Brian Arnold on Justification in the Second Century

At Phoenix Seminary, we treasure the motto, Scholarship with a Shepherd's Heart, and we teach, mentor, serve, and publish with it in mind. In this post, summarizing his recently published book on the topic, Dr. Brian Arnold clarifies the earliest history of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We hope you find it helpful. Furthermore, look out for a future giveaway of his book right here on the PS Blog.

Justification in the Second CenturyLast year Protestants celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. In the popular imagination, Martin Luther’s hammer strikes on October 31, 1517 echoed all the way back in time, shattering fifteen hundred years of wrong teaching on the doctrine of justification. He alone knew Paul’s Gospel and recaptured it from a millennium and a half of corrupt teaching. Without casting shade on Luther, since he did wrangle the Gospel from the merit-based clutches of medieval Catholicism, the fair question to ask is whether Luther was the first voice championing justification by faith since Paul, or if there were voices in earliest Christianity who also believed that sinners are declared righteous by faith alone.

Before addressing that question, we need to sound an important qualification. To require that the church fathers speak about justification in the same terms or with the same passion as the Reformers is anachronistic. Doctrine isn’t truly forged until it enters the furnace of debate, and the doctrine of justification would have to wait until the fires of the Reformation to be formulated. When this is kept in mind, I argue that several voices in the second century did seem to argue along the lines of what the Reformers would call sola fide (faith alone).

Over a half century ago, T. F. Torrance argued that the earliest Christian writers, a group we call the Apostolic Fathers, abandoned Paul’s teaching of justification by faith and that they infused works righteousness into the Gospel (The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers). Scholars across the theological spectrum, Protestant and Catholic, agreed with Torrance. Catholics used this to confirm their teaching that salvation is based upon faith and works; Protestants continued to look to Luther as the fountainhead of justification by faith. However, if we probe the writings from the second century, I think we see more emphasis on faith alone than Torrance gave credit. To show this in the book I look at the following works or writers: 1 Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, and the Odes of Solomon. Let’s look at Clement, Diognetus, and the Odes.

1 Clement

Clement of Rome was likely writing in the late AD 90s to the same troubled congregation in Corinth to whom Paul wrote. After exhorting the believers there to follow the godly examples of Peter, Paul, and many Old Testament figures, he made this astounding comment lest his words be taken to mean that one could earn the favor of God:

Therefore, all were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or through their own works or through righteous actions that they did, but through his will. Therefore, we too, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves nor through our own wisdom or through our understanding or through our piety or through our works which we did in holiness of heart, but through faith, through which the Almighty God justified all who existed from the earliest times; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Clement 32.3–4, emphasis added)

No human work could justify a person—faith alone is the only basis by which God has justified anyone. However, someone may object that Clement also said “we are justified by works, and not by words” (1 Clement 30.3). Two things are significant. First, I think Clement adds 32.3–4 lest there be confusion that he teaches works righteousness. Second, I think Clement, whether consciously or not, bridged Paul and James. Does Paul not say, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16) and James say, “you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24)? As Protestants we often demonstrate how Paul and James were not at odds. Why, then, not give Clement the same benefit of the doubt?

Epistle to Diognetus

Likely written in the middle of the second century by an unknown author to an unknown Diognetus, the Epistle to Diognetus contains the most beautiful expression of the Gospel in early Christianity:

For what else was able to cover our sins except the righteousness of that one? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly to be justified except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable work (of God), O the unexpected benefits (of God), that the lawlessness of many might be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one might justify many lawless men. (Epistle to Diognetus 9.3–5)

Is this not the Gospel! Jesus is the “sweet exchange”—the holy for the lawless, the innocent for the wicked, the righteous for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal (v. 2). And how does one acquire the righteousness of this one? The author states in 8.6: “And he revealed himself through faith, which is the only means by which one is permitted to see God.” Clearly Jesus is the only source of salvation and his salvation is accessed through faith.

