Monday, 24 October 2011

Chrysostom on Justification by Faith Alone

More wholesome teaching from John Chrysostom, here expounding Acts ch. 15:

“But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that of old days God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the Gospel, and believe.” (v. 5–7.) Observe Peter from the first standing aloof (κεχωρισμένον) from the affair, and even to this time Judaizing. And yet (says he) “ye know.” (ch. x. 45; xi. 2.) Perhaps those were present who of old found fault with him in the matter of Cornelius, and went in with him (on that occasion): for this reason he brings them forward as witnesses. “From old days,” he says, “did choose among you.” What means, “Among you?” Either, in Palestine, or, you being present. “By my mouth.” Observe how he shows that it was God speaking by him, and no human utterance. “And God, that knoweth the hearts, gave testimony unto them:” he refers them to the spiritual testimony: “by giving them the Holy Ghost even as unto us.” (v. 8.) Everywhere he puts the Gentiles upon a thorough equality. “And put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith.” (v. 9.) From faith alone, he says, they obtained the same gifts. This is also meant as a lesson to those (objectors); this is able to teach even them that faith only is needed, not works nor circumcision. For indeed they do not say all this only by way of apology for the Gentiles, but to teach (the Jewish believers) also to abandon the Law. However, at present this is not said. “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples?” (v. 10.) What means, “Tempt ye God?” As if He had not power to save by faith. Consequently, it proceeds from a want of faith, this bringing in the Law. Then he shows that they themselves were nothing benefited by it, and he turns the whole (stress of his speech) against the Law, not against them, and (so) cuts short the accusation of them: “which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus we shall be saved, even as they.” (v. 11.) How full of power these words! The same that Paul says at large in the Epistle to the Romans, the same says Peter here. “For if Abraham,” says (Paul), “was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God.”
John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, NPNF1: Vol. XIII, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Homily 32 on Acts 15:1 [italics mine]

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This is evidently the sort of teaching Pelikan was thinking of when he wrote the words in our previous post about justification by faith alone having 'considerable support' in the ancient, catholic tradition. And yet I just read on an Eastern Orthodox apologetics site that justification by faith alone is a 'Protestant heresy'. That may well be a justifiable (sic!) Orthodox view if one is guided solely by post-Reformation Eastern Orthodox polemics on the subject...but then, what to do with clear statements like this from one of the Fathers whom Orthodoxy most reveres? The only solution would appear to be a doctrine of 'double justification', initially by faith and subsequently by works (not unknown in the West, either!). Among the Orthodox, this position is usually accompanied by a polemic against the 'overly juridical' bent of Western theology since Augustine, which Luther subsequently inherited without question (a curious view, since Augustine certainly did not hold to a juridical/forensic doctrine of justification and Luther actually had to go around his monumental legacy to learn the doctrine from the apostle Paul). Here's an example from a modern Orthodox theologian:
'In summary, it is not an antagonistic attitude that causes the eastern Christian and patristic scholar to recoil at some notions of western and Protestant theology, it is simply that the approach employed by many western scholars (inherited from the likes of Augustine, Anselm and Luther) seems at odds with what eastern Christians believe has been safeguarded since the foundation of the Church at Pentecost. The traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works... Because of its less juridical exegesis of Pauline soteriological statements, Eastern Christianity has never had anything approaching the kind of faith v. works controversies that have enveloped and (for both good and ill) theologically shaped the Christian West... Rather, the East has maintained a somewhat distant and even puzzled attitude toward the theological polemics which have raged over justification in terms of faith or works.'
Valerie Karras, in Justification and the Future of the Ecumenical Movement (Liturgical Press – Collegeville, MN)

It is certainly true, as Dr Karras maintains, that Orthodox theology and doctrine followed quite a different trajectory from that of the Western church - to the extent, that is, that the latter has been guided by Augustine's anti-Pelagianism. To my mind Orthodox theology represents a development of the theology of the early semi-Pelagian ascetics, some of whom brought monasticism from the East to southern Gaul (see the life and influence of John Cassian, seminal to the development of monasticism in both East and West). The West officially rejected the theology of this movement at the 2nd Council of Orange (529AD), although its influence was never expunged, principally due to the rise and rise of monasticism into the Middle Ages courtesy the Benedictine movement and its offshoots.

