The Church Fathers on Justification, Does it even Mattter?

D. H. Williams states that for many modern Protestants, “the Reformation is the bar by which all the rest of church history is judged.”[1] In his opinion people treat the Early Church Fathers unfairly in regards to their understanding of justification. This is mainly due to the common misconception that Greek philosophy influenced the Early Church fathers to the point that they lost their biblical categories. Alister McGrath exemplifies this when he writes that the pre-Augustinian tradition, “may be regarded as having taken a highly questionable path in its articulation of the doctrine of justification in the face of pagan opposition.” Furthermore, he states, “Justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition.”[2] McGrath hardly spends any ink when writing about the Early Church and what he does commit to paper is how it absorbed legalistic tendencies.

Is this a fair assessment of the Patristic Era? It probably is not the healthiest caricature. Firstly, D.H. Williams points out that Reformation could not have developed its doctrine of justification if there was not already the theological foundation of the Trinity and the Incarnation. So when Protestants depict them in this way it is akin to biting the hand that has fed them. Secondly, although the early Church did involve itself with Greek philosophy, they were not negligent of the Pauline idea of Justification. Even though they made friends with their contemporary philosophies, if one looks to Church Fathers it is very clear that the Apostolic witness was still their nurturing Mother. Ahead, I will give a couple examples where the concept of Justification is present in their writings; even if it is a little vaguer then what the Reformation offers us.


[1] D. H. Williams, “Justification by Faith: a Patristic Doctrine,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 57 (2008), pg. 650.

[2] Alister McGrath, Iustia Dei: a History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 18-19.

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One response to “The Church Fathers on Justification, Does it even Mattter?

  1. Thanks for this little gem. I have just finished listening to Ligon Duncan on this topic.

    Raphael (Onedaringjew)

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