Friday, May 20, 2022

Did Clement of Rome teach Faith Alone? - Revisiting Abraham's faith reckoned as righteousness - Part 6

I am excited to have yet another unexpected post in my Revisiting Abraham's Faith Reckoned as Righteousness series (see the prior series HERE). This short essay was inspired by a Lutheran channel who had recently posted a YouTube video (here) arguing that Clement of Rome taught the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. This Lutheran was quoting a well-known passage within the early church father epistle 1 Clement, chapters 31-33, especially verse 34:2, where Pope St Clement of Rome says:

31:1 Let us cleave to his blessing, and let us see what are the ways of blessing. Let us consult the records of the things that happened from the beginning. 2 On what account was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not that he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? 3 Isaac, with confidence, knowing the future, willingly became a sacrifice. 4 Jacob, with humility, flying from his brother, went out from his own land and journeyed unto Laban and served as a slave, and there were given unto him the twelve tribes of Israel.

32:1 If any one will consider these things, he will recognize the magnificence of the gifts that were given by him. 2 For from Jacob came the Levites that serve the altar of God. From him came our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh; from him came the kings and rulers of the tribe of Judah; and the remainder of his tribes are of no small glory, since God hath promised, Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven. 3 All these, therefore, have been glorified and magnified, not through themselves or through their works, or through the righteousness that they have done, but through his will. 4 And we who through his will have been called in Christ Jesus are justified, not by ourselves, or through our wisdom or understanding or godliness, or the works that we have done in holiness of heart, but by faith, by which all men from the beginning have been justified by Almighty God.

33:1 What, then, shall we do, brethren? Shall we cease from well-doing, and abandon charity? May the Master never allow that this should happen to us! but let us rather with diligence and zeal hasten to fulfill every good work. 2 For the Maker and Lord of all things rejoice in his works. 3 By his supreme power he founded the heavens. The earth he separated from the water that surrounded it, and fixed it of his own will. The animals he commanded to be by his ordinance. 4 Man, the most excellent of all animals, infinite in faculty, he moulded with his holy and faultless hands, in the impress of his likeness. 5 For thus saith God: Let us make man in our own image, and after our own likeness. 6 When he had finished all things, he blessed them, and said, Be fruitful, and multiply. 7 Let us see, therefore, how all the just [righteous] have been adorned with good works. The Lord himself rejoiced when he had adorned himself with his works. 8 Having, therefore, this example, let us come in without shrinking to his will; let us work with all our strength the work of righteousness.

I want to present what I hope are fresh & unique insights to this seemingly slam-dunk Faith Alone passage in 32:4, which I hope will be edifying and convincing to all sides. While I think there is beneficial insights from the typical Catholic reading against 32:4 (e.g. see Bryan Cross great blog here, and Erick Ybarra's great blog here especially touching on the Romans 4:6-8 aspect), I think they mainstream Catholic reading get things mostly right but need to add some key details. Here are my insights:

(1) Lutherans & Anglicans agree with Catholics that Baptism is 'not a work' for St Paul, and that Baptism coincides with faith (cf Col 2:12). Thus, even per historic Protestant understanding, ch32.4 doesn’t automatically reduce to a ‘faith alone’ proof text against Catholics just because it excludes 'works'. Ch32 does not even mention things like hope, love, repentance, etc, so again we cannot simply ‘assume’ these are 'works' Clement/Paul have in mind, even if it is possible. It is also possible that these 'works of righteousness' and 'holiness of heart' was a way of saying Mosaic Law (e.g. Titus 3:5 which I wrote about here and here), though I avoid this here because it's not readily convincing. I don't think the Catholic view is harmed whether the 'works' here are good works done before conversion or after conversion. Not that the Catholic view ever did involve works (see the Great Protestant Strawman here). Ch31 does say Isaac ‘willingly became’ a sacrifice, cf Jesus, and it does say Jacob ‘went out’ and ‘served’. This is language of action, so the facile attempt by Protestants to exclude all human behavior simply is not feasible. We can even logically say that Christians prior to Baptism are to prepare themselves for Conversion, such as demonstrably leaving their old life behind (e.g. the Patriarchs left their homeland), and historically there was a catechumenate, e.g., the Didache paragraph 7 says catechumens (those preparing to convert) must Fast prior to Baptism. It’s not that Fasting or other preparatory good works save them, but rather prepares them to be properly disposed for Baptism. Thus, we could say the good works of Abraham prepared his heart for more maturely accepting the event of Genesis 15, even if these preparatory years didn’t activate the justification at 15.6. As I wrote about elsewhere, Saint Jerome says “the righteous shall live by faith” means someone must first be behaving righteously before faithfulness can grant/maintain spiritual life.

