The Church Fathers and Sola Fide

James White gave me the following challenge (on Julie Staples Message Board -- November 2002):

JW>  I have missed where you provide an in-depth response to Ambrosiaster's teaching of sola fide, or to the repeated references to the elect in Clement's epistle to the Corinthians, or to the Epistle to Diognetius and its clear reference to imputational righteousness. >>

St. Clement of Rome has been discussed in depth by Matt1618 (see links below) so I don't need to cover him here. Ambrosiaster would be the main focus, as well as Theodoret.

Ambrosiaster did use the term "faith alone," however, he did not use it in the Protestant sense. He used the word "faith" that would include good works or love. "Faith" according to his definition was to walk in love. We Catholics don't have problems with this. He says:

"God by his mercy has saved us through Christ. By his grace, we, born again, have received abundantly of his Holy Spirit, so that relying on good works, with him helping us in all things, we might be able thus to lay hold of the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven." (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Titus 3:7 cited by Robert B. Eno "Some Patristic Views on the Relationship of Faith and Works in Justification" in Justification By Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII [1985], page 115)

"For justification, faith alone in love is necessary. For faith must be fortified with brotherly love for the perfection of the believer." (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Galatians 5:6, ibid 116)

And a comment from Alister McGrath, an Anglican Protestant scholar:

"Like many of his contemporaries, for example, he [Ambrosiaster] appears to be obsessed with the idea that man can acquire merit before God, and the associated idea that certain labours are necessary to attain this." (Alister McGrath, IUSTITIA DEI, volume 1, page 22 -- his reference is to Souter's The Earliest Latin Commentaries on the Epistles of St. Paul [Oxford, 1927] pages 65, 72-73, 80).

And Robert Eno, who Protestants like to quote because of his somewhat negative book on the Papacy, wrote this in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on Ambrosiaster's views:

"Despite our initial justification by God's mercy, our subsequent life, our works, will determine whether we are justified or damned ultimately. As can be seen, Ambrosiaster has no difficulty with merit language for the justified person. Having been washed, we must merit receiving the promise." (Eno, in Justification By Faith, page 117)

James White goes on:

JW> And I wonder what you do with these words:

Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-466) Hebrews 9:27-28: "As it is appointed for each human being to die once, and the one who accepts death’s decree no longer sins but awaits the examination of what was done in life, so Christ the Lord, after being offered once for us and taking up our sins, will come to us again, with sin no longer in force, that is, with sin no longer occupying a place as far as human beings are concerned. He said himself, remember, when he still had a mortal body, “He committed no sin, nor was guile found in his mouth.” It should be noted, of course, that he bore the sins of many, not of all: not all came to faith, so he removed the sins of the believers only." [Robert Charles Hill, Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 2 (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 175. Many thanks to DTK for providing this citation.] >>

James seems to be saying that Theodoret believes in "limited atonement." However, this is a misinterpretation of Theodoret's teachings. James emphasized this quote:

"It should be noted of course, that he bore the sins of many, not of all: not all came to faith, so he removed the sins of the believers only."

The phrase "he bore the sins of many, not all" is the same thing as "not all came to faith, so he removed the sins of the believers only." He explained what he meant by the phrase "he bore the sins of many, not all." In other words, He bore the sins of many not all because not all came to faith. But Theodoret definitely believed that Jesus desires all men to be saved (as does the Bible of course, cf. 1 Tim 2:4,6; 4:10; 2 Peter 3:9; Matt 23:37; Ezek 18:23-32; 33:11; John 1:9,16; 3:16-17; 4:42; 1 John 2:2; 4:9-14; Rom 2:4; 5:6,18; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Titus 2:11; James 1:13-14; Sirach 15:11-20; 1 Cor 10:13; etc):

"By raising the flesh He has given the promise of resurrection to us all, after giving the resurrection of His own precious body as a worthy pledge of ours. So loved He men even when they hated Him that the mystery of the economy fails to obtain credence with some on account of the very bitterness of His sufferings, and it is enough to show the depths of His loving kindness that He is even yet day by day calling to men who do not believe. And He does so not as though He were in need of the service of men -- for of what is the Creator of the universe in want? -- but because He thirsts for the salvation of every man. Grasp then, my excellent friend, His gift; sing praises to the Giver, and procure for us a very great and right goodly feast." (Theodoret, Letter LXXVI To Uranius, Governor of Cyprus)

