1 Clement 32 and Justification

I was reading Thomas Schreiner’s recent book Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, and he referenced this chapter of 1 Clement as a proof that at least some of the early church fathers believed in justification by faith alone. He doesn’t fall prey to the anachronistic fallacy of thinking that Clement’s doctrine was as clear on this point as the Reformers, but more that it was in line with what the Reformers would later say. This chapter is disputed in its meaning between Protestants and Catholics. I will put both an English translation and the original Greek here, and then discuss it in dialogue with Protestant and Catholic interpretations.

English: 1 Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. 2 For from him have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” 3 All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. 4 And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greek: 1 Ἐάν τις καθ᾿ ἓν ἕκαστον εἰλικρινῶς κατανοήσῃ, ἐπιγνώσεται μεγαλεῖα τῶν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ δεδομένων δωρεῶν. 2 ἐξ αὐτοῦ γὰρ ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευῖται πάντες οἱ λειτουργοῦντες τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐξ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος Ἰησοῦς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα. ἐξ αὐτοῦ βασιλεῖς καὶ ἄρχοντες καὶ ἡγούμενοι κατὰ τὸν Ἰούδαν· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ σκῆπτρα αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἐν μικρᾷ δόξῃ ὑπάρχουσιν, ὡς ἐπαγγειλαμένου τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς οἱ ἀστέρες τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. 3 πάντες οὖν ἐδοξάσθησαν καὶ ἐμεγαλύνθησαν οὐ δι᾿ αὐτῶν ἢ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῶν ἢ τῆς δικαιοπραγίας ἧς κατειργάσαντο, ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ. 4 καὶ ἡμεῖς οὖν, διὰ θελήματος αὐτοῦ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ κληθέντες, οὐ δι᾿ ἑαυτῶν δικαιούμεθα, οὐδὲ διὰ τῆς ἡμετέρας σοφίας ἢ συνέσεως ἢ εὐσεβείας ἢ ἔργων ὧν κατειργασάμεθα ἐν ὁσιότητι καρδίας, ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς πίστεως, δι᾿ ἧς πάντας τοὺς ἀπ᾿ αἰῶνος ὁ παντοκράτωρ θεὸς ἐδικαίωσεν· ᾧ ἔστω ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. ἀμήν.

Protestant interpretations include Ingolfsland, Turretin Fan, and my own previous post. For Roman Catholic treatments, look at Bryan Cross, Taylor Marshall, and Matt1618. This will be enough to get on with.

What must first be done is to clear away misconceptions of Protestant and Catholic positions alike in order to arrive at the real issue. For instance, Marshall argues that Protestants have misunderstood the Catholic position for a long time:

The Council of Trent, like Pope Saint Clement confirm that works do not merit the grace of justification. Many Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches. As Trent decreed, the justified “increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ” by means of “faith co-operating with good works,” to use the phrase of the Council and that of Saint James. Catholics do not earn the initial grace of justification.

It might very well be true to say that Protestants have misunderstood Catholics on the initial point of what Catholics describe as the process of justification. What Catholics believe is that the grace of God infuses the beginning of righteousness into a person, which infusion is by grace, not by works. Then, throughout life, assisted by the sacraments (in which grace is received), believers co-operate with the grace of God by their works (which come from God-infused virtues). Justification is thus a process that occurs throughout life, and is not complete in this life, though it has its beginning in baptism. To put it in a linear fashion: God’s infusing grace at baptism resulting in the beginning of a believer’s own God-given righteousness->conversion->believer’s cooperation with grace by good works and by use of the sacraments->death->purgatory (for most)->final judgment justification.

Protestants, of course, do not believe that justification is a process, but a one-time act or declaration, based not on infused righteousness, but on imputed righteousness. That righteousness is then not ours but Christ’s. It is not delayed until judgment, but rather the judgment is brought forward in time to the point of initial faith. The transfer of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us happens outside us, not inside us, as RC’s believe with their view of infused righteousness.

What then, do the Catholics say about this passage in Clement, positively speaking? Putting together Matt’s, Taylor’s, and Bryan’s arguments, we come up with something like this. 1. Clement is speaking about being transferred from death to life, from being in the first Adam to being in the second Adam, and this transfer does not occur by means of our works, but by faith (Cross); 2. The faith in view is a faith informed by love (from Galatians 6 and Romans 5:5, Cross). 3. Clement is not speaking of justification by faith alone, but it is evident that we are justified by our works from chapter 30 of the letter (Marshall and Matt1618). 4. As quoted above, the initial grace of the justification process is not merited by our works; 5. Working on one’s own power is not sufficient for justification (Matt1618). 6. The works that contribute to our justification are done by God’s grace (Matt1618).