We might wonder, why did God make Abraham wait so long? That's a good question, and we must assume God had good reason to 'drag things on'. Perhaps there is a foreshadowing of salvation history in Abraham's life, whereby Abraham: (a) first leaves his pagan homeland, similar to leaving your former life of sin,
which parallels Salvation History where mankind was expelled from Eden; (b) then comes a point when God feels its right for you to enter into a covenant relationship, thus in God's time Abraham's preparatory years had come to completion, which parallels Salvation History where the world was ready for the Israelites/Moses to come on the scene; (c) finally comes a day of final testing, thus Abraham had a final judgment with sacrificing Issac, which parallels Salvation History where the fullness of time comes for Jesus to arrive and sacrifice, and (d) a new world opens up for you, thus Abraham's descendants begin to grow and multiply, which parallels Salvation History where the Church grows and spreads. I'm sure this could be tweaked, but it seems too real. Some Catholic authors have pointed out how Abraham's life follows the three ages/stages of the interior life, such that the first stage is that of Purgation or rooting out sin, the second stage is Illuminative where ones relationship with God takes on a new and special focus, and the third stage is the Unitive where you're relationship with God has become perfected and you effortlessly walk with God as a best friend. I would add that this triple stage of Salvation History / Spirituality could likely be found corresponding to each person of the Patriarchs: Abraham (starting from scratch), Isaac (builds on Abraham's legacy), Jacob (builds on Isaacs legacy). (Perhaps the Three Patriarchs have an analogy to the Trinity.)

All this is to say, perhaps Catholics can/should abandon the claim that "Abraham was justified in Genesis 12," because that might not be an accurate statement. From an anti-pelagian perspective, yes, Abraham had grace/salvation in Genesis 12, but that's not what Paul is getting at. Perhaps having things surprisingly drag on until Genesis 15 was part of God's plan to get us to reflect on why such a strange delay. For apologetics purposes, we can make the standard Genesis 12 argument to those Protestants unwilling to accept a deeper appreciation of Genesis 15. But if we are trying to thrive, then we shouldn't take the most basic reading. As I noted in my Revisiting series, the key about Genesis 15 that Paul is trying to highlight in Romans and Galatians is that it is only in Genesis 15 when God formally enters into a Covenant (15:18) with Abraham. It was never an irrelevant debate about 'faith' versus 'deeds' (see those prior posts of mine).

(2) Ch32 and surrounding chapters do not mention key terms found in Romans/Galatians, nor does it define the terms used. There is practically zero mention of law, mercy, grace, repentance, sins, sinners, forgive, Jew, Gentile, etc, suggesting that either Clement has a different teaching in mind, or the circumstances had changed since Paul’s days, or the Jew/Gentile issue was never a problem in Corinth (hence why 1 & 2 Corinthians don't really mention such terms, either). Ch32 and surrounding chapters have no mention of ungodly, imputation, reckoning, righteousness of God, Cross, Blood of Jesus, or any hint that Abraham was ‘simul iustus et peccator’. So the Protestant side must face this fact that Clement is not automatically setting up the typical "Romans Road" of ‘we are all sinners and can’t do anything good and must rely on the imputed righteousness of Christ’. All that is completely projected onto 32.3-4 by Protestants. In fact, if good works do not justify us, then there is no reason for imputing Christ’s Active Obedience at all, since good works don't save even if Jesus does them for us (which I've posted about this many times). I think from an apologetics standpoint, we can say these good works are fruits of faith, not the cause, and are distinct from pre-faith preparations, like repentance and Baptism. That nullifies the Protestant objection and sets us up to turn the tables.

(3) Clement was written in Greek and uses the Greek term dikaiow (justify) five times: 8.4 says 'vindicate the widow'; then 16.12 says vindicate the righteous servant; then 18.3 cites Ps51.4 (same as Rom3.4) saying God is 'vindicated'; then 30.3 quotes Prov3.34 saying 'vindicated by works'. So all that's left is 32.4, which we must presume also means vindicated. There is no indication Clement held that dikaiow has a range of meaning as Protestants assume, or that it ever means forgive or declare righteous or even purely forensic (as Protestants also assume). Protestants cannot be sloppy by assuming what this and other key terms mean, yet they constantly assume. Of course, we must have a flexible view of 'vindication', but still we see some difference. For example, in 31:2, we could say that Abraham produced righteousness by faith, and thus demonstrated righteousness, and thus was vindicated (approved by God or shown to have been truly transformed by God).

