Sunday, June 16, 2024

Faith Alone In Celsus And His Sources

I've often mentioned that we need to take more than the church fathers into account when thinking about the patristic era. (See here for one of my posts discussing the topic.) Several decades ago, Thomas Torrance published a book that was highly critical (overly critical) of how the earliest church fathers viewed grace (The Doctrine Of Grace In The Apostolic Fathers [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1996]). Despite being so negative about the earliest fathers, he was more positive about some sources later in the second century:

"The plain fact is that the Church of the Apostolic Fathers has but a very feeble understanding of the great truths of the Gospel….They are unable to see that the Kingdom of God carries with it a subversion of human values, and of the order of merit. Strangely enough it was perceived by a man like Celsus [a pagan opponent of Christianity in the second century] who was outside the Christian pale altogether. From him we learn too that there were Christians who did understand this revolutionary nature of the Gospel, but on the whole the period represented by the Didache shows little evidence of a really evangelical faith." (39)

Torrance doesn't cite any source, but there's a good chance that he was thinking of some passages in Celsus' treatise against Christianity, as cited by Origen, in which Celsus comments on the nature of Christian discourse in his day. I suspect these passages are at least part of what Torrance had in mind. But I think they do reflect belief in sola fide at the time of Celsus, even if Torrance was thinking of some of Celsus' other comments:

"And he [Celsus] asserts that certain persons who do not wish either to give or receive a reason for their belief, keep repeating, 'Do not examine, but believe!' and, 'Your faith will save you!'" (Origen, Against Celsus 1:9)

"If these (meaning the Christians) bring forward this person, and others, again, a different individual (as the Christ), while the common and ready cry of all parties is, 'Believe, if thou wilt be saved, or else begone,' what shall those do who are in earnest about their salvation? Shall they cast the dice, in order to divine whither they may betake themselves, and whom they shall join?" (Celsus, in Origen, Against Celsus 6:11)

Origen objects to how often Celsus is bringing the subject up, so it seems that it was a recurring theme in his treatise. Apparently, Celsus had come across or heard about Christians making such comments and found it objectionable enough to bring it up more than once.

He's not just addressing soteriology. The context is largely about the allegation of fideism. I've addressed that charge, as Celsus formulated it, elsewhere. However, his comments are also relevant to soteriology. He refers to what will "save" people, the desire to "be saved", and individuals "who are in earnest about their salvation". Furthermore, the "Your faith will save you!" line is reminiscent of Luke 7:50, a passage addressing soteriology, which aligns with comments Jesus made in other places in the gospels as well.

The theme of being saved by believing in response to the gospel message is common in Evangelicalism, and it frequently occurs in Jesus' public ministry (like in Luke 7:50), in Acts, and elsewhere in early Christianity. See the double-digit number of New Testament examples of people being justified through faith alone, apart from baptism and all other works, here. Shortly after the time when Celsus wrote, Tertullian responded to critics of baptismal regeneration in his day and conceded the pattern in the gospels I've referred to above. He wrote, "Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and has become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added to the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. For the law of baptizing has been imposed" (On Baptism, 13). Shortly before what I just quoted, Tertullian provides some examples of individuals being justified apart from baptism during Jesus' public ministry. The first example he cites, in section 12 of the document, is Jesus' use of the "your faith has saved you" line, found in Luke 7:50. It's significant that Tertullian not only knew of people advocating justification through faith alone in his day, but also prominently mentioned the theme of Luke 7:50 when responding to them, something Celsus also highlighted when discussing the Christians he had encountered. So, both the context before Celsus wrote and the context just after increase the plausibility that he's responding to the Christian proclamation of justification through faith alone.

A potential objection is that Celsus and the Christians he's citing are only referring to faith as part of the process, not faith alone. But that's a less likely interpretation for a few reasons.

For one thing, it requires assuming that more than faith is involved in a context that only mentions faith. People who believe in justification through faith and works sometimes refer only to faith as a shorthand way of summarizing their view, but we don't begin with a default assumption that such shorthand is being used. Rather, the burden of proof is on the shoulders of anybody who wants us to think that more than faith is involved in a context that only mentions faith. After all, we accept the shorthand interpretation I just referred to in certain contexts because we have evidence that the source in question believed in justification through works. It doesn't follow that we can assume a belief in justification through works where such evidence is absent.

Secondly, the charge of fideism Celsus is making depends on only having faith, not taking the time and other resources needed to do research, and so forth. To refer to saving faith in that sort of context implies faith alone, not a combination of faith and works. The charge of fideism depends on faith's being alone, so assuming that the accompanying soteriological comments are meant to involve more than faith is problematic. In other words, Celsus' pairing of fideism and Christian soteriology makes the most sense if faith is alone in both contexts, meaning that works of any type (including sacraments) aren't being included. In Henry Chadwick's translation of Origen's work, the first section I quoted above (1:9) has Celsus setting the following comments of Christians side by side (Origen: Contra Celsum [New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 12):

"Do not ask questions; just believe"

"Thy faith will save thee"

Notice the "just" in the first quote, related to fideism. The second quote, related to soteriology, therefore makes more sense as referring to just faith.

Third, the fact that Jesus' language in the gospels is being used (as reflected in Luke 7:50) suggests faith alone, since people were justified through faith alone in that context. Even Tertullian, an advocate of baptismal regeneration who wrote an entire treatise on baptism, conceded that point.

Fourth, Tertullian tells us more than Celsus does about the Christians he's responding to. And we know that the Christians Tertullian was interacting with were advocating faith alone, including the exclusion of baptism in particular. The fact that the theme of Luke 7:50 comes up in both contexts (Celsus' context and Tertullian's) doesn't prove that the individuals were the same or part of the same group or even had significantly similar beliefs. But if they had similar beliefs about the subject under consideration here, then the fact that the theme of Luke 7:50 came up in both contexts makes more sense.

We don't have a lot to go by in evaluating Celsus' comments. We can't be as confident here as we can be about other sources. But what we have does suggest that Celsus had come across some Christians who held to justification through faith alone and were advocating it in their public discourse.

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