Here, Theodoret speaks of Jesus as thirsting for the salvation of every man, not the elect only. Anyone who claims otherwise would be "anachronistic." Then of course, he also believed in faith and works for justification and salvation:

"If they give both to the pleadings of the opponents, and deliver a sentence acceptable to them, I shall put up with the injustice as bringing me nearer to the kingdom of heaven, and shall await that impartial tribunal, where there is neither prosecutor, nor counsel, nor witness, nor distinction in rank, but judgment of deeds and words and righteous retribution. "For," it is said, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that every one may receive the things done in his body according to that he hath done whether it be good or bad [cf. 2 Cor 5:10]." (Theodoret, Letter XCI To the Prefect Euthrechius)

"But this I will say, that we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and shall give account of our words and deeds. I, who for every other reason dread this tribunal, now that I am encompassed with calumny, find my chief consolation in the thought of it." (Theodoret, Letter CII To Bishop Basilius)

He also speaks of people who live for Christ will wait for their rewards (Letter XIV To Alexandra).

In closing, James challenged me to give a response to Ambrosiaster and Theodoret. Many apologists, like Matt1618 (see below), have already given such a response. I believe those responses are sufficient to show the Fathers did not believe justification was by faith alone in the Protestant sense -- by sola fide and "imputational righteousness."

However, since I wanted to see if James was right or wrong, I looked into the sources myself. I did so, and I have responded. James White is wrong and he has not refuted any of my responses.

Evangelical Anglican scholar Alister McGrath writes at the conclusion of his doctoral dissertation IUSTITIA DEI: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge Univ Press, 1986), Volume 1, Chapter 5, Section 19 --

"The significance of the Protestant distinction between -iustificatio- and -regeneratio- is that a FUNDAMENTAL DISCONTINUITY has been introduced into the western theological tradition WHERE NONE HAD EXISTED BEFORE [emphasis by McGrath]."

"However, it will be clear that the medieval period was astonishingly FAITHFUL to the teaching of Augustine on the question of the nature of justification, WHERE THE REFORMERS DEPARTED FROM IT [emphasis mine]."

"The essential feature of the Reformation doctrines of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between JUSTIFICATION and REGENERATION. Although it must be emphasised that this distinction is purely notional, in that it is impossible to separate the two within the context of the -ordo salutis- [the order of salvation], the essential point is that a notional distinction is made WHERE NONE HAD BEEN ACKNOWLEDGED BEFORE IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE [emphasis mine]."

"A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition WHERE NONE HAD EVER EXISTED, OR EVER BEEN CONTEMPLATED, BEFORE [my emphasis]. The Reformation understanding of the NATURE of justification -- as opposed to its mode -- must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological NOVUM."

Here is a little bit more from St. Augustine (the great Father of the West), and St. John Chrysostom (the great Father of the East) on justification, salvation, baptism, grace and merit --

SAINT AUGUSTINE on Justification-Salvation

Christ's saints imitate Him in order to pursue JUSTICE [Justification]. Whence also the same Apostle says: "Be imitators of me, even as I am of Christ" [1 Cor 11:1]. But besides this imitation, His GRACE also works WITHIN us our illumination and JUSTIFICATION, by that work of which His same preacher says: "Neither is he that plants anything, nor he that waters, but He that gives the increase, God" [1 Cor 3:7].

For by this GRACE baptized INFANTS too are ingrafted into His body, infants who certainly are not yet able to imitate anyone. Christ, in whom all are made alive, besides offering Himself as an example of RIGHTEOUSNESS for those who would imitate Him, gives also the most hidden GRACE of His Spirit to believers, GRACE which He secretly INFUSES EVEN INTO INFANTS. (Forgiveness of Sins 1:9:10)

You are the only authorities who suppose that JUSTIFICATION is conferred by the remission alone of sins. Certainly God JUSTIFIES the impious man not only by remitting the evil deeds which that man does, but ALSO by granting LOVE, so that the man may turn away from evil and may DO GOOD THROUGH the Holy Spirit. (Against Julian 2:165)

He that is by nature the only Son of God, in His mercy to us, was made Son of Man, so that we, by nature sons of man, might through Him BY GRACE BECOME SONS of God...For just as we, by the sinning of one man, have fallen into this so deplorable an evil, so too through JUSTIFICATION wrought by one Man, the same who is God, we shall come to that good so sublime. (City of God 21:15)

If anyone says that faith MERITS the grace of doing GOOD WORKS, we cannot deny it; rather we admit it most readily. THIS is the FAITH we wish they might have, the FAITH by which they might obtain that LOVE which ALONE truly DOES GOOD WORKS, those brothers of ours who glory so much in their works! LOVE, however, is so much the gift of God that it is called God [1 John 4:8].....

