Monday, February 15, 2010

Justification Reader Review

I finished Thomas Oden's The Justification Reader (Classic Christian Readers). I quoted from the introduction a few weeks ago: "My purpose is plainly to set forth nothing more or less than the classic Christian teaching of salvation by grace through faith, and only those parts of that teaching on which there is substantial agreement between traditions of East and West, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, including charismatic and Pentecostal teaching."

That had me excited; however, the book as a whole was a little disappointing. The goal was ambitious, but I don't think Oden did a good enough job making his case. In a book that promises to be a reader in the ancient fathers of the church, you better have a lot of material from the ancient fathers! In my opinion, the book was too much Oden summarizing and not enough Oden citing. Even among the citations there is too much from the last 500 years, which is good, but doesn't help me get to the consensual teaching of the early church. He quotes often from Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, the Westminster Confession (1642), The Book of Common Prayer (1662), various Baptist Confessions of Faith, The Gospel of Jesus Christ (2002), and repeatedly form the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (2000, from the Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church).

When he does quote ancient sources, it's enlightening. Throughout the work Oden argues that Protestants have come to misunderstand the early church's teaching on justification by faith alone through grace, in large part due to our ignorance of the early church fathers (centuries ago pastors/theologians studied Greek, Hebrew and Latin. We've dropped this and consequently, have 'lost' much of the early church). The contemporary teaching that the Reformation rescued Paul from 1500 years of misinterpretation is wrong. Luther and Calvin themselves didn't argue this. In fact, they appealed often to the early church fathers for support. Here's a few of the best quotes Oden musters to make his case:

Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-457AD), "All we bring to grace is our faith. But even in this faith, divine grace itself has become our enabler...It is not of our own accord that we have believed, but we have come to belief after have 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."

Origen (185-254AD), "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."

Clement of Rome (95AD), "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."

Prosper of Aquitane (390-455AD), "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 judgment that which is freely given. 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 the Donor, but the wages of a laborer."

Cyril of Alexandria (376-444AD), "We do not say that Christ became a sinner, far from it, but being righteous (or rather righteousness, because he did not know sin at all), the Father made him a victim for the sins of the world."

Theodoret, "Christ was called what we are in order to call us to be what he is."

Epistle to Diognetus (late 2nd century), "O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectations! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors."

Chrysostom, "The purpose of the law was to make man righteous, but it had no power to do that. But when faith came it achieved what the law could not do, for once a man believes he is immediately justified."

Jerome (347-420AD), "[When Paul writes] by grace you have been saved through faith, he says this in case the secret thought should steal upon us that 'if we are not saved by our own works, at lease we are saved by our own faith, and so in another way our salvation is of ourselves.; Thus he added the statement that faith too is not in our own will but in God's gift. Not that he means to take away free choice from humanity...but that even this very freedom of choice has God as its author, and all things are to be referred to his generosity, in that he has even allowed us to will the good."

Cyril of Alexandria, "What can we say to those who insist that Abraham was justified by works because he was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar? Abraham was already an old man when God promised him that he would have a son and that his descendants would be as countless as the stars of the sky. Abraham piously believed that all things are possible with God and so exercised this faith. God reckoned him to be righteous on this account and gave Abraham a reward worthy of such a godly mind, viz., the forgiveness of his previous sins...So even if Abraham was also justified by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this must be regarded as an evident demonstration of a faith which was already very strong."

Ambrosiaster (prob. 4th century), "Paul revealed that Abraham had glory before God not because he was circumcised nor because he abstained from evil, but because he believed in God. For that reason he was justified, and he would receive the reward of praise in the future."

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