Odes of Solomon

Of the sources I survey, the Odes of Solomon are the most unfamiliar to people. The Odes are the first known hymnbook in the early church. It is one thing to study what various theologians said in the second century, but another thing to eavesdrop on what the common Christian sung. Songs are what would transmit doctrine into the heart. Luther understood the importance of writing theologically sound music, saying, “Let others write the catechisms and the theology, but let me write the hymns!” And here in this songbook we see several places where believers sang about justification. Consider these three Odes:

And I was justified by my Lord

For my salvation is incorruptible

I have been freed from vanities

and am not condemned

My chains were cut off by His hands

I received the face and likeness of a new person//And I walked in Him and was saved. (Ode 17.2–4)


I was rescued from my chains

And I fled unto Thee, O my God….

And I was justified by His kindness

And His rest is for ever and ever. (Ode 25.1, 12)

The connection between justification and faith is made most explicit in Ode 29.5–6, where justification is tied simply to belief and grace:

And I humbled my enemies,

And He justified me by His grace.

For I believed in the Lord’s Messiah,

And considered that He is the Lord.

If one didn’t know any different, they might think that Charles Wesley wrote these words, since his famous hymn And Can It Be strikes a similar tone:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickn’ing ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

The point in Justification in the Second Century is not to say that there was a single voice on justification in the early church or that they expressed the doctrine with the same force or eloquence that the Reformers did. The point is to demonstrate that those in the second century did not abandon the Gospel of justification by faith. The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan said it well: “To condemn the doctrine of grace in the apostolic fathers, for example, for not being sufficiently Pauline greatly oversimplifies the development both within the first century and between it and the second. There is a continuity in the doctrinal development from one century to the next, and there is a unity within any particular century; neither the continuity nor the unity can be identified with uniformity.” Were there Christians in the second century who expounded Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith? I think so.

About Brian Arnold

Dr. Arnold joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2015 and teaches courses in Systematic Theology and Church History. You can learn more about him at his faculty page.

An Evening with the Professors

On April 19th from 7–9 PM, join us as we celebrate the published work of Dr. Brian Arnold and Dr. Peter Gurry. We want to celebrate them and their achievements, even as they present to us on the significance of their books.

Dr. Arnold will present "The Need for Cyprian Today" and Dr. Gurry will present "How your Greek New Testament is Changing." There will be a Q & A session following their talks.

The event is free and open to the public. Please register here.

On this evening, we will feature Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact by Dr. Arnold and A New Approach to Textual Criticism by Dr. Gurry. You will receive a complimentary T-shirt with your purchase.

There will be a light dessert reception to follow.

A New Approach to Textual Criticism cover

Brian Arnold on Retrieving Cyprian

Retrieval from earlier epochs of Christian history seems to be all the rage these days, and for good reason. In the increasingly chaotic realm of evangelicalism, believers are looking for deeper roots and many are turning to the fathers. In this quest for retrieval, we need to take another look at figures like Cyprian of Carthage, who have valuable things to say to the church today.

Cyprian (c. AD 200–258) was born a pagan of high station and likely did not come to faith until his 40s. Not long after his conversion he became the bishop of Carthage and soon after that, Emperor Decius unleashed a major persecution. A plague followed the persecution and then another persecution followed the plague. Cyprian was able to flee from the first persecution, but he was not so lucky the second time around. On September 14, 258, he was executed by the sword.

Cyprian’s most significant legacy was his doctrine of the church. These persecutions revealed large cracks in the church’s infrastructure, which led him to write On the Unity of the Church. For Cyprian, the nature of the church is her unity. The church cannot be split as several factions had tried to do in picking up the pieces after the persecution. It is in this work that we find one of his most famous lines: “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the Church as your Mother.” In a letter written several years later he even upped the ante, saying, “There is no salvation outside the church.”

Many evangelicals would have a tough time swallowing these words. It sounds as though Cyprian is adding to salvation by faith alone. While we would not want to add church attendance to a checklist for salvation, we should have enough concern for people who claim to be Christians but who are not connected to the bride of Christ to tell them that we do not think they are believers. To be a Christian is to be part of the universal church, but this should also mean being a part of the local church.

A lot of the problems in evangelicalism stem from a low ecclesiology. If we are going to secure that area of our theology, then we will need voices like Cyprian to help show us the way.

Further Reading

J. Patout Burns Jr., Cyprian the Bishop.

Michael Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.

Brian Arnold, Cyprian of Carthage: His Life & Impact.

About the Author

Dr. Arnold joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2015 and teaches courses in Systematic Theology and Church History. You can read more about him at his faculty page here.

