Oden, Thomas C. (2002) The Justification Reader (Cambridge: Eerdmans)
‘Justification’ is impossible to define without controversy, which is one reason why this book is needed. It has to do with how God saves people and it has to do with righteousness; the thing is, once you start adding any more detail onto that sketch you are bound to show your theological colours. In The Justification Reader, Thomas Oden argues that there is an early Christian consensus on justification, from which Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers can learn and use in efforts towards interdenominational reconciliation.
However, Oden’s modus operandi is not really exegetical. We are not, for example, presented with this or that passage of an early Christian thinker’s work and then given an explanation of how this fits into current issues concerning justification. Rather, what we get is a point-by-point explanation of what Oden takes (and I take) the doctrine of justification to be, supported at every stage by reference to those early Christian thinkers. That point-by-point explanation is bound to be controversial for the reasons already alluded to.
In what follows I am going to follow Oden’s method by mentioning four claims about justification that at least appear to be distinctively Evangelical, and then quoting early Christian thinkers in support of them. I provide page references to The Justification Reader and, where possible, links to where the content can be found online. In some cases I have quoted longer passages than Oden does.
Justification is is the declaration of our righteous status before God that comes solely from Christ’s righteousness imputed to us
He himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us—the holy one for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else could cover our sins except his righteousness? In whom could we, lawless and impious as we were, be made righteous except in the Son of God alone? O sweetest exchange! O unfathomable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation! The sinfulness of many is hidden in the Righteous One, while the righteousness of the One justifies the many that are sinners.
Epistle to Diognetus (link)
The means of our justification is that, on the cross, Christ bore the penalty for our sins in our place
Ought ye not in justice to be reconciled for this one thing only that He hath done to you now?’ And what hath He done? “Him that knew no sin He made to be sin, for you.” [2 Corinthians 5:21] For had He achieved nothing but done only this, think how great a thing it were to give His Son for those that had outraged Him. But now He hath both well achieved mighty things, and besides, hath suffered Him that did no wrong to be punished for those who had done wrong. But he did not say this: but mentioned that which is far greater than this. What then is this? “Him that knew no sin,” he says, Him that was righteousness itself, “He made sin,” that is suffered as a sinner to be condemned, as one cursed to die. […]
one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, (who was himself of no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation
Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407), Homilies on The Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians (link)
Justification is received by faith alone, not faith plus something else
All we bring to grace is our faith. But even in this faith, divine grace itself has become our enabler. For [Paul] adds, ‘And this is not of yourselves but it is a gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8-9)’. It is not of our own accord that we have believed, but we have come to belief after having been called; and even when we had come to believe, He did not require of us purity of life, but approving mere faith, God bestowed on us forgiveness of sins.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393 – c. 457), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul
he [Paul] had countered that the the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is for all who believe, that there is no distinction, but all have sinned, both Jews and Greeks, and lack the glory of God and are justified through the grace and redemption which is in Christ Jesus. He himself is the propitiatory through faith, and all who are of faith are justified by him. In this current passage, the Apostle, as if establishing the conclusion of his previous arguments, now says, “Where then is you boasting? It is excluded. Through what law? That of works? No, but through the law of faith. For we hold that a man is justified through faith without works of law” [Romans 3:27-28]. He is saying that the justification of faith alone suffices, so that the one who only believes is justified, even if he has not accomplished a single work. […]
The very same God justifies members of both peoples who believe, and this is based not upon the privilege of circumcision or uncircumcision but in consideration of faith alone.
Origen (c. 184 – c. 253), Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (link p 226, 230)
Where there is true belief through true faith, true salvation certainly accompanies it.
Fulgentius (c. 467 – c. 533), On The Incarnation
the Lord Christ is both God and the mercy seat, both the priest and the lamb, and he performed the work of our salvation by his blood, demanding only faith from us
Theodoret, Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans
So also is the declaring of His righteousness not only that He is Himself righteous, but that He doth also make them that are filled with the putrefying sores of sin suddenly righteous. And it is to explain this, viz. what is “declaring,” that he has added, “That He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Doubt not then: for it is not of works, but of faith: and shun not the righteousness of God, for it is a blessing in two ways; because it is easy, and also open to all men.
Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (link)
God gave what he promised in order to be revealed as righteous. For he had promised that he would justify those who believe in Christ, as he says in Habakkuk: ‘The Righteous will live by faith in me’ [Habakkuk 2:4]. Whoever has faith in God and Christ is righteous.
Ambrosiaster (late 4th century), Commentary on Paul’s Epistles
For since it is possible to be saved, yet not without shame (as many are saved of those, who by the royal humanity are released from punishment), that no one may suspect this upon hearing of safety, he adds also righteousness; and righteousness, not thine own, but that of God; hinting also the abundance of it and the facility. For you do not achieve it by toilings and labors, but you receive it by a gift from above, contributing one thing only from your own store, “believing.”
Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (link)
Not only sufficient but superabundant indeed is the righteousness that comes from faith. This salvation is freely given by the grace of God through the knowledge of Christ. It can hardly be said to be a gift of the law. For to know rightly the mystery of his incarnation and passion and resurrection is the perfection of life and the treasure of wisdom.
Theodoret, Epistle to the Philippians
Justification has always been by faith alone, even before the incarnation
We, therefore, who have been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our wisdom or understanding or piety, nor by the works we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by the faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Clement of Rome (late 1st century), Letter to the Corinthians
Paul revealed that Abraham had glory before God not because he was circumcised nor because he abstained from evil, but because he believed in God. For that reason he was justified, and he would receive the reward of praise in the future.
Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles
Despite being very conciliatory in tone, then, the book is inevitably somewhat polemical in nature. But only somewhat, since Oden goes further than would be required for a simple Evangelical polemic on this issue. The Evangelical position is not that every early Christian thinker understood the doctrine of justification fully without ever making a mistake. The claim is, rather, that the doctrine of justification expounded by the magisterial reformers is what the Bible teaches, and that (under God) the Bible has the final word on this and every matter of doctrine and practice. This does not require that there was an early consensus on the doctrine that was decisively in favour of evangelicalism.
However, it is often claimed, especially by Roman Catholics, that this understanding of the doctrine appeared de novo in the sixteenth century, which would be strange if it were indeed what the Bible teaches. The quotations above show that this claim is simply baseless. Thus the Theology Network website correctly appraises the book as being
Good all round, but especially for seeing that justification by faith alone is not a Reformation invention.
Does the book go further than this, as Oden aims, and show that there was a consensus on the doctrine of justification? There was certainly a great deal of agreement. But then, there is a great deal of agreement now. What differences there are are important, however, and the reader is left suspecting that it was ever thus.