Tellingly, the Christian East has never rejected semi-Pelagianism; from that perspective the centrality of disputes about justification and works in Western theology over the last 500 years must indeed seem inexplicable. But can it really be said that justification by faith alone 'has little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church'!? Granted, the full exposition of the Biblical doctrine had to await the Lutheran Reformation, but there is ample evidence that the Fathers who closely expounded the New Testament in their homilies knew the doctrine. In my view, the reason why the presence of the doctrine in the Fathers is so easily overlooked is that they never succeeded in integrating it into their theology of the Christian life as a whole, a lacuna which Eastern Orthodoxy has perpetuated. That task was God-given to Blessed Martin Luther, Master Philipp Melanchthon, the Confessor Martin Chemnitz and other luminaries of the Lutheran Reformation. SDG!

18 comments:

Lvka said...

I don't understand how you can put faith in Christ and the good deeds that this faith teaches us to do, on the same par with the stale and empty rituals of the Pharisees who held to an overly-literal view of the Old Testament... I just don't think that that's what Chrysostom had in mind when he wrote that...

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Yes Lucian, that's the point: the righteousness of God that comes to us through the Gospel excludes works - whether the works of the Law of Moses or the good works done by Gentiles under the light of their conscience. Read Romans 1-5 & Galatians 3 & Ephesians 1-3. Think upon these things, my friend.

Bucko said...

G'Day Mark. Have been really enjoying reading your blog and picking up some good reference material along the way. I appreciate also the thoughts of others who contribute to your blog through their comments, they help me to understand my own position even if I do not join in the discussion. Keep up the good work.

On the subject of 'saving works' I am constantly reminded of our need for grace. Even Paul's words about the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) remind us that the good stuff we do does not come from us, but from the Spirit at work in us. We cannot claim any credit for anything. Yes we want good works to flow, but we can no more make it flow than we could have stopped the Brisbane River at the start of the year. Anyway I hope that makes sense.
From an old classmate.
On a personal note, were you invited to the hermeneutics seminar a few weeks ago? I didn't get up there but just wondering if you did go and if you will put some thoughts down in your blog?
God Bless. Jason B

Pr Mark Henderson said...

G'day Jason!
Good to hear from you.

Yes, your analogy with the Brisbane River is an apt one :0)

I was invited to the hermeneutics seminar but I was simply too busy (and too poor) to go. I'm also hoping to read a report from someone who was there.

I'm always encouraged when people tell me they get something from the blog(s). I enjoy doing it just for what it teaches me, but it's gratifying to know others read it too.

Btw, I met your mum at Victoria Synod in 2008. It was good to see her again and get some news. And of course your uncle and cousins were members at Tarrington. Are you still in Mt Gambier?

Bucko said...

Thanks Mark. Still in Mt Gambier. Currently in my 4th Year serving as Chaplain at St Martins. Really enjoying discussing theology again. Only problem is, being a lay-chaplain I don't get to catch up at Pastor's Conferences. Now trying to get my Dip Ed so I can move more into teaching (at some point it must be cheaper for a College to employ a Pastor than a lay person, though Teachers Registration Board have closed the loophole that allowed you to teach Religious Ed with special clause). Still want to teach Christian Studies but need to add something else to it like Maths or History.
Sorry I didn't make my way over while you were down south to say G'Day.

David Cochrane said...

I enjoy these very much Pr Henderson. God's peace. †

Pr Mark Henderson said...

David - thanks; there's plenty more to come!

Jason - blessings on your pursuit of a Dip Ed. If it were me, I'd go for History, but I know Maths teachers are more highly valued. Stay in touch, brother.

Terry Maher said...

Judas H Priest OSB, everybody knows the Benedictines single-handedly saved Western Civilisation!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Maybe so, Terry, but they also spread Cassian's ascetic theology, with its three ways of purgation, illumination and union, into the West and initiated the idea of the so-called 'evangelical counsels'. While there were always exceptions (like the luminous figure of Bernard of Clairvaux) to the general rule, this spiritual theology had a baneful influence on the Western church - imo, :0).

Terry Maher said...

Well, you know, to some extent I was just having fun, being a survivor, er, graduate, of s Benedictine university, and having had some thought of joining the order.

