter to the Corinthians (32:4, 33:1), clearly struck to the root of justification teaching: "We, therefore, who have been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our wisdom or understanding or piety, nor by the works we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by the faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. What, then, shall we do, brethren? Shall we cease from good works, and shall we put an end to love? May the Master forbid that such should ever happen among us; rather let us be eager to perform every good work earnestly and willingly." (4) Here Paul's teaching is appropriated: we are justified by a faith that becomes active in love. Writing in Greek, but living in Rome, Clement can be counted as a voice from either the East or West, as can Irenaeus.

Augustine followed this same tendency of interpretation that would later appear in Luther. In his letter (186, 3, 10) to Paulinus of Nola, Augustine subtly analyzed the relation of grace and freedom: "Let no one say to himself: 'If [justification] is from faith, how is it freely given? (cf. Rom. 3:24): If faith merits it, why is it not rather paid than given?' Let the faithful man not say such a thing; for, if he says: 'I have faith, therefore I merit justification,' he will be answered: 'What have you that you did not receive?' (1 Cor. 4:7). If, therefore, faith entreats and receives justification, according as God has apportioned to each in the measure of his faith (Rom. 12:3), nothing of human merit precedes the grace of God, but grace itself merits increase…with the will accompanying but not leading, following along but not going in advance." (5)

We have repeatedly been told by the liberal tradition following Harnack that the ancient Christian writers had no such awareness of justification by grace through faith. Yet there it lies in the texts. "Grace is given, not because we have done good works, but in order that we may have power to do them, not because we have fulfilled the Law, but in order that we may be able to fulfill it" (Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter). (6)

Prosper of Aquitaine in his Call of All Nations (1, 17) stated the doctrine in much the same way Luther would later: "And just as there are no crimes so detestable that they can prevent the gift of grace, so too there can be no works so eminent that they are owed in condign judgement that which is given freely. Would it not be a debasement of redemption in Christ's blood, and would not God's mercy be made secondary to human works, if justification, which is through grace, were owed in view of preceding merits, so that it were not the gift of a Donor, but the wages of a laborer?" (7) Hence it is incorrect to presume that patristic teaching knew nothing of justification.

That this faith constantly becomes active in love, according to the early Christian exegetes, is evident from this passage from Fulgentius of Ruspe who wrote in The Rule of Faith (1): "Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). For faith is the basis of all goods. Faith is the beginning of human salvation. Without faith no one can pertain to the number of the sons of God, because without it neither will anyone obtain the grace of justification in this life nor possess eternal life in the future; and if anyone does not walk now in faith, he will not arrive at the actuality. Without faith every human labor is empty." (8)

This excerpt is taken from Thomas C. Oden's The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved. To purchase this book, visit or call 1.800.253.7521.

1 [ Back ] W. A. Jurgens, ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 vols. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970-79), 3:248-49, *sec. 2163
2 [ Back ] John Chrysostom. F. Field, ed. Interpretatio omnium Epistolarum Paulinarum per Homilias Facta, 7 vols. (Oxford: J. H. Parker, 1845-1862), 2:160; T. C. Oden, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 11 vols. to date (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998-), NT 8:134
3 [ Back ] Origen. T. Heither, ed. Commentarii in Epistulam and Romanos (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans), 5 vols. (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1990-1995), 2.132, 134, 136; T.C. Oden, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 11 vols. to date (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998-), NT 6:104
4 [ Back ] W.A. Jurgens, ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 vols. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970-79), 1:9, sec. 16
5 [ Back ] W.A. Jurgens, ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 vols. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970-79), 3:10, sec. 1446
6 [ Back ] J. Ballie et al., eds. The Library of Christian Classics, 26 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953-1966), 8:206
7 [ Back ] W.A. Jurgens, ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 vols. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970-79), 3:195, sec. 2044
8 [ Back ] W.A. Jurgens, ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers, 3 vols. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970-79), 3:295, sec. 2260.
Friday, August 31st 2007

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