Friday, 9 October 2009

Grace in the Apostolic Fathers

Further to my last post on why the Vincentian Canon is not a reliable or workable rule for establishing what is "catholic doctrine" (one of the few subjects on which I find myself in agreement with John Henry Newman), I submit this quote from the doctoral dissertation of the Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance on the decline of the doctrines of grace in the early church soon after the Apostolic period ended.
The theme of striving for justification (hence, justification by works) either through martyrdom or by strict adherence to "The Way", a version of the Christian life strongly influenced by Judaism, marks the writings of the Fathers of the immediate post-Apostilic period, and inevitably led to the loss of the Cross of Christ as the ground of our justification and the power for Christian life, as was so powerfully exhibited by Paul in his letter to the Romans (see the Didache or Barnabas for examples of this tendency).
When reading these authors, look out also for the sense in which they (e.g. Clement) use the term "faith" - more often than not it refers to acceptance of the doctrines of Christ misinterpreted in terms of submission to an ethical path that leads to heaven.
These themes of striving for salvation and ethical submission to Christ later pass into monasticism and to this day mark the ascetical literature of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Anyway, here's Torrance...

Salvation is wrought, they thought, certainly by divine pardon but on the ground of repentance [self-amendment before God], not apparently on the ground of the death of Christ alone. There is no doubt about the fact that the early Church felt it was willing to go all the way to martyrdom, but it felt that it was in that way the Christian made saving appropriation of the Cross, rather than by faith…It was not seen that the whole of salvation is centred in the person and the death of Christ…Failure to apprehend the meaning of the Cross and to make it a saving article of faith is surely the clearest indication that a genuine doctrine of grace is absent.

Thomas F Torrance
The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (1959).


Schütz said...

It is helpful to be clear when writing on this subject, whether you are talking about "salvation" or "justification". They are not necessarily the same thing - not even in the Scriptures - although there is a common tendancy for protestant Christians to equate justification with salvation.

I find the writing of N.T. Wright helpful here. He makes it clear that in Paul's writings, justification is quite clearly on the basis of "the faithfulness of Christ" - ie. not even on MY faith, but solely on Christ's obedience to the Father and his faithfulness to his mission. But final salvation, as even Wright points out, often (even in Paul) includes my "working out" my salvation (Phil 2:12). The distinction here betwee salvation and justification ought to be clear: You can't "work out" your justification.

(curiously, the word verification code for this comment is "jusses", which may be defined as short for "justification in Jesus"?)

Acroamaticus said...

Agreed, David, one can't "work out one's justification", unless, that is one is a Roman Catholic who believes that the grace of justification can indeed be increased (Trent, Decree on Justification, Ch. 10), but let's leave that aside for the moment, if you like.

I think Wright is wrenching Phil 2:12 out of its context (what work of his are you referring to, btw?) if indeed he is applying it to this question. Most commentators agree that 2:12 forms part of a larger paranetic section in which Paul has in view working towards the spiritual health of the Phil. congregation, and I'm inclined to agree with them as the plurals point to this.

But let's consider the abstract someone who self-identifies as a Lutheran you would no doubt agree with the following statement from FC SD III.52:
"It is an error when it is taught that man is saved in a different way or by a different thing from the one by which he is justified before God, as though we are indeed justified solely through faith without works but that we cannot be saved without works..."?

Schütz said...

Ah, well, there are many "Lutherans" who do not subscribe to the Formula of Concord, old boy, and I am one of them! When I call myself a "Lutheran" I do so because much in my spirituality remains Lutheran, a spirituality which is not in conflict with my Catholic Faith (eg. emphasis on the Theology of the Cross, the Christocentricity of the Faith, the hymnody etc.) In doctrine, I believe and confess everything that Holy Mother Church believes and confesses...!

So, I think the FC does (without the warrant of scripture) reduce salvation to justification. Salvation also includes sanctification - a statement which, I believe, may be anathema to most Confesional Lutherans, but I think may be born out in some of Luther's own writings.

As for the Decree on Justification, it is important to note that it teaches that the "increase", although "through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works", is precisely an "increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ". Thus, all increase in justification is "through the grace of Christ", even when my works cooperate with that grace (which is itself a grace!).

But I will also say that the Decree on Justification itself shows the same tendancy in the wrong direction that the Formula of Concord is - namely, confusing "justification" with "salvation" via "sanctification". I think I can make this criticism without denying the truth of what the decree teaches.

The scriptures do not actually mix the terminology as much as 16th Century theology, both Protestant and Catholic, did. Honest Scriptural exegesis will help us clarify these issues, and perhaps also help us to find a road which we can walk together. Sometimes the 16th Century battles were due not so much to a different interpretation of scripture, but through a disagreement over a surprisingly SIMILAR interpretation of scripture, which might not, in the end, be entirely scriptural! (If you get what I mean).

Acroamaticus said...

Very interesting comment, David. Helps me to see better where you're coming from. Puzzled as to how one can have a Lutheran spirituality without Lutheran doctrine, though.
Must go, conscience nagging - see my comment about "office hours".

Do follow developments and comment as you wish. Very stimulating.

Lvka said...

In case you haven't noticed it already, you've just contradicted yourself:

you first say that there's presumably no such thing as the Vincentian canon ("all, always") in real life,

and then you immediately switch to complaining that all fathers have always taught [their vast majority since the most ancient of times] a unified doctrine, but one that ran contrary to that which you perceive as being the Gospel...

Sorry, but you just can't have it both ways: you can't have your cake, AND eat it too...

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I suggest you read John Henry Newman on the subject, as one who was very familiar with the Greek Fathers. Since he was most definitely not a Lutheran, but an Anglican cum Romanist, he can't be accused of having an axe to grind on this subject.

Suffice to say, following Torrance, who also knew a thing or two about the Greek fathers, a consensus among the fathers which is a consensus in error as compared to scripture cannot be a rule of faith, can it?

meantime, check out some of my posts on Eastern Orthodoxy, I'd be interested in your comments.

You may also like to check out my other site, Lutheran Catholicity, a link is provided from 'Glosses..'