McGrath said that the doctrine, in the first 350 years of church history, was “inchohate and ill-defined”. Now in this new work by Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, provides, among other things, an expansion and clarification of what McGrath had said about this period. Here are several conclusions of that particular segment of his work from a review by Jeremy Bouma:
“In the writings of the earliest Christians we do not find many references to justification,” Schreiner notes, “but the evidence we do have supports the notion that most early church fathers understood justification forensically.” (26)
For instance, he notes Clement emphasized God’s gracious work in the lives of believers; justification is granted by God to those who exercise faith; and good works result from faith, they’re not the grounds for it.
Likewise, “Ignatius emphasizes that believers live according to grace and center on Jesus Christ…Justification for Ignatius centers on Jesus Christ, and the atonement that comes through his blood, so that Christ is understood as a substitute.” (28)
Schreiner quotes the Epistle to Diognetus as an example of an early text where “justification by grace and by the substitutionary work of Christ are clearly taught”:
God himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty…O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners! (29)
As we reach the patristic period, Schreiner reminds us that justification wasn’t an issue being debated at this time, “thus the theology isn’t always integrated or consistent.” They didn’t reach the same kind of clarity as the Reformers did when it was the issue du jour. “Instead, the early church fathers often recognized what the NT said about justification by faith and proclaimed it truth in their teaching and preaching.” (31)
For instance, Origen finds this doctrine at work in the thief at the cross, claiming “faith is the foundation of our justification, so that righteousness isn’t based on works of the law.” (31) Likewise, “Chrysostom insists that justification can’t be given through works since God demands perfect obedience. Hence, the only way to be justified is through grace.” (32)
He quotes from Ambrosiaster to press his point:
By faith alone one is freely forgiven of all sins and the believer is no longer burdened by the Law for meriting good works. Our works, however, are demonstrative of our faith and will determine whether we are ultimately justified.
Schreiner notes this could easily have been said by Luther or Calvin!
During this time period (325-450), McGrath notes that the primary theological emphasis was on the doctrine of God (in the form of the Trinitarian and Christological formulas), which rightly lay prior to the understanding of justification. So it makes sense that justification was not high on the theological radar.
Finally there’s Augustine of Hippo, a kindred spirit of the Reformers. But does he join them in crying sola fide? While the question is anachronistic, Schreiner makes several points about Augustine’s views:
“Augustine differs from the Reformers in that he understands the word ‘justify’ to mean ‘make righteous’ instead of ‘declare righteous.’” (34)
Unlike the Reformers, “Augustine believed that justification was more than merely an event; it was also a process, and thus he believed in inherent righteousness rather than imputed righteousness.” (34)
“Augustine did not operate with the distinction between sanctification and justification, which is typical in Reformed and Lutheran thought.” (34)
It does seem “Augustine would have endorsed faith alone, for his predestination theology emphasized that salvation is the Lord’s work and faith is a gift from him.” (34–35)
You can buy the book here.