It is to be noted here that an issue arises that also arose in my debates with Doug Wilson on faith’s aliveness. Protestants believe that faith alone justifies, and that the aliveness of faith, while present even at the moment of justification, is not directly relevant to the question of justification. In other words, faith does not justify because it is alive. This would make faith’s aliveness into a ground for justification. Rather, faith justifies because of the Person on Whom that faith rests. Christ’s person and work is the ground of our justification. This leads us to a serious caricature of the Protestant position that Catholics hold. Catholics seem to believe (this seems evident particularly in Cross’s treatment) that because Protestants do not believe that our love for God plays any part in our justification, that therefore Protestants must believe in justification by a dead faith. The faith that justifies is alive, but does not justify because it is alive. It justifies because of its connection to the One Who justifies us. This leads, though, directly to a counter misinterpretation of Catholics by Protestants, who fail to make the distinction that Catholics make between virtue and works. Cross puts it this way:

Protestant theology tends not to give conceptual space to agape as a virtue, seeing it only as a work. Scott Clark, for example, denies that faith and agape are virtues. And that tends to lead to a misunderstanding on the part of Protestants, who think that when Catholics talk about faith-informed-by-agape, it means faith accompanied by works. If it meant that, then we could have no confidence that baptized babies who die before reaching an age in which they can do any works, could be saved. But, we believe that at baptism, the virtues of faith, hope, and agape are infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the infant is justified at that very moment, because he now has faith-informed-by-agape, even though has not yet done a single good work.

In other words, for RC’s, virtue can be infused and received without any works being present, and that therefore the justification of a baby, while still by an infusion of grace, consists of an infusion of faith informed by virtue, specifically faith, hope, and love. The difficulty with this formulation becomes obvious when we compare this version of “virtue” with faith itself. If faith without works is dead, then how can virtue without works be alive? Cross seems to be allowing for a situation where a virtue can be present without any manifestation of it whatsoever.

So now the question remains: what does Clement mean? Does 1 Clement 30:3 (the operative phrase is “being justified by works and not by words”) control somehow our understanding of 32? Ingolfsland argues that it does not, and that Clement is simply speaking in the manner of James:

As we have seen, however, this phrase is part of a longer train of thought that can be traced back to First Clement 26:1 where Clement is talking about holiness that is the result of “good faith.” Clement is not speaking of people who need to be saved but to those who are already “his own portion” (1 Clem. 29:1; 30:1). Clement is arguing that those who already belong to the Lord should be careful to do good works. It is in this context that Clement must be understood when he continues, “keeping ourselves from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words” (1 Clem. 30:3).

As might be guessed, I find Ingolfsland’s argument more convincing than Taylor’s and Matt1618’s, because Ingolfsland understands 30:3 in its own context (both immediate and larger), whereas Marshall and Matt1618 do not make the attempt to argue what 30:3 means in its immediate and larger context. I commend Ingolfsland’s entire article on the question as a well-argued paper that indirectly answers the RC arguments.

7 Comments

  1. David Gadbois said,

    October 17, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    It is simply subterfuge to read the Romanist categories into Clement’s words, as if his meaning of “justification” meant “initial justification” only. He simply states that we are justified by faith, excluding even works of holiness, and that this is how the saints have always been justified.

  2. roberty bob said,

    October 18, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    I, too, appreciated Ingolfsland’s thoughtful paper on the doctrine of justification from Clement’s epistle. My main takeaway is that Clement sees justifying works as those actions of a man or woman of faith which demonstrate the genuineness of that faith, much like The Letter to the Hebrews which speaks in this manner concerning the Jericho woman, “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.” Joshua in the OT records Rahab’s profession of faith in her declaring Israel’s God to be the Lord of Heaven and Earth. One might regard that profession as the moment in which she was justified by faith. However, both Hebrews and James in the NT are interested to show demonstrable evidence — the actions / works — by which Rahab’s faith is proven to be genuine. Her actions authenticated [demonstrated the genuineness of] her profession.

    I am not the least bit uncomfortable with the Apostle James saying that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Nor does it trouble me in light of Hebrews and James to speak of a living faith, an active faith, an obedient faith, or a faith that works.

  3. billd1207 said,

    October 22, 2017 at 4:48 am

    Is not James’ instruction like John’s in 1John directed toward the justified and therefore intended to assist in the assurance of faith. In order “…to make our joy complete.”(1:4), “…we obey his commands.”(2:3) Is this view acceptable?

  4. roberty bob said,

    October 25, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Clement: ” . . . being justified by works and not by words.”
    Paul: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
    Paul: “What counts is a new creation.”
    John: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.”
    James: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
    James: “You see that person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

    So, we who are saved are justified by faith; however, that faith — should we describe it — will be seen to be not alone, but accompanied by expressive action [works / deeds of love].

  5. billd1207 said,

    October 25, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    Help me understand. Aren’t we justified by Grace with faith being the instrument?

  6. roberty bob said,

    October 25, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    We are justified freely by God’s grace through faith in Jesus’ blood [the blood he shed while laying down his life on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins]. If you want to regard your faith as the instrument, then you will be in good company.

  7. roberty bob said,

    October 30, 2017 at 11:42 am

    From the second paragraph above, [verse 3], Clement writes, “All these, therefore, were highly honored and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will.”

    Interestingly, David [testifying in Psalm 18, upon being delivered by the Lord from his enemies], says this (vs. 19 ff.) : The Lord delivered me because He delighted in me. The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his ordinances were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before Him, and I kept myself from guilt. Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

    Do you David’s testimony agreeable with Clement’s observation? Do you, as believer in Christ, rejoice in the Lord when you sing these words of David — assuming that you actually sing Psalm 18 in its entirety? Do David’s words in any way resonate with your Christian experience as one delivered by the Lord and richly rewarded for having obeyed Him?

    Yes, I really want to know.


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