Let no one say to himself: "If [justification] is from faith, how is it freely given [Rom 5:1; 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, and the increase MERITS PERFECTION, with the will ACCOMPANYING but not leading, following ALONG but not going in advance. (Letters 186:3:7,10)

What MERIT, then, does a man have BEFORE grace, by which he might RECEIVE grace, when our EVERY good merit is produced in us ONLY by grace, and, when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but His own GIFTS to us? (Letters 194:5:19)

"He was handed over for our offenses, and He rose again for our JUSTIFICATION" [Rom 4:25]. What does this mean, "for our JUSTIFICATION" ? So that He might justify us; so that He might MAKE US JUST. You will be a work of God, not only because you are a man, but also because YOU ARE JUST....He who made you without your consent does not JUSTIFY you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but He does not JUSTIFY you without your WILLING it. (Sermons 169:13)

Now as to LOVE, which the Apostle says is greater than the other two, that is, than faith and hope [1 Cor 13:13], so much the better is he in whom it is found. For when it is asked whether someone is a good man, it is not asked what he BELIEVES or what he hopes for, but what he LOVES. For if someone loves rightly, without a doubt he believes and hopes rightly. But someone who does not love believes IN VAIN even if what he believes is TRUE; and he hopes IN VAIN, even if what he hopes for is rightly taught as pertaining to true happiness unless he believes and hopes for this also, that through prayer it may be given him to love.....This however, is the FAITH of Christ which the Apostle commanded, which WORKS THROUGH LOVE [Gal 5:6]; and for whatever it does not yet have in love, it asks and receives, seeks and finds, knocks so that it will be opened to it [Matt 7:7]. Faith asks and OBTAINS what the law COMMANDS. For without the Gift of God, that is, without the Holy Spirit, through whom LOVE is poured out into our hearts [Rom 5:5], the law could command but could not help. Moreoever, the law could make a man a transgressor, who could not excuse himself on grounds of ignorance. Where there is NO love of God, carnal desire does reign. (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love 31:117)

What is grace? Something given -gratis-. What is given -gratis-? That which is bestowed rather than paid as owed. If it is owed, it is wages paid, not a gift graciously given. If it was truly owed, you have been good; but if, as is the case, you have been evil, but YOU DID BELIEVE IN HIM WHO JUSTIFIES THE IMPIOUS [i.e. Rom 4:5] -- and what is MEANT BY "He justifies the impious?" That HE MAKES THE IMPIOUS PIOUS -- think what was rightly threatened you by the law, and what you have obtained by grace! But since you have gotten that grace of faith, you shall be just by faith; for the just man lives by faith [Rom 1:17; Hab 2:4]. And by LIVING FAITH you shall DESERVE WELL of God; and when you shall have deserved well of God by LIVING by faith, as REWARD you shall receive immortality and ETERNAL LIFE. AND THAT IS GRACE. Because of what MERIT, then, do you receive ETERNAL LIFE? BECAUSE OF GRACE. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 3:9)

SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM on Justification-Salvation

They are citizens of the Church who were wandering in error. They have their lot in RIGHTEOUSNESS who were in the confusion of sin. For not only are they free, but HOLY also; not only holy, but RIGHTEOUS too; not only righteous, but SONS also; not only sons, but HEIRS as well; not only heirs, but BROTHERS even of Christ; not only brothers of Christ, but also co-heirs; not only co-heirs, but His very members; not only His members, but a temple too; not a temple only, but likewise the instruments of the SPIRIT. You see how many are the benefits of BAPTISM, and some think its heavenly GRACE consists ONLY in the remission of sins; but we have enumerated TEN honors. For this reason we baptize even INFANTS, though they are not defiled by sin [or do not have sins]: so that there may be given to them HOLINESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS, ADOPTION, INHERITANCE, BROTHERHOOD with Christ, and that they may be His MEMBERS. (from Baptismal Catecheses 2:4)

