Thursday, October 15, 2020

St Jerome's fascinating insights on the famous verse "The righteous man shall live by faith"

In the opening chapter of Romans, Paul famously says: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" The "as it is written" verse Paul is citing here in his thesis statement is from the relatively obscure book of the prophet Habakkuk, chapter 2:4. I have always been fascinated by this verse, especially considering Paul quotes it multiple places (e.g. Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11, Heb 10:38), and thus I've been highly suspicious of the general lack of Protestant commentary on the context and meaning of Habakkuk 2:4. I think too often Protestants have glossed over this verse, thinking merely that Habakkuk is saying "a man is justified by faith". But this surface level reading does not seem to fit the actual wording of the verse nor the context. In this post, I want to consider a fascinating commentary on this verse, which I had not considered, which I stumbled upon in St Jerome's Commentary on Galatians.

St Jerome, commenting on Galatians 3:11-12, says

We should note that he did not say that just any man lives by faith, lest he provide an excuse for the devaluation of virtuous deeds. Rather, he said that the righteous man lives by faith. This means that before having faith and the intention to live by it, one must already be righteous and must by the purity of his life have claimed certain steps that lead to faith. It is therefore possible for someone to be righteous without yet living by faith in Christ. If this is troublesome to the reader, let him consider what Paul says about himself [Phil 3:6]: "As for righteousness according to the Law, I was faultless." At the time, Paul was righteous in terms of keeping the Law, but he was not yet able to live by faith because he did not have Christ
This is astonishing, because with this explanation, Paul is basically undermining the very erroneous Protestant idea which teaches that our own sinfulness prevents our works from saving us. In Jerome's explanation, a person who is already righteous still needs faith. This fits perfectly with what I've written about numerous times (e.g. Here and Here) against the Protestant heresy of Salvation By Good Works Alone, contrasted to the Catholic teaching of St Paul which is Salvation by Faith.

This lead me to another discovery, noticing the context in which Paul quotes Habakkuk within his Galatians 3:10-12 argument:
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
By citing Habakkuk 2:4 within the context of the "works of the law," per Jerome's insights this means that Paul has in mind particularly the Jew-Gentile controversy, and is thus saying even if a Jew were following the Mosaic Law, and thus were 'righteous per the Law', such is not enough. Faith would still be needed. Jerome further elaborates that Paul mentions "live" in two instances here: faith causes life and keeping the law causes life. Since both cannot be true in the same sense must mean that the "life" that the Law gives is a temporal living, such as long life and earthly blessings, as well as avoiding the death penalty that the Law holds over a person for grave violations of the Mosaic Covenant. Meanwhile, the "life" that faith in Christ brings is eternal life.  

1 comment:

guy fawkes said...

It all goes back to what Protestants say about Adam not needing grace before the fall. After Adam´s sin, we became so helpless and hopeless we now need grace to cover the self-serving, vain glory and half-heartedness that that infects all we do no matter how hard we try to be perfect.

A day or two ago I saw a discussion on fb in which one fellow said that the Law says we are to love God with our whole heart, mind and strength but since we all fail to do that, we all deserve hell. Nobody in the discussion mentioned the part about loving our neighbor as ourselves and how we must take our mind of the Lord while occupied with that.I couldn´t help but recall how Luther stopped saying Mass because he felt the distractions he had while doing so were so heinous and hell deserving.
As you said, the Protestant doctrine of justification by works. If only we could do things perfectly, we could earn heaven under our own steam. ( And they call us Pelagians! )