Friday, 28 May 2010

Ambrosiaster on Justification By Faith Alone (with a few thoughts attached)

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

And this:
"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."
(italics mine in both cases)

Is it Martin Luther? Philipp Melanchthon? John Calvin even?

No, those are quotations from Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Corinthians 1:4b (in 'Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture', New Testament VII: 1-2 Corinthians, ed. by Gerald Bray (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 6) and on Romans 3:24( in 'Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Romans' ed. Gerald Bray, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 101).

'Ambrosiaster' is the name traditionally given to the unknown writer of an ancient and widely-read commentary on Paul's letters which for a long time was attributed to Ambrose of Milan. Scholars consider that the work was produced in the late 4th century and pre-dates Augustine's (mis)interpretation of Paul based on Jerome's Latin New Testament. It is thus an important testimony to how Paul was understood before Augustine, who famously knew no Greek, mistook 'justification' in Paul to mean 'make righteous', a misinterpretation which is the fountainhead of Rome's subsequent misunderstanding of justification, which makes works of love an inherent part of the 'process' by which a Christian is justified before God (for justified read 'made truly righteous' in herself).

While Ambrosiaster, whoever he was, might be regarded as wavering here and there in his commentary (he writes, after all, a millenium before the light of the Reformation came to be), there is no doubt from his commentary that he grasped the Gospel as presented didactically by Paul. Thus I submit him here as further testimony to the 'scarlet thread' of the evangel which can be traced through the vicissitudes of early and medieval Catholic history until it comes brilliantly to light in the evangelical catholicity of the Lutheran Reformation.

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After the Reformers (Luther and Melanchthon - see Lowell Green's insightful 'How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel'), using Erasmus's Greek New Testament instead of the Vulgate and the new lexicographical resources rediscovered by Renaissance scholarship, brought Augustine's fatal misinterpretation indisputably to light, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent tried to steer a middle-course between the 'semi-Pelagianism' it inherited from the medieval church (or even outright Pelagianism in some cases) and what it regarded as the erroneous 'sola fideism' promulgated by the Refomers (despite some significant voices in support of the Reformers' view present at the Council).
The result is an unhappy compromise which tarnishes the pure Gospel by speaking of human co-operation with grace in the lead-up to conversion and by allowing for a contribution towards justification after conversion by human works of love, albeit works initiated and supported by grace.
Thus were the Biblical insights of the Reformers prevented from serving as a leaven of renewal in the universal church, a situation which pertains to this day, the much vaunted 'Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification' of 1999 notwithstanding.

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Contrast Ambrosiaster with some of the canons of Trent on Justification:

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

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This is only a very brief sketch of this issue that still divides Western Christendom. I encourage readers unfamiliar with the issues to become familiar. Justification is, after all, 'the article of faith by which the church stands or falls', to paraphrase Luther.

A seachable on-line version of the Book of Concord can be found here:

Luther's Preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (a public reading of which in Aldersgate Street, London in the year 1738 was famously responsible for the conversion of John Wesley), can be found, fully formatted for printing out, here:

The entire response of Trent to the Reform on Justification can be found here:

The Vatican has helpfully placed the JDDJ on-line here:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has a response to JDDJ here:

Google books has made Scottish theologian James Buchanan's seminal 19th century work, 'Justification', available here:


Lvka said...

Here's something else along the same lines... :-)

Pr Mark Henderson said...

And your point is, Lucian?