"He that believes in the Son has everlasting life [John 3:36]... "Is it ENOUGH, then, to BELIEVE in the Son," someone will say, "in order to have everlasting life?" BY NO MEANS!Listen to Christ declare this Himself when He says, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord! Lord!' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven" [Matt 7:21]; and the blasphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a PART of our teaching? For if a man BELIEVE rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not LIVE RIGHTLY, his faith will avail him NOTHING TOWARD SALVATION. (Homilies on John 31:1)

"If salvation is BY GRACE [Rom 11:6]," someone will say, "why is it we are not all saved?" BECAUSE YOU DID NOT WILL IT; for grace, even though it be grace, saves the WILLING, not those who are NOT willing and who TURN AWAY from it and who constantly fight against it and OPPOSE themselves to it. (Homilies on Romans 18:5)

We have been freed from punishment, we have put off all wickedness, and we have been REBORN from above [John 3:3,5], and we have risen again, with the old man buried [Rom 6:3-4], and we have been redeemed, and we have been SANCTIFIED, and we have been given ADOPTION INTO SONSHIP, and we have been JUSTIFIED [cf. 1 Cor 6:11], and we have been made BROTHERS of the Only-begotten, and we have been constituted joint heirs and concorporeal with Him and have been perfected in His flesh, and have been united to Him as a body to its head. All of this Paul calls an "abundance of grace" [Rom 5:17], showing that what we have received is not just a medicine to counteract the wound, but even health and comeliness and honor and glory and dignities going far beyond what were natural to us. (Homilies on Romans 10:2)

The following from St. John Chrysostom from Matt1618 (see links below) and the NPNF Volumes:

"To declare His righteousness." What is declaring of righteousness? Like the declaring of His riches, not only for Him to be rich Himself, but also to make others rich, or of life, not only that He is Himself living, but also that He makes the dead to live; and of His power, not only that He is Himself powerful, but also that He makes the feeble powerful. So also is the declaring of His righteousness not only that He is Himself righteous, but that He doth also make them that are filled with the putrefying sores (katasapentaj) of sin suddenly righteous. (Homily 7 on Romans 3, NPNF1, Volume 11, page 378)

(Romans 4) Verse 4 "For to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt." Then is not this last the greatest? he means. By no means: for it is to the believer that it is reckoned. But it would not have been reckoned, unless there were something that he contributed himself. And so he too hath God for his debtor, and debtor too for no common things, but great and high ones. For to show his high-mindedness and spiritual understanding, he does not say "to him that believeth" merely, but Ver. 5. "To him that believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly." For reflect how great a thing it is to be persuaded and have full confidence that God is able on a sudden not to free a man who has lived in impiety from punishment only, but even to make him just, and to count him worthy of those immortal honors. (Homily 8 on Romans 4, NPNF1: Volume 11, page 386)

For what he saith is this, "Your salvation is not our work alone, but your own as well; for both we in preaching to you the word endure affliction, and ye in receiving it endure the very same; we to impart to you that which we received, ye to receive what is imparted and not to let it go." Now what humility can compare with this, seeing that those who fell so far short of him he raiseth to the same dignity of endurance? for he saith, "Which worked in the enduring of the same sufferings;" for not through believing only cometh your salvation, but also through the suffering and enduring the same things with us. (Homily on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, NPNF1: Volume 12, page 277)

For, "think not," saith he, "because ye have believed, that this is sufficient for your salvation: since if to me neither preaching nor teaching nor bringing over innumerable persons, is enough for salvation unless I exhibit my own conduct also unblameable, much less to you. (Homily 23, NPNF1: Volume 12, page 133)

(Galatians 5) Verse 6 "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love." What is the meaning of "working through love?"Here he gives them a hard blow, by showing that this error had crept in because the love of Christ had not been rooted within them. For to believe is not all that is required, but also to abide in love. (Commentary on Galatians 5, NPNF1: Volume 13, page 37)


1992. Justification has been merited for us by the passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.

1996. Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life [John 1; Rom 8; 2 Peter 1].

1997. Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the head of his Body. As an "adopted son" he can henceforth call God "Father," in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.