Augustine and His Realism

by J. V. Fesko

In the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 70-138), we read that God abolished the old order of Moses so that the “new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have a human oblation.” Likewise, Justin Martyr spoke of the gospel as a “new law,” and Tertullian employed the same old law-new law categories: “And so there is incumbent on us a necessity binding us, since we have premised that a new law was predicted by the prophets, and that not such as had been already given to their fathers at the time when He led them forth from the land of Egypt, to show and prove, on the one hand, that the old law had ceased, and on the other that the promised new law is now in operation.”  Given this confusion of law and gospel. it is fair to say that for some church fathers it would be difficult to affirm a Reformation doctrine of justification because of the differing hermeneutical presuppositions.  As Scott Clark observes:

“This is not an indictment of the fathers.  To criticize the fathers for failing to use Luther’s (or Calvin’s) language is rather like criticizing Aquinas for not using Einstein’s physics.  The conceptual framework within which most early postapostolic Christians read the Scriptures made it difficult for  them to see the forensic categories.  Because Christians were frequently marginalized and criticized as immoral and impious, the fathers placed great stress on piety and morality.   They did not, however, always ground their parenesis in the gospel in the same way Paul did.”

It was during the Pelagius-Augustine debate, however, where matters pertaining to soteriology, or more specifically justification, were defined with greater precision.

The Augustine-Pelagius Debate

If the early patristic period was marked by a confusion regarding the relationship between faith and works in salvation, the debate between Augustine (354-430) and Pelagius (d. 425) brought greater clarity.  One should not, though that Augustine never addressed the topic of justification in a precise way, and he never devoted a treatise, sermon, or letter to the subject.  Nevertheless, it is helpful to see what contribution Augustine brings to the development of the doctrine, as Augustine plays a significant role in the sixteenth-century debates on justification.

Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin and argues that sin was passed, not ontologically or forensically, but by imitation.  Commenting on Romans 5:12, Pelagius writes:  ”By example or by patter…. As long as they sin the same way, they likewise die.”  This mean, of course, that one could by his works merit his justification.  While God’s grace was helpful it was not absolutely necessary.  Augustine, on the other hand, held to a strong doctrine of original sin, which made the grace of God absolutely necessary and antecedent to the believer’s good works.  Augustine writes:  Grace is therefore of him who calls, and the consequent good works of him receives grace.  Good works do not produce grace but as produced by grace.  Fire is not hot in order that it may burn, but because it burns.  A wheel does not run nicely in order that i may be round, but because it is round.”  Given the necessary priority of grace of God, Augustine’s formulation of justification placed a strong emphasis upon the necessity of faith to the exclusion of works.

Augustine understood that when the Scripture speaks of the “righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17), it refers not to the righteousness by which God himself is righteous but that by which he justifies sinners. (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter 11, in NPNF 5:87).  This means that for Augustine, the sinner’s justification is a free gift from God given through faith: “In a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace.” (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter 11, in NPNF 5:93)  So then, faith received great emphasis in Augustine’s understanding of justification, though it should also be noted that his view of justification was more holistic.  Justification was not merely a forensic declaration of righteousness but also the transformation of the sinner.” (Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines, 207).

Alister McGrath explains that the initial transmission of a scriptural Hebrew or Greek concept in Latin affected the development of the doctrine of justification.  He notes, for example that dikaioun (“to justify”) was translated by the Latin term iustificare (“to make righteous”). (McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 1.16.) In other words, in the translation from Greek to Latin, the forensic nature of the verb was lost and replaced by a transformative term. “Viewed theologically,” writes McGrath, “this transition resulted in a shift of emphasis from iustitia coram Deo to iustitia in hominibus. The shift of emphasis and reference from God to man is inevitably accompained by an anthropocentricity in the discussion of justification which is quite absent from the biblical material.” (McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 1:15-16)  Yet one has to wonder whether he can pin the development of the doctrine of Augustine, or in the Middle Ages, on the translation of the verb alone.

There are two factors that one should consider in this matter.  First, there is the common assumption that Augustine rarely if ever used the Greek NT.  Some often assume that Augustine used only the Vulgate.  There is evidence, however, that demonstrates that Augustine used and interacted with the Greek text.  Gerald Bonner explains that Augustine was known to verify his biblical references against the Greek originals;  he was not satisfied with the Latin text alone.  As evidence, Bonner cites a letter written by Augustine in 414 where he compared readings of Romans 5:14 in a number of different codices.  Hence, it seems that one cannot say that Augustine was ignorant of the Greek NT.

Second, one must take in account the greater scope of Augustine’s thought, particularly realism, which seems a more likely source for his confusion of justification and sanctification. (Clark, “Letter and Spirit, ” 334)  The apostle Paul works exclusively in legal or forensic categories in his doctrine of justification, whereas Augustine did not strictly do the same.  Augustine understood original sin and its transmission in realistic categories, in that sin is transmitted through natural descent.  Conversely, the grace of God is infused in the sinner to counteract the effects of original sin.  (Augustine, On Forgiveness of Sins and Baptism, 1.20, in NPNF 5:22) Augustine also understood Romans 5:12 in realistic terms and, as noted above, was insistent upon reading the passage, in spite of his knowledge of the Greek codices, as a locative, in quo omnes peccaverunt (“in all whom sinned”). It seems like a reasonable possibility that his philosophical presuppositions rather than his knowledge of Greek grammar could have driven his exegesis.  Moreover, in baptism, the church washes away original sin:

“For by this grace He engrafts into His body even baptized infants, who certainly have not yet become able to imitate anyone.  As therefore He, in whom all are made alive, besides offering Himself as an example of righteousness to those who imitate Him, gives also to  those who believe on Him the hidden grace of His Spirit, which He secretly infuses even into infants. (Augustine, On Forgiveness of Sin and Baptism 1.10, in NPNF 5:18-19)

Given these theological and philosophical commitments, it seems impossible that Augustine could construct a purely forensic understanding of justification.  If we briefly look forward to the Reformation, the Reformers rejected this ontological conception of sin and grace, and returned to a forensic understanding.  They looked at the sinner’s legal relationship to the first and last Adams.  Just as the sin of Adam is imputed those in Adam, so too the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who are in him.  This ontological versus legal understanding of justification colors the development of the doctrine not only through the Middle Ages but well into the present day.  In fact, as we will see in the chapter on the RCC, it is something that still separates Protestants from Catholics, and one might add the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Taken from Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine by J.V. Fesko in his chapter titled “Justification In Church History” pages 10-14


Transcribed by iustitia aliena