A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Fred G. Zaspel
Is justification by grace through faith alone a new doctrine? Did the Reformers invent it? Did the early church have such a doctrine? Did the church fathers teach it?
You have probably heard that justification by faith is not to be found in the patristics, but Thomas Oden wants to correct your thinking on this score. His Justification Reader is given to show that the apostolic doctrine of justification as commonly understood by all Protestants was indeed taught by the pre-European, pre-modern, pre-medieval – “classical” – exegetes of the church.
Oden examines the writings of the outstanding figures of the church’s important first five centuries and gathers his findings under three primary headings:
Part 1: Justification
Part 2: By Grace Alone
Part 3: By Faith Alone
Oden demonstrates on all scores – salvation as rescue, justification as a declarative pronouncement of righteousness, substitution, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, grace, faith – that the early church was not by any means bereft of this doctrine which in the medieval era was obscured and which the Reformers then recovered.
Oden has an ecumenical interest: given the presence of this doctrine in that important classical period, Orthodox and Roman Catholic as well as Protestants have a common gospel heritage that ought to be recognized by all sides. With all this evidence he supplies, “it will be harder for Catholics to ignore Protestant teaching on salvation that is grounded in their own most valued historic sources.”
I am not optimistic with regard to the ecumenical potential of Oden’s book – after all, Rome does still affirm Trent. But I love the challenge, and his contribution is an important one. He sheds great light on the historical record and leads the reader to a deeper appreciation of this doctrine that is so central to the gospel.
I am no expert on Augustine, but with that humble confession out in the open I will say that the book did leave me questioning whether Augustine truly shares the “common” doctrine of justification in its Reformed understanding. Specifically, I am not aware that Augustine taught a doctrine of alien righteousness imputed to the believing sinner. To be sure, Augustine was monergistic to the bone and could therefore speak of righteousness “from God” and believed in justification “by grace.” But, according to Augustine, is the righteousness that constitutes us “right” before God external or internal?
Warfield insightfully observed that the Reformation was, in a sense, Augustine versus Augustine, and my suspicion is that this is a case in point. In this case I suspect, against Oden’s protest, that McGrath (Iustitia Dei) is right to say that Luther had to correct Augustine. At any rate, I would be curious to have someone demonstrate that Augustine did, in fact, understand and teach the imputation of the “alien” righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner as the ground of justification.
Even so, Oden has made a very important contribution to historical theology and to the doctrine of justification. The Justification Reader is a thoroughly delightful read which I recommended highly … and heartily.
Just for your enjoyment, here is a paragraph from Oden’s early chapter, “Justification Defined”:
The bare metaphor of acquittal, taken abstractly, is insufficient to express the full extent of God’s saving action. There is a difference. Acquittal may imply that one has done no wrong. Instead, justification (remarkably!) is the acceptance of the sinner, united in Christ by faith, precisely while it remains clear that he or she has indeed done wrong.
It is just while the conscience-stricken sinner is disclaiming his innocence and openly declaring his guilt, that acquittal is announced. If such a condemned person is to be delivered from guilt, it must be by a just cancellation of the charge or blotting out from the record any charge against him.
Yes and Amen.
Fred G. Zaspel
Buy the books
The Justification Reader