(4) Ch32.2 quotes the OT where it says your offspring shall be like the stars of heaven,” which is nearly a direct quote of Genesis 22.17 LXX (but only partly found in Gn15.5). This is significant because it suggests Clement has Abraham offering up Isaac in view, which we know from James 2:21-24 uses the term 'justify/vindicate' (as I've written about here). Protestants insist that when James 2 uses dikaiow it must mean 'vindicate' (demonstrate righteousness outwardly) rather than 'justify' (invisibly classified as righteous) since Abraham wasn't converting in Genesis 22. While that claim has merit, the fact that James 2:23 explicitly cites ‘credited as righteousness’ in Gn15.6, that means we must also read Genesis 15:6 as 'vindication'. So 32.4 is in a ‘vindication’ context. If we follow the example of James, linking Gen15 to Gen22, perhaps it is (mysteriously) one long event that unfolds, i.e. one big vindication that began with Abraham saying yes in Gen 15:6.

(5) The language of offspring like stars and ‘glorious and magnified’ in ch32.2 strongly suggests the theme is Adoption, whereby Christians are Abraham’s glorious magnified (super natural, not biological) children (thus beyond earthly, i.e. stars), which also fits perfectly with the heir/son/fatherhood/promise language in Rom4/Gal3/4/Gen15. It says in 31.1 “let us see what happened in the beginning” and immediately quotes Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and closes in 32.4 saying “justified by faith by which all men from the beginning have done,” indicating Clement has a closed context of the life of the Patriarchs. Clement speaks only of ‘faith’ with regard to Abraham, but uses other language for Isaac and Jacob, suggesting ‘faith’ here has a deeper meaning, or just the beginning. Similarly, when Clement says “his will,” there’s not much detail given, suggesting we must supply what God's will means from elsewhere (e.g. according to God's unpredictable glorious plan?). Of all the good fortune that the Patriarchs experienced, it seems most of it came during times of gloom and directionless times in the Patriarchs lives, then suddenly something blooms into a magnificent flower. Abraham didn't have Isaac until around 100 years, yet this laid the foundation for the greatest OT saint of all time. Then Isaac didn't get married until 38 years old, and had a barren wife, and his sons broke the family apart, but this set up Jacob to find his wives. And Jacob didn't get married until 40 years old and was basically a slave to Laban for 14 years, which all worked together to give Jacob unexpectedly 12 sons/tribes. This kind of corresponds to the Catholic spiritual claim that it is during the times of life that seem the driest, most difficult, etc, is when the best spiritual fruit results.

(6) Clement immediately goes into the Genesis 1-2 narrative in ch33, which is a (New) Creation narrative. Clement is thus suggesting that by Justification the Christians are a New Creation, similar to how Paul says we rise to new life by baptism (Rom 6 cf ch33.1), so the game has been reset to the Beginning. Christians are now recreated in the ‘image and likeness of God’ that was tarnished/ruined (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), they are are now essentially in the state of Adamic Paradise. But just because Adam was in Paradise, was Adam to be lax in good works? God forbid! Adam/Christians are now “righteous” by default of their new creation (33.7), but they have an obligation, work to do, if Adam wanted to enter the Eschatological Sabbath Rest (I wrote about this here). Adam had a lifetime of obedience ahead of him. Adam was able to disobey, fall from grace, just as these Corinthians had done. This is obviously a transformative view of Justification/Adoption, not a mere forensic.

(Could there be two Creation accounts to foreshadow there would be a Second/New Creation? Note that I already hold that Gen1 was likely the primitive Liturgical Rite for Adam, which I talk about here and many have noted how the Temple and High Priest vestments represent the cosmos/creation.)

(7) The above understanding would fit with why Clement doesn't bring up David's Psalm 32 in the context of 1Cl32:4, because in this context Clement is talking about the Christian's original conversion, whereas David is talking about a post-baptismal fall into grave sin (which I recently wrote about here), and this is what the Corinthians were struggling with,
the loss of love/agape (hence Psalm 51 and Psalm 32 quoted in 1Clem18 & 1 Clem 50:5). The standard Catholic view is strong on this point.

With the above points, I think the typical Protestant claims fall flat, unsatisfying, and unsupported by the evidence. But even if Protestants were to insist the Clement 32:4 is teaching faith alone, then really, so what? That doesn't necessitate the other crucial Protestant distinctive teachings. Catholics are perfectly fine saying God instituted faith alone so as to put everyone on an equal field, since it automatically excludes any natural gifts, talents, advantages a person might be born with. That person still has an obligation to persevere in their new calling, or else risk falling away and being cut off, as so many examples in the OT warn us. 


Nick said...

I consider this post to be one of my most inspired and favorite works. I don't know how everything just came together. I credit the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Charles De Focauld at the moment, perhaps there are those I'm forgetting about (St Talitha).

Nick said...