Nonetheless, his Semi-Pelagianism is disputed among scholars and theologians, and, far from trying to resolve the dispute, I would say that there should be a dispute at all shows how worthless all these systems of sanctification are, utterly rooted in a neurotic withdrawal from life not to mention a complete rejection of vocation, forming little isolated cult-cells for collective neuroses, ie monasticism.

The dispute does not require resolution, but rather rejection in toto, heeding the words of Christ that no, we are not to build tents on the mountain but go now into Jerusalem where there is much to endure.

Florovsky gives him a clean bill of health as to God's grace effective throughout even in the human will. It may be that this is yet another place where the East sees the West as having misunderstood something, then produced another misunderstanding to attempt correction (ie the RCC then the Reformation).

Nonetheless, the Benedictines did single-handedly save Western Civilisation after the Western Roman Empire fell apart!

Lvka said...

Saint Paul (like Christ Himself) opposes good deeds to the works of the Law.
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You mentioned Romans 1-5:

Romans 4:18-22 describes how faith produces regeneration through the power of grace. Abraham and Sarah were old and barren, but they put their trust in God to give them a son, and He regenerated their old and barren bodies, making them fruitful again. Likewise, our soul is barren of all good deeds, until we reach out to God by faith and repentance, and are healed by Him through His saving grace.
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You mentioned Galatians 3 and Ephesians 1-3:

Galatians 3 opposes the Spirit to the flesh. Now, Saint Paul calls good deeds the fruits of the Spirit (in Galatians 5:22-24, and Ephesians 5:9), whereas the works of the law he calls carnal (Romans 8:3-4; Galatians 3:2-3; Hebrews 9:8-10).

So the things condemned by him in Galatians 3 as being carnal and opposing the Spirit CANNOT be the same as those he elsewhere calls as being the very fruits of that same Spirit. (Obviously). This is especially clear in Galatians 5:6, as well as 1 Corinthians 7:19; Titus 1:13-16; 3:8-9.
___________________________________

It is therefore obvious that God's grace cannot be merited by good deeds (since it logically precedes them), but it is also equally-evident that if that grace is not multiplied according to the words of the Gospel (contained in the Parable of the Sower, and in that of the Talents), then it does NOT ultimately inbreed salvation, as the Savior Himself warned us in the divine Scriptures.

Terry Maher said...

Oh, and Bernard luminous? Not in my book. The guy was thoroughly enmeshed in Roman and papal politics and truth to tell didn't have bupkis to do with O Sacred Head either.

joel in ga said...

When Roman Catholic apologists criticize justification by faith alone, I recall how even the American Bible Society's Good News Bible (A.K.A. the Good News Translation, formerly Today's English Version) -- Catholic edition, bore the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur and rendered Romans 3.28 with Luther's famous 'only':

"For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands."

Terry Maher said...

O.M.G. I must be out of illuminatio and into unitio, as I only just now noticed that the contemporary EO theologian is quoted from a Liturgical Press publication! Why formerly the sight of the name of the Regurgical Press would have brought dizziness, headache, reaching for Pepto-Bismol, etc. Luckily Godfrey sent me stuff so I never had to spend a damn dime there, though I could have barfed out my window and hit the roof of the place on a good day, back in the day!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Terry - I completely concur in your assessment of 'systems of sanctification' based on neurotic withdrawal from life and rejection of vocation (or, rather, perversion of it?).

Joel - yes, I too have seen Roman Catholic bibles and commentaries with an imprimatur which teach justification by faith alone - a 'felicitous onconsistency'!

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Lucian,

Do you mean 'warnings' like this:

'Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
:0)

I don't think the parables of the sower and the talents are germane to the point you are making. They are about responses to the word and Jesus, not 'multiplying grace'.

Now, on 'works of the law' and 'fruits of the Spirit', under which category shall we put the ascetic practices of Orthodoxy?

Cf Colossians 2:16-23:
'...let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh'

Lvka said...

Now, on 'works of the law' and 'fruits of the Spirit', under which category shall we put the ascetic practices of Orthodoxy?


Since Saint Paul explicitely mentions "temperance" or "continence" or "self-restraint" amongst the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, and then goes on to speak about "crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts" in the very next verse, I think the answer is obvious... [which, of course, is NOT to say that religious formalism doesn't distort the true nature of fasting...]

Lvka said...

Something in the same vein, from a modern Orthodox Saint.