John Meade on The Biblical Canon Lists

"What is a biblical canon list," you ask? It is an ancient list of biblical books usually drafted by a church father or synod to specify those books churches recognized as authoritative for doctrine. For example, St. Gregory of Nazianzus drafted a canon list of books (381–90 AD) that promoted piety on the one hand and defended from heterodoxy on the other. At the end of his list, he made clear, at least in his mind, that this list was final and exclusive, "You have all. If there is any book outside of these, they are not among the genuine ones." Gregory was aware of "many, strange books" and "interpolated evils" that had come into being, and his list specified the genuine books so that the reader might also be able to recognize the spurious ones.

Sometimes in the context of a canon list, a father would also draft another list that included other books of a secondary status or position; that is, books not recognized as canonical but books to be read to new converts or useful and beneficial books (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon or the Shepherd of Hermas).

Why are these canon lists important? They provide the clearest, most specific information regarding the Bible's contents in antiquity and therefore will be of interest to anyone who has wondered how they got their Bible.

Until now, access to these ancient biblical canon lists was a challenge for the student and scholar alike. Ed Gallagher and John Meade wrote the The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2017) to make these sources available in one volume. After a substantial opening chapter on the evidence and views of the early period, they provide a chapter on Jewish lists (Josephus; Babylonian Talmud); three chapters on Greek, Latin, and Syriac Christian lists respectively; a substantial chapter on the contents of early Christian manuscripts; and finally, an Appendix which treats the disputed and more common apocryphal books. The famous canon lists of Eusebius, Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine along with many others are now included in one volume. The book presents each list in two columns, the first containing the list in its original language, while the second contains an English translation with commentary in footnotes.

About the Author

Dr. John Meade joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2012. He teaches courses in Hebrew Language and Old Testament Literature along with elective courses on the Septuagint, the Apocrypha, the Canon of Scripture, and Biblical Theology. He and his wife and four kids attend Trinity Bible Church where he serves as community group leader and Sunday School teacher.

Wayne Grudem on Theistic Evolution

Theistic evolution is the view that God did not directly act in the world to create plants, animals, or human beings, but instead that He simply created inanimate matter at the beginning of the universe and then allowed completely naturalistic mechanisms such as random mutation and natural selection to produce all forms of life, including the first living cells and human beings.

Mainstream (secular) evolutionary theories offer a view of biological origins that excludes any role for a designing intelligence or Creator of any kind—affirming instead that “evolution works without plan or purpose.” And now many Christian theologians, scholars, and pastors have felt obligated to accept the evolutionary account of human and biological origins because of the presumed scientific authority of the evolutionary biologists. Consequently, many Christians leaders have thought that they must interpret the Bible to make it conform to evolutionary claims about the origin of life and human beings.

This book challenges this approach and the concept of theistic evolution. The editors J. P. Moreland (philosopher), Stephen Meyer, (philosopher of science), Ann Gauger (protein evolution specialist), Christopher Shaw (molecular endocrinologist), and Wayne Grudem (theologian) have assembled two-dozen highly credentialed scientists (including specialists in molecular and cell biology, organic chemistry, bioprocess engineering, developmental biology, mathematical statistics, zoology, and paleontology) as well as philosophers and theologians from Europe and North America to marshal a formidable interdisciplinary critique of theistic evolution.

The argument presented by Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, November 2017) is divided into three parts: a scientific critique of theistic evolution, including the claim that human beings descended from sub-human animals; a philosophical critique of the idea that “science” must be limited to materialistic explanations of the origins of living things; and a biblical and theological critique of the idea that the Bible can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with Darwinian evolution. The contributors not only document many scientific and evidential problems with contemporary evolutionary theory, they also show that the prominent versions of theistic evolution deny specific historical events in the biblical account of creation, undermining several basic Christian doctrines. Consequently, this volume provides the most comprehensive scientific and Christian critique of theistic evolution yet produced.

[Editor: If this article interests you, check out the Phoenix Seminary January conference based on this book. Wayne Grudem, J. P. Moreland, and Stephen Meyer will be speaking. Click this link for more information.]

About the Author

Dr. Grudem became Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in 2001 after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 20 years. He has served as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (1999), and as a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as the General Editor for the ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008).