The inspiration has not stopped, as I have just been inspired with a Part 7 of the Revisiting Abraham's faith reckoned as righteousness.

I was pondering what St Clement says in 31:2 above:
"2 On what account was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not that he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? 3 Isaac, with confidence, knowing the future, willingly became a sacrifice."

Clement seems to be explaining this Justification as Abraham 'wrought' or 'doing' righteousness through faith. In other words, righteousness was the *fruit* of Abraham's faith. Righteousness in this case means doing good deeds. So faith enabled/gifted Abraham with the ability to offer up Isaac. The idea of "faith credited as righteousness" means or is idiomatic for "faith enabled Abraham to do good works". Thus, justification=vindication for Paul and James. Abraham believed God, and God credited/caused that faith to have the ability to perform miracles. Performing outward righteous acts is precisely what Vindication is.

Consider, James 2:21-24 says Genesis 15:6 (faith credited as righteousness) was "fulfilled" in offering up Isaac, meaning God enabled or saw that Abraham's faith could do such a righteous action (at least in potency, if not in foresight). Thus, Abraham was vindicated both in Gen 15 and Gen 22. This fits with 1 Macc 2:52 which says: "Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?"

Consider, Galatians 3:5-6 says: "Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith, just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?" In other words, God supplies the Holy Spirit to "work miracles" by your faith, through you. This passage certainly lends credence, "just as" clearly links (though not obviously) "faith credited as righteousness" to refer to "faith works miracles by the Spirit".

Consider, Psalm 106:31 says: "Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed. 31 And that was counted to him as righteousness" This situation takes more careful study by me, but it seems that in Numbers 25, Phineas arose with zeal and it allowed him to go into the tent and strike down a powerful chieftan who was openly flaunting sexual immorality inside the Holy Tent, almost like a demonic attack. The text says Phinehas took away God's anger by killing this sinner, God's main enemy. In this sense, Phinehas prefigures Jesus, taking away God's anger by turning it upon Satan. The 'zeal' was credited as righteousness, that is, the remarkable ability to stand up to a giant/demon, even though Phineas wasn't a priest yet, he was awarded with priesthood.

Does Gen 15:5 mean that Abraham believed and thus was able to count the stars? Or see the stars during the day (Gen 15:12 says the sun had not set yet)?

I'm still working this out, but it seems to make sense.

Nick said...

I'm looking at the Hebrew word for reckon/count, and it is used about ten times to refer to "craftsman". Consider:

[Exo 31:2-4 KJV] 2 See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri: 3 And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, 4 To devise cunning [reckoning] works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass

[Exo 35:35 KJV] 35 Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning [reckoner] workman, and of the embroiderer

[Exo 36:8 KJV] 8 And every wise hearted man among them that wrought the work of the tabernacle made ten curtains [of] fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: [with] cherubims of cunning [reckoner] work made he them.

Many times in Exodus the term "reckon" is translated as cunning craftsman who are specially skilled to build the temple and make the garments. It obviously took special skills to be able to do this. In these texts, it strongly suggests that God filled them with the Holy Spirit and inspirations, to turn these men into those who could reckon, i.e., be amazing workers. There might be a connection here to my theory that 'faith enabled righteousness' along the lines of 'faith skilled Abraham to be able to do righteousness'.

Talmid said...

Good post there, Nick, it shows very well how the pressupositions that one take to the table can change how the text is understood. The points about St. Clement mentioning the creation narrative and the use of "reckon" on the Exodus are very interesting points, and ones that are on the text!

The idea that God justify us not by any good deed we do is sure something you find on the early Church. Our Lord sacrifice is necesary to our new life but not a good deed of ours, after all! But the particular protestant way of understand this not so much, the new life in Christ is clearly the focus. Just try to say to a church father that a christian need not to show a profound transformation!

I also liked your comparison between the patriarchs lifes and the spiritual life. I just founded weird how St. Clement and you both never mention Joseph, was he not part of the patriarchs? I admit that i ask in part because he is my favorite one xD

Talmid said...

Also, do you mark the posts of this series? It would make founding they easier but it does not appear here that they have their own category.

Nick said...

I'm not sure if Clement mentioned Joseph, but generally the Bible gives the trio of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The reason Joseph might not be mentioned is that the blessed lineage of Abraham was now split into Twelve Tribes, and so it wasn't immediately clear which of those Tribes the Messiah would come from, though Genesis 38 gives a clue.

I like the idea of tagging the posts of this series. I totally forgot to even tag this one at all.

Talmid said...

Tagging is very useful, for a series like that needs to be easy to find. If someone years from here find, say, part 4, and want to see what came later it will take more time that would be convenient.

And the Joseph observation